Randonneuring in Russia
by Jim Trout
Hello my SIR friends! Just wanted to let you know about my wonderful experience in Russia with the Baltic Star Randonneurs...
What could be more fullfiling? Riding my bike 210 days in a row through the world's best scenery is a dream come true. However, I surprisingly felt something absent...and I found out what it was while scanning the web in London: my beloved brevets!! So I hopped on the RUSA page to get to the Adaux Paris site. I looked up the world calendar and found two possibilities that coincided with Odyssey2000: Oslo 1000 km July 21 and St. Petersburg 600 km July 27. My girlfriend Natalie signed up for Austria Ironman scheduled for July 23, so I opted for St. Petersburg. The contact info only contained an address in Russia; no phone, no e-mail. I sent "Andrei" a letter containing my info and e-mail from Belfast and thought chances were very slim he'd receive it within 3 weeks. My plan was to tackle the Russian Visa, lodging, & transportation issues first, then worry about the ride later. I got everything set with visa in Denmark, flight was booked to fly Copenhagen-St. Pete via Pulkovo airlines, & lodging set at a hostel in the heart of town. Hard part OVER!
The Monday before our Thursday arrival in Russia, I received an e-mail from my contact Andrei. I was SO excited!! We then were in daily contact via e-mail, and he greeted Natalie and me at the airport with more enthusiasm then I thought possible to emminate from a human. The Batic Stars are a young club; only a few years old. Andrei was their strongest rider (600 km in 22hrs!) until his FOURTH bike-car altercation lay him bed-ridden for a while. He still has a couple screws in his leg. Nat & I were escorted by bike (we set up our bikes at the airport and rode with luggage on back) to Andrei's house. He spoke enough English so we could carry on a conversation. We felt very welcome as he, wife, & friend fed us local snacks and tea. The following day, Nat & I ate dinner with Andrei's fluent-English speaking friend, Anton. He converted the route guide from Cyrillic to Roman letters and went over some of the rules and last minute route changes.
To the Ride!!! Eleven of us rendezvoused at the statue of Lenin at the Finland train station at 7am Saturday for a 7:30 start. I was 1 of 2 cyclists wearing a helmet. I had on a nice Gortex jacket, tights, and SPD Sidi shoes, the others sweats, running shoes (no toe-clips), and no gloves. Although I "streamlined" my bike with 23mm tires, my Raleigh Odyssey bike was quite a site to see compared to their cycles. Most bikes were your basic garage beater: 10 speed, down-tube shifters, steel frame, suntour parts. I'm not bashing their bikes at all, just amazed that they don't think twice about a 640km ride on a classic bike from the 80s. The standard of living and opportunities for the people has some catching up to do, and there is tremendous potentil here.
So back to biking. We received our brevet cards, and since the route was so desolate and they only had one support car (very scary little car...I wasn't sure if the CAR could make it the entire journey!), we needed 10 postcards addressed to Andrei to drop off in each checkpoint town for proof of passing through. I was informed that 40km of the route was gravel road, we shouldn't ride alone throught the Karelian province during night because of wild animals and perhaps wild people, and the route was 640km with option of 800km. 640km marks a train station to transport back to St. Petersburg. 800km marks the entire Lake Ladoga loop back to St. P.
We all stuck together the first 115km, but man what a pace! First 100 km in less than 3hrs. I knew I couldn't hold that pace for 540 more km, so fortunately I had a flat! Yes, I was happy to have a flat. Afterfixing the flat, I kept a pace of 25-29km/hr, but didn't catch up to the next rider until 290km mark. Andrei, following us in a car with a video recorder most of day, had set up 3 tents for the riders. It was 7:30pm, and we were about to enter the Karelian province. Two other riders were there (Michael & Vladamir), and we all agreed on sleeping until 12am and then to ride together in the night. We awoke to light rain and were off by 12:30am after helping Andrei break down camp. He is such a funny guy with tons of enthusiasm!! I used my headlamp to help take out stakes and pick up other items, then tended to my own bike to get ready for departure. He wanted to make a final sweep of the lot, and since I was busy, he borrowed Vladamir's bike and, while lifting it at an angle, walked around singing "Oh, where are you, my beautiful parts?" Funny if you were there.
The night riding was eventful in that we needed to stop every 10-15km. Among the three of us and the bumpy road, stuff was flying off our bikes every 20-40minutes. At times we'd lose 3-4 parts of a front light and set a time limit of 5 min to find them. So picture 3 guys out in the wee hours of the night roaming around the middle of the road searching for light parts. I loved it! Although I felt rested fom the 4 hour nap, I greeted the 5am sunlight with half-open eyes. The two suggested a 10min nap on the side of the road, but it proved futile as mosquitos were rampant. Vlad gave me some of his powder drink with caffeine, and we forged onward. An hour later I felt AWESOME and bid adieu to Mike and Vladamir. The terrain finally came to life: only 2000ft climbing 1st 400 km, then 8000ft last 240km (I love hills). I didn't see any other riders the rest of the trip as I averaged 30km/hr over the next 3 hours!
The sun came out FULLY for the first time around 1pm Sunday. I calculated my arrival time to be ~4pm. Foolish me, for then the ugly 40km of gravel appeared. Talk about a terrible nightmare come true! Imagine the sandiest, chunkiest, pot-holiest, hardest ripple-bumps gravel road. Now add a bit of traffic to throw dust in your face and 23mm tires that get trapped in the sand grinding the bike to a halt every 100m. Lastly, picture doing this for 3hrs. Yuck. Tough way to end the ride! I arrived at 6:30pm Sunday, or 35 hours afer the start. I was 7th, 4rs behind the 1st riders. Four riders were already forging on to St. Petersburg via bicycle! I am very impressed with the Baltic Star Randonneurs! I caught the 8pm train and arrived in St. P 11:30pm. Fortunately our hostel was 3 blocks away from the station. I got some chicken kiev at the local cafe, showered and fell asleep by 1am.
I awoke monday with fresh eyes and very little ill-effects from the weekend. My cold was worse than Thursday, but I was still surprised at my "recovery." Nat & I spent the day doing some errands and exploring. At 7pm we headed for Andrei's flat to visit with all the riders at a planned tea party. We shared stories of the trip, toasted with cognac and vodka ~every 30min, and watched the video Andrei filmed. I felt like a celebrity, and it was hard to leave! I gave Andrei my SIR jersey (can I still buy one for me?), and he gave me his club rain jacket, a small banner of Lenin, and a couple video tapes (PBP '99, Baltic Star '99 & '00 600 km brevets). I have tons of pictures and would love to show them to all when I return in January.
Andrei is looking for sponsorship for BMB or RM 1200 or any other trip to the States. I think at the least we could develop some sort of connection with the Baltic Star club so that it would facilitate any of us visiting the respective country. They are planning on extending the 800km to 1000 next year. The scenery is fair and roads were pretty rough (next time fatter tires!), but the fact that I was riding on the backroads of RUSSIA gave me incredible insight to the people and way of life of what I knew so little about.
So that's the scoop with Baltic Star. I have many new friends in Russia, and I'm sure they would LOVE to meet anyone from the US. Definately one of my cycling highlights of all time!
From Jim letter
Hello friends and loved ones! During our time in St Petersburg, we thought it might be fun and interesting to share with you our impressions of this beautiful city, country, and people. Please keep in mind our very limited exposure and HUGE generalizations. But, they are our impressions:
1. Russian women, in general, like lots of makeup, long hair, and short skirts.
2. The young Russian women tend to be thin, fit-looking, and long-legged. The elderly women tend to look heavy, short and less well-dressed. We have seen few women who are somewhere in between.
3. All Russians know how to fix their own cars (ie: flat tires, run-down carburetors, blown radiators, etc). We think they get a lot of practice!
4. We have seen few men working around the city (except as security guards or construction workers). We think they must all be in the military!
5. The CITY supplies most buildings with hot water. For 3 weeks every summer, the city shuts down the hot water supply so that the pipes can be cleaned.
6. The sign in the WC at the hostel reads the following: "City Water! Don't Drink Tap Water!! It's contaminated with the protozoan Giardia lamblia! Brush your teeth with tap water at your own risk! Bottled water is available at the reception!"
7. We visited a local donut shop yesterday in which each individual ate not one, but a minimum of 4 greasy, sugar-dusted donuts each. Some woofed up to 8 at one sitting/standing! But they were tasty (we had 2 apiece and didn't feel nearly as guilty about it!).
8. Everything is behind the counter at the grocery store. The locals don't seem to have a problem with this as they simply tell the clerk what they want. We, being the Russian illiterates we are, need to point and the clerks become testy after the second or third requested item, for we have them running around like chickens. Similar to Chile, you must pay at the cashier first, receive your receipt, then you may pick up the items at the counter.
9. Russians as well as Europeans appear to enjoy Spring Water with gas (carbonation). Shelves are stocked 10 to 1 with the bubbly stuff!
10. Food: We have eaten better than we expected. We had the best Chicken Kiev of our lives at the local corner cafe.
11. The American dollar RULES here in Russia, as it is the base currency in the service industry. If you ask the price for something, you will first be told in dollars, then they multiply by current exchange rate of roubles to dollars (27 at the moment). This allows for much more stable income (and generally higher) for restaurants, shops, and hotels
12. People smoke here, but not nearly as much as in other parts of Europe. Maybe cigarettes are too expensive? Maybe excess vodka blunts needful sensation? Whatever, our lungs are happier for this fact.
13. Most flats that we have seen have very high ceilings (from the Stalin era, apparently) and textured wallpaper (the type you would find in a palace) on every wall. A Russian man once said: "Big buildings make for big streets." His name was Stalin (we just made this up). But the streets ARE very wide to accommodate the gigantic buildings. From the 2 apartment buildings we have visited we have observed a formidable exterior, a very dark and spooky stairwell/hallway (no light, graffiti, garbage. Etc) all the way to the flat The interior of the flats, in contrast, felt very warm and cozy.
14. Mosquitoes. Ugh!! Have you ever imagined swatting the beastly things while eating a burger in McDonalds or sitting at an internet cafe? Jim thought the city was bad, but it's 20 times worse around Lake Ladoga. Once he stopped to fix a flat and was accosted in seconds. Record 10 killed with one swat!
15. Rural Russian Observations: On Jim's bike ride, he noticed small rural towns with many dilapidated housing developments, but no stores, city buildings, or parks. However, each town sported a full-functioning factory of some sort. Many townspeople walked, from or to where, only they know. In some towns, many people walked along the streets (reminiscent of South Africa) until 3 or 4 in the morning, mostly youth dressed in clothing fit for "doing the town", but no place to go. The employment of choice along Lake Ladoga seemed to be selling buckets of blueberries or currants. He saw hundreds of people over 640 km sitting beside the road waiting for customers. Russia needs lessons from California in regards to modern-day advances in controlling auto pollution. Every car, and especially trucks, billowed out an inordinate amount of the thickest, blackest, smelliest smoke imaginable. The drivers, however, were VERY courteous; a true surprise as cycles seem as much of a luxury item as an auto, seeing a cyclist is like spotting a UFO.
16. Signs of American influence are readily apparent in the plethora of fast-food chains. We decided to test your ability in reading Cyrillic by typing the names of the common fast-food joints seen here in St. Petersburg: Макдональдс, ифылшт кщииштыб лутегслн акшув сршслут (лас)б and зшяяф ргеб.
17. The people we have met here are incredibly warm, generous, and honest. For example, last night the hostel receptionist discovered a surplus of 500 roubles in the day's account book. She decided it must have been ours because of earlier confusion after our payment, and proceeded to return 500 roubles with a very apologetic smile. Russia is a wonderful country. Love and Cheers to all!! Natalie Box and Jim Trout