Editor’s note: Blue Hill native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
On a chilly morning cycling through eastern Russia, my friend Ellery and I wheel our bicycles into a small roadside cafe to warm up. We order two steaming bowls of borscht and sour cream — a Russian staple.
The winds have been blowing a gale for two days, making bicycle travel slow and frustrating. Escaping the bad weather, we sip tea, and look over our newly acquired topographic map, an invaluable resource for planning how far we can travel each day.
“We cross mountains, then hit flatland,” Ellery says as he flips to the next page which reveals a moderately sized city near the Federal Highway across Russia. His index finger moves to the distant jumble of small brown squares and rectangles which indicate the urban area. We both know what this means. “If we push hard today, we might reach this town, and sleep in a hotel tonight,” he says.
We eagerly hit the road and begin a mile climb up a steep mountain against relentless wind. On a bicycle loaded with over 50 pounds of gear, the experience of reaching a mountain top each time elicits the thrill of a well-fought personal victory. This morning, the feeling disappears as soon as I reach the top. A deep valley stretches before my eyes, the road visible for miles. In the distance, I make out a cloud of dust filling the air behind a moving truck. The vision is like a smoke signal against the horizon, signifying encroaching travails and the demise of our plan.
Ellery pulls up beside me and sees it too.
“Looks like another section of off road again,” he says, “I guess we can forget about that hotel.”
As we hit more remote sections of Russia, the road quality decreases. This is no surprise. We learned this would happen long before we left in the research we did before embarking on this trip. In two weeks, the pavement will stop all together and the federal highway will turn into a dirt road for 500 miles until we reach the city of Chita.
Lately, we have run into an unexpected problem: construction zones. These are sections were the asphalt has been ripped up. Rough gravel and stones are left in its place. These stretches vary in length: some last for just several thousand feet, but can be 20 miles or longer. Often new road signs and guardrails are already put in place, and the road is merely waiting for a paving crew to arrive. We are not sure if lack of funds, poor local governance, or a bad Russian work ethic is to blame for why these sections of road are abandoned with the work half finished. Even the people who live here cannot seem to give us a straight answer.
“Eta Roccia!” They answer, smiling. “That’s Russia.”
Today, as we enter off road, we are lucky enough to know what we are in for. A small sign reads: Roadwork Next 20 Kilometers. It will take us at least three hours to cover the same distance we could do in nearly one.
The passage of car tires creates small paths in the rocky gravel where bicycle travel is possible. Vehicles turn the road into two separate sections: one covered completely in stones, another mainly covered in stones. In order to make way for passing vehicles, one often has to cross back into the rough section, riding over shifting rocks, where it feels as if the ground is moving beneath you. The sensation makes being perched atop a bicycle feel more like being in a kayak.
“This would actually be fun if we were on mountain bikes!” Ellery yells coming up behind me.
As it is, I ride in constant fear of falling, maneuvering over the rolling ground beneath me.
The difficulty is complicated by clouds of blinding dust which each vehicle draws forth from the gravel road. Miniature sand storms appear before your eyes in the distance, often long before you spot the car itself. As the tan cloud approaches me, I hold my breath, bracing myself as the vehicle passes. The swirling whirlwind of sand hits you like a shock wave and for several seconds you are nearly blinded.
On a windy day, like today, the situation becomes more complex. As cars pass, the velocity of vehicles combined with powerful winds actually whips sand into the air too. After one large truck passes, I can feel the grit of sand in my teeth. The dust in my mouth distracts me as a mighty gust of wind blows against my side; it is forceful enough to turn my handlebars to the right driving me off the road. I clip out of my pedals, and jump off the bike to avoid crashing. In doing so, I almost land on my crotch upon the bike’s frame, nearly losing my ability to ever one day produce the children I can tell these stories to.
Cyclists in this part of Russia are almost nonexistent. And considering the road quality, this is no surprise. When we reach construction zones, we are even more of a novelty than normal for passing driversl.
“I can help you,” a man says pulling up behind us in a big truck, and motioning for us to put our bicycles in the back.
“No, thanks!” We yell. “Tolka Velosypied!” “Only bicycle.”
Like so many other drivers, amazed by our presence here, he pulls out a cell phone, and kindly asks to take a picture with us.
By noon, we exit the construction zone and hit pavement. Pedaling through the gravel has left us exhausted, and we finish the long day fighting against the wind. It was four weeks ago on this day that we started our trip; the challenges continue to multiply.
Two days later, we reach the city of Blagoveshchensk. We repack our bags, discarding items we don’t really need to cut down on weight. Soon, we will reach the most difficult section of our trip: approximately 500 miles of off road. Thankfully, the construction zones have left us well-trained.