Cyclists battling rain, potholes on Russian roads

Posted June 19, 2009, at 10:55 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick 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.

For some time, I feel like I have been running away from spring. In mid-April, we began our trip in Vladivostok, Russia, on the Sea of Japan, and followed the Russian Federal Highway northwards. As the road unfolded before us, the newly budding trees by the seaside disappeared behind us, replaced by the moribund landscape left behind from winter.

In the northern hemisphere, spring is almost nonexistent. By mid-May, there are nearly 19 hours of daylight, which makes plants grow with magical swiftness, much faster than in New England. Skeletal-like trees can grow buds, sprout leaves, and metamorphose into verdant plants in the brief span of a week. Spring is merely an interlude here, like the whirl of a conductor’s hand which fills the cold silence of an auditorium with rich music.

Cycling northwest for a month has brought us to a latitude level with southernmost Alaska. For weeks, spring has appeared and disappeared before my eyes like a magician’s trick. If we rest in a town for several days, the trees grow leaves. But when we travel just 100 miles north, the dead landscape ravaged by winter returns. Finally, the Federal Highway turns due west and spring catches up with us, wildflowers blooming by the roadside. But the onset of summer is illusory: the temperature here can rise to nearly 80 degrees in late afternoon, but drops to near freezing at night.

Currently, we have reached a point where the Federal Highway turns into a dirt road for 500 miles. The window in which we can quickly traverse this road on bicycles is brief. Soon, the rainy season begins, and muddy roads will slow our progress. It is often 70 miles between small villages, so we carry enough food to last several days. If we are caught in a heavy rainstorm, a one-day journey easily becomes two. The weather is erratic, and Russian newspapers do not contain weather reports, so we rely upon futilely asking locals. One day, we turn back to the small town of Yerofei after being caught in a hailstorm. The next morning frost covers the ground and we set out again. By noon the temperature is sweltering.

Cycling offroad is an extreme test of your ability to stay positive. We are riding road, not mountain bicycles because nearly all of our trip will be on paved roads. When we reach asphalt again, the bikes will be a dream to ride, but for now the experience can be closely defined as a nightmare.

Each morning, I look out at the road before me. Infinite potholes and small humps caused by the motion of cars over time fan into the distance like myriad lily pads floating atop a murky waterway. It can take 8-10 hours of bicycle riding to go 60 miles. The road goes through a series of steep mountains and you must concentrate fiercely to avoid crashing while trying to block out the pain of the bicycle’s seat constantly jabbing your rear end. Riding the bike feels like sitting atop a jack hammer; the constant jolting develops knots in your back muscles and feels like your skeleton is being ground to dust.

Inevitably, cycling on this road makes one lose their cool. I daily find myself blaming the road for my sore back and aching muscles, stopping to yell expletives at vindictive potholes and malicious pebbles. The harsh words just echo within the wooded vastness of Siberia. These breakdowns can only be described as temper tantrums, in which Ellery and I pathetically resemble children who cry in a store when their mother won’t buy them a toy they want. The road reduces you to those childish moments when we first discovered the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, stuck in a situation we cannot control.

The day after we leave Yerofei, dark storm clouds gather over mountains to the north and south.

“I hope we can make it just 20 miles further before the rain falls,” I say to myself.

I feel like a caged animal as I watch the heavy clouds looming closer above us. Oftentimes, these storm systems become stuck on mountains and you can escape them if you make it over the next pass. We ride quickly and avoid the rain, but must keep going, taking short rests to escape inclement muddy roads. My adrenaline pumps as I look behind me and see rain falling several miles behind us.

At midday, we dip into a valley where a construction crew is dumping rocks onto the road to fill in potholes and another rainstorm shimmering in the distance await us. We loathe these road workers; the rocks they pour make the terrain so rough we often must push our bikes to avoid damaging them. We put on our rain gear and continue. Seconds later, a rough bump causes a bolt connecting my rear rack, on which my panniers, or saddle bags, rest to snap in two. These bolts are one of the only spare parts we do not have, one of the only things we cannot fix on the road. Rain begins pouring down as we stand over the broken bicycle and weigh our options.

Suddenly, one of the construction workers we have complained about so much during the previous weeks stops his truck by us and asks if we need help.

“The men there might have a spare bolt,” he says, pointing to the construction crew a half mile away, after we explain the problem.

Ellery walks down the road forlornly while I wait in suspense. Twenty minutes later he returns.

“They had a huge box with every part you can imagine,” he says revealing an identical iron bolt in his hand.

For a moment, we are too awestruck by our good fortune to utter a word.

We fix the bike and continue up a muddy mountain, suddenly just feeling lucky to be on this wretched road. On the other side, the rain stops. Twenty minutes later, I hit another bump and my rear tire goes flat. We stop to change it. In minutes, the rainstorm catches up with us and we are soaked again.

Several hours later, the storm clouds clear and it becomes hot. We take a shortcut to the next town on a rough back road beside a rushing river. Rounding a bend to a cool area in the shadows of tall fir trees, I spot a snow drift still melting by the road. A bush with purple flowers blooms above this last vestige of winter. Some of its pedals have fallen atop the snow and rest alongside dead birch leaves, autumnal artifacts which unfold from the ice like relics uncovered from an archeology site. I stop to marvel at this kaleidoscope of the earth’s seasons. It is almost June, but I cannot classify this time of year in Siberia as spring, summer, or mud season.

Continuing down the bumpy road, the vision of purple flowers frozen in snow monopolizes my thoughts. The strange fusion of the same familiar seasons I grew up with in Maine suddenly makes Russia seem exotic. Witnessing the wonder of this schizophrenic beginning of spring makes me feel lucky just to be here.

My sore body bouncing over potholes after another tumultuous day makes me groan. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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