Cyclists near 5,000-mile mark

Posted Aug. 28, 2009, at 9:25 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.

Sometimes in life you just have to run. The impulse to move quickly does not exclusively come from a feeling of entrapment, but rather an intrinsic desire to stampede forward and glimpse what lies near the horizon.

For humans, these desires are instinctual, realized in the moment when we rose on wobbly knees as small babes and dared to take our first steps. Life presents us with innumerable opportunities to continue moving, to continue exploring. Sometimes, however, traveling is easier said than done. When the conditions for movement are favorable, it’s best to lunge forward.

For most of August, we have slowly cycled across the flat plains of the steppe in western Siberia. Brutal headwinds here, which blow against our bicycles, have made for slow going. While resting in the city of Omsk, my riding partner Ellery checked the weather forecast and our fortunes changed.

“It says the wind will blow behind us for several days,” he exclaimed excitedly.

Tailwinds are a cyclist’s dream. They help push you forward, allowing one to ride faster. Before us 600 more miles of barren steppe remained between the cities of Omsk and Ekaterinaburg. With the wind momentarily at our back, we set out to cover the remaining distance in six days.

Steppe is the plains area of central Asia, a desolate expanse of earth mainly covered in marshland. Only several major roads, most of which are so poorly maintained that they are almost impassable at points, cross this sparsely populated section of the earth.

Traveling westward, the steppe ends in Ekaterinaburg, a city at the base of the Ural Mountains which technically separate the Asian and European continents. From the Pacific Ocean, we have ridden almost 4,800 miles. The Urals mark the first major accomplishment of our trip; we will have ridden across Asia, the world’s biggest continent by land mass.

Gazing into the blank expanse of the steppe, the nearness of Europe seems incomprehensible. My sense of perspective is useless here. Different places I have lived during my life have trained my eyes to judge distance by things like a hill or houses, objects which appear in front of me as big or small on the horizon.

The steppe is mostly devoid of these landmarks. Here endless plains and swamp drift over the vast earth to a distant point where scant things, like groves of trees, just become blurry as they reach the indefinable bound-ary between the earth and sky.

Riding over rolling hills or crossing mountains on a bicycle gives me the sensation that I am moving somewhere. On the steppe, you see where you are going long before you arrive, giving you the frustrating feeling that you should be there already.

For now, the wind is at our back. We can move fast. Leaving Omsk, we cover more than 200 miles in two days. We often ride 40 miles or more between the few villages and roadside cafes scattered along the steppe.

Towns here are scarce and mainly limited to lonely farming communities perched along the plains. This is the western outskirts of Siberia, a lawless and largely unpopulated land which now fans thousands of miles behind us across the vastness of northern Asia.

Siberia is populated by a stalwart people mainly of European descent. The first brave souls to wander this part of the earth were fur traders. Their footsteps were followed by two surges of European migration in the late 19th century. In 1861, the abolition of serfdom in Russia set free a tide of poor land-hungry peasants who moved eastward into northern Asia. The Trans-Siberian railroad further facilitated the movement of people here; 20 years after the railroad’s completion, Siberia’s population doubled to 10 million.

During the last four months, I have traveled by bicycle through this, at times, seemingly forgotten part of the world. Many people here live simple lives in log cabins, chopping their own firewood and growing crops to sustain them during long and brutally cold winters. Most towns lack paved roads and running water. Large-scale development has not yet happened here.

The word Siberia originates from a blend of the Mongolian “Siber” which means “pure” and the Tatar “Sibir” which translates to “sleeping land.” Today, the now archaic roots of the word are perhaps more relevant than ever: They are adjectives which describe an infantile land which has yet to wake up into the modern world.

On the third day of our sprint, the wind fiercely blows behind us harder than ever. At times, it shifts, gusting against my side, and jolting my bicycle like a kayak running through river rapids.

By early afternoon, we cover 80 miles hardly stopping for breaks. We want to go as far as possible while the wind is with us. Riding this fast is extremely exhausting. My back aches with excruciating pain from pedaling for so long.

When we finally arrive in a town, I throw down my bike and collapse on my back. I lay on the ruts of tire tracks drawn into the mud and hardened by the sun. The rough earth digs into the knots in my back. The feeling of lying down, even momentarily, makes me groan with glee.

That afternoon, the wind shifts, blowing against my side. Crosswinds often do not slow bicycle travel, they just make it more laborious. Moving forward, I examine my surroundings. Every living thing that inhabits the steppe seems victim to the fickle movement of the wind. Birds flap their wings futilely in the sky. Bushes and grass bend toward the earth like a mass of slaves bowing before an evil despot.

By day’s end, I rest near a wheat field. The gusting wind creates ripples in the wheat like a breeze moving over an ocean inlet.

In the distance, I spot a small village. My aching muscles remind me that the first settlers who originally founded the towns here arrived on horses. They endured bitterly cold winters isolated far from European cities to forge a new life. In the 21st century, when we leave our homes to explore what mysteries lay near the horizon, we speed along in cars, and stop at highway gas stations to buy snacks. The knots in my back force me to appreciate how so much of the world we live in is built upon the suffering of previous people centuries ago.

The wind remains behind us for two more days. By the fifth day of our push, we are extremely exhausted. In the past month, we have cycled more than 2,000 miles. Just 135 miles from Ekaterinaburg, early in the day, we pass a roadside hotel. The proximity of comfy beds lures us to rest, and we decide to cover the remaining distance tomorrow.

My body is weak and I am delirious with fatigue. I crash into bed like a bowling ball smacking a row of pins. Sleep overtakes me. I am not prone to nightmares, but today I dream that I am cycling alone across the vast steppe. A distant pack of mangy wolves begins chasing me. I can smell their rancid breath as they pant heavily behind me closing in for the kill. I pedal faster and faster to get ahead. Suddenly my foot slips and I crash upon the pavement. Time slows down. The staccato noise of their claws hitting the asphalt as they halt and turn around to pounce on me reverberates in my eardrums. I hop to my feet and race forward, escaping, their jaws snapping behind me.

We set out at dawn. The wind shifts and blows against us. My muscles ache. I focus solely on turning the pedals and disappear somewhere deep inside myself where I vaguely sense the wind blowing on my cheeks and the bicy-cle slowly moving forward. By late afternoon, we begin passing European looking villages with small churches in the center. Adrenaline pumps. I pedal faster, not wanting to stop now.

In Ekaterinaburg, a group of Russian cyclists and representatives from the U.S. Consulate greet us. We rest in the city for four days, our longest break in two months.

Twenty miles outside of Ekaterinaburg, a simple stone monument, made of a vertical segment of granite separating two pieces of marble, stands on a hill by the roadside.

Russian letters on each side of the marble spell the following words: Azea, Evropa. Asia, Europe.

Several Russian cyclists lead us out of Ekaterinaburg. We reach the monument, and, with just a tinge of nostalgia and hesitation, I gingerly step over the granite line marking the boundary of each continent like a child placing his feet in tepid bath water.

We say goodbye to the cyclists and speed down the hill. I turn my head for one last glimpse of the green fields of Asia disappearing behind me, but they have already faded behind the rising Urals.

We are in Europe now.

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