Cyclists battle for space on Russian roads

Roadside maintenance: From flat tires, broken racks, to brake problems, the two cyclists from New England have fixed many problems on the road. The cyclists carry cell phones so they can alert each other when problems arise. Unfortunately, the phones do not always work everywhere. Sometimes one cyclist carrying a certain tool that the other does not have gets ahead leaving the other behind. ( photo: courtesy of Levi Bridges)
Courtesy photo | BDN
Roadside maintenance: From flat tires, broken racks, to brake problems, the two cyclists from New England have fixed many problems on the road. The cyclists carry cell phones so they can alert each other when problems arise. Unfortunately, the phones do not always work everywhere. Sometimes one cyclist carrying a certain tool that the other does not have gets ahead leaving the other behind. ( photo: courtesy of Levi Bridges)
By ,
Posted Sept. 26, 2009, at 2:41 a.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.

The rumbling of a big rig flying down the highway sounds like a collapsing building destroyed by a demolition team. A thundering truck can be heard long before it passes.

I am riding on a cramped two-lane road with no shoulder and heavy traffic. Holding the handlebars steady, I hug the white line on the road’s edge to give traffic enough space to go around me.

In seconds, the freight truck roars by like an avalanche flowing down the crest of a hoary mountain peak. The truck’s rear bumper nearly grazes my cheek as the craft’s end sails past.

“Another close one,” I think.

We have traveled nearly 5,800 miles across Russia on bicycles. Nearly five months ago, we left from the Russian port city Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. We departed on a cold April morning before the trees had even begun to bud. Now it is late September and the leaves of Russian birches have bronzed to a soft yellow like the fruit inside a mango.

While riding, I sink into a deep reverie recalling the places we have been. Chita, Khabarovsk, Omsk, and Kazan, they are all former destinations, cities we once rode through. Now, they are once again names on a map, words which, like the names of grade school teachers, make you recall vague memories from long ago.

“Beeeeeeep!”

A blaring horn breaks my silent soliloquy, the wandering thoughts, which overtake one’s mind while riding a bicycle. I ride along the road’s edge, which narrowly separates asphalt from soft dirt, like a drop of dew tenuously sliding down a blade of grass. When trucks do not have space to pass, they beep signaling for me to get off the road. Hearing the blaring horn, I turn the bike sharply off the asphalt and onto the rough dirt shoulder, gently pumping the brakes to avoid losing control. The enormous truck barrels past as I come to a stop.

Two days ago, we merged onto a central highway leading to Moscow, Russia’s largest city and capital. We always imagined the roads near Moscow would be smooth with wide shoulders. But here there is little space to ride on save the white line on the road’s edge. We face a constant battle with traffic for space. This is one of the most developed parts of Russia and the most treacherous road we have ridden on to date.

One encounters many difficulties on a bicycle trip. Each day, myriad possibilities for things to go wrong hang somewhere in the future like glimmering stars obscured by a cloudy sky.

The quickly fading sunlight shines brightly on the road by late afternoon. Suddenly, my rear tire bursts. A shard of metal or glass I ran over punctured my tire and inner tube. I stop to change them with spares. My riding partner Ellery Althaus rolls ahead, oblivious to what happened. If I ever have a major problem, I can send him a text message on the cell phones we communicate with.

I change the tire and continue. Soon the second tube goes flat. I instantly remember how several days ago, Ellery received several successive flat tires from glass lodged in the tire rubber. I lent him my spare tubes to fix the flats. We repair busted tubes with a patch kit for reuse, but that night we foolishly forgot to mend them.

I stop riding. Ellery is now miles ahead with the patch kit and tubes.

My Russian cell phone works like a U.S. track phone, you buy minutes as you go. I send Ellery a message explaining my predicament, and, to my dismay, discover that I am out of minutes.

I have a spare tube for a different size tire in my backpack. It barely fits in the smaller tire currently on my bicycle, but I inflate the tire and try riding it. The tube bursts before I make it two miles and I am stranded on the busy road again.

Just then, Ellery sends me a text message. “A woman at a gas station told me you broke down,” it read, “am riding back to help.”

A rosy sun lingers near the horizon. Darkness is approaching. I try hitchhiking to Ellery, but a bicycle greatly decreases your odds of getting a ride.

Soon a police car spots me and pulls over. Throughout Russia, people have warned us about corrupt cops, especially near Moscow. Thus far, we have only had positive interactions with Russian law officials. As the police car rolls up and the window goes down revealing two men in uniform, I’m not sure what to expect.

“I have ridden here from Vladivostok on bicycle,” I say before explaining my problem.

The cops offer to take me to Ellery, but, after examining their car’s trunk, decide my bicycle won’t fit. With no hesitation, the cop puts on his policeman’s hat and removes a billy club from the car. Loudly blowing his whistle, he pulls over the first flat bed truck which passes by signaling with the billy club. Minutes later, I’m riding in the truck with an old Russian man, my bicycle in the back, the cops following in tow.

The road goes down a long hill. We drive no more than half a mile before we see Ellery huffing and puffing up the steep incline.

“Pull over please,” I say.

Ellery and I quickly change the tire. The police drive away. It is nearly dark now. We ride seven dangerous miles to the next town at dusk. Cars turn their lights on and beep their horns at us. Bumps fill the road. Riding here is dangerous, and, as darkness sets in, I feel that being here is not worth the risk.

The next day, we arrive in Nizhny Novgorod, one of the most beautiful cities in Russia. From here Moscow lies just several hundred miles southwards. We get a hotel and clean up. Although we both want to ride, that night we seriously talk about bypassing the dangerous roads by taking the train into Moscow.

By morning we decide that taking public transportation, just this once, is better than getting hurt on dangerous roads and not finishing the trip. For months we have talked about resting for a week somewhere. Now we plan to take the train into Moscow, stay seven days, and then ride the train back to a place near Nizhny. From there we will cycle just five days and cross the border into the country of Ukraine.

Stepping off the train in Moscow with my fully loaded bike seems strange, but feels like a good decision. The past few months have been tiresome. Soon a very different section of this trip will begin as we leave Russia and hop between various European countries.

We still have far to go before our trip ends on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. I remain excited to see what happens next. But for now, I need to rest.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/09/26/sports/cyclists-battle-for-space-on-russian-roads/ printed on September 18, 2014