Some time during my previous leg, I had noticed that my rear wheel had a little shudder when I braked. I don’t remember when it started, but it was at least like that before I went to a bike shop in Waltenhofen, southern Germany, in the beginning of June. That guy hadn’t worked out the cause, and just re-adjusted my brakes but it still resumed. I figured it was down to the wheel being out of true and resolved to fix it while I was home. Being me this meant that about a week before I flew to Moscow I unsuccessfully tried to go to my local bike shop, who told me it’d take more than a week for him to be able to look at the wheel, and so found a book online that taught me everything about how to build a wheel, including how to make your own truing stand. With some help from my parents, I learnt how to use a saw (probably the first time I’d hoped to use one constructively since I was about 14) and set about building a truing stand.
What followed was four days of realising that my wheels were actually quite true, or at least before I started messing with them. I ‘fixed’ my front wheel first, and by the time I got to my back wheel there was definitely not enough time for a problem. That was why when I took the rim tape off, and saw a hairline crack down the inside of the rim that I got slightly worried. The bike shop definitely didn’t have time to help me, but let me know that he’d strongly recommend rebuilding it as it was prone to go at any time. An email to Thorn, the maker of my bike, echoed this sentiment though when pushed said that sure there was a small chance it might survive the whole of my trip to Bucharest, if I ran the pressure low and took it gently. It was with this advice in mind that I cycled out of Moscow with my rear brake disconnected, not wanting to put any undue pressure on the rim, and not only swerved to avoid every pothole but basically slowed to a stop to go over minor speed bumps that I’d normally go over at full speed without feeling. I was happy that the main road I found out of Moscow, which had big signs saying cycling was forbidden, had a perfectly paved shoulder even though it was a bit narrower than I’d have liked.
The signs prohibiting cycling seemed to be ignored by the police, who I went past without a word, until the 7th one waved me over. He pointed to a little path that was a couple of metres to the right of the road and told me that I had to ride along it. Horrified with how bumpy the surface was, I followed it at a pace equalling a stalactite’s growth rate, until I was out of sight and jumped back on the smooth shoulder taking me through a never-ending forest. Jonathan Dimbleby’s “Russia”, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in Russia, was my audiobook of choice and it mentioned that about 70% of the country was forested and that basically everything in the European part, that is west of the Urals, makes the UK look mountainous. I would come to strongly see this throughout my ride north to St Petersburg.
My main point of interest was in the Russian driving style. Everyone that has cycled in the country tells you about how awful the drivers are. There are countless videos on YouTube of Russian driving, helped by the fact that everyone has a dashboard camera to prove that the crash they’ll inevitably end up in wasn’t their fault, but I decided to not watch them. I did however ensure that I used my mirror on my glasses for the first time in Europe. In my 10 days riding in the country, I actually only needed to take evasive action three times, and was honked at but twice. That’s not to say I didn’t see some ridiculous antics, they just rarely had any effect on me. The most jarring was during a traffic jam, which was about 10km long. There was just a single lane in each direction, and a half-width shoulder with grass next to it. Those who had got bored of waiting in the traffic jam impatiently overtook into traffic by riding in the opposite lane only stopping when something really big was coming the other way. Otherwise they decided that the car coming towards them could just take evasive action into the shoulder/verge combination and get out of their way. For those who didn’t show such disregard of the incoming traffic, they drove along their own shoulder/verge. Thankfully when our side got blocked up, those who took the shoulder/verge option didn’t try to run me off the road and instead nipped back into the jam in the hope of overtaking me.
I had every intention to camp in a bit of forest, it’s not like there weren’t plenty of options, but finding myself near a fire station I decided to try it out. With my Russian skills limited to “Excuse me. I Dominic. I British. I go bicycle Moscow St Petersburg. I tent. Can I?” followed by a yawn, I was happy to meet a very agreeable group of 5 firemen who welcomed me in. Having showed me where I could park my bike, I was led to the kitchen where I was given a cup of tea and a selection of random packaged breads before being shown to the shower. Throughout the day, I had seen just stern faces, with no-one even trying to talk to me, but at the fire station it was completely different with big smiles and much laughter. A bottle of ‘cognac’ came out and I was poured a glass, being told that we had to drink it in threes. Three shots in, the sergeant pointed at his t-shirt, asked if it was good and then literally gave me the shirt off his back, before coming back with a worn-out one having given me his new one.
With only one guy able to speak a little English, Google Translate soon came out, which lead to the inevitable politics discussion. That was particularly unsurprising considering he had Putin’s face on his t-shirt. Questions of “Obama loser?” which I refused to agree with, were followed up with statements about how the US was bad but the UK, Russia and China were friends. That was news to me, as I always see the US and UK as united and was glad that they thought differently. I was born in the country, but I don’t like being held responsible for my countries actions and feel no level of patriotism, or fault for what others do. It was what had annoyed me so vehemently in Argentina with the constant comments about the Falklands. When the comments went back to me saying Obama wasn’t a loser, I explained about how in the west it is seen (being careful to not say if it was my own opinion) that Russia acts aggressively towards for example the Ukraine. This was met by comments about how it was the opposite, and Russia is never the aggressor, and how he felt that there would be a war between the US and Russia soon. He agreed with me that is definitely not something that the people of either side want, and it’s something from above. His comments made sense later when I learnt that “positive history” is an official government education policy to put a positive spin on every action of the past. While I’m sure that exists to some extent in every country, I’m sure that there was at least some point about how the British Empire wasn’t perfect with it’s policy of colonialism.
Being the middle of August, I was quite glad that it was in the low-mid 20s. Apparently it can easily be over 30. The infrequent towns meant that my main concern was getting water, especially when I was using one of my two bottle holders to carry a litre of 96% alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious issue in the country, and so buying alcohol for a stove had proved a challenge. Thankfully I met someone who could help me acquire a bottle of black-market German alcohol that would work. The aim to protect their citizens from evil is also visible with the policy about cigarettes which means that every shop you go into that sells them is forced to put a shutter over the cigarettes, only opening it when someone asks for a packet. Apparently this is meant to stop people smoking, and reduce the influence on children. It felt like it had a long way to go considering how common smoking seemed.
In the cities, there is running water, but it seemed that towns didn’t really have this luxury, or at least in the places that I visited. Houses were instead dependent on having a well, dug 10-20m down so they wouldn’t freeze. Petrol stations would generally tell me that they didn’t have any water, until I stood there looking a bit stupid for a while and then they generally relented and went to fill my bottle up. This lack of a basic service extends to gas as well, which even cities is not commonly piped into houses and getting a line into your house can cost over £10,000. Considering that Russia has so many natural resources, including possible the world’s largest gas reserves it seemed a bit insane.
The evening saw me again visit and be accepted at a fire station. They were a little slower and it took 4 different firemen individually coming down to the gate that I was at to finally decide that I was allowed in. I was shown a place to put my tent and then they vanished. Having put my tent up, I sneaked inside to find the loo, and was surprised when I came out to find 5 firemen standing around my tent. They asked me if I liked tea and then shorted later returned with not only a thermos flask full of tea, but also a loaf of bread, three cans of sardines, a can of mystery meat, a bottle of water and a large bottle of beer. A few minutes later, a guy came back and unlocked a van so I could sit inside it to enjoy my feast (hindered by my lack of a can opener) and even gave me a sleeping mat to borrow.
Day three out of Moscow saw me spend another 100km riding through seemingly endless forests. It wasn’t until 70km that something happened, and that was when I saw a large group of cyclists at the end of a side road. They waved me over and the normal series of questions commenced. Diana could confidently speak English and she ended up being the translator. They were from the nearby city of Tver and were on their own cycling trip, although being short on time they had a couple of support vans that would soon be carrying them the 150km back to Tver as they had to work in the morning. They told me that they were going for a ride down the road and asked me if I’d liked to join them. Having gotten tired of trying to avoid potholes, a good thing since the road often resembled a minefield, I bounced along chatting with Diana as we bounced to the Volga river.
On arriving, Diana turned to me and asked me if I liked swimming. I said that normally it was good, and so she pointed to the river and said that was where I could jump in. The girls were going swimming a bit further left. This turned out to be because swimming in Russia is all about getting naked, and so most of the guys I was with stripped down and jumped into the water. Not normally bothered about such things, I got a bit shy and ended up just standing around my bike talking to one guy who happened to be celebrating his birthday. He was the support driver, but had done his own trips, including a recent one Israel that he told me about. When people came back from swimming, another wave of questions started up until it was time for a group photo and riding back to the main road, where Katya, one of the cyclists, gave me a traditional Russian spoon and all the ladies got called round for a group photo with me.
With a fire station just 30km further down the road, I had an obvious destination for the day and made it there. The only thing breaking up the forest being some memorials to the Great Patriotic War, and a couple of pillboxes that served as remnants. At the fire station, I gave my speech that had worked the previous couple of times, and the fireman went inside to speak to his chief, but came out and I heard a stream of words and only picked up one, nilsya, which means not possible. I asked for an alternative, and after a bit of talking and some confusion was told to ride a couple of kilometres, cross the railway and find the Volkswagen. This turned out to be another fireman, who manned the garage where they parked the vehicles, and showed me to it indicating a place I could sleep. The tent went up, but it wasn’t so fun considering the swarm of mosquitoes that surrounded me as I did so.