06 Vaalimaa (FIN) – Helsinki (200k) “Finnished”

This blog post is an – admittedly somewhat belated – account of the last stretch of my tour: the ride from Vaalimaa on the the Russian/Finnish border to Helsinki. Does this last sentence fill you with an excruciating feeling of emptiness and incompleteness? I have a confession to make; this is why: good reasoning won over my cyclo-tourist’s pride, so I took a bus from St. Petersburg to the Finnish border. I will explain why. And will take you along the most scenic and overall most harmonic ride of this entire tour. I will not draw larger conclusions from this tour just yet, but will save this for the next post.

Yes, it is true… I took a bus. From St. Petersburg up to the Finnish border. A distance of roughly 200km and thus a full cycling day’s worth. Before you leave this website, in tears of disappointment and wrath over my violation of the non-existent yet holy cyclingtourist’s code, let me explain why; actually, the loyal reader of this blog, or at least my last post about cycling in Russia, will already have a basic level of empathy for my decision, because:

The cycling day from the Russian/Estonian border was somewhat adventurous, but not exactly fun. A brief recap: It was a functional ride that made me arrive in the great city of St. Petersburg. While I had planned out a supposedly beautiful route along some supposedly main and major roads following the coastline, these ideas were shattered on multiple occasions when the pavement of the road was either severely damaged or simply not there or even replaced by some creek and swamp. And all that despite the fact that in my preparation before my tour, I checked google street view for many parts of the road and thought the pavement should be really good. Back to the present case: I had applied the same methods for figuring out a nice route leading me from St.Pete to the Finnish border. Again, in my planning I had relied on a route circumventing the highway and leading me through some supposedly picturesque and/or very typically northwest Russian landscape. However now I could assume these plans again not to work out; same methods – same failures; one doesn’t need to be an empirical scientist to get to that conclusion. So, the scenic route: won’t work. Another day on the Russian highway: a waste of a precious day of my holiday, and an increased chance of ending my life in, on and among a truck’s grill, 200km of boredom. NO.

Hence the decision to book a bus ticket. 25€ for escaping the above mentioned inconvenience? Deal! So I got up at 5 am to catch a bus at 6.15am at the St. Petersburg coach station. I had knowingly neglected the term that my bike would need to be wrapped or packed to be transported, and that was not due to any arrogant underestimation of the Russian way of organizing their transport but due to my general experience that usually things are much less bureaucratic and strict than stated in the rules when you face the real situation and a human decision maker (except for in the Netherlands… “regels zijn regels!”, rules are rules). To my surprise the driver did care, and only accepted to transport my bike because he found space in a separate luggage compartment. In any case, my bike was on the bus, me and the rest of my gear, too. I slept almost all of the ride, just sometimes waking up to luckily see my suspicion confirmed: highway, trees, trucks.

Shortly before the Finnish border we (the passengers) had to stop twice for officers to go through the bus and have a brief glance at all our passports. Then, we all had to get off with all our luggage and go through the real border check. Everyone else went back in the coach to continue the ride to Helsinki, because why would anyone want to get off in this no-man’s-land?

DSC07495.jpg

Maybe to have the by far most scenic and harmonic ride of his/her bicycle tour! That’s at least what it did to me. So I kept my luggage at the side of the terminal while everyone stepped back in. A short goodbye to the driver some confused looks by my fellow travelers and after half an hour of setting up my bike, dressing and eating some more of the mass of groceries I had bought the night before, I cycled off around noon. Beautiful weather, really. Only pitfall was the west wind; exactly from ahead. Just like through Russia I had planned an alternative route to avoid the highway that would lead me roughly along the Baltic sea; but somehow (certainly a mix of personal preconceptions and general stereotypes) I had more faith in this Finnish alternate road than in it’s Russian counterpart. At first I did a few more kilometers on the highway; strong headwind made me dread that this might become the toughest 200km of my life. At some point I could turn left (South) onto the smaller rural road which lead me very quickly through a tidy Finnish village. Pavement: perfect! I mean really perfect. And when there had been some crack in the surface some long time ago, they had patched it perfectly with black tar. In fact, the patching was so smooth that I anticipated every black stripe from a former crack on the road’s horizon with great enthusiasm; it would have left even the Latvians remain in awe and admiration (who I had some days ago inofficially and prematurely crowned the masters of road patching).

Also the wind was not so bad anymore. Mostly because my route led me predominantly through the shelter of forests and secondly because it was quite hilly: so on uphill passages I was in the shelter of the hill I was climbing and downhill I had some good support by gravity to battle the wind. All in all I would climb ca. 1200m that day.

Until the city/town called Hamina the ride was a dream: sunny, warm, with a breeze, hardly any cars, perfectly paved road with some little climbs and curves that would allow me to play the game of curiously questioning anticipation and surprising answer. Forest and more open fields took turns and sometimes not the road but at least my view touched the Baltic coast line of which the constant supply of fresh air was an accompanying witness throughout the ride. Additionally the spicey smell of soft and needle woods and sometimes even an olfactory greeting from the casually appearing wild flower fields. It looked roughly like this:

DSC07503.jpg

…and like this:

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…and like this:

contact: mregah@gmail.com or 00491733271514
In Hamina I had made just 50km or so, but they set the tone for the rest of the day which was considerably less picturesque but certainly still a pleasure: long country roads and occasional forests. 50% of the route was on bicycle paths along the roads, and to my surprise they were really an advantage over the road! In my experience there is only one country where bicycle paths work: the Netherlands. Now there’s a second. (Admittedly in Eastern Germany they had excellent bike paths along he country roads, too. But in any other places, bicycle paths are a disappointment in 90% of the cases with the road turning out not only to grant a more fluent ride but also even a higher level of safety.)

It all took a while… sometimes I was quite exhausted and needed a decent break once in a while. To be honest with you, I think, in the greater context of the tour, by now my joy of cycling was somewhat depleted and this ride would have been really painful was it not for these ideal conditions. At least I know that by now I did motivate myself not only with the idea that my arrival in Helsinki would mark the end of this particular cycling-day, but also the end of my tour. No regrets whatsoever, of course, and I would not have wished to do anything else this day. But still… it was an intense tour and additionally: cycling again after the intensity towards St. Petersburg and then three consecutive days of pure rest, was tough and not necessarily a smart rhythm.

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In Vuosaari, Helsinki.

So, I worked my way towards Helsinki, still on the same road number 170 that would lead me straight into the center. Passed the harbor of Vuosaari from where I would take the ferry two days later. Quite suddenly, after a larger junction, the 170 turned into a (real) highway. As you know, in Riga and St. Petersburg I got accustomed to using the highway as if I was a car; so you will somewhat empathize with me not switching to an alternate route into the city. The highway would lead me straight into Helsinki and spare me the time consuming hassle of beating my way through the outer shells of the city whose permeability is usually designed only for cars and trains anyway. Judging by the frequency of the otherwise so extremely peaceful and considerate Finnish driver’s honk-sounds, they did not have the same understanding for my pro-highway decision.

My old friend Janne, who I know from a study exchange in Montréal, would be so kind to host me that night. I arrived around 23.00 h that Thursday eve at his house. This is Janne in front of his house (but a day later when the weather had turned)

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Janne in the streets of Helsinki

We completely forgot to take a symbolic end-of-the day and end-of-the-tour picture. We realized this in the basement where I was going to store my bike and made up for it: Let’s just say, this picture symbolizes the pretended lack of any need for symbols on my tour.

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symbolic end-of-the-tour pic in Janne’s bicycle basement in Helsinki


That’s it.
For this year I fulfilled my role as a cyclingtourist. The tour is finnished, and I do not at all feel ashamed for making this pun.

 

This current post will very soon be followed by a conclusion of my tour. So, please bear with me while I leave this one a little open-ended.

05 Narva (EST) – St. Petersburg (RUS)(165k) “Russian Roulette”

After 8 days on my bike from Berlin, I have arrived in St. Petersburg (SPb), Russia. That last stretch, starting in Narva (Estonia) at the Russian border and ending in SPb was despite some “navigational complications” (read: involuntary detours) comparatively short (165km) but certainly not less eventful, as you will read. The arrival in SPb means that I reached the most important milestone for this tour; and that my legs will get 3 days of heavenly rest during which I will make use of all possible modes of transport except for one: my bike.

So, here I am, in St. Petersburg on Monday 11th of July 2016. And it feels fantastic: until just a few months or weeks ago, St. Petersburg was a “far away place in the northwest of Russia”. Of course, while I was in the planning and dealing with the detailed geography of the route, the “far away” turned more and more into “x many km/day” and a better understanding, context and overview of where that city is ‘cituated’. But now St.Pete’s location is as tangible to me as it can get: I feel where on our precious sphere I am; feel it in my muscles and my bones and my mind; they have been working for this. (This is btw. exactly in line with what I wrote in the “approach” section of this blog.) Not that I have much pain now; that phase was maybe in and before Riga. By now I feel strengthened rather than weakend, which already played its role in managing those 275km to Narva without feeling completely (but just a little) wrecked.

Still, after that long day until Narva I needed some decent and long enough sleep. I used to think (without any scientific backup that is) that there are two kinds of ‘tirednesses’: the one that concerns your body and muscles and just needs you to relax, and the one that lies rather within your brain and makes you sleepy. And I thought the long cycling would only result in the former but leave you normally awake. But by now I realized: cycling long distance makes me really tired in that I need a lot of sleep. And that makes it even more difficult for me to keep up the number of km/day for many days, simply because additional sleep is part of the time-equation and deducts even more hours from the day so that there’s less left for the mileage.

So, in Narva, too, I slept long enough and got going slowly. Went to a supermarket to buy all the food that I would need for te day. Also I wanted to send myself a thick letter with all the maps of the past and passed countries that I didn’t need anymore; I like keeping them (vs. throwing them away). Getting this done on a Sunday in a city where hardly anyone speaks any language that I know, turned out to be a time consuming task. So just around 12.30h I got going and surfed downhill to the Narva River to cross the Russian border.

ACT 1 – borderline

Border-control: check. Easy and seemed to be less thorough or more efficient than in Kaliningrad. This time I had to fill out an entry/exit form myself. Back in Kaliningrad they did it with a machine and put the form in my passport without any instruction about it. Thank god (rhethorically) I didn’t loose that thing: you need it to leave the country! There could be greater places to get stuck than Kaliningrad. Anyway, now I had that same form again and would guard it like Mordor’s Ring.

A couple of 100 meters behind the border I thought it’s time for a selfie. So I recorded a 3 dimensional selfie for you (two space, one time axis). See how innocent and optimistic I look?


Remember that impression for the post of one hour later (further below). Because this moment constitutes the start of a valuable lesson in both navigation and cycling in Russia. I regret I hardly took pictures for you of the coming events but you’ll see why I wasn’t in the mood for additionally dealing with photography.

Also in that selfie moment my face was facing west, to the border and to ‘Europe’. There was a huge thunderstorm over Narva and I remember I found it quite peculiar that it seemed like the storm would stop exactly at the border above which the sky was separated into black (EU) and blue (Russia). As usual, the storm didn’t bother me or make me alert or anything: in the end my only option is always to continue and react to the storm only the moment it would hit me; there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it anyway.

ACT 2 – detour ahead

Now the journey could beginn! The fact that I made it to Narva as planned also meant: I could pick up my originally planned route from there which I had planned in detail and loaded digitally on my GPS. That planned route would let me cycle mostly along the coast; it is quite a bit longer than the highway route, but then… its not a highway! Given that it was already pretty late by now (maybe 13h) I was dreading the fact that I’d not make it to St. Petersburg before sunset. So, I better really hurried up a bit; my legs felt fine, as they always do after a few kilometers, wearing fresh and clean gear, oiled chain… so nothing to hold me back.

I remembered I had to continue on the highway for a few kilometers before I could branch off left to my alternate coast route, so I went on for a bit, and mistook the standard colour of the highway on my GPS display for the indication of the planned route. Until I started wondering that the left turn didn’t come up yet. I then checked and realized: I was completely wrong; I would have needed to turn left almost immediately after the border. That way I already wasted a few km (maybe 5) of time and energy, but even worse: my detour was mischievously supported by the wind so that returning to the right track would mean fighting back all that against the wind. I could have decided here to stay on the highway; in fact to my surprise the signs for the highway route indicated it to be only 115km to SPb instead of the roughly 190km of my own planned route. But: you may remember that a few days before I decided to put a higher emphasis on actually seeing the places I go through; and going all the way on the highway would certainly not present me any new or even typically Russian landscape. So I decided to turn back and take my route.

ACT 3 – detour imminent

Fighting against the wind for quite a bit, I started seeing the route I wanted to take, showing up on my GPS. And I saw some street that appeared to be a shortcut to my intended route, leading me through a little village. Shortcuts are good, and villages, too, because they tend to show a more truthful side of a country; so I thought/hoped/made myself think. Taking a turn to the right, finally leaving the highway and the opposition of the wind. “Wow, the road to that village is remarkably poorly paved. Holes and cracks everywhere. Even though the map indicates it to be kind of proper…” I said to myself. Yes, I do talk to myself sometimes while cycling; not in English, but in German, trying to do funny regional accents at times. That is one advantage of traveling by yourself: you can do vocal excercises, funny accents, false lyrics and cheesy pop-song improvisations without embarrassing yourself in front of anybody but yourself.

Anyway, so I thought the road was bad but was driven by the idea to maybe see an interesting village and at least have a shortcut to my route. The village arrived: a few grey/white houses and/or huts. The same bumpy road, two people sitting on a bench, watching the abandoned crossing And that roboter-alien-like looking cyclist who was about to pass. That’s it. Ok, at least I made a short cut; so I thought, continued and just a few dozen meters later the road started getting worse very gradually. So gradually that I had the impression I was on some kind of demonstrational test track that represents all the degrees of bumpiness ranging from the mild type of “completely neglected by any governmental investment” to the severe type of “even a mountainbiker’s nightmare”. That’s what it was, too much even for a mountainbike; and if you saw my first post and the picture of my road equipment: too much for my road bike. At first I managed to elegantly twist my way around the deep and wide puddles and muddy pits (don’t ask how I found out they were deep). At last I struggled to wind the crank through the meter high grass. “No worries”, I thought, watching myself (on my GPS device) approaching the properly paved main road I had planned to take to St.P. Who wouldn’t do a few meters through an open field if the real road was getting ever closer. And indeed, soon I was just a couple of meters away from that road; what a relief it was to hear the first couple of speeding cars being so close! The only problem: the bushes and 50cm deep creek within a 1 m deep ditch between me and that road were indicated neither on my digital, nor my paper map. Actually: when zooming in on my GPS to the highest zoom level, there it was: a tiny little gap between the main road and the presumable path I was on. Great,  how accurate! I could have known it all along the way.

I decided to cycle along the creek (and thus along the road behind it) for some 50m through the grass, realizing this wouldn’t get me anywhere. No matter what: I could cycle again all the way back to the highway or cross that creek. But you remember that it was already afternoon and I still had some 190km ahead of me, so clearly I had to cross that creek. First thought: carefully cycle through it; down into the ditch at a 45 degree angle, through half a meter of water, up the ditch; ca. 45 degree angle again. No way. The only option left was: taking off my shoes, pushing my bike ahead of me through the water, wading through the creek adm climbing up on the other side. That’s what I did.

I heard a dog barking through the bushes on the other side, it’s master calming it down. Great, because it meant that I could at least brighten up somebody’s day with that view: a robotic looking cyclist awkwardly pushing his equipment and himself down a muddy slope through the bushes through a deep creek and clumsily climbing up the other way. With one hand holding the back of his bike in the creek, with the other hand taking off his cycling shoes and socks, one shoe sliding half into the water. This degrading condition was accompanied by:

  • remember, there was a thunderstorm coming up, which by now apparently didn’t care about national borders anymore
  • Consequently the air was now extremely humid, making me – in the face of my feat – hot and sweat like hell.
  • And I was in a swamp that was inhibited not only by wet and lost cyclists, but also by hundreds of big, green, thirsty and aggressive mosquitos.

I arrived on the other side. One sock and one shoe completely wet, my legs and feet, too, of course. Mud and little stones sticking to my feet and enriched by many mosquito bites, I was – in my good manner – trying to exchange some units of semantic content (sorry, no further specification possible) with my Russian spectator; simultaneously applying the international language of gesticulation and provisorically cleaning my feet and putting on my shoes and guarding off many mosquitos who I had apparently lured out of their swamp into following me onto the admittedly perfectly paved road.

ACT 4 – detour complete

The creek was done, and I was eager to finally continue my journey; because it was late, because there was a thunderstorm coming up and because I wanted to escape that humid swamp environment and exchange it for some let’s say 30km/h headwind on my route to St.Pete. Pure motivation.

Waving the master and his dog, who certainly had a story to tell when they came home to their families, I went off. I rememer I wondered already how these few farms and houses deserved such a perfect road, but thought this must have been the result of some government initiative to have at least one well-paved alternative to the highway, broadly following the coast line – my line. One more kilometer and the hope-destruction-machine called “Russian road infrastructure” completed its job by presenting me with this sight:


This was the road that according to my plans would lead me for 185km along the coast to St.Pete. NO F****** WAY!

Maybe one or the other among you readers has asked her/himself during the past posts how I could motivate myself to do many of the uncomfortable things that are part of my tour. Here’s maybe the best example. It might sound very much like a cliche, but it’s true: 

  • think positive.
  • Be pragmatic.
  • Face the current reality. And 
  • don’t whine over hypothetical scenarios

ACT 5 – less action, more time

My answer to that gravel road: great: reality made the decision for me to get to St.Pete the easier way. I.e.: take the highway which would be only about 115km according to the most recent sign. Additionally I would be guaranteed a kind of okay pavement, arrival at daylight and – thanks to the thunderstorm behind me above (by now beyond) the border – I’d have some decent easterly backwind.

Did I mention the thunderstorm? Now it started; time to react, as mentioned above. Finding the best sheltering tree around, getting out the rain jacket, putting on the overshoes, installing my flashing backlight, and fighting off some more of those mosquitos. And all that just a few meters away from the swamp and creek that had their big moment in ACT 3.

Soon I realized that waiting for the rain to stop wouldn’t make sense, that I would have a wet day ahead and get soaked anyway, I just went off. Soon I arrived at that notorious spot close to the border whose vibe I earlier asked you to remember. There I did another 3-D selfie for you. I felt like in “Groundhog Day”:

From here I started at point zero. With a shorter than planned distance ahead, but also at least another hour later and in shitty weather. I now knew: taking a Russian road off the highway is like Russian roulette with 5 bullets: better don’t even start the game.

And the Russian roulette metaphor holds for my next challenge, too: the Russian highway. It’s a highly frequented two lane road (one in each direction), with 70% of its traffic participants weighing more than 3,5 metric tons (statistics based on pure emotion). These monsters take over at speeds around 90km/h and keep a distance of about 30cm to a meter.

The game is a lot more in your favour though: the magazine contains a few million slots, I guess, but only one bullet in the shape of a drunk, sleepy or otherwise unaware driver just like in any country (again some emo-stats here), and on top of that you do have a chance to escape it by following some very important rules:

  1. Use a rear mirror!! I seriously think I spent about 50% of the time looking in the mirror while dedicating the rest to what’s happening ahead of me.
  2. Use a flashing back light to be visible but
  3. Cycle as if you were invisible
  4. Cycle predictably
  5. But also: cycle like you are a respectful but also respectable participant of traffic.

Since there was constant traffic anyway I didn’t need to be auditorily warned of upcoming trucks. I decided to rely on my sight (again: rear mirror!!) instead and used my ears as the supply hatch for some motivational treats:

The soundtrack of that long and rainy 115km highway stretch:

  • Started off with Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon to get in the mood
  • Dirtyloops – Loopified because this is so well produced it conveys all of its drive despite the noise of headwind and traffic around me. Perfect for the tougher medium stretch; motivational pulses and grooves.
  • D’Angelo – Brown Sugar; also well produced, a good contrast to the Dirtyloops and I needed to check this one out anyway.

There were some more motivational issues. For example there was from the beginning on for roughly 70km always that blue patch of sky in front of me that I never seemed to reach and instead was constantly exposed to rain. I think the bad weather and me moved eastwards at the exact same pace meaning my timing was really bad. Also, already after a few kilometers the road signs to StPb jumped up to 165 km as opposed to 115 km but changed back again.

One other element was new to me, btw: usually I place great importance on knowing exactly where I am; within a confidence of, say, about 3 km. The paper map that I had bought in Riga was not helpful at all though: names of places only in cyrillic, very unclear colourscheme and lacking road numbers. My GPS is also not very helpful at placing myself precisely in the grand scheme of the day’s route. So this was a rare occasion of floating freely and blindly, completely giving and exposing myself to the road and the route and the road signs to St.Pete. All I could do was have faith in my eventual arrival at the entry signs of St.Pete and pedal for the movement of the moment only.

It took a long time and I think I endured it quite bravely, safely and efficiently. When the signs indicated “40km” the sky started clearing; I kept the rain jacket on because it seemed more airodynamic and also produced the perfect skin climate in this instant. The following short clip serves as a snapshot of the situation:

40km is also the distance at which I can switch to a different motivational mode, namely the one of counting down the kilometers. Sometimes I count them in units of 13km because that’s the circumference of my hometown lake Baldeney See that we used to cycle around when I was little. 3 lakes left… 2 lakes left… 1 lake left… At some point I reached the edge of St. Petersburg.

HELL YEAH!!!


And just about 2km later I saw the first signs of a metropolitan area, namely this arch on a roundabout that reminded me – given the day I had and state I was in – of a welcoming port to heaven:


As you can see, by this time I regained the motivation to take pictures. After all I thought it would only be a matter of maybe 20 minutes to arrive at the B&B I had booked.

Wrong. It took me another 1 1/2 hours. I completely underestimated how huge St. Petersburg is. For example, soon after that arch I entered a very urban, fancy looking, residential area that made me think I was already in the center and made me wonder why there would be no industrial or cheaper residential belt I’d have to cross before reaching the wider core of the city. But these belts came soon. Luckily I could stay on that one road without caring too much about navigation and turns, unluckily the road turned into a real(!) highway in a smooth transition.

When the highway part was over, it was a more urban main road with a vibe like this:


In this video you can faintly see some enormous apartment buildings in the background towering over the city like utopian lighthouses or corners of a fortress that is too big to see. I regret I didn’t take any photos of that majestic view. A little while later the first buildings appeared that much closer resembled my vague preconception about St.Pete:

In a separate city-post I will provide some true city shots though.
To wrap the whole thing up: with the help of google maps (previously downloaded the right excerpt for offline use) I soon arrived at the B&B that I had reserved in the morning in Narva. 

Wow… Narva… felt so far away already. I had really arrived in a different world and a different time.

Unbelievable.


Mini-Epilogue

Just one picture from the window at my B&B. It is situated right at the big and central Fontanki Embankment. A warm, clean room after that day; you can imagine I was very much at peace.

The city is so grand and rich that it will receive a separate post later. For now – I guess you agree – you have read enough.


04 Riga – Valga (EST) (190k) – Narva (275k) “Winds of Change”

This post will cover 2 days at once, namely my ride from Riga up to Narva in Estonia at the Russian border. Here I will mostly describe the trip chronological. Especially the second and longer of these two days had some serious motivational challanges.

The last day to St. Petersburg will be addressed later in a separate blog post since that day and ride had a couple of noteworthy features that owe in part to the Russian “cycling culture and environment” and to the meaning of St.Pete for my tour.

  • Riga (LTV) -> Valga (EST), 190km
  • Valga -> Narva (EST), 275km

FYI: Valga is just across the Estonian border. Narva is still in Estonia at the Russian border. 

Stage 4: Riga – Valga, 190km

I had previously decided to skip Tallinn. A) because that would save me some miles and give me more time in St. Petersburg while also lowering the daily distances, and B) because the tales from multiple independent sources suggested that Tallinn might not be my kind of place; touristy, a bit artificial and theme-park-like. Not my thing. It might be a too early judgment and I might be wrong, but it was nice to skip it without any fear of missing out. The plan was now to get to Narva at the Russian border within two days. These kinds of plans spanning multiple days mean: the more km I make today, the less I need to run down tmrw.

The previous day I had a very good free day in Riga. But remember: I had two rides before that where I skipped one night each. If you want to know how that happened, you find it in my previous posts. Consequently I was tremendously tired and the two nights and free day in Riga didn’t fully suffice for me to feel really fresh again. The exhaustion had accumulated.

Consequently I got going quite late on that Friday 8th of July. It was probably already after noon when I was really on the road, which meant that I already pushed some of the km burden onto the next day.
What postponed my departure a little, too, was that I still wanted to pass by at a bike store to buy a certain cablelock to complement the lock that I had with me anyway. If I would go camping I’d feel better to have the bike as safe as possible. I checked the day before the availability of what I needed. Fantastic: this shop turned out to be the only bicycle manufactury in the entire balticum! Check them out: Erenpreiss. They make beautifully classical looking city bikes. On top of that, the mechanic in the workshop spoke perfect German, with an Austrian accent and explained to me the history of the enterprise.

Luckily I found one route leading me straight east out of Riga without wasting any time on searching my way through the maze of an industrial belt that is the common shell of so many large cities. The day before I picked up a cycling tourist map in the Tourist information and loosely followed the “bicycle routes” which were not any different from regular country roads. First towards the beautifully sounding “Sigulda“. The landscape for the first time turned into something new; wilder, more softwood, swamps next to forests. That fun was quickly over: From Sigulda I took a long and tedious Highway stretch towards Smiltenes, that contained many (literal) ups and downs and poor pavement at times. Shortly before I decided to divert onto a side route through the country; this time it went well… The pavement was medium/ok but I saved some kilometers and had a very scenic ride; in fact the most scenic science shortly after Piła. Through green and yellow fields, cute, sometimes Scandinavian looking farm houses,  and all that with a warm, slowly setting sun.

Baby-Storks in Latvia
Baby-storks in Latvia
Estonian border in Valga/Valka
the obligatory border-pic
All in all I had a very smooth ride. I spent almost all of the day in lower grip (so: the lower “racing” position on the handlebar) and finished the ride in Valga because it was getting dark and I promised myself not to do another nightshift again. Strange… By now 190km/day feels like a “shorter ride” or definitely like something that will not take my last breath. That’s how the perspective changed over the years and I certainly didn’t become fitter physically. Cycling long distances is 75% mental work. I know it sounds super worn out, but it’s true and I could go on for long about te “how”
I didn’t take pictures of any of that day, but one video that might confer some of the feel (sry for the noise)




Stage 5: Valga – Narva, 275km

So, I knew already that I had left 275km to get to Narva. Sure, very long, but the night before I thought it is just another challenge and I’ll handle it, like I did others in the past.

That morning it looked differently: I got up at about 6.30am put myself into my gear and hit the road. I ate one banana and wanted to do some km before breakfast. I can tell you I was not into cycling whatsoever and every km felt like a huge effort of willpower. I checked the route: A3 (highway) all day. At least the first km I wanted to do on a side road; baaad choice: one road that looked like a solid country road turned out to be just sand and gravel. So bad that I didn’t even notice it to be the right way and took a wrong road for that reason. So I lost time. After a lot of effort and 50km of riding I reached the town of Otepää, went to a supermarket and bought feast of a breakfast! Have you ever had 4 Kinder Maxiking, 2 Bananas, two big pizza-bread rolls, a chocolate croissant an energy gel for breakfast? It was a big party. And I had plenty in stock for the rest of the day. 

After this long break the next intermediate goal was Tartu, a bigger city which the guy from the bike shop recommended me to visit (student city). Now with some food intus, it went smoother, but still: I didn’t feel like cycling. To be honest, I imagined how great this whole tour would be with a convertible..; open roof, effortless transport, stepping out of the car into the scenery once in a while to stop at a farmer at the side of the road to buy some berries, watch a church or swim in a lake. Instead I had to get those km done. In fact at that point I very specifically considered taking one more day until St.Pete and stopping somewhere before Narva; maybe wild camping in the woods. I even already thought about how I would phrase that decision in this blog.

So, now that I “decided” to make a shorter one today, the pressure and fear of the distance was gone. I would cycle as far as I get.

I arrived in Tartu at some point. What a city!! I will return some day with more time. When I arrived the city was packed: there was a triathlon going on that Saturday and a big street market/festival, too!

Triathlon in Tartu
hundreds of high-end racing machines in Tartu. a very different approach to cicling. fascinating!
street market and festival in Tartu
street market and festival in Tartu

From Tartu I had the choice to either take the highway or take a detour along the Lake Peipus. I checked before on Streetview: that pavement of the alternative route seemed fine. But given my (lack of) cycling motivation I took the highway towards Mustvee. There I met Karl-Heinz. A pensioned museum architect who was on a ride from Riga to Murmansk for an indefinite amount of time. These are the moments where I wish I had less ambitious goals in terms of where to be in the eve. It would have been great to go camping with Karl-Heinz; he certainly would have had stories to tell, what a character.
Karl-Heinz , who I met in Mustvee
Karl-Heinz , who I met in Mustvee
Btw: we decided to keep in contact, but I think he underestimated the difficulty of finding him on facebook. So, if you know a cycling museum architect named Karl-Heinz Koch from Thüringen, let me know!!

Karl-Heinz did cycle the alternative route along the Lake, btw. His judgment: horrible roads. For once my pavement decision was a success.

I continued, swinging from one village to the next (they mostly have only names, but sometimes not a single house!). I decided: Jõhvi will be the goal of the day, saving me 45km from Narva and making this a 230km day. So, I checked booking.com, checked for campsites and sent a couple of last minute messages to couchsurfers. And while waiting for responses, I used all my motivational repertoire to get me there; a standard situation. But I arrived in Jõhvi. No couchsurfers had replied,  hotels and campsites scarce. Time for the evening boost. It’s a phenomenon that I experienced many times: that as soon as the hard work is done, suddenly there’s energy and motivation coming from within your body and gets higher targets back in the game. At first I thought: let’s do some more km towards Narva and find a campsite or a spot for wild camping on the way. But then: the more of the 45 km to Narva I did, the more I thought I can then just as well do the rest; that’s when the motivation and power increase(!) with distance. I ran down those last 45km with ease. On the way I arranged a cheap and comfortable stay (20€ Couchsurfing, very lovely landlady) that would give me the rest I need for the last bit the. Next day to St. Petersburg.

I even had time to do an elaborate selfie for my colleagues (pants and shirt bear our company logo):


I arrived around 23h, showered, and went next door to the restaurant with the two yellow inverted parabolas to have a huge menu.

So, against all odds and my lack of motivation, I managed to nail these 275km. And with much more confidence (don’t want to say “ease”) than I did before, e.g. when compared to my first touring day to Piła (PL) (285km). I was in Narva and there was NO way I wouldn’t manage the last day to St. Petersburg (planned: 204km) the next day.


Again, the garminwas not always activated, hence the difference.



How the St. Petersburg ride went? A couple of serious and noteworthy obstacles! I will tell you in a separate post

03 Kaliningrad – Riga (402k) “Paved New World”

I did a second day/night/day shift that allowed me to be in Riga on schedule. But required me to ask myself some questions about this whole tour as well as the route to St. Pete (see RECAP at the end). I’ll address my perception of entering 3 to me previously unknown countries in 2 days as well as my cockpit.



This post will be in chronological order, but interspersed with some associated thoughts and topics here and there; maybe even one or the other pathetic pun or awesome alliteration.

Die Startsaffäre (<- pathetic pun.)

So, as you know, I stopped my previous “day” ride not in Klaipeda as intended, but instead decided to stay in a hotel in Zelenogradsk (Kaliningrad), 110km before Klaipeda. The next morning (when I posted the previous update) it rained heavily, the forecast was horrible and I assumed I’d have two monster days ahead. However, 30min later it cleared up and the world looked and stayed like this:

I had a clear goal when I departed Zelenogradsk: Being in Riga the next evening ( = 36h later). How Exactly I’d devide the distance I didn’t know yet and just got going. Pretty late, around noon. Very motivated: slept enough, ate enough and indulged in using my clean second set of cycling clothes; heavenly!

Between Zelenogradsk (RUS) and Klaipeda (LIT) there is a land connection on a thin stretch of land that spans the entire distance  (100km) and is only max 2km wide. So it is one pretty long, quite straight road with hardly and villages on the side. It made me think of a ‘laboratory environment’ for cyclists, because here I could really cycle through without interruptions for navigation or traffic lights.

It basically all looked like this:

The whole thing is a nature reserve and you have to pay a few rubles to be allowed in.

I underwent a couple of passport checks again and an alibi-look into my backpack and then I was allowed to pass the 3rd country border on my trip and meet the second country I have never visited before. Hello Lithuania!


Behind the border in Lithuania, but still on that stretch of land there’s Nida, a holiday town with excellent icecream! After that there’s a perfect bike path! 

[photo] the last few meters of the bike bath were less well paved but the more beautiful. Later I also passed a fascinating birdwatching area and might post a video some time.


In fact, while in Kaliningrad (RUS) the roads were all cracked and bumpy, as soon as I crossed the boarder the pavement made it feel like being carried on a conveyor belt. Hence the title “paved new world”. Most importantly I wanted to get this ingenious pun out there. I mean, I had 402km time to make it up! But then there’s also truth to it. I’d like to quote two Lithuanians I spoke to: as soon as the Baltic states were liberated from the Soviet Union, the infrastructure started to redevelop. At the latest with the advent of Lithuania’s EU-membership, a lot of subsidies went into building roads. I could go on now dreaming about the advantages and beauty of a united Europe; could even declare my entire tour as a symbolic act for the European unity and solidarity; but that would make this post even longer.

In Klaipeda I had an early dinner together with Andrius. Andrius would have been my Couchsurfing host for the previous night; since I didn’t arrive we decided to at least share my dinner break.


It was time to move on. I was just at about 100km. The perfect road conditions inspired me to go on until I’m too exhausted. Then, so I thought, I’d put up my tent and get some sleep. I didn’t. The further I got, the more tired I was, the more I was craving to be in bed and in Riga, the less I wanted to postpone my arrival by camping. So: because I was tired I didn’t want to sleep. Yes, that makes sense.

I went through the night, at some point still looking for a place to camp, but a dog that chased me off some open terrain was my message to go on.

My light: the beam is just amazing. You still see the 100m away post lighting up.


At some point in the morning I crossed the second boarder on that ride. Good morning Latvia!


Already shortly before this modest border the roads started to get bumpier and so did my mood. The hours shortly before the common waking time are the worst. Additionally I ran out of food making me feel incredibly weak. I clearly overestimated the population- and thus gas-station-density in the border region. So all I could do was to go on another 40km to the town Saldur on an empty stomach and dead tired.

Once in Saldur, I fueled up again, bought breakfast, had a short nap in a hidden park until I got woken up by a wet kiss from the clouds, found a bathroom… All that takes quite a while. At some point, maybe 10 or 11 am, I was good to go and hit the last… 120km on a highway. I new what to expect. The navigation was simple (“stay on the A9 for 120km”) so it was time for the

Soundtrack of the day:

Weather Report:

  • Black Market
  • Domino Theory
  • Mysterious Traveler. 

3 full albums. Perfect battle music for that fight against poor pavement, trucks next to me, an endless road, hills. And also I always felt I never listened enough to Weather Report.
[photo] This is how it roughly looked for many hours (only more traffic usually). I always rode on that little strip between the marking and gravel. Only when the pavement was bad, I tried to cycle where the truck tires massaged the concrete to that smooth skatepark-feel.


On these roads I’d be completely lost without my rear mirror. It gives me so much peace of mind.

And while we’re at it, why not introduce my entire 

Cockpit: roughly from left to right:

  1. Rear mirror. It is small but works perfectly! I wouldn’t want to de without anymore.
  2. Garmin Edge Explore 1000. GPS. Since I didn’t follow my digitally planned routes anymore I now use it mostly as a compass and tracking device. It completely failed navigating me into Riga. Disappointing.
  3. Sigma cycle computer. Gives the most accurate and instant information about current speed which is handy for May purposes. Also, it’s battery lasts a year. Use it also as a clock and hardly ever check the distance
  4. Cycle2Charge USB outlet that I connected to the dynamo. I use it only when I really run out of battery to charge my power bank or phone directly.
  5. BELL. This is absolutely crucial.
  6. Remote control for the Garmin. Sounds rediculous but makes lots of sense since it has tactile buttons and I don’t want to swipe on that Garmin touchscreen. Very handy in the rain.
  7. Paper map. An absolute must! Never without!
  8. On the top tune you see a little square. This can hold my waterproof smartphone case. It’s handy when I use google maps in a city

If you have questions, let me know!


That moment when… You can change to the page of the map that contains your destination:


And a bridge:

Slowly traffic (trucks and cars) got denser as I got closer to Riga. This is globally not what I like, but one great effect is that the vehicles passing so closely next to me created an air draft strong enough to carry me at roughly 40km/h for a while.

It was a real pain in the to get from outside Riga into the center region. I couldn’t believe it at first but then followed the advice of 3 different people I asked: I had to cycle on a Highway. Not a small one! A PROPER one, namely this one:


Around that time a thunderstorm started and I got completely soaked. But I didn’t care, just wanted to arrive. And I did:


From there it still took a while to reach the real center, there to find electricity charge my phone to find a hotel and then get there. But around 19h on Wednesday the 6th of July I was there.

402 km in those past 32 hours.

Again, my Garmin didn’t record it all because I didn’t notice the battery died in between.




RECAP
There were some things for me to consider: It took me 5 days from Berlin to Riga. I have to say I am happy about this result. But at the same time: what did I gain from it? I mean: I dot to this route for the cycling. I do it for the feeling of arrival. When cycling through the nights, doing 400+km in a row without a serious break (like a nights rest) the ratio of cycling to arrival is out of balance. I have to change my approach for the rest of the tour and take it easier and maintain the rhythm of cycling during the day and enjoying the rest and the location where I am in the evening. As a result I decided to skip Tallinn. I will instead to two moderate 200km-rides from Riga to the Russian boarder at the Baltic Sea and the one more day to st. Petersburg. I will camp, and hopefully find time to read the book I brought:

Brave New World


I will make a separate post for some Riga photos.

02 Piła – Zelenogradsk (428k) “Nightrider”

Piła is in the middle of Poland. Zelenogradsk is in Kaliningrad, Russia (its little exclave at the Baltic Sea). That’s where I am now, on Tuesday, 5th of July. It is 8.30am and I just had a good nights rest. “But… Zelenoxhskavhj was not on your list in blog post 00!” – yes, my dear reader; plans changed (see below) and will change (as you will read later).

Why not start with a summarizing, informative list again:

  • Unexpectedly I ended up doing one continuous trip spanning 2 days; because I was too tired. I’ll explain.
  • I also cycled through the night without really sleeping. That’s a first for me.
  • Mostly these 2 days were not fun. But a valuable lesson none the less.
  • Before, I was hosted by an amazing(!!!) Polish couple in Piła.
  • And now back to some sad fact: it’s raining right now here in Zelenogradsk – heavily.

Let’s better go in chronological order; that also allows us to start on a very positive note: 

Agnieszka and Piotr


They hosted me via couch surfing. Coincidentally it was their first hosting and my first guest experience. They have this rare and valuable mix of being very caring in a very relaxed way – such modern and thorough hospitality. As the loyal blog reader will know (well, up until now you only must have read 2 posts to deserve the predicate “loyal”!) my first touring day was very wet, muddy, tiring, long. What do you wish for when you’re back? Shower, bread and cheese, a good polish beer (Piotr, what’s the brand again?), a safe place for your machine, tea, a bed and good company. Well, that worked out! Thanks, you two!

Very interesting personalities, too! Agnieszka seems to have an even stronger aversion against church and religion than me (apparently possible) and expressed that in the shades of the darkest humor possible; which I will only quote upon request. Piotr is really(!) crazy: he does ultra marathons. 100km in 17 hours – running; can you believe that!?!

He gave me some tips about nutrition – a domain I have a lot to learn about – and generously supplied me with gels and Iso-drinks which you will find on a picture below.

The cycling

The good company of Agnieszka and Piotr didn’t exactly push me to leave until 10 am. And then I really felt the previous day in my skin and bones. Not so much specific pain – except for the “abdominal domain”; where I can say: that pain was very specific – but rather a general tiredness that led me to do many breaks and eating a lot.

One good thing: on on of those breaks I also met my new best friend Hotdog man (see picture below). He actually had 5 hotdogs, but was willing to share these 2 with me. Thank you.


I went on. Stop and go. The conditions were excellent, sunny and a light breeze from north east ( = hitting me from the left). The goal of the day was Elblag at the Baltic Sea, shortly before Kaliningrad, where I planned to find a campsite somewhere. The day distance would have been ca. 240km. 

At the river Vistula:


But I quickly realized that – if at all – I would arrive very late in the evening which later became ‘night’ (and would finally become morning. see below). The hours of cycling and a couple of breaks went by. At some point I arrived in a city called Grudziadz; ca.21h and up till then I only made 160km. Completely exhausted. I spent a while at a bus stop contemplating the options:

  • Putting an end to that day immediately and finding a ho(s)tel here in Grudziadz. Thereby ruining the schedule. Also on a global scale: I have 2 (max 3) weeks time and prefer having my stopovers in Riga, Tallin, St.Pete instead of Grudziadz (no offense, people of Grudziadz)
  • Going on until Elblag and having a day of rest. This would have a similar outcome as Option one.
  • Seriously going on as far as I can – now; having my first night riding experience and probably doing more km in a row than I had ever before. Here the fact that I’d use the night would make it more relaxed: the additional time would allow me for a lower pace and more breaks.

So, option 3 it was. I went on to the next gas station – gas stations are always my lifeline on tours – and bought:

  • 1 coffee for immediate consumption
  • 2×0,5l of isotonic drinks
  • 4 big chocolate bars
  • One energy drink for immediate consumption (not that I believe in the miracles of red bull and the like. But maybe I was desperately seeking the placebo)

And then I went off, heading northwards. Originally, in google maps, I had planned a beautiful route along the river. No time for such sentimentality now (here belongs a twinkle smiley): I hit route 55 – proper pavement guaranteed, easy to navigate, no km wasted on detours.

Gear

It was already dark. Time to tryout my new lighting gear again (see gear). Since it was dry now, the headlight worked perfectly. So strong I could almost imagine it to be enough even on a car. I wanted to keep my Garmin GPS running and my power bank was running low. So, time to test the next gadget: before the tour I also connected a USB socket to the dynamo and to my stearing tube. It worked: light and USB charging at the same time. I found the additional drag negligible in the face of its advantage.

My bike worked very well, too. Even though it went through very bad conditions on the ride before, I just had to apply some chain lube and the bike felt great again.

Only gear issue I had: I should have bought those long leggings in M instead of L.

And on it goes…

Here’s another photo from a gas station. That was at 00:48am


I noticed I was getting really tired. Falling asleep while cycling doesn’t usually turn out well (never tried). So I went to a bus stop to have a nap; that was the idea. The bench: two wooden planks, each ca 15cm wide and a big gap in between. Sounds comfy! Additionally: wet cold air, the yellow light from a street light, trucks passing by a few meters next to me, each saperated from each other by the number of minutes it would take me to actually fall asleep. I don’t think I could imagine any situation less suited for sleeping (maybe “impaled in Disneyland” is worse. That’s the kind of metaphors that pop up in a numb cyclists mind at 1:30am on the road).

45 minutes later: MIRACLE!! I woke up from the sleep I didn’t have. Feeling kind of ok. Good to go on. So I did. These 45min of semi-napping actually helped!

The sky was already lighting up a little from the yet to come sunrise. Soon the landscape became more interesting, too: the road curvier, the forest opening up, and I could earn the downhill rides I was working for all night (by going uphill). 

[photo] Somewhere. Downhill (towards the Baltic Sea)


And slowly approach Elblag (yes, even though I cycled through the night I was still not there in the morning)


And then at some point I arrived at Elblag. I have to say: it didn’t seem like an interesting or beautiful place. But the phantasy of it being a nice little town that would invite me to have an extensive breakfast and coffee served as a good motivational tool.

Instead I lay down on a bench in a park. The sun already high up and warm. I lay there for about an hour and might have slept some part of that. Coordinates: ca. 7.30am, 235km behind me. That I made much more than that 1 1/2 days earlier in the rain, shows how tired I was on this second track, and is the reason for that tiredness at the same time.

But the idea was to go on.

So I went to the next…? Gas station; correct. To again fuel up my bike with water, chocolate bars and iso drinks and get some fresh water in my face.

[photo] Somehow I liked this view. I wonder: what does it mean that the colour style of my bottles matches the colour of the car wind screen cleaner in the background so perfectly?


So, ready to go; kind of. My ass hurt, and by now there’s no way any metaphor or all audiences-term would serve it any better.

Let’s have a list again. The ranking of the day: 

Body parts that hurt most:

2. arms (yes, unexpected)

3. legs/knees

Alright. So now some up and downhill riding, seeing the Baltic Sea for the first time this trip, somewhere in the distance. Then.. 

The Russian border

My passport got checked at 3 stops, the last check took over 5 minutes. Very thorough, apparently. No idea. And here is the third of three border controls as seen from the Kaliningrad side; I didn’t shoot it from a nicer angle, because I remember authorities don’t like their official buildings photographed so much:


And I went on and on, grabbing some food in a supermarket. Of course the language and letters are completely alien to me, so I judged by the pictures what I bought…

I slowly approached Kaliningrad city. What a mess, I have to say: pretty run down, dusty, chaotic.  But then, I only took the most pragmatic route through it and probably (hopefully) missed some nicer parts. After fighting myself through that jungle, or beehive of cars, the last battle of the day began: cycling up North on open roads against strong wind. Tired. Exhausted. The idea was to get to Klaipeda. Another 150 from here.

At some point I arrived in Zelenogradsk which is at the beginning of some 120km-long, thin stretch of land that leads to Klaipeda. Usually it works like this: I am tired and exhausted and feel I couldn’t do any additional mile. Then I eat a hamburger and fries and drink a coke and subsequently feel like I was new-born: yay yay hooray, let’s do the next 150k!

So, I ate hamburger, fries and drank a coke; in line with the above mentioned revival-recepy. And then: Nothing. Still as exhausted, aching legs, butt, arms, body. 30 min later still the same. I got the message. Time to find wifi to find a cheap hotel and call my couch surfing host in Klaipeda that I will not be able to arrive anymore that day.

It was then 18.30h I was on the road for 35 hours and my cycling computer counted 428 km, 1.600m accumulated altitude.

Number of the day: 3 (times I lubed my bike chain).


Epilogue:

I went to the hotel, managed to convince the lady at the desk to allow me to take my bike up into the room. A shower, putting out my things to dry that were still wet from the first touring day (1,5 days ago). Then went for a walk, ordered food and wine which were both so bad that I had to return them immediately, back to the hotel, typing some of this post and while doing that falling asleep. Heaven.


Now it is the day after. My legs hurt in a normal way. And the next challenge: it is raining heavily and will stay like this until tomorrow eve. So, here (photo below) I’m planning deviations from the planned route. In any case I want to be in Riga by tomorrow (Wednesday) evening. So I should make about 200k today. Maybe camp somewhere. Tomorrow the rain will be even heavier. Anyway there will be a new blog post to cover this.

Time to hit the road.

Unfortunately I forgot to press ‘record’ for the last kilometers. That’s why te Garmin shows less than the Sigma:

01 Berlin – Piła (284k) “Muddy Waters”


So, the tour started! After having my proper “last meal” together with my dear cousin Constanze, who hosted me in Berlin, I left the house at 5.45 am. Straight to the Brandenburger Tor to meet my good friend Katharina who decided to join me for the first stretch of the day. Great to start the adventure in company! As you see we celebrated our anticipated victory already!
After 70km Katharina headed back home and I continued. Not much later, at the polish border, it started raining… For the the rest of the day… Heavily.


The above picture was taken ca. 10km in Poland while I was in the process of learning the following lessons:

A) IF [(a road is not covered by street view) AND (under no circumstances Google will suggest it as a route) AND (even the official R1 bypasses it on a main road) = TRUE, THEN (it is probably a sandy mud and gravel road). Avoid! If it’s also raining: AVOID!!!11!!!

B) If your body is mainly made up of water and/or your bike is mainly made from metal, better do not cycle in a thunderstorm on an elevated dyke: it doesn’t make for a comfy ride. Especially when you’re in a remote location where no one except the crows would find your lightening-struck body.

Btw: instance A and B had the same time-space coordinates and vector.

C) bring enough tissues to clean your glasses in the rain.

D) be careful with who you share the shelter in case of rain. This might end up as trading the exposition to rain for the exposition to a xenophobic rant by some stump-toothed Brandenburger grandma.

List of the day: The layers on my head:

  1. Bandana
  2. Glasses
  3. Rain cap
  4. Helmet

Soundtrack of the day: (links will follow)

  • Joshua Redman Elastic Band – Yaya cubed
  • Mezzoforte – Anniversary Edition (yes! There are good reasons for this choice!)
  • Nate Wood – Another Time

Sometimes I like music on my ears on long stretches and when I need a distraction from exhaustion. Of course always: safety first.

Gear issues: Apparently the B&M IQ-X lamp was not designed to stand a day of rain. It failed often and quickly and only sometimes came back to life. Very disappointing. Also: the mount doesn’t keep the lamps position when riding on more bumpy roads. Had to use my emergency light. Luckily the backlight still worked like a charm. Also: when it’s working the IQ-X gives unimaginably strong lightning (<- that was freudian)

Here are some more visual impressions of the day – in chronological order:


00 BERLIN-HELSINKI

Hell yeah, I can’t wait starting my tour!!

Apparently you somehow found your way to this blog; and I’m glad to have you as a follower. When traveling alone it’s nice to know that this way I can at least share some elements of the hopefully unforgettable experiences I’ll make. If you have any questions, just drop me a line. And if you’re interested, follow this blog by mail (see right column) or on my facebook page.

Setup Berlin Helsinki bike tour July 2016. cyclingtourist
Setup Berlin Helsinki bike tour July 2016. Enough for a 3-week autarky regarding my whereabouts.

Today is June 30th in 2016. In 2 days I’ll start my highlight of this year: A bicycle tour from Berlin to Helsinki via Poland, the 3 Baltic states and Russia. So, I’ll pass through 7 countries all in all. The distance until Helsinki will be roughly 2.300 km. We’ll see if I’ll manage to stick with the following itenary. Some of these day-distances are longer than anything I’ve done before.

1 Berlin (GER) -> Pila (POL) (266km)
2 Pila -> Elblag (POL) (204km)
3 Elblag -> Klaipeda (LIT) (242km)
4 Klaipeda -> Riga (LAT) (337km) (maybe 2 days)
5 Riga -> Tallinn (EST) (319km)
6 Tallinn -> Nerva (241km)
7 Nerva -> St. Petersburg (RUS) (214)
8 St. Petersburg -> Torfyonovka (198km)
9 Torfyonovka -> Helsinki (FIN) (196km)
[10 Helsinki -> Pori (maybe) (240km)]

Bildschirmfoto 2016-06-30 um 03.19.00

I intend to update this blog on a daily basis with a new post that will cover the trip of that day and the things that I came across. Next to the “soft” aspects of a cycling day, I also want to deliver some slightly more technical information from time to time for those who are interested in the more formal execution of my touring.

Preparation

This is an introductory post that should also contain some information about the preparation of my tour. And as you can imagine such a trip requires a lot of preparation and antecedents. They can be mainly categorized into:

  1. why?
  2. geography
  3. gear
  4. visa

Since it is late in the evening now and I still have plenty of things to sort out the coming two days I will not be able to write about it in too much detail now. I might add a post some time (e.g. beginning of August). But here are brief answers for the meantime:

1. The idea. why?

I don’t know enough about our Eastern European neighbours and countries. And what I do know stems either from the media or from many non-representative individuals who I got to know over the years (“non-representative” = mostly Jazz-musicians… hardly allows me to draw broader conclusions I guess, hah). This holds in particular for Russia. So, I thought the best way to overcome preconceptions (positive or negative) and knowledge-/experience-gaps is to just go. Doing it by bike is a given; there’s no better way to closely approach unfamiliar terrain.

2. Planning the geography

I recently accquired a GPS device (see gear). So my workflow was to
a) plan the route on google maps and making extensive use of street view to figure out if the pavement is good enough (btw: Germany lags so far behind on streetview! Russia and the Balticum know how to do it). The goal was to avoid highways.
b) after knowing the route I created it again in mymaps.google (apparently there’s no interface between maps and mymaps)
c) From there I exported each day trip as a .kmz file.
d) On gpsies.com I converted the kmz into a .gpx-track
e) then imported the .gpx in Garmin BaseCamp.
f) from there I loaded it onto my Garmin device.

z)
additionally I bought paper maps (1:300.000) until/incuding Estonia and will restock for Russia and Finland when I’m there. (why paper maps? see here)

Sounds like a straight-forward process. It wasn’t. I switched forth and back between all those platforms. For example: Originally I had planned to skip Russia alltogether, simply because I wanted to avoid all the visa hassle (glad I changed my mind). So I intended to go via Vilnius and catch a ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. As soon as I was convinced to go through Russia and managed to organize a visa, I changed my route to go through Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg. That also extended the whole endeavor by 30%.

Of course figuring out how to use the Garmin, the BaseCamp Software, the file formats for tracks, where to get digital maps and how to install them and all those technical things also cost a LOT of time and help from various forums with very helpful fellow cyclists.

3. Sorting out the gear

This is the first trip on my new Cyclocross Bike. Last year when I ordered it at Rose, I chose all the components to exactly fit a tour like this one (see gear). I had one year to get to know my new bike. So no open issues there. But there were some items still to sort out:

a) GPS-device. As described in the gear-section, my desire to have an electronic compass quickly escalated to the “need” for a high-end GPS device. Lots of research and a visit at a bikestore let me to the purchase of a Garmin Edge Explore 1000.

b) On this tour there are some day distances that will require me to cycle in the dark or at night. I had no desire to rely on battery lamps but wanted to be sure I have good lights available whenever needed. However, installing a dynamo hub was no option. There seems to be only one alternative on the market, namely rim dynamos by Velogical Engineering who are by coincidence located in Cologne (my place of residence). They were extremely helpful in finding the perfect solution for my purposes and were willing to answer all my questions about the infinite technical options around energy generation and lights. Also choosing the right light required lots of research. In the end I even installed a USB-charger that is powered by the Velogical dynamo; I will find out during the tour how it will perform. The light is incredible though and works very well! (did a test ride). In any case I do not have to rely on electricity sockets anymore which is in line with one of the things that fascinate me most about cycling tours: independence.

4. Getting a Russian visa

Russian visa
Russian visa (sensitive data erased). Yesssss, quite some effort, but I guess it’ll pay off

While especially St. Petersburg has been on my bucket list for a while, I originally didn’t want to be bothered with all the visa bureaucracy. Especially since obviously I cannot plan my dates of arrival for sure and also not book hotels in advance. However, my desire to see Russia and thus add an additional adventure-component to my trip grew during the past months. In the end I did it. In summary: getting a visa is a lot of work when you’re not travelling the standard way. It cost me a lot of time to figure out what visum I need, what documents are required, where to get an invitation, requesting all the documents, where to apply for it, applying, picking it up, etc… So: If you somehow ended up on this blog because you plan a bike trip yourself and wonder how to get a visa: contact me! It might save you a lot of time!

Let’s go!

Let’s now focus on the tour itself. I hope you’ll have as much fun as I expect from this tour. (yes, very diplomatic phrasing here… no warranties. oh and: no twinkle smileys on this entire blog, btw. Hope this is not too confusing nowadays. I might indulge in a “haha” once in a while though 😉 (oh, a twinkle-smiley)).