Dec 31, 2011

facts of life: far from over

The Ride has come to a full stop. Or has it?

Certainly not for the next couple of days. Everybody has some time to spend here in St P. We have a few more activities planned, our friend Mario is also visiting - nice to meet the Serbs at the end, again - and there is A LOT of packing up to do.

Certainly not for me, either. Boris needs to go back home, and so does a considerable number of bikes and assorted equipment. I have two more weeks ahead of me, and might just crack the 10000 km barrier.

Certainly not for the project, while we're at it. This particular part of the project is over, and right on schedule, but now there is some serious follow-up to do, including our upcoming Closing Conference. And then, who knows? Everybody who has experienced this already knows there is no leaving RFYR.

The future holds many interesting things happening mostly on bikes. The Ride never stops.

special profile: the fixies

Along the way, we've been very fortunate to have cycling communities and activists by our side, with their unconditional support that made so many things possible for us. The fixies were among the first on board.

They kept their promise, they were with us every step of the way, hooked us up with anything we needed and showed us the best time in St P. Here's our modest tribute to the greatest crew!


day 75 - Saint Petersburg

Day 75
September 15th

Rise and shine in St P. After successfully completing the Ride of our lives, we had some closing to do. We had the morning off, which was only fair, and got up to spend the day in official matters. We met Prof Ehmann, from Campus Europae, who congratulated us our accomplishments, and had a nice lunch before the afternoon session.

We came to the Saint Petersburg Higher School of Economics for the closing ceremony. Greeted by the Director Advisor and introduced to our fellow students, we set up the GoCycle and began the session.

We had an extensive workshop, which addressed the question of active participation of students in civil society and Higher Education. The discussions were based on participation of students in the university life and decision-making processes (presentation by Professor C. Ehmann, Secretary General of EUF-CE), project management of extra-curricular activities (presentation by Yelena Belokurova, Deputy Director of the German and European studies centre from St. Petersburg State University), opportunities that the EVS programme provides for Young Europeans (presentation by Aigulle Sembaeva, coordinator at the “Deutsche-Russischer Austausch”), examples of student projects (by Tatiana Tsueva, Director Advisor of Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg) and as well an example of student self-organisation in Russia (by Viktor Vorobrov, Head of the Independent Student Union of the Philology Faculty).

In the end, we had one last signing of the Bike of Honour, by the hand of the Director Advisor, and declared the Ride officially over.

As is usual, the closing ceremony is followed by a nice dinner, and ours was delicious. At the top floor of the hotel, with a magnificent view over the city, we gathered everyone around the table for one great meal, to thank all of the people who helped us come this far.

However, there was still one very important official visit to be conducted. After dinner, we went to visit our fixie friends at their Taiga space. There was no one who we'd rather spend this evening with, than with our Russian friends, who supported us, joined us, led us and welcomed us to St P.

facts of life: saw it with my own eyes

I was so exhausted after two and half months on the road that I wasn't even sure I could find the strength to celebrate. But seeing these people, who had come such a long way, had faced so many hardships and had experienced so many things, was something I was proud to witness.

This afternoon I saw a partial result of the project I've been working on for many months. We'll all need some rest to look at it from a safe distance, but it was an amazing thing, what happened here. Those smiles I saw were of happiness and pride. These people, and all the others that weren't here now, but were part of the group, had accomplished the impossible. They are examples of strength and determination.

That was a rare thing to see, and I'm glad I was there to see it.

day 74 - Zelenogorsk to Saint Petersburg

Day 74
September 14th

The morning of our final riding day, we packed up for riding one last time. The fixies - Gosha, Sasha, Masha and Pasha - came to pick us up, and we set off for the short stretch to St P. Escorted by Boris, causing chaos on the small road and stopping because of the unavoidable flats, we entered the city, stocked up on "celebration fuel" and headed to Dvortsovaya square.

We came to the front of the Winter Palace where we met the rest of the fixies who had come to welcome us. We popped open the bottles and we celebrated our unbelievable arrival.
After 11 weeks, having covered over 4800 km through 12 countries, and we made it to Saint Petersburg!

With heads held high and a huge weight off our shoulders, we went to our hostel, met our friend Svetlana who came all the way from Novi Sad by plane (not by bike, pity), sparked a small international diplomatic crisis and settled in. We could sleep a bit more tonight.

Stage O completed. Ride completed.

facts of life: myth and reality

I swear I've heard every horror story about Russia ever spoken. While I still hope I'll see a bear on a unicycle, there are a few myths I need to bust right away.

The border is a male dominated place, but I was controlled by as many female officers as male officers. And I was thoroughly controlled!

The drivers are crazy and careless, but somehow they show respect for the riders. Much more than in other places, generally considered as "more civilized".

Russians are aggressive, but they are without question some of the most friendly people I've ever met.

I guess the people telling these horror stories have never been to Russia. However, they should. Might open their eyes and their minds a little bit.

day 73 - Vyborg to Zelenogorsk

Day 73
September 13th

T'was a glorious Russian morning when we found out there was no electricity in the morning at the hotel. Of course we could still have showers, just as long as we had showers with very cold water and in the dark. So we gathered happily for breakfast and met our fixie guides, who would lead us to our next stop.

We took the main roads on advice from our guides, which meant Boris escort all the way. Oddly enough, Russian drivers are mostly crazy, but they actually care about cyclists, try to keep a safe distance (without ever slowing down) and were generally friendly towards the group.

We had a lunch break at a service station, trying all the specialties we could vaguely understand in Cyrillic, and it began to rain. Then we took a lesson in simplicity from the fixies. For just a couple of rainy days, there was really no need for fancy waterproof equipment...

Solving a couple of tire-related problems, we resumed riding. There were quite a few stops along the way, which only drew greater attention to our unusual group, but the fixies kept the rhythm and we made it to Zelenogorsk quite fast.

There, we found our dacha. We managed to fit everyone and their bikes, took up some cleaning and went out for dinner in town. Interacting with the locals was easier than we imagined, but even with the help of a dictionary, we have "eskalop" for every meal.

facts of life: welcome to our checkpoint

Customs control. Love those words. They take me back...

Not alarmed from being separated from the cyclists, whose presence would no doubt help to explain many things going on in the back of the van, I took care of my own paperwork before speaking to the customs officers. The paper pushing went well until something in the customs form raised a question in my mind. Trying to explain the officer my question, it felt like the right thing to do, to take him to Boris and slide the door open.

The horror. The sheer horror in his eyes. Priceless.

The officer called another officer, whose English was a bit better and whose problem solving skills were also above average. "Just write down 10", he said. Priceless.

Back in the building, another officer decides that was not the correct way to fill out the forms. A long sequence of phone calls ensued, half of which I witnessed, when I wasn't busy moving the car to the inspection site and letting another officer have fun with a small knife and all those nice boxes. Tricky's statuette was the first target.

At some point the officer uncovers a plastic zip-lock bag with white powder residue. Looking puzzled, she asks the owner of the bag "Hashish?" - that's when I burst out laughing. Priceless.

Meanwhile the officer in the building had commandeered translators among the people minding their own business, and eventually we all agreed to a solution that would fit the formalities and ease my way out of the country on the my way back South. Took a while to sign all those forms, though...

Outside, I recovered the van, everything packed neatly again, and crossed into Russia. About time. I've earned it.

day 72 - Imatra to Vyborg

Day 72
September 12th

The last morning in Finland was spent with careful preparations. Our unusual travel group would surely get some attention at the border and things are much easier when carrying the right documents. After breakfast and filing, we said goodbye to our hosts and moved on, scheduled to meet Boris just before the border.

Coming to the border crossing, we all stood in line, a pack of bikes jamming up the traffic. We were barely controlled exiting Finland, then proceeded to no man's land, quick stop for nature calls and then on to the Russian side.

Separated from Boris at the border control, we all took care of our paperwork, while Boris got checked at customs. We'd heard some horror stories about the checkpoints, but nothing scary came to be. Customs check included, we made it across in less than 2 hours.

Before resuming our journey, we got some rubles on our hands and realized communication would be much more interesting, since the phones weren't working properly, and when they did, they left us bankrupt. Having established contact with our local guides, we headed to Vyborg.

We met our guides from the Fixed Gear community from St P, who took us to the hotel in Vyborg. Again faced with language barriers, we made our point anyway and got installed in time for a next pizza and push-up dinner in town.

We've crossed the border and we're so close to our goal...

facts of life: autumn cleaning

I've always been surprised by the things I find in the back of Boris, but for tomorrow, we'll have none of that.

As we prepare to cross the border, everything must be ready for inspection. After all, the customs check will probably be thorough, considering the amount of crap we bring with us. Meanwhile, we can clean out the old food from all those boxes.

Tonight, we pack. Tomorrow, we double-check. Just in case.

day 71 - Savonlinna to Imatra

Day 71
September 11th

This morning our wonderful hosts prepared breakfast for us, including a generous amount of coffee, much needed for the challenge at hand. We packed up, said goodbye and headed to our last stop in Finland.

We had a lunch break about halfway, now facing the cold without warm food. We managed to bypass this problem with an instant barbecue set and Matt's metallurgy skills. Having salvaged the situation, the road awaited. We still made it to Imatra before dark.

In Imatra, we stayed at the Koskis Youth Club, a huge house with all sorts of spaces and equipment for any activity we could think of. Our host showed us around and explained that, even though the club caters to the needs of dozens of youth and elderly each day, it might be closed down because the land is too valuable. We're also riding for their right to keep this space open!

We settled in, had some warm vegetable soup, put the sauna to use and began preparing for the big moment: tomorrow's border crossing into Mother Russia.

facts of life: pure evil

As a group consisting mostly of dudes rode their bikes up the ramp and faced a welcoming party consisting mostly of gals, the look on some faces assumed hilarious proportions. When they were too tired to say yes to going out, I tried to keep my evil laughter to echo across the building.

I met Latvian students who keep a stash of Balzams at home. I'm so glad I'm didn't ride a bike today.

rider profile: Sari

Name: Sari Asikainen
Age: 23
From Finland
Studies: Teacher training

"Carpe diem"

day 70 - Joensuu to Savonlinna

Day 70
September 10th

The most feared day came, and we were all careful about it. Last night, most of the talks circled around the fact that today would be the longest stretch in the whole ride, and the record was already set pretty high. Since we had a new rider for the day, Sari, we could count on a local guide to help us. We met at UEF, said goodbye to our friends and began riding...

The roads were nice and peaceful, but the rain struck us with no mercy. We rolled all day through the forest, stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere, kept going, eventually realized we'd never make it before night. With one last break to enjoy the sunset, we switched to night riding mode and eventually came to Savonlinna. 156 km!

Waiting for us at the gym in Savonlinna were Tiago and Eeva, plus our local team who had been kind enough to prepare dinner for us. We also met exchange students and were repeatedly challenged to go out clubbing. We'd all like that, wouldn't we? But after beating the distance record, under these conditions, we could move no more. Sari went back home and we hit the hay, knowing that the hardest part was over. Russia is not far, now...