Thursday, 23 November 2017

Lunch in Red Square

This summer I fulfilled an ambition to return to Moscow by calling a #RideToEat in Red Square. Three UK riders crossed the channel separately on Monday heading for lunch in Moscow on Friday.
JB & Mike met up in Hannover, Germany that evening and I joined them for breakfast before setting off together to ride 700 miles to Suwalki, Poland. Sticking together over that distance proved challenging and many pretty villages were inspected along the way. The day finished with a welcome beer in the hotel bar.
The third day entailed a 285 mile route across Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to Ludza, just 20 miles from the Russian border. Here we met up with Phillipe from Switzerland for supper. Next morning Phillipe set off early to the border. Mike, JB & I had a leisurely breakfast then rode to the border where we met the fourth Brit, Phil. Three hours later we completed the crossing into Russia.
Our ride through open forest to Moscow was split at a roadside diner where a complete stranger acted as interpreter and also paid for our food. The Russians are a very hospitable people. On the outskirts of Moscow we were welcomed by a Russian Iron Butt rider who led us the most efficient route across town to our hotel and arranged overnight security for our bikes.
Friday was spent being tourists, exploring the city, lunching in Red Square and dining with a group of Russians who made us more than welcome.
Saturday started with an early morning ride across the city to be photographed with our bikes on Red Square. We then left, each riding at his own pace, towards the border. Mike & I stopped in Ludza Saturday night and on Sunday headed for Warsaw and beyond. We split up near Lodz and I spent my last night away in a small motel.
Rising early on Monday I calculated ETA at Calais, 850 miles, and booked a Chunnel. I arrived in Calais well ahead of schedule and caught a train almost immediately. Obviously when I emerged at Folkestone, despite having enjoyed clear, dry, sunny weather all day, driving rain stayed with me all the way home.

Days away from home: 7
Miles ridden: 3,940
Highest speed: 96mph
Shortest day: 285 miles
Longest day: 945 miles

More detailed report of this trip here.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Monica's Iron Butt

Just like to say a big thank you to Steve who let me go on the back of his bike for the RBLR 1000 miles this year.

I've marshalled the event three times and enjoyed seeing all the riders leaving Squires at silly o clock (5 am) and waving as they go out of the gates wondering what it's like to be on the ride itself.

As the riders come back after 20 hours on the bike some of the tough lads are looking fresh and buzzing with excitement of what they have done and talking about what they have seen on the travels and getting a drink and a bite to eat then getting off. Then the lads that are in the last couple of hours to spare look tired and shattered and as marshals we have to tell them to switch off engines and put stands down and help them from the bikes and sometimes park the bikes for them so that they can have a rest.

One year I said I'd love to have a go on the back to achieve this and tick one of my bucket list of things I'd love to do in my life. This year, 2017, it happened: I managed to go pillion for the Iron Butt with a man that I've never seen before in my life, met him on the Friday night very briefly just to say 'hi' and to see what bike we were going on. 

I hardly slept that night with excitement got up and dressed at 4am. All the lads were getting ready and queuing up for the off as I went looking for my lift. As I'd forgotten what Steve's bike looked like, I started to panic as the bike was not there.

The sound of bikes revving took the panic away and sheer excitement came as the lads were chatting to each other and asked if I'm ok.  I said I'm looking for Steve with the big bike and a few lads said sorry but it's not me and a few said that I could go on their bikes. Then the bikes set off out the gates as Steve pulled up and I was giddy and excited and I grinned from ear to ear, got on the bike and we were off.

We stopped off at petrol station after petrol station, getting on and off the bike seemed easy; it was a lovely experience as we just went on and on and on - the views were stunning and we even went to John o' Groats for a photo.

It didn't feel like I was on the bike for 21 hours, I would do it again given the chance. When we got back to Squires I helped out by greeting the riders back and they all enjoyed it. Thank you to Graeme for asking Steve to let me be his pillion.  I still think about it 😍

Monica Kershaw

The RBLR1000 is the Legion's premier motorcycle fundraising event and we're very grateful to Monica for her efforts in marshalling and keeping it running over the last few years. We're delighted that she's now managed to actually take part in the ride and earn her spurs as a member of the Iron Butt Association. See you next year Monica.

Graeme Dawson
RBLR1000 Squires Coordinator

Monday, 12 June 2017

From Russia with love

Previous instalment.

One of my mates had a problem at the Latvian border on Thursday morning and hadn't come through with us. He was finally able to cross into Russia around midnight Friday and at 0330 he was 120 miles from Moscow and hoping to meet with us before our departure early Saturday morning. Just after 0600 he was having breakfast in a petrol station outside the city. In fact he arrived at the Cosmos just as Dmitry and Pavel arrived to lead us in convoy across the city to Red Square for some final photos with our bikes. A helmetcam video exists of this ride but I won't link to it as it includes 13 seconds of me failing to cancel my indicator after a turn and if you can't see it no such mistake was made. What happens in Moscow stays in Moscow!

Our hosts then led us out of the city and back to the M-9 before pulling over and waving us on our way.

My goodness it was cold once we left the city and eventually I had to pull over and add another layer. There were four of us leaving Moscow but two were now pressing on leaving just the two of us to maintain a steady pace westwards. We agreed that we would just return to the same hotel in Ludza and not press further on as the front runners were bound to. We started to pay attention to fuel consumption again and also to using up Rubles in petrol stations. In most (but not all) Russian petrol stations you hand over some cash or authorise a card then draw fuel then settle up. It can seem a bit strange to stop in a largely vacant lot and pass cash through a small window to an unseen hand but it works just fine and we even stopped again to top up before crossing the border.

We knew from reports by Phil & JB that they crossed back into Latvia in about half an hour. We were not so lucky and it took two hours. Also that was the point at which my Zumo decided that enough is enough and just powered off and stayed dead. I tried the USB connector - yep that still works so if necessary I'll just use that. On arrival at the hotel a while later I discovered that I'd actually dropped my USB cable somewhere along the way so dead reckoning then.

After a brief exchange of views about the price of hotel rooms and the wisdom of attempting a 1,000 mile ride at 0400 Sunday we opted for several beers tonight and a leisurely breakfast in the morning. We used these sessions to cure ourselves of secondary plans like visiting Auschwitz or Gdansk "on the way home". Sometimes when looking at a map you think "I've come 2,000 miles what's a few more?" Well Ludza to Calais is 1,380 miles; Ludza, Gdansk, Calais is 1,662 miles. That's a diversion of 282 miles, the same distance as from Suwalki to Ludza on day three of the ride out. No, IBA RTEs should be there and back not excuses to just wander around. There'll be plenty of other trips to incorporate sightseeing.

Sunday morning after breakfast I cleaned the Zumo's connectors with an alcohol rub and magically it agreed to play (didn't last though, it got tired again later on and went back to sleep). Anyway, we saddled up and headed southwest and were much better prepared this time for the roadworks with "interesting" surfaces. Right across Lithuania and into Poland we were running on Russian petrol; I was getting 18-19 kilometres per litre. Eventually we pulled into a Shell station and I treated my engine to a tankful of V-Power. Back to 22-23 kpl almost immediately! The Russian fuel was pretty cheap, around 60p per litre, but it's not the best quality.

In Warsaw we encountered some weather. Serious, biblical quantities of rain, blowing sideways with some force; thunder and lightning like the end of the world and some traffic. We filtered through  almost 14 million miles of cars backed up in the city centre until we found the cause - an unseated rider being treated by paramedics. After a few minutes we were shown a way round the chaos and we took off, into even harder, faster, rain. Visor open was too painful; visor closed meant not being able to see anything at all. We survived and slowly found our way back on track, a motorway continuing  southwest towards Lodz.

Not far past Lodz I started recognising the signs of "time for bed" and flashed Mike several times indicating my desire to get off the road. Eventually I turned off into a service area but Mike carried on. Well that's just the way it is; ever the lightweight I checked into the motel and texted Mike to let him know what's happening. The motel I have to say was a delight: clean & comfortable with everything I could want - heated towel rail for drying wet gear - and run by a husband & wife? team who bent over backwards for me; breakfast of champions. In fact when I got home I wrote a thank you letter with the help of a Polish neighbour. £33 including breakfast!

 So the last day dawned, my Zumo decided to play again, all by itself with no special treatment this time and did in fact continue to work all the way home. I set off towards Calais at a fair old lick. The speed limit on the Polish motorway 150kph but I don't think anyone drives that slowly. The only interruption is the toll booths (all Polish motorways are subject to road use tolls) and at one of these I learned yet another lesson in the never-ending learning curve of motorcycle riding: when you unzip the top of your tank bag to retrieve the toll ticket, IMMEDIATELY zip it up again. Not long after leaving the last toll booth I noticed that my strip of pills had gone for a walk. Oh well, I'll HAVE to get home today now.

It felt strange having crossed into Germany to realise that I had now slowed down, in Germany, on an autobahn with no speed limit! It's true, the overall speed of the traffic was lower in Germany than in Poland. Those who reckon that speed limits reduce speeds need to pay attention.

I arrived in Calais well ahead of schedule and caught a train almost immediately. Obviously when I emerged at Folkestone, despite having enjoyed clear, dry, sunny weather all day, driving rain stayed with me all the way home.

Days away from home: 7
Miles ridden: 3,940
Highest speed: 96mph
Shortest day: 285 miles
Longest day: 945 miles

Would I recommend riding to/in Russia? absolutely. Lovely country, lovely people.

Being the first group of IBA riders we did legalities by the book but in future we'll be more relaxed: get third party motor insurance from a shack once you've crossed the border. It may well not be worth the paper it's written on in the event of a claim but it does make you legal. Nobody asked to see our International Drivers Permits but they're only £5 from a Post Office so what the hell. Nobody asked to see my fire extinguisher (yes fire extinguisher, what do you mean you don't carry one?) or, as far as I can tell, checked my fingerprints.

Travel the correct way - make yourself at home wherever you are as opposed to trying to make everywhere you go like home. Be patient and calm at border crossings. Our group included a Suzuki, a Triumph, a Honda, a Harley-Davidson and two BMWs so even if you ride a BMW you can still comfortably ride to Russia and back.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Russian Ride To Eat

Previous instalment here.

The M-9 motorway runs from the Latvian border some 400 miles into Moscow. For context, that's roughly the distance between London and Glasgow. In Russia that entire route is cut from the forest with only a few settlements the size of English villages along the way. Don't be fooled by the term "motorway" either. The last 75 miles are recognisably motorway but until that point the road is at best equivalent to a minor English A road, not even dual carriageway. Not always surfaced either!

Every now and then we came to junctions offering side roads. These tended to have tarmac for 30-100 metres before trickling off into dirt tracks. I'm pretty sure that most of those deviations led to places where dragons are still living.

The Russians have a different approach to the roadworks strategies employed elsewhere in Europe. In England roadworks involve diversions, reduced speed limits, average speed cameras and massive inconvenience for road users. In Germany roadworks involve very sudden lack of road followed up with no useful information whatsoever. In Russia the roadcrews all wear hi-vis orange and you're expected to drive round them. If they've felt the urge to remove the road surface you'll obviously need to go a little slower and more carefully and you'll definitely want to swerve round large diggers etc.

Eventually the time comes when even we, World's Toughest Motorcycle Riders, have to stop for sustenance and we duly pulled in to a rather charming roadside diner. Unfortunately the staff only spoke Russian (and none of us could manage more than 'pojolsta'), the menu was in Russian using the Cyrillic alphabet (which none of us could read) but a Russian diner came to our rescue, translated the entire menu for us and placed our orders with the waitress before returning to finish his lunch.

As the food arrived, our rescuer finished his meal, came to us and told us that to welcome us to Russia, the meals were a gift and he got into his car and drove off. The stuffed chicken legs and rice were delicious, even more so as they're free.

I had received a text from the president of IBA Russia telling me that he wished to meet up and lead us into town from a convenient point on the motorway rather than have us struggle across the city in traffic. I'd interpreted that as "on Friday for the photo in Red Square" but no he was insistent that he'd meet us on our way in today. I added the suggested petrol station as a waypoint but also sent him a link to my tracker.
As we approached the city limits we noticed a biker frantically waving at us headed out of town. It didn't seem to be the normal "hello fellow biker" thing we'd had right across Europe and we pulled into a petrol station to fine-tune our entry to the city.
Moments later Dmitry flew in beside us on his Honda Silver Wing and introduced himself.

After spending a little getting-to-know-you time we lined up for a group ride to the Cosmos hotel. Dmitry asked what would be a comfortable speed. I said "100-110kph" so obviously we hit 145kph until the traffic became thick enough to reduce the speed. Moscow traffic is busy even at 10pm and in the midst of it I was buzzed by two local bikes which distracted me for a split-second, long enough to lose the flow and I came to a hard stop behind a broken down Mercedes van in my lane. It took perhaps a minute for me to find a way round it and of course the others were all now out of sight. I switched to following the satnav but after a little while I realised that all was not well and pulled over. The Zumo was calmly taking me back to the motorway to meet up with Dmitry! I reset and found the Cosmos within ten minutes or so.

The Cosmos hotel is a huge Soviet era thing with almost 2,000 rooms and an enormous statue of Charles DeGaulle; we were given rooms on the 21st floor with magnificent views across the city. See if you can guess where we ended up half hour after checking in? Obviously!

So there we were, a small group of gentlemen of a certain age, sat at a bar, helpfully labelled "pub" enjoying the protection of some other gentlemen wearing ill-fitting grey suits while being entertained by the sights and sounds of a busy international congregation of people out for a good time, in various ways. Fortunately I don't speak Swedish.

We slept well.

Friday morning had us join the melee in the vast canteen for breakfast. Almost anything you can think of is available for breakfast in the Cosmos, every kind of meat, vegetable, fruit, cereal, eggs, fish. Nobody goes hungry there, not even vegetarians.

A gentle morning followed at lunchtime by an excursion on the Moscow Metro across town to Red Square. Walking onto Red Square felt surreal to all of us, even those who'd been before. It's like another world and it felt slightly odd that we were even there at all. The square is huge and takes some getting used to.

We had some time to enjoy before the 4pm standard group photo so we had Borscht followed by ice cream in a cafe in the Gum shopping mall and visited St Basils cathedral, now a museum.
4pm official photo

After the photo we agreed to an early supper in a biker bar some distance away.  Fun & games with taxis finally saw us gathered in the Double Bourbon Bar for beer & bourbon followed by steak & chips accompanied by Pink Floyd.

next instalment here.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

To the Russian Border

When I called, 18 months ago, an RTE [Ride To Eat] in Red Square, Moscow I was concerned that people would just laugh and nobody would come. I was wrong: initially some two dozen IBAers signed up, a big number by IBA standards. Many dropped out along the way due to a variety of circumstances ranging from ill-health to clashes with several major IBA events. On the day we were four from the UK, two from Finland and one from Switzerland. May not sound much but that's actually a pretty good turnout for what would be a ground-breaking 4,000 mile journey.

What's the big deal? What's different about going to Russia than, say, going to Riga, Latvia?

The short answer is "it's Russia". Will I be able to get a visa? How long will it take to cross the border? to reach Moscow from the border? what will the roads be like? what about bike insurance? breakdown cover? The answer to all these questions was "I don't know". Garmin don't supply maps for Russia and the road signs will be in Cyrillic.

In Leicester for the Brit Butt Rally I developed a problem with a tooth. Dilemma: should I delay my departure, possibly making the trip impossible, by getting my tooth fixed or should I risk having to get emergency treatment far from home? Resolving that took a couple of hours but I finally opted for hoping the tooth would settle down and be ok (it was). Off to Folkestone!

30 miles from home I realised I'd forgotten to fit the Airhawk - too late now, I'll just have to tough it out. 20 miles further on my Zumo felt the need to cycle power, that's not good. On the train I inspected the cradle and connections for the Zumo but all seemed good so maybe it was just a one-off. (You know it wasn't though, don't you).

First stop Hannover, Germany, a fair old trek given that I'd been up since the crack of dawn exchanging IT kit for bike trip kit, fiddling with a tooth, fiddling with the bike but only 400 miles from Calais and I arrived around 1am in desperate need of a shower as it was still 27c.

Day two began with breakfast followed by a 700 mile group (mostly) ride to Suwalki, Poland. We rode quite quickly for a while before analysing the effect on fuel consumption at various speeds. At one point I noticed the effect on my fuel consumption quite suddenly and made a hasty decision to stop for fuel in the middle of some roadworks. That decision was spot on as I took 19 litres (into my 20 litre tank) but in re-establishing contact with Mike the run leader, I guessed that he would continue on the route but slow down for us to catch up. After about 70 miles of hard, fast, catching up, we stopped and texted him. He'd opted for the "wait at next services" protocol but had given that up after a while and was now ten minutes behind us.

About 100 miles from Suwalki I cocked up again and failed to turn off the freshly opened dual carriageway as I watched JB and Mike disappearing round the corner. I texted that I'd find my own way then set about looking for fuel as I was quite low at that point. The Zumo's first offering involved crossing the central barrier AND  a two metre high chainlink fence. After ignoring the "Do U-turn when you can" for some distance I was directed to a place where a petrol station will be one day, but this wasn't the day. The signs were all in place, unlike the actual buildings and pumps, but they were all crossed out. After yet more U-turns and other physically impossible suggestions from the cutting edge of technology which is the latest Garmin offering I resorted to dead reckoning and some improvised route making to reach an actual live petrol station.

The rest of the journey, 100 miles or so, passed through small villages, pretty churches, country roads and some thoroughly attractive scenery. If I was a half-decent travel writer I'd have taken photos along the way but you'll just have to take my word for it, or ride it yourself. I arrived at 10pm, just in time for the restaurant to close, no problem as I wasn't hungry, but joined the others for a beer. They stopped serving beer at 10pm also but IBA riders are handsome, smooth and resourceful and able to order beer in multiple languages while juggling 2-litre fuel cans and singing Land of Hope & Glory.

Day three, an extremely lightweight 285 miles only, introduced us to the rather different environment of the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. It was here that we discovered that, whereas in Poland Garmin had included petrol stations yet to be built, here Garmin had included roads that had yet to be built and we spent quite lot of time waiting at temporary traffic lights followed by some manly offroading on what was loosely described as a "road surface".

Those 285 miles took all day because quite a lot of the day was spent doing 20mph and a fair bit spent doing not much more to avoid being flashed by speed cameras in Lithuania.

Day four - to the Russian border!
A quick blast, 20 miles or so, followed by a masterclass in waiting. Those wishing to transition from Latvia to Russia must learn the art of patience because most of the process involves waiting. Wait for the Latvian policeman to call you forward, then Latvian border patrol, then Russian I can't remember what they all were or in what order but I remember many faces and many pieces of paper.

To describe the Latvia/Russian border as an exercise in bureacracy is to grossly underestimate the process. Those with a prior exposure to Kafka's The Trial will be better prepared than others. Fill in the form, in duplicate, hand it in for inspection, get told off for incorrectness and given two more forms, try again, hand them in, wait while they're keyed into a computer and printed out, then wait while they're stamped, then, finally, move on to the next kiosk for more waiting.

Only three hours though and we're released into the wilds!

Next instalment here.