Sunday 12 August 2012

Vologda - Onega - Ladoga 1200

'Let them all go', I told myself, 'don't follow them'.  Sounds like the beginning of a meditation session.  Rather than referring to thoughts, this was about riders.  It took no time for me to be at the back of the field.  Whilst I had been chunking up my bike with wide puncture proof Marathon Plus tyres, everybody else seemed to have gone the ultra light racing bike way ... except for Ivo.  Avi, the UK based rider from Israel, inspected my bike and saddle bag, encouraging me to remove any excesses.  All in all, Avi thought I had packed quite sensibly.

Whilst cycling on my own, I was confident of my schedule and pace.  As the tortoise and hare effect was taking effect, I found myself amongst other cyclists and could sense this urgency again.  It's best to listen to this sense, because the locals know more than you do!  They were telling me that the last few sections were on very bad surface and that the hills were yet to come - you could lose a lot of time!  I compromised my schedule a little, but with hindsight there was no need, I was not on the time limits.  My conclusion is that there is more of a racing attitude here, hence the light bikes and the 'rushing'.

Think of all the time you save in not having to navigate or slow down for left turns, right turns, roundabouts or red lights. Imagine the equivalent of the Dean without instructions (the Dean is 300km with over 100 navigation points).  Just straight on.  Napramo, napramo, napramo, they say in Russian.  Now I know why the word is always repeated three times.  You know Russia is huge, but it's not till you cycle one and half days on the same road that you live a bit of Russia.

When the scenery wouldn't change away from pine forest, I lost heart, thinking, if I really want to cycle 1200 km without scenery, I might as well put my bike on a velodrome and go round in circles.  At least I would have two bends to help me go round the bend.

My strategy was to do the opposite of meditation.  I was inviting thoughts and followed each one.  When that ran out as well, I congratulated myself.  So often I long for 'head space', some time to myself with nothing to think about.  Now I have it.  Without thoughts and scenery I did neck and shoulder exercises over and over again, at least till the crest of the next undulation which would surely lead to ... the next undulation.

[465x700, 112kB] : Bekijk IMGP5211.jpg
Photo by Ivo
And when the first right hand turn came, I missed it!  I can hear you laugh.  I laughed also, because I had a GPS to put me right again.  Imagine the days before GPS.  You wouldn't know you'd gone wrong for another 300km!

Claus didn't laugh.  He went wrong a few times. Unfortunately you lose more than time, you lose energy and morale.   It can turn a good ride into a miserable one.  Claus has a lot of experience though, with 6 PBPs under his belt, he knows how to handle these situations and finished with 30 minutes spare.

Claus points to the Solovetsky Islands
I reminded myself of my promise to enjoy every single moment.  My new tactic was to take more breaks.  And every time I stopped I observed something new.   There was the mushroom on the road, the birdboxes, hearing cuckoos, the pine marten, the fungi on dead trees, the rock graffiti, the water springs, the sounds, the colour of pine trees, the smell of the forest, ...  I was living Russia more and more.

Things you see when you take a break
Every checkpoint was a haven!  I loved the controls.  No queues, no tickets, no money, no instructions, no directions, no system, and once, no water.  Not a problem though, Mikhail was on his way  back from the spring and there was plenty of fruit juice.  As you arrive, you become part of the happenings.  Unintrusive, somebody comes towards you and asks for your brevet card. Depending on how you are feeling you move towards a seat, or food, usually both.  Food, drinks, chats would then just present themselves.  I thought the people at the controls were amazing.  It's like they had a natural radar going, checking everybody had what they needed at the right time.  I never had to ask for anything.  At one of the later controls by lake Ladoga, I had one of those moments where I couldn't make a decision.  Anna saw me just standing there, and said 'sleep'.  She was right!  That is exactly what I needed.

Food at Kroshnozero
She showed me to the tent I could use.  Wonderful.  I crept inside and she asked if there were mosquitoes.  'They must be killed', she said and walked away.  I expected her to come back with a super bazooka to blitz them all in one go.  Instead I spent a couple of minutes getting good at one flick mosquito killing.  Then, I shut my eyes and savoured the moment of being by lake Ladoga.

I had a lot of sleep on this ride, the most I've ever had on a 1200.  I had trouble leaving the checkpoint by lake Onega.  I was tired but ahead of time at the 633km mark.  I ate, relaxed and absorbed the atmosphere.  There was a gentle cooing going on, the fire being attended to.  I slept a good couple of hours and when I opened the tent saw the view of the lake with moon shining over it.  I got goosebumps.  'It's beautiful here', I said out loud to nobody.  But there was an unexpected response from a helper: 'It is', she confirmed.  Now it was even harder to leave.

This break set me up nicely for the next leg to Girvas, which was just above 100km with 5 instructions.  I would have a full night of riding under a white night sky.  You could ride without front lights which I did for a little while for the experience.  During the day I had noted how cars always have their lights on, whether it's day or night, so I soon switched my lights back on.

I did get the dozies and was beginning to see things.  In trees and in the clouds, I kept on seeing St Zozimus. St Zozimus was on my mind.  He is the patron saint of beekeepers, and I was moving in his territory.  I told myself to keep my feet firmly on my pedals and not get carried away with 'visions'.  You begin to understand how people have described visions.  An obsession with something or somebody, a couple of days with food and sleep deprivation, add a bit of heat exhaustion and you have a recipe for vision success.

Fitting though, how by the next control, Girvas, there were beehives.  The only beehives I would see during the trip.

Beehives in Girvas
Why didn't I knock on their door?  I have so many questions.  It's a big regret, but I'll be back.

When the controls weren't out in the open, they were often in schools.  They are great because there is so much space.  Usually there is a gymnasium where the mats can be used to sleep on.

More sleep at Girvas
There was a classroom with images of 'important' people all around the walls.  I deciphered Lobachevsky and Euler.  Grigory commented that the one on the right, in the picture below, is Lagrange.  Stuff for universities!

Lobachevsky, Euler and Lagrange
The bag drops worked out really well also.  Two bags, four drops.  What a treat.  I think there was a leapfrog system going on, where a control team would leapfrog to the next.  We kept seeing the same helpers. Having lost sense of day and night, and then seeing the same people, my 'tunnel phase' was kicking in for sure.

The section to Mandera was really hard.  It was only 60km and I can't quite remember why it was so hard, but I felt relieved to get to the control.  Around 23:30 it was.  Maybe it was the road surface which made it hard, and it had started to rain also.  It was darker than the other nights.  Mandera checkpoint was in a cabin.  It was surreal.  You enter the field, you see a few bikes, a couple of tents and the cabin, but it was quiet. It appeared that nobody was around.  What is going on here?  The bikes have their red lights flashing.  Is everybody asleep in the tents?  Then I walked around the cabin, found the door open and Tatiana, again, lively as ever, is feeding everybody with macaroni, sausage, cheese, biscuits, tea ...

The business end of the Mandera control
I used one of the tents for a sleep.  And there I experienced a first.  For once, I was inside when a thunderstorm broke out.  BCM, LEL, PBP, everytime I'm out in the rain.  I tried to feel smug, but I couldn't. Chikara, the Japanese rider on a recumbent, was out there (amongst a few others) and I knew he was having a hard time.  If he's feeling anything like I was on that stretch, it would not be pleasant for him.  It was haunting and beautiful at the same time, when I could hear him call out Hiroshi's name.  He's arrived, he's here.  He called out Hiroshi's name several more times and then there was a reply: 'Chikara, my  hero, welcome'.  Oh, I was moved.  I got up and joined Chikara for 'breakfast'. I drank tea but I couldn't eat.  I felt bad for refusing the porridge offered.

I set off in the drizzle.  It was the moment I had to pull myself together.  Just get through it, the morning proper will bring a new horizon.  It was a horizon in the form of a 24 hour cafe, with people!  There were other riders, and Lars and Pavel.  'So nice to see people!', I said.  I was elated.  'People!'.  I can talk again, we can share experiences.  It doesn't take long to realise others have gone through a tough time also.  'Mini crisis', said one of the Russian riders.  There was good coffee, and I ate pastries.  Pavel and Lars had formed a nice partnership. 'Take!', said Pavel intently, when Lars hadn't immediately picked up his coffee from the counter. I saw them again at the Winter War memorial, the Cross of Sorrows, where Lars recounted the history behind the statue. The cross represents Finnish and Russian mothers in sorrow for the dead.

Lars and Pavel visit the Cross of Sorrows
I have since followed up by learning about the Finnish/Russian border, Karelia, the Mannerheim Line and the difficult situation of Jews in Finland: Finnish Jewish Soldiers in WWII.

Photos by Pavel at the 24 hour cafe.

The Salmi checkpoint was next, at 1063km.  On the way back out of the control, I stopped several of the riders coming in, to explain where the control was.  I didn't want them to miss it, like I had.

At 1109km, there is an instruction: 'straight on, the road gets worse'.  UK audaxers have the habit of pointing out potholes in the road.  Not so in Russia.  If they did, they would be riding 'hands free'.  At times, you see cars coming in the opposite direction, and veering into your lane. You wonder how long they've been on the road, or if they are under the influence.  But they are only avoiding potholes.  You end up doing the same, seeking out the smoothest parts of the road.

I did see some people under the influence.  It was another bizarre moment and I can't remember where.  There was broken down car being jump started, cans on the roof.  At another location I saw a car being held off the ground from one side by two people, a guy underneath doing repairs.  I didn't want to take a picture in case the flash made them drop the car.  They were all very friendly and seemed to be having a great giggle.

The last stretch is indeed quite lumpy.  I still had plenty of time, so could have taken more rest.  But the draw  to the finish was too much.  I carried on.  As soon as I arrive at the finish, the multi-lingual Vladimir and a group of volunteers suggest we go out for something to eat.  I shower quickly and join them, together with most of the 'foreign' contingency.  We were shown how to drink vodka.  Back at the control, things are still happening, but I don't know exactly what is happening.  There is a bit of a stir about hotels being available or not.  I was all too happy to stay put and sleep on my bike bag which turned out to be most comfortable.

The adventure is not over yet!  The next day, there's the loading of bikes onto buses and vans, for the journey back to St Petersburg.  There is loads of toing and froing going on.  Vladimir told us the bus would not be leaving before 12 noon.  Interesting way of putting it I thought.  It gave me time to go to the shops to buy a few snacks.  On the way there I bump into a rider.  He stops me and hands me a coin of 10 roubles.  'For you', he said, 'it has my home town on it.'  Now Voronezh Oblast is a bit closer to home also. Thank you Evgeny (I think it was)!

These chance encounters are wonderful.  Just like seeing  Pavel in the middle of St Petersburg on my sightseeing day.  We took photos and chatted for a bit, the best we could.  Saying goodbye wasn't easy.  Pavel shook and held my hand, looked me in the eye, saying: 'Goodbye'.  He said 'Goodbye' again, whilst thinking of the next English words he wanted to say: 'Next year ... 1000 ... you must'.  How can you say no? I nodded and said a cowardly thank you.

Another thing that was absolutely wonderful was the crescendo applause the 'foreign' contingency received on arriving at the after-party.  We arrived just in time to see everybody leave.  There was a big gathering outside the restaurant.  As we got out of the taxis, a few people started to clap.  More and more joined in, and then I realised the applause was for Chikara!  Chikara, the Japanese rider on the recumbent, who showed enormous strength and determination at every stage.  'What else could I do but carry on', he replied, when I said I felt for him at the Mandera control.  I gather he is the organiser of a 1200 in Japan.  It's dangerous mixing with these great people!

The star in the Baltic Star cycling club is Mikhail, the organiser. That man was tireless and never without a smile.  When did he sleep?  And what an equally extraordinary group of helpers he had around him.  Eight cars with three people each were on the road.  How many more people were involved behind the scenes?   I reckon there is no need for 'problem solving' in Russia, because nothing is a ever problem.  Mikko, from Finland, shared a saying: 'In Russia, nothing works but everything works out'.  I think it should be shortened: 'Everything works out' (except for getting to the after-party on time!).  During the pre-ride gathering, Mikhail was in action.  I couldn't keep my eyes off him, he was mesmerising  There was a moment, where he was taking money, adding up, from memory, what each person owed from a combination of jerseys, trains, invitation letters ... somebody wanted to pay in euros, so he looked up the exchange rate on his phone, but then somebody called him at the same time.  This, whilst his daughter was trying to get his attention, and me trying to get the K-Z sheet out of his hands so that I could fill in my phone number.

A quiet moment for Mikhail
Big thank you to Mikhail and everybody involved.  What an experience this was.  Mikhail came to the hotel with t-shirts, medals, photos and to ask what we would like to see improved.  For me, there was only one thing and that is to have the routesheet in advance.  Then you could format it to fit into your maptrap gadget. Instead, I went 'blind', relying on GPS alone.  Keep an eye out for the next edition in 2016.  Edition 3 which will take on a new format, there a big plans already.  A whole new adventure awaits ....   Baltic Star.

Other thoughts and things I don't want to forget:
  • Skylarks, lapwings, chiffchaffs, hedgehogs, butterflies
  • You don't normally start talking to yourself till day 4
  • Ran out of family sized bottle of Russian strength mosquito repellent.  No fear, as I had backup in an audax sized bottle of organic insect deterrent which at least had a placebo effect.
  • Sandals are the way to go (mozzies/midges get into you socks!), except it can get cold at night
  • Somebody shouting out to me: 'Tour de France!'
  • Picking up food in the shops was always a nice interlude and towards the end, it was where I saw other riders
  • Formulating an audax language, call it Randorand if you like. Anna saying 'sleep', triggered the thought that so many words have the sound 'ee'.  During LEL 2013, with an international attendance,  it might be wise to avoid phrases like: 'I bet you want to hit the sack', 'Would you like a bit of nosh', or 'A cuppa cha?'.  All you need is 'sleep', 'eet' and 'tee'.  There would also be 'seet', 'cheese',  and 'beef', maybe they'll want 'heet' and 'cleen', and of course 'pee' or 'wee'.  When you go to intermediate classes you'll learn about 'breeveet' and 'speed leemeet'.
  • I found Claus the best communicator.  He didn't speak all languages, but his ability to 'connect' was better than anyone's.  He would also cut through any conversation going on too long, summarising a saddle/short combination type discussion, with a 'Ja das ist scheisse'.  
  • Thought they could nickname this 'The butterfly ride'
  • Telling myself how I liked the rhythm of the rider in front, after a while I realised it was my own shadow
  • Pavel had a 3 day train journey back home.
  • Sightseeing in St Petersburg.  The Russian State Museum.  Chuffed to see Florensky's painting by Mikhail Nesterov.  Many weddings taking place. Honey shop.
  • Kept a 500 roubles note, because it depicts the Solovetsky island and monastery.  
  • Big thank you also to Ealing Bike Hub for their continuing and generous offers of  SIS power bars and electrolyte sachets.  They really have become part of my ritual.  I've been given other products to try out also, but it's the bars and sachets that I miss when I don't have them. Bike Hub
  • The YACF forum has a topic, and Ivo's excellent ride report:  VOL1200 on YACF
Photos and videos:
  • Mine
  • Pavel's (excellent picture of Lars 225/348)
  • Atmospheric photos by Alive
  • Ivo's
  • A couple of me in san-sane's series
  • Any cyclist must look at picture IMG_44775 on page 10 by severin-andrew
  • Professional photos by Elena
  • Artistic set by Ekatarina 
  • Video from irbes: irbes (02:13 is the party in full swing, I turned up much later)
  • Video by igor: igor

With Tatiana at the after party


Anonymous said...

In één adem gelezen: zo boeiend ! Net een film die zich afspeelt. Hier en daar een tikje humor en een tikje weemoed geven je verslag een menselijk tintje!
Meim en Peip xxx xxx

Kris said...

Ogelofelijk goed gepend! Gelukkig nam je voldoende de tijd alles te laten bezinken zodat je een puur en scherp filter effect op je netvlies kreeg dat je op het juiste moment enkel hoefde te verwoorden.Je talent voor absorbtie in combinatie met objectieve observaties gekruid met hilarische menselijke anekdotes maakt dit fietsverslag uniek en zeer persoonlijk.Wellicht ook herkenbaar voor vele audaxers die al popelen om er de volgende keer bij te kunnen zijn ! Well , sorry, very well done!

chillmoister said...

congratulations Els ....another inspiring ride report ...looks like I know what I'll be doing in 2016!

Doo said...

Makes me kinda wish I cycled this event. Well done.

Hazel Donovan said...

You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward to your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!
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