An early morning in July. A few cabloads of bike-less foreigners arrive
at an unmarked sports hall near Vologda train station. There they meet a
few dozen semi-locals who are busy unbagging their bikes. A few minutes
later and out of the sports hall the bikeless foreigners re-emerge, now
properly equipped with bikes and everything. Frantically everyone starts
to check his bike, load the bikes and fill the bottles. Some have a lot
to do, others are ready to go in 5 minutes. When most are ready the
organiser and his daughter start to distribute brevet cards and
Frame numbers. More frantic running around as the few happy souls
Possessing knifes or scissors are raided to facilitate a good mounting of
Frame numbers. Just as everyone has calmed down again the organiser calls
all to cycle to the local Kremlin.
We manage to evade a small rain shower and parade down the centre. Sadly
hardly a soul is watching, 6h30 is way too early for the average
Russian. At the square in front of the Kremlin we meet other riders.
Some have just arrived in town, others had time to do some sightseeing
in the previous days. Again the organisers distribute essentials while
the rest take their time talking and admiring the Kremlin. Finally,
long past the official start hour Mikhail sends us off with the
instructions to ride in small groups to the outskirts of town and wait
there for the official start.
The neutralisation is, as usual, quite nervous. I manage to jump a group
since the potholed and busy roads slow the not so experienced down. From
the first kilometres on I’m glad that I’ve chosen a sturdy tourer as my
steed. Those on mountain bikes are working hard on the asphalt, those on
skinny tires have to slam the brakes each time a pothole appears. In
between the busy sections I have a chance to see the others. The usual
selection of international audaxers, sinewy old chaps, nervous
youngsters and a wide selection of bikes. Shortly before we reach the
assembly point at the outskirts I see a road sign for the
Turnaround point, Medvezhegorsk, a mere 650km away.
As Mikhail sends us off a mad dash ensues. On one of the first hills I’m
dropped from the first bunch. Together with Avi I manage to keep them
into sight for quite some time. As I see that we don’t get any closer I
decide to ride a bit slower, blowing it in the first section is a bad
idea. Avi climbs a lot better than I so I lose contact with him after a
while. Not that I’m nervous about that, there should be many riders
behind. And indeed, not long thereafter I hear a mainly German group
approaching. With them I continue, riding at the back on the good
sections of asphalt and moving up front when the potholes appear. They
seem to be afraid of risking their bikes. I ride quite often in Flanders
so I know that bikes can handle a great deal of abuse.
The route sheet mentions a café and a scenic view after 50km. At the bridge I stop and admire the view. Nearly everyone in the group doesn’t look around but keeps on pushing it. While admiring the view some others whizz past.
The wind is quite favourable at the moment so I don’t mind riding alone. In fact, I enjoy it. More time to see the scenery and no problems with short stops to admire the view. 112km from the start is the first turn, left to the Kirilov Monastry. Nearly immediately after the turn I see the first rider encountering me, the doyen du peloton. Another rider is in hot pursuit, followed by the first organised group. Only one other organised group appears shortly before I enter Kirillov. Most riders are riding on their own. About 100m before the monastery I’m flagged down by one of the organisers. Just behind the stalls selling tourist paraphernalia is the control. The usual Russian style, out in the open but with food and drinks.
A few lonely riders are still heading towards Kirillov when I head out, back to the main road. Wind and heat slow me down. At some parts of the route the asphalt has melted. Sanitary stops have to be performed on the asphalt now, the sandy shoulders are no-go area now, unless you want to spend several minutes scratching the stones from your tires. Luckily I still have a tailwind after I turn back onto the mainroad. Although the wind aids me the heat reduces my progress. We really enter remote backyards now, hardly any traffic and enormous distances between villages. The few places with facilities are clearly marked on the routesheet though.
Nothing serious happens untill the 200km control. Next to the service station is a small cafe/restaurant. I profit from the opportunity and get myself a decent meal. At the control I see the first rider ready to pack.The controllers warn me that the next stretch is very remote, no services for most of stretch. Probably the heat has numbed me as I forget to check the contents of my pack. Every few dozen kilometres I see a few farmsteads partly hidden in the forest. The only village of any size is halfway this stretch, about a kilometre from the route. I turn towards it. No shop is directly visible. I ask a few youngsters but they can only say me that the village shop is closed.
Back on the main road I check my pack and see that I only have a bag of dried apricots, my emergency rations. Since it’s only 50km to the next control I stuff the apricots in my pocket. Just as I want to head on a tandem appears. They stop. The riders are from St. Petersburg and started nearly 2 hours after the others. We continue on together. Finally a riding partner. I immediately ride a bit faster, munching some apricots from time to time.
Slowly it starts getting a bit dark, not really dark though, this is the area of the white nights. It’s near midnight when I finally see the control at a small lay-by. A small campfire is alight. The midges have already found it. As I try to eat I remark that my stomach didn’t like the apricots. The early start and ensuing sleep loss in the night before departure combined with the stomach problems make me decide to have a small kip. The controller hands me a sleeping bag and I doze off.
An hour or so later I awake again, halfway frozen and luckily not eaten alive by the midges. Now my stomach accepts food.The controller gives me some info on a diversion about 30km further on. I easily find it and am again glad about my choice of steed. The whole diversion is quite sandy and laney. Dawn already starts as I pass the small gauge rail station. Not much later the sky is aflame and I stop for some pictures.I head on in search of the first open shop. Luckily the controller handed me some supplies. No more riders to be expected so he doesn’t have to budget. The tandem riders were still asleep when I left, just as another rider who is packing.
While passing the canal towards Lake Onega I see a few cruise ships ferrying their guests up north, probably to some monastery island or to the city of Petrozavodsk.The small town of Vitegra has some open shops, 150km behind the service station. Finally I can restock on food and cola. Not that that helps much. With the full daylight the wind reappears. This time not as a tailwind but as a stiff headwind. Halfway to the control I stop and have a small kip in a sheltered location. I reach the control around closing time, in a fairly bad shape. I take advantage of the tents and have another kip.
I leave the control more than an hour after the closing time. I know that I have no chance to catch up for the next 200km, the next controls are 50km apart from each other, so I’ll loose too much time at the controls. The strong headwind will make a fast ride between the controls impossible. But I also know that I’ll get an extra few hours later this day since I pass the 600km mark. So I still set out. Most others don’t make this calculation and pack.
Again a lonely ride.Not far from the control I pass the border between the Vologda Oblast and the Karelian Republic. A republic with a very scenic reputation. Although the route sheet mentions a few degraded roads, I’m not too much bothered by them. In fact, I’m more pleased by the occasional stretches of excellent road.In fact, the day is quite uneventful. The route leads through large forests with a few villages along the stretch. Only one of them, Pudozh, has some facilities. Here the next control is located in a school. Finding the entrance door takes me some time. When I enter the school my phone rings, the controller asks me where I am. Having a local phone number is quite handy during this ride although it did cost me some time in the days before.
I had to do some communicating with the organiser when one of the German riders ended in hospital after cutting his leg when falling in a restaurant.In the school another rider is sleeping, another DNF. When I leave the control I restock for the rest of the day. Not much chance to resupply for the next 200km. The next control I nearly overshoot, I’m already past the village and I have to turn around to find the scouts camp. A sort of place I know from earlier holidays in Russia. A small group of controllers is still around, tea is still ready and a hot meal rapidly appears.To my surprise the village shop in Pudozhgorsky, half a km from the road, is still open and has a good supply of cyclist food. I restock again, happy to have enough now. I try to send an SMS to Mikhail with my expected arrival time at the next control, but can’t get it sent, probably my credit has expired. Luckily the controllers phone me. They ask me if I have a problem with a flying control. That suits me quite well in fact, less time loss at the control.
An hour or so later I see a car appearing with bikes on it. It looks like another rider has packed. We all stop by the roadside. They still have tea in thermos flasks and some food. I leave before the midges find me and head on into a chilly night.Luckily I have enough warm clothes to survive this night. Around 3 in the morning my thermometer in my watch gives 6 degrees as temperature, that although it’s heated a bit by my body. I manage to keep on going for most of the ride, I only need a short kip in a bus shelter. The emergency blanket is absolutely needed in this temperature. A nearby lake even looks quite foggy since the water is a lot warmer than the air.
In the early morning I pass the locks of the Belomoro-Baltiysky channel. A faded no photography sign is hardly visible. Knowing the Russian habits I already expected this. So I stop and just admire the view. I transfer some things from my barbag to my pocket and immediately a guard appears. I show him that I only transferred some innocent things and he wishes me a good journey.
Just after the locks another problem appears. My shoulder hurts. An old injury, related to my job. 3 years ago I had an inflammation in my shoulder. So I direct action is needed. I raise my handlebars and decide to look for a pharmacy in the next town, Medvezhegorsk. I anyway have to restock on credit for my phone.When entering Medvezhegorsk It’s too early to look for a pharmacy and a phoneshop. I need to ask around to find the turn-of to Velikaya Guba. 23km further is the control. I see a few riders returning to the main road, I’m less far behind them as expected.Since the control has already somewhat more relaxed opening times I win back a bit on the time schedule. I’m not yet within the time limit again, but gaining ground. The controllers tell me that I’m a bit late but still give me my stamp. I crash out between two other riders in a tent.
After an hour of sleep I eat at the control and retrace to the outskirts of Medvezhegorsk. There are several shops before the crossroads but I have to retrace to the centre for some other errands. I rapidly spot a phone shop and replenish the phone credit. Then I ask for a pharmacy. But all pharmacies are closed. For my shoulder I’d need some Ibuprofen creme, that helps a lot in this stage of the injury. But none to be had, it’s Sunday morning and all pharmacies are closed :o(
I don’t have the time to hunt around for the pharmacy so I go back to the outskirts of town and head on to the main road. The next 64km are mind numbing. They are along the M18, the motorway from St. Petersburg to Murmansk. In this area still a wide road, although not wide enough to be a ‘real’ motorway. Only the first bit is a bit scenic, for the rest it’s straight as an arrow with forests to the left and right. And of course the wind has turned again, another headwind for another day. Slowly I grind forwards, the only distraction being a dropped bottle. I turn around over the shoulder, misjudging the firmness of it. My frontwheel slips away and I tumble. No real harm done, I retrieve my bottle and carry on.
Finally the crossroads turning to Girvas appears. Finally some smaller roads and better sheltered against the wind. To my surprise I see Claus coming back towards the main road. That’s not according to the road book. And I didn’t expect to see any riders that soon. The control is well signposted and the road book is accurate. So I easily find the control. Mikhail and his team await me, the first control I reach within the cutoff for since a day and a half. I even have the time to sleep 15 minutes before I carry on. Outside a bike waits for transport, one of the riders sheared off his crank. Luckily for him Mikhail lent him his own bike.
From Girvas on the route is very scenic. I immediately enjoy it and my speed improves. That although I stop a few times to enjoy the scenery. In Spasskaya Guba I stop to resupply. When I enter the shop I hear the saleslady saying to a customer that there were loads of cyclists passing today. In these remote villages 40 cyclists passing in the same day is already a big happening. I restock on various necessary things like cola and chips.
Some 50km after Spasskaya Guba I’m on the M18 again. This time near Petrozavodsk. I visited Petrozavodsk last year, a nice town with some beautiful rainbows. And yes, again there are rain showers and rainbows. Just south of the town is another control. Again I reach it well within the cut-off. Finally I’m back in the ride.
I leave the control shortly before the controllers do. They have to return to St. Petersburg for work. Now it’s clear to me why the start is on a Friday. Most controllers are needed on Saturday and Sunday, the days when volunteers are quite available. Leaving a control before closure time is a luxury for me during this ride. And even more, the wind has died down in the late evening.
So finally I can make some progress. But not for all too long. 30km from the control major road works are announced. I’m flagged down when arriving there. The road is completely unpaved now. A long line of trucks and cars waits at the start of the section. I have to wait and lose valuable time. After a long period of waiting I get the signal to start. Nearly immediately I have to shift down. The road is in first stage of reconstruction. The rain showers of the previous days have softened the sand down and created many muddy sections. During the whole day I’ve been riding to the south, so no more white nights. I have to negotiate whole sections by the light of my head torch and half an E6. I estimate my speed at 10-15km/h. Faster is impossible. The whole section is a bit longer as the announced 5km. And above all, my shoulder doesn’t like it. Finally the road works and I arrive in the village of Pryazha. I decide to give my shoulder a rest here. After all, one of the few hotels on the route is located here. I doubt if I can find any other accommodation between here and the control.
Without shoulder troubles I’d have continued especially since there’s hardly any wind now, a situation you normally ought to profit from. I find the hotel. It takes a good 10 minutes to wake up the night watch and be allowed in. I’m relieved of 500 roubles and enter the small room. I decide on 3 hours of sleep. That should be enough to take me to the finish. But I have to gamble. I’ve lost well over an hour due to the road works and I don’t have 3 hours in hand. This gamble will only work if the headwind ceases.
3 hours later I wake up and start out again. It’s still 59km to the control. When I reach the turn of to Kotkozero the wind has reappeared. It’s even stronger as yesterday :o(. During the ride to Kotkozero I see the results of not sleeping enough, a truck driver stands next to his jacknifed truck. He fell asleep, got onto the shoulder and overcorrected on the soft shoulder. Bad luck for him.I reach the Kotkozero control after the cut off. But the controllers are still there.
Immediately I’m supplied with food and drinks. When I ask them if there’s a pharmacy in the village they ask me what I need and head out. Within 10 minutes they return with something for my shoulder troubles. I hope it’s still on time. They have to leave the control soon but if I need I can still sleep there. But the lavish sleep stop in Pryazha was enough so I decline the offer. But since they head on to the finish I hand them my night gear. I can use any help available.A few km after Kotkozero I return to the M18. The wind has picked up enormously. I hardly make progress. The road is again mind numbing. I stop within 20km from the control at the first roadside restaurant. I have a good lunch while I check my maps. I see two possibilities to escape from the M18, both unpaved. I decide on the one sticking closest to the M18. The other one will be several dozen km’s on unpaved road of unclear quality. I won’t risk that.
A few km after the restaurant I turn right and immediately onto a gravel road. Only once I have to stop due to wheel spin on a small climb. But my map is not all too detailed and in the next village I have to ask around. The only source of information available wants to point me to the main road again. I keep on asking for the small road so he finally points to a earth road not far away. ‘Follow that one and keep left’ is the advice while he returns to his house.
The road directly turns into a track. I’m not much faster here than on the M18 with it’s headwind. The road twists and turns, at the end I won’t have gained any ground with this one. Finally I see a village appearing. Now the next question, how to get back to the route. From afar I see an UAZ (Russian jeep) appear. I wait for it and flag it down. The young lady inside points me in the right direction. Through a very scenic village I ride to the west, into the headwind. Just after I’m back on the course I’m slowed down even more. The very scenic road along the river is completely exposed to the wind. I wait with my decisions until the turn-off 10km further on. Then I know if I’ll have a headwind or a tailwind for the remaining 200km.
Nearly immediately after the turn-off at the edge of Lake Ladoga I sense that it’s a lost battle. The wind is completely western today. So to the side or even sometimes a headwind. No chance for a tailwind and I’m already 1,5 hours behind the closing times. I decide to call it a day and contact Mikhail. He tells me that I can keep on going, they will be at the finish until noon the next day, 11 hours after the closing of the control. Without the shoulder troubles I’d have accepted this offer but not now, I don’t want to risk my shoulder for a mere HD finish.
I check my map for possibilities to travel to Sortavala. There’s a railway line in my direction. So I decide to check at the nearest railway station. That railway station takes a long time, the only one is in Vidlitsa is one. Just 5km before the next control. In Vidlitsa I head for it but they can only tell me that the next train to Sortavala leaves tomorrow morning. I decide to head on to the control. It’s one of the best Baltic Star has on offer, at a very scenic location on the shore of Lake Ladoga. I recognise the road from previous rides here. Since I didn’t push it I arrive there 2 hours behind closing time. The controllers are still there. I tell them that I quite and settle for tea and a hot meal.
Now there’s only the problem of my return to Sortavala to be solved. The controllers tell me that there’s an elderly German couple at the beach. They intend to travel north. So I strike up a conversation with them. It would be no problem to hitch a ride with them, but they only leave in the morning, far too late for me. When I return to the controllers they have already phoned the next control. They’ll give me a ride to the Pitkjaranta from where I can go to the finish with the Pitkjaranta controllers. My bike is shoved into the car and we head on. Part of the drive I sleep.
When we arrive in Pitkjaranta not all riders have arrived yet. At least Claus and one of the Austrians are missing. As usual in Russia I immediately get food and drinks. Then I sleep, no use in wasting a good moment of sleeping. When I wake up Claus is still at the control despite the late hour. He tells me that he had set out from the control but had to return due to a back injury. In contrast to me this is his first DNF, a bitter pill to swallow. When we all sit in the minibus to Sortavala it’s a hard ride for Claus. Each pothole he feels in his back. We arrive in Sortavala when nearly everyone is already asleep in the finish control. I join the sleepers and only have a look around town in the next morning.
Now, writing a few weeks after the event I know that this ride is feasible for me. It was the shoulder which caused me too much time loss. I had to sit very upright to lessen the pressure on it. And twice I had to stop and sleep at an untactical moment, especially the sleep stop in Pryazah costed an enormous delay. The shoulder problem was clearly caused by my job, especially by the extra work pressure the week before setting out. I already had problems with it during the last day of work.The headwind caused me severe delays. Had the controllers interpreted the rules very strictly, I’d have been DQ’d before the 500km mark.Finally the starting time caused me some delays. I had to wake up at 5 in the morning, Russian time, which was 3 in the morning for my body clock. So I lost half a night of sleep. This caused the need for 2 sleep stops in the first night. Normally I can ride the first night without sleeping. So I lost 2-3 hours due to this starting time.
The LEL start time of 10 am combined with the 1 hour time change with home is great, then I can gain lot’s of ground in the first night and create a comfortable time cushion. This time cushion was lacking now.The road surface was mentioned by many as a problem point. For me it was not. The right selection of bike and tyres is needed here, a good tourer equiped with 35mm tyres works great for Russian roads. A mountain bike slows you down too much on the asphalt, a pure racer is punishing on the bad sections and causes time loss due to punctures.I’ll certainly return for another ride with Baltic Star, be it a rerun of Vologda-Onega-Ladoga or one of their other rides.