Ansasi, the bike hire contact, meets me at the hotel at the set time. We put on my pedals, my seat, adjust the panniers. “Put my number in your phone and call me if anything goes wrong. I can drive to get you – I have done it before. A man two metres tall with a load like yours broke his wheel off road.” He tells me that he has heard Canadians are the nicest people on earth.
I thank him and ride to the train station, fluttery about how to get the heavy bike on the train, the right platform. I’m not wrong — it’s not that easy. I find the right entrance and am greeted by stairs and a little metal ramp for bikes. Mine is loaded and back heavy and it slides and gravity takes over. A shiny Latvian woman efficiently helps me right it and holds the door for me.
Ansasi told me there would be a bicycle sign on the carriage with room for bikes. There isn’t. A German man with a more loaded bike than mine joins me in scanning. We hoist each other’s bikes up into the last car and chat. He’s riding to St Petersburg from the Latvian/Estonian border, where his wife will fly to meet him. He falls asleep. When my station is called an hour later, he flails himself awake to haul my bike off the train. We shake hands. “I’m cate.” “I’m Peter.” Good trip!
I’m disoriented at the train station for a moment and pause to have a coffee and cheese bialy, look at the map. A man sitting with a woman across from me says “excuse me, are you really from Canada?” My jersey is black with small maple leafs. “You came all the way here to ride a bike! Unbelievable!” He repeats it a few times. When I leave, he says “I still don’t believe it! You are the hero for today!”
Just outside of Sigulda, I stop at the castle. It’s Sunday and it’s crowded — Latvians with families, actual wicker picnic baskets. I’m trying to decide if I want to lock the bike and pay to see the view. One of the family guys calls from below me “are you really from Canada?”
On the way out, I catch up to him and his wife, two daughters. He’s a Latvian living in Seattle. “I am a software developer. They want to keep me. So I have three months vacation because of my new baby.” “For bonding” his wife says helpfully. He’s another Peter. “You are riding by yourself!? Extraordinary! When you leave the tourist area, no one will speak English. Take my phone number and call me if you need anything.”
When I start riding outside of Sigulda, the high of all this amazing helpfulness wanes a bit. The load is heavy, and all in the back. I walk the bike about 50 m uphill out of a valley, ruefully defeated. I find my rhythm as farmland stretches out, and it’s slow. My inner chimes slow down. This unfamiliar bike shape and weight is steady effort.
I stop at the oldest church in Latvia, but realize people are actually in a service and slide back out. Ten kilometres later, I skip the recommended lunch spot because the food looks too heavy. And I’m not really hungry after that cheese thing. I spy a small food store and buy a banana and more water. Outside an old woman who looks like my great grandmother is selling flowers. I buy a daisy and as I’m threading it through my handlebars, she hands me a small bouquet, smiling and nodding. We are wishing each other well, with no words.
I ride, finding the possible pace. It’s going to be slow. And real work. But the fields are green and the sky is fairytale blue, wisps of clouds. I start to interpret road signs, likely words. Cars pass fast but politely, leaving me room. The written directions are pretty accurate, and I find myself slowly counting out the last 5 km before the coffee break spot.
It’s about 40km into the ride, so much more slowly than on an unfettered road bike, and I’m suddenly hungry. It’s a gorgeous spot on a former manor estate that’s clearly a Sunday family lunch destination. I order cold beet soup, a coke, fries with coke slaw. I eat it all and laze in the grass for a few minutes, bargaining with myself about what I could conceivably jettison from my packs. Nothing I won’t want at some point. I regret the blue fluevogs. Clearly they are worth 4km/ hour.
I get back on the bike and try to figure out the vague directions. I hadn’t noticed the blithe reference to “gravel roads.” When they overtake me, they are the exact worst kind of gravel, more like soft sand churned into corrugations by farm vehicles. The inclines are everything I can do to not let the back wheels fold over. At one point I stop, grit my teeth and say to myself “this WAS your idea!” I go on.
There’s a haze of time on the gravel road where I’m sure I’ve missed a turn, and clear cursing when the real turn gives way to more gravel. For a good 15 km, I’m solely focused on gripping the bars with my hands, finding the right touch under my wheels.
I finally find the guesthouse, off the road and part of a campground complex. No one else is here, explains the red-faced Yvetta, who gives me the key and tells me to lock up. There are two camper vans and one family in a hut. The kids and an old man are fishing in the ponds.
I ask about dinner and Yvetta says no, they don’t make dinner. I’m oddly calm as I say that I didn’t bring food and I’m on my bike. She gets it immediately despite very little English and tells me she will make something, wait for her knock.