Completing the cycling circle

I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:

Why do a self-guided trip?

From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.

Self-guided cycle touring:  10 Practical Tips

And now I’m home!

Working away, work work work.


Paldiski~ Tallinn — 526 km in total

So remember my post the other day about how I try not to engage with my fears too much while I’m traveling?

Well, last night in my Soviet-style guesthouse? The one above the butcher shop? The one where I had my own apartment, but one of the doors was mysteriously locked, and there was a kitchen with an unplugged fridge, and the shower room felt like it had echoes of being used for a felony? And I had the little room with the twin beds that didn’t have a lock of its own? The one with the big steel door downstairs I had to lock with a key I then had to keep near me while sleeping in case of fire? Along with my headlamp so I wouldn’t perish while trying to find the keyhole? That guesthouse?

Yeah, I will confess here that I pulled the other twin bed against the door.

Slept like a baby.

I was eager to get on the road this morning, with a “let’s get this job done” air about me. My calves are very tight and sore, and I had to stretch and massage and then use my “white monkey eating peach” hot rub I bought in Laos.

I was also a little iffy about the route. I saw in my trip notes last night that there was heavy construction in the first 15km which was the only road out of town. Since Paldiski is a port, there are a lot of trucks along that road. My trip notes suggested I might want to take the train to Klooga (cutting off about 20 km) or all the way to Tallinn — but also noted that the railway was also under construction, and I might have to transfer to a bus part way, which might not take my bike.

Very helpful.

Along the main road, Tallinn was only about 50 km from Paldiski, and after fuss/conferring with my sister and a friend last night, I decided to just ride.

And of course, no construction at all. Smooth road, okay shoulder, trucks in nice predictable little clusters.

About 15 km in, I saw a sign for a Holocaust memorial, 2 km off to the right. I knew there was something Holocaust related in the town I was in last night, but I hadn’t been able to find it. I figured I needed to go see it.

Down a narrow forest road, a moving memorial to a death/labour camp I’d never heard of, where Estonian Jews were mass murdered. I thought I knew a fair bit about this part of history but I think east-of-Poland has always felt like a bit of a blur.

The memorial was several long concrete formations like shards of glass, over a long pathway, each exhibiting a significant part of the story, with two larger memorials, one on the site of the single day murder of 2000 people. I walked around the bird-chirpy lonely woods and thought about all of these dark craters of history just behind those rows of trees.

Part of me was wondering a bit about the location for the camp, but when I got back to the road, I realized that there were railroad tracks just beyond where I’d turned. Of course. The same tracks that ferried people here in cattle cars, still in use. The same tracks I’d have taken my bike on.

When I was in Riga, I went to the museum of occupation, and there was an exhibit about cattle cars, how some people were shunted back and forth across Latvia in the cattle cars for months as territory changed hands between the Soviets and the Germans. There was an account from one woman who lived in the car for months. This would be one of the places those cars ended up.

I rode on, glad I’d stopped.

The next major leg of the ride was idyllic. Perfect cool, sunny, clear weather, the vast majority of the distance on actual bike paths next to a main road. I ate my cheese sandwich next to a tiny waterfall about which a big deal was made. There was supposed to be a lunch place, and I wanted a cup of tea, but when I approached the door, a woman yammering on a cellphone at one of the outdoor tables got up and closed the door, not meeting my eye. I guess she was on her break? There was also no place to throw out any garbage, and the porta-johns were beyond foul and depositories of people’s lunch waste — like a cardboard box for a whole pie. That’s what happens when you don’t give people a garbage can.

After the waterfalls, it was really the outskirts of Tallinn. It’s Saturday, so lots of road bike riders heading out of town. I noted that of the dozens of cyclists near Riga, during the week or today, only two of them were women. And only the women returned my greetings.

I finally caught a tailwind for part of the ride, and was downright gleeful about it. Good flow, everything working — until the cycle trail ran right into massive construction in front of a mall on the edge of the city, and I found myself first riding on sand, then inside the barriers of a serious road-digging operation. (I skedaddled). That threw me off my instructions, and I ended up totally the wrong way at the beach, where women in bikinis pumped up inflatable kayaks and dozens of pale Estonians sunbathed, despite the 15 degrees.

Finding my hotel was tedious and involved a lot of squinting at google maps (which has weirdly decided to be black), through my sunglasses (making it harder), while navigating traffic. I found the place, anti-climatically. No cheering crowds of people, no one handing me a freshly squeezed passion fruit. Just me looking like a chaotic mess trying to sort out the bike, the bags, a need to put it in the garage and lock it somehow.

For the rest of the afternoon, I was mildly grumpy.  Partly there are more tourists here and I had to search for a table for lunch, and dealing with my bike in the hotel was confusing, and the guy who came to pick up my bike was downright pissy — but mostly, my sense of purpose was suddenly gone. I feel done with riding right now. I don’t know if my legs could take a ton more of pushing that load — my feet hurt, I am flirting with sciatica in my right leg, and the backs of my calves are scraped up from catching on the wrong side of the pedals. But seeing this country this way, winding my way around the sea, making friends with the wind, feeling this world from the ground up, finding my way without drama, moving completely at my own speed and under my own locomotion over more than 500 km — it lets me be the me I most like.

I’m not going home for another week — I have a few days here in Tallinn then St. Petersburg — and I will find my new rhythm. Grateful for this time and space. And for an excellent vegan meal with the delightful server Karl Ander tonight.

Ainazi to Parnu (65 k)

The squeak of the suspension, a slight rattle of my handlebar bag. Soft wind, sky dissolving from bright blue to faintly grey. Slight bruising in my sitting bones after two and a half days on the bike, slightly sore right foot. Left foot not clipped in because I lost a screw from the spd yesterday and it seized when I tried to make do with one screw. Fields of golden wheat on one side, green green on the other, purple lupins and an occasional daisy. Silent road, except for the occasional, always faintly ominous, farm dog. About 35 km into my ride.

I breathe deep and am suffused with a moment of ease, pure gratitude. How is it I ended up on this lonely Estonian country road? How is it I have a life that means I’m physically strong enough, supported enough, flush enough, lucky enough, to do this kind of trip? Rolling steadily, elemental cellular level gratitude.

Minutes later, the headwind starts. I make an oof noise as I push myself harder, fight myself and the loaded bike into the wind. I try to sing for distraction, but am working too hard to get more than a few words out. I wonder again who else I know who would actually enjoy doing this kind of thing, ponder for the nth time in my life the difference between pain, over-exertion and simple discomfort. So far, all just discomfort. The kind that feels so good when it’s done.

The first part of my morning was absolutely idyllic — a coastal road winding past cottages, the sea always just over my shoulder. Sunny but just the right kind of cool for riding, trees on both sides of the road most of the time, sheltering me from wind. No seam between Latvia and Estonia — the same quality of road, same type of signage, same houses, same bus stops every 500 m or so, same blonde families on the road, weathered men driving small vans.  Sensible European road signs that rely on visuals, not language.

The first 25 km, I rolled along on the coastal road and found everything delightful. I crossed the Estonian border without fanfare. Passed fairy tale cottages just set back from the road, my longed-for roadside bun and coffee, the sea flickering, teenage girls lying in the chill sun outside their little holiday cabins, a holiday camp, farms set right by the sea, a quirky bus shelter shaped like a Viking ship, a fishing enterprise with silver fish, heads removed, hanging high near the road to dry.

When I shifted into the more remote route that was the second part of my ride, it was an alternative to 26 km on the autostrada. It promised 7 km of “good gravel” roads, and I wasn’t disappointed. Very rare cars passed me, and until the headwind began, it was utterly remote and the perfect ride.

As I fought the wind in the last bit of that road, I thought again about how conditions that are good for cycling are so basic. Wind, relatively predictable terrain so you don’t have to stare down, reasonably polite traffic, chill or rain but preferably not both at the same time. Some people don’t like heat, but I can soldier through it.

The wind is my nemesis, though. It’s easy to complain about but almost impossible to describe. How it whips up so much louder on a bike than any other conveyance, jumbling your inner ease. How it’s unpredictable, suddenly slamming you sideways, actively toying with you in a mocking way. I always feel like I can actually see it, but then struggle to find it in a way I can photograph what it means. . The wheat bending slightly, the flag flapping around — they don’t capture what it takes to PUSH your body and about 40 kilos forward into the gusts, stay upright, what it means to barely eke out a speed of 13 km hour on a flat road.

It’s a lot of work for me. I find myself grunting and creaking like swaying wooden mast on a ship, muttering Shakespearean curses. My nose and eyes stream. There are a few spits of rain, wet and hard like someone is actually hurling them at me angrily, one at a time. I start making promises about when I’ll allow myself to stop and eat today’s stolen cheese sandwich. “The first bus shelter that has a place to sit after 45 km…”

I find a very civilized bus shelter in the first village I’ve come to since I got on this road, drink water, eat my sandwich, a few dried apricots. Very grateful for the apricots, which were left as a gift for me the night before I left.

An old man stops his car and limps up to the mailbox next to my little shelter, not responding to my greeting or head nod. “How old is an old man?” I find myself wondering, in the nonsensical, wind-blown head way of hours alone on the bike.

After the sandwich and the shelter, the road ends and I face the inevitable 8 km on the autostrada. The shoulder is less than a metre. The anxiety of close traffic and fatigue sets in, the consequences of losing my thin line of safety so high. I unclip my one functional pedal, not trusting it for a fast exit, and focus on steady forward, resolutely ignoring the trucks that pass me less than a metre away at 100 km/hr. My time in Vietnam was good training for this. The wind is still fighting me, with the odd sideways gust that makes me even more focused. 6 km, 4, 2, 500 m — I scamper awkwardly across the busy highway to the relief of the outskirts of Parnu, Estonia’s most celebrated beach town.

It’s chilly, and a little gloomy, but so calm after the autostrada. I roll past uninspiring apartment blocks, ponder how no one would rent a sixth floor walk up in Canada. I spot a bike shop on my way into town and manage to navigate the purchase of a new set of spds for my left shoe. I feel tipped back upright.

My hotel is on the edge of an elderly green park, and I’m given a room with one single bed, in that way of European hotels. I shower, find lunch in the old town that is determined to be celebratory, music and jugglers and sidewalk cafes. I eat under an awning until the rain forces me inside. Marinated salmon, potatoes, tomatoes, bread and a simply enormous amount of vanilla and rhubarb ice cream with berries and chia seeds.  I tell the server I’m hungry because I rode from Ainazi and she rushes my food, gives me extra ice cream.

Later, I walk to the beach and watch the indefatigable Estonians cherish the sun 630 pm sun. A couple sit on the wall and play cards. Children push scooters and drive little go carts. People smoke, despite the wind. It could be any decade.

Meza Salas to Ainazi (76.5 km)

Pushing my bike into motion on the gravel roads this morning took a force of will.  It was raining, and the soft loose gravel was even less appealing wet than it was yesterday.  I had said no when the woman serving me breakfast had offered to drive me to the nearest town to get past the gravel roads.  Once again, Latvians prove to be the nicest people on earth — this is one of the few  times I’ve encountered when someone offering to help me while cycling actually suggests something useful to a cyclist’s logic.  I toyed with the idea, but my completist self prevailed.  Unlike guided trips, I’d planned this one with no transfers after the train to Sigulda.  And I was going to do it.

Anda had made me a vast breakfast, and I tucked away a cheese sandwich in my pocket. Something told me it might be useful.  I only had one small coffee, envisioning a 15 km wet gravel road ride into Limbazi, then finding a sweet café for coffee and a pastry.  Earned.

The rain made the gravel roads around the farmland less harrowing than yesterday, tamping them down a bit.  I sailed along at a soggy, rapid-for-the-terrain 18 km /hour.  The rain made it chilly, but the roads were nicely Nordic.  White birches, brooding forests.

After about 14 km, I began to squint at the directions from the bike tour company.  Hm.  It didn’t look like I was supposed to go into Limbazi.  What about my cakes and coffee?

I looked at the actual map and decided it was fine if I veered off course.  I turned right, eager for my treats.  It’s Monday, surely this little town would have a place for me to warm up, a little fire.  It started pouring and gusting wind as I rode up and down the streets.  One sign I thought meant “cafe” turned out to be a clothing store, not open.  An apothecary, small grocery store, tire shop.  Rain streaming off my helmet, I asked a man holding his hood over his head as he talked on the phone — “coffee?” — he pointed down, mimed a hill,  I went in that direction and… everything looked tight shut against the rain.

I remember having this experience in Iceland thinking there would be a sweet little bakery with cakes whenever I wanted it.  But the population just didn’t support it.  I rode out of Limbazi, having seen little of what my cycling guide writer had described as “the spirit of Limbazi.”  Unless that spirit was “stay in the damn house it’s horrible out.”

I cycled  back to the junction and realized that I was actually quite cold. “Surely there must be a tea shop somewhere along here, the main route to the sea?”  I didn’t see one, but pulled into a small food shop.  I mimed tea.  The woman took me to a section of teabags.  I looked sad, and indicated my warmer shirt.  “May I?”  She let me change in the room full of soda and freezers, pretending to check something on the other side of the room in case I was not what I appear.  What do I appear?

I left the shop with a warmer shirt and dry raincoat on, minus tea.  I spent at least the next 10 minutes of the ride thinking about nothing but the sheer pleasure of a warm dry shirt when you are cold and wet.

I rode that road for another 40 km without encountering another pedestrian or a sign of commerce of any kind.  A white stork walking slowly across the road, more birch, fields of hay and canola, purple thistle, tall huge stork nests.   The roads are pristine, without a single mar of litter.

At around the 45 km mark, I accepted that there was going to be no coffee, no tea, no little cakes.  I pulled off to the side of the road and ate my pilfered cheese sandwich standing up over my bike, a handful of dried apricots I’d brought with me.  The rain had mostly stopped, and I consulted the directions and the map again.  Hm.  More gravel coming on this road,, and instructions to turn onto an even lesser gravel road for about 18 km.

I rebelled.

I looked at the actual map, and deduced that the secondary cycling route had me continuing on this road to the coast.  The mapped route from my bike tour company had me crossing fields and a river and coming into the town for the night on another gravel road.  I did some math and concluded that continuing straight to the coast on this road equalled less gravel.  “Surely there must be a bike route up the coast?” I thought.

The thing about traveling at all, and riding in particular, is that you really really have to accept what is.  It’s a constant theme with me — probably the thing I have to engage with most when I travel. You can plan your ASS off and you will have imperfect clothes, a bike load that feels off balance, a blithe instruction that says “take a train” that actually requires about 12 steps to decode and do.  You can’t travel by bike or in unexpected places and expect perfect flow.  (I can’t remember how many times our car broke down in Uganda on the same route).  But somehow, I still feel pegged to certain aspects of my planning — like following the route set out by the bike company, even though I am ALONE on my bike in Latvia, I have a map, and I know my destination.

So when I got to the turn, I paused.  It looked sinky. I stayed on the road I was on.  13 km to Saulkrasti, it said, where I would turn and head north along the coast.

I’m not gonna lie:  the road I stayed on was not easy.  Corrugations, soft sand tugging at my back wheel, logging trucks, the constant frogger dance of trying to find the one line that was steadier than the others.  Intermittent rain.  And then the road became asphalt again, and I finally came to a junction — and the sign for Saulkrasti — my last hope for a cheese bialy, a coffee — pointed one way, and the cycling route the other.  I tried to google map but google has not yet located cycling routes for the Latvian/Estonian border area.  I went with the little blue “cycling route 7” as the sun came out.  65 km or so, still no stop, more than 3.5 hours.

I rode and it became town, and I crossed the A1, the main Baltic highway.  Two lanes, but fast.  I rode through the town and found a lighthouse, took my photo on thr edge of the Baltic Sea — and yet, still no tea shop.  “I’m almost at Ainazi,” I thought.  “There I shall find solace.”  I start to think in broken, archaic English on the bike after a while.

I poked myself north, and realized I was joining the Autostrada.  That can’t be good.  Many trucks, speeding cars.  But wait — a sweet bike lane alongside it!

I zipped along the bike lane for four or five kilometres, avoiding bleary and presumably hungover teenagers carrying creeping bags that had escaped their moorings, backpacks.  A few trying to hitchhike, a whack on a bus, several dropping their stuff in the path.  Two girls walking barefoot in the gravel, holding their shoes, on the other side of the highway crying a little.  The residue of a music festival or something

I’m preening over the wisdom of the Latvians for making this beautiful bike path, this perfect accompaniment to the busy highway, wondering why we can’t do this.  When it stops.  For the next 8 km or so, I straddle the not-quite-shoulder, try not to be blown away by the trucks.  Try to decide if this is better than the sinking gravel roads on the planned route.

There is no way to know.  There only is.

My hotel is one km from the Estonian border, in a small fishing village. Suddenly it’s sunny with blue skies. I am covered in mud that won’t come off in one shower and damp, unciviled in this clean, quiet, friendly hotel. There’s a cosy restaurant, and a nice woman at the desk. I order fish and vegtables and a small beer, shower, come down and sink into my meal, a cosy chair. Two older women who followed their lunches with a beer each toast me.

Later, I find a shop selling ice cream and walk around eating it. I think one house is haunted and abandoned until I hear a baby cry in front of it. I’m just tired enough to let the thought that it’s a ghost baby wash over me. But it’s too sunny and the town has a sleek wind-powered energy supply, and Latvians are too nice to let ghost babies take over their towns.

Sigulda ~ Limbazi (60km)

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.

Half an hour later, a delicious mess of fried potato, sausage and cheese, bread, cucumber salad and cold tomato soup. And, when requested,  a beer.

I eat then drink the beer out by the pond. It’s silent, full sun at 715 pm, in a land of kindness.

Riga 3

I’ve slept in Riga for two nights and I haven’t seen dark yet. Is it north enough to have 24 hour light?

I was up this morning before everyone but the Chinese tourists. I took myself on a little self-guided walking tour through the empty Old Town, all mine. A cluster of cathedrals, including where the Reformation began in Latvia. The old castle. A pink and white wedding party in the less ornate Catholic Church.

I was in search of the houses known as the “three brothers,” the oldest built 600 years ago, the next two over the next 3 centuries. I had them all to myself.

I crossed the empty cobbles as the sky got bluer and the sun warmer, in search of coffee and some kind of pastry. I found a charming little shop.

“We have no croissants yet. But there is breakfast for the guys from the hostel.” There was a cluster of bleary hungover guys further into the shop eating a well-curated continental breakfast.  “I can give you some of their pancakes!

For four euros I had delicious hostel pancakes and an americano.

Riga is sun-kissed, a careful meadow planted in the square in front of St James Cathedral, cafes with excellent food jostled against the wall that is all that remains of the oldest church in the city.

I go for a sports massage and Ilona finds a bunch of places on her phone for me to visit on my bike ride. “Enjoy my country!”

I’m going to miss Riga.