We were told by various people we encountered about what we might experience after crossing from Helsinki and entering the Baltic States. One of our warm showers hosts in Sweden, Rebecca, had said that although Baltic Estonia was trying very hard to become culturally more Scandinavian. Latvia, on the other hand, retained a more Russian identity. It was interesting to see how this translated to attitudes towards cycling in particular.
We had a slightly odd beginning to our time in Tallinn when we were approached by a clearly drunk Estonian man and his Russian companion who had been watching us gawk in the main square. Intrigued by our bikes, they approached and asked where we were from. As soon as we responded "Scotland", we were thrown deep into a political lecture on cultural identity, language and independence (we were more berated than we were lectured). After making our excuses to this gentleman and disappearing with nowhere in particular to go, we found a place for coffee and took ourselves back to the main square to look at our route of the city. There, we met a bike tourer called Maxi who was riding from Poland to Nordcap. He had just ridden through the Baltic States so donated us his paper map and as much advice as he could manage on the route. We had already heard that many of the roads in Estonia would be gravel and we knew from experience in Scandinavia that this would slow us down rather a lot, so on Maxi's advice we settled for a route on minor and major asphalted roads.
Cycling out of Tallinn was extremely straight forward; bike lines all the way out of the city until we reached the Green Way, a tourist route through the country that incorporated a very long two lane bike path through northern Estonia. Despite not having left Tallinn until noon, we still made our target 100km because Estonia is incredibly flat. Cycling on good asphalt bike lanes and all the time with good overtakes from Estonian drivers. On all but one occasion they would use the entire width of the road to overtake and other than that one close pass we didn't feel in any danger.
Toward the end of the day we turned down a gravel track to where we had expected a camp site. It turned out only to be a picnic spot by a small lake (which was very, very full of frogs) but it did us for the night as a wild camp.
There aren't a great deal of shops in or among the small towns in Estonia, and by the next morning we were very low on water. After a few miles we joined the main road and caught sight of an elderly couple gardening. Without us speaking a word in common other than the older gentleman knowing a few numbers in English, we managed to ask for water, which he kindly gave us and also he gave us some advice on our proposed route toward the Latvian border "too gravelly". With this in mind and our experience on the Estonian roads so far and our advice from Maxi, we felt pretty comfortable changing our route to ride on the major highway running from Riga to Tallinn. As with our experience on the previous day, despite it being a very heavily trafficked route, we never felt particularly vulnerable, even during a long section of road works over which we had to push the bikes.
Helen and I have a finely tuned technique for dealing with roads with heavy traffic and in particular those which carry a lot of articulated lorries. Helen rides in front while I ride closely behind concentrating mostly on the view in my mirror. We ride at a steady rate and if I see anything in the mirror such as a truck or car that looks as if it won't be giving us enough space (keeping in mind the oncoming traffic) I will call to Helen to come off the road and wait until I call that it's clear to carry on. In this way, we've managed to keep ourselves safe, and have avoided at least one possible collision.
We had our final camp by the sea near the border with Latvia. Our next possible seaside camp will be in Turkey and it's something we've got used to and will miss.
The next day we set out for Riga, about 145 km away. That's a big distance for us to cover in a day but we felt that we'd be able to with the flat topography and the wind slightly behind us. Based on our experience with drivers so far we felt fairly comfortable in continuing down the main route to Riga, which incidentally was advertised as the EuroVelo 13.
It was a more challenging ride than we expected. Shortly after crossing the Latvian border we noticed a marked difference in the care of driving; more often than not we would be passed closely and at speed even with traffic heading in the opposite direction. On some occasions one vehicle would overtake another that was already in the process of overtaking us. To begin with this was tolerable but really very stressful and mentally exhausting. The road varied from having a 18 inch wide shoulder with 2 - 3 feet of gravel at the side, to an even narrower shoulder without gravel, and then to a road with a particularly European half slow traffic/overtaking lane. The half lane is kind of a cross between a slow vehicle lane and hard shoulder. For the most part it is used by large vehicles and allows faster vehicles a line of sight past them so they can overtake. There is no hard shoulder beyond the half lane so it was the only place we could ride. And this was on the EuroVelo 13. The half lane meant that very often we were closely overtaken by the vehicles who would ordinarily use it. These passes were made worse when faster vehicles were overtaking slower vehicles which were overtaking us. Other terrifying occasions were when cars were overtaking others whilst coming towards us. Essentially we were being driven at at 100 mph. On one particularly inspired occasion, thankfully far enough away to not bother us, a car overtook a lorry which was overtaking another lorry at high speed with inches between. Fun times!
We took a short turn off the highway and onto another cycle route which turned out to be thoroughly uncyclable as it was soft sand. After I'd fallen off the bike and we'd been pushing for 30 minutes we resigned ourselves to going back to the highway.
So after about 60 km of highway riding we were able to turn off and join a coast road. Dreading the prospect of rejoining the highway with traffic building in rush hour and remembering that we needed to get to Riga to get a new bike lock, we decided to take the train for the last few miles into Riga.
At this point, we thought our tribulations were over, but they'd hardly begun. We'd booked into a hotel on the northwest side of the city, 16km away from the central station so there was still more riding to do. The city centre has, like Glasgow, a motorway running through the centre which we needed to cross, but without the help of any bike suitable crossings. On our first attempt having crossed three lanes of traffic and a double tram line, with three more to go we tried to cross in a gap. We misjudged it and had to retreat to our island but in the confusion my bike fell, trapping my leg and nearly knocking me into the traffic. So we gave up on that. Instead we joined the traffic and cycle as far as we could but after 20 metres, my front pannier was hanging off following the fall and we had to stop. Shortly after we needed to cross a bridge, the only problem being that the lifts were broken so we had to push our bikes up three flights of stairs. With that over, we just had to get to the hotel about 14 km further.
We rode northwest on a small but extremely busy road. We hadn't anticipated that it would be as bad as it was. The road surface was terrible, there was no bike lane, the roads that appeared on the map to run parallel were sand or mud tracks that were uncyclable and the roads appearing on the opposite side were in fact a derelict allotment site. With little verges or curbs to the side of the road and the eagerness of the Latvian drivers, lorry drivers and buses included, to overtake us even in the face of oncoming traffic our tried and tested system failed. About half way the stress had gotten to us both and we were getting desperate. The fear had taken Helen to tears and we pulled into the upcoming bus stop.
At that point, after deciding that we couldn't cycle any further we resolved to hitch the rest of the way there. Helen then remembered reading that it was possible to take bikes onto buses if there's space to do so and salvation arrived in the form of a mustachioed bus driver in his bendy bus bearing EU flags. We flagged him down and Helen tried to explain that we needed to get on as it was too dangerous to continue on the bikes. I'm not sure he understood but he waved us on and finally for the first time that day we felt safe on our journey. Ten minutes later we were disembarking and at our 19 Euros a night hotel and spa, in the exclusively Russian speaking district we found ourselves in. With a gruelling day and end, we decided to take the next day off, try and unwind and plan a way back out of Riga and towards Lithuania where we expect the terrible driving won’t improve.
So for Eastern Europe we have a new policy of avoiding big cities and with them any interconnecting major roads. It might slow us down a little but keep us safe and hopefully we'll be a little more free to enjoy the countries we pass through.