Posting Sept 8, 2017—On the morning of July 27, Dave and I left Khvod around 8:00 a.m. for our day of riding. We hoped leaving earlier would give us more time in cooler temperatures. But Siberia, a vast 13.1 million sq km (5,100,000 sq mi) region of land mass encompassing southward from the Arctic Ocean to north-central Kazakhstan to the borders between Mongolia and China, was already 36°C (91°F). Wasn’t Siberia renown for being cold?
The dirt roads were fun for a while but then turned into sand again, which we both found tricky but I especially disliked. We had sets of Shinko tires on both our front and rear rims and as they had no recess down the middle, it just felt like I was sliding left to right or vice versa in every corner. There also happened to be a lot of traffic, this being the main “highway” to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, over 1,000 km (600 mi) away.
With the sand, traffic and type of road conditions, this was the closest I would ever get to feeling like a rally racer in the Baja 1000. I almost ate it a few times when a sandy bit would catch me by surprise and my back tire would lose traction, causing me to skip off-road into the dusty desert, eyeballs rolling around in my head unable to focus on anything but sky, sand and the lovely smelling sage, whose scent would drift up to my nostrils after my bike’s tires had savagely assaulted a bushel or two.
After about 160 km (100 mi), we saw a river and pulled off the road and down to its banks, taking off our shirts to soak them in the water and splashing our faces to cool off and remove dust and sand. We sat for a while enjoying the calm.
It was hard to think compatibly at times; Dave was loving the rally-racing style ingrained in him with a mountain biking background whereas I wasn’t comfortable drifting into corners out of control on a fully-loaded adventure bike.
Before we left, Dave had invested in top-of-the-line suspension. I had done so too on my first bike, but when it broke down and I had to replace it, I couldn’t justify spending the money to upgrade the stock rear shock and forks on the new bike. I didn’t need beefy suspension—that was for 200 lb guys riding their F800s or GSAs fully-loaded and aggressively. I was a conservative rider, who weighed less than 150 lbs even in all my gear. But I was sure feeling it now, in my knees and lower back, which took the hits the bike couldn’t absorb. It was only the afternoon and I was already exhausted. Worry was finding its way in, no matter how hard I fought it—what was the next 5,000 km (3,100 mi) to the end of our trip going to be like? There wasn’t much pavement between here and Magadan, Russia. We’d also planned to ride the BAM and the Road of Bones; the most challenging part of our trip was going to coincide with the end of our trip and we were getting more and more travel-weary by the day.
We got back on the road after our stop at the river. I felt the tension easing out of my shoulders. Life was good. The scenery was gorgeous: wide open sage-smelling fields and valleys speckled with white yurts. Brown faces of cute little kids popping up on the side of the road to wave at us riding by. The day ended pleasantly with us camping up a side road in the grass.
The next day, however, was not going to let us keep our peaceful mind frame for long. I woke up with a knot the size of a hardboiled egg in my right shoulder, which made it harder to negotiate the sandy roads. In one section, Dave was ahead and I saw him disappear into a cloud of dust then emerge zig-zagging around in the deep sand. I took a different line to avoid that and ended up plowing into something even deeper, flying off my bike and managing to break the zipper on my riding jacket in the process. I used my kidney belt to keep the jacket closed and got back on the bike. Although it was hot and I’d rather not ride with a jacket at all, I had just crashed unscathed, so its protection was obvious.
Soon after, we arrived in a town with paved roads. Many towns we’d passed over the last 1,000 km (600 mi), paved their roads to avoid dust in their living space but after leaving these towns you’d be right back into the Off-road Sandy Washboard Challenge, so we weren’t expecting it to last long. But in this case, the pavement was still with us an hour after leaving town. I knew Dave had enjoyed the off-roading but I think even he was glad for the Tarmac Reprieve. I was certainly grateful to give my aching shoulders a rest and sit back down in my seat after hundreds of kilometres standing on the pegs.
Just when I was in full-on Tarmac Groove, the road abruptly changed from pavement to dirt after about 100 km (60 mi). This was a very rough section of hard-packed dirt with decent sized embedded rocks. It was like the road crew had poured concrete then someone had followed behind implanting rocks like molars into gums, pointy side up. I felt some good blows to the rims and was certain one of us would have a flat but we got away with just a few good surface holes that didn’t penetrate enough for punctures.
After fueling up in a small village, we were again on pavement, though it was broken up and had some pretty big potholes. I was following Dave out of the village and we were approaching a bridge, about half a kilometre away. I can’t honestly remember why—maybe I was passing a slow car or maybe I was avoiding a pothole—but I pulled left to go around something.
I didn’t notice until too late there was a massive pothole right before the bridge deck with a vertical wall of concrete rising out of it about a foot high. I had a nano-second to stand on the pegs, lean my body weight back and grab the throttle to unweight the forks before I smoked into it. I wasn’t going fast, maybe about 60 kmph (37 mph), but it was fast enough. I felt an alarming jolt through my shoulders, elbows and wrists and knew my bike had taken a big hit. I needed to pull over immediately.
I pressed the button on my Sena to tell Dave I was stopping then hopped off. The damage looked pretty bad and I was convinced my bike would be going no further that day. The metal rim of my front wheel had two significant dents in both sides. Amazingly the tire had held the bead and didn’t appear to be losing air. There was fluid everywhere. I’d completely blown my forks, forcing the fork oil out all over my boots, pant legs, tire and front of my bike. My horse was bleeding and had two broken legs.
A healthy dose of Trucker’s Profanity spewed from my lips. Ulaanbaatar was likely the only place we could get something like this fixed and it was still three days away. We were going to have to flag down a truck and I’d have to spend three days in it bumping along the rough dirt roads watching my bike getting trashed even worse strapped down in the back.
Dave pulled up and came over to assess the damage while asking me what had happened. I explained and he said I was lucky I wasn’t flung over the handlebars. I realized how much of a hit my trusty steed had taken on my behalf, keeping me whole and uninjured. I truly believe my motorcycles to be living beings. This bike loved and protected me, unlike my 650, which had tried to kill me regularly.
We put the bike on its centre stand and Dave removed the front wheel with the intention of taking it back to the village to see if someone there could pound the rim back into a better position to hold the tire’s bead. He cleaned as much oil off the bike as he could with a rag and informed me I no longer had front brakes as the oil explosion had saturated them. After strapping my wheel to his bike, Dave rode back into the village while I sat on the side of the road watching people watch me.
Many vehicles drove past. Some slowed only to wonder at the foreign motorcycle propped up with a missing wheel and a girl sitting beside it with a sarong wrapped around her head trying to find shade. Only one truck stopped and I sighed, bracing myself for a conversation neither of us would understand. A man came over and yelled some words at me. I shrugged saying, “sorry I only speak English.” He nodded and stared at my bike. The passenger door opened and a woman came out. She handed me a plastic bottle of pop. It was a small gesture but it warmed my heart and I thanked her with a smile I hadn’t been able to muster at first. They left and I nursed my pop, taking a photo of a cute kid who was watching me from across the road.
Dave returned within an hour. He brought over the wheel, which looked much better. He’d found a tire repair shop and they’d basically just taken a sledgehammer to it. I’d have to replace the rim at some point in the future but it would do the trick for now. As he put the wheel back on he told me he’d looked at the hole in the road I’d hit. He told me again, this time more gravely, how lucky I was to have stayed on the bike. I wondered if something like this had happened early in my riding life, which was basically the start of this trip, if I’d had known what to do to avoid a much worse outcome. Would I have grabbed the brakes, forcing the weight of me and my bike to auger into the hole? If so, that was a definite over-the-handlebars ending. I never want things like this to happen but was grateful I had a skill set now to deal with it better.
With the wheel back on and the forks cleaned up, the bike looked better. Although I was nervous to get back in the saddle, I was very happy and surprised I was riding out of there. I’m always so thankful Dave is mechanically handy. And how lucky was it to find a tire repair shop in the middle of nowhere?
I had to be ultra-cautious riding now, though. The forks were definitely shot, so they couldn’t absorb anything. I couldn’t hit any dips or rises in the road without a terrible metal-on-metal sound and a jolt through my arms and neck. I also had no front brakes, which was perhaps the sketchiest part. If I had to stop quickly, well, I just wouldn’t. But I couldn’t worry about any of that, I could only ride and eat up some distance between where we were now and Ulaanbaatar where Dave was confident we could repair my forks and get new brake pads.
After a few hours of riding, we called it a day after finding some yurts to camp in on White Lake. We immediately booked two nights thinking we needed a break. The beautiful setting was a welcome relief to our frazzling day.
When we arrived, we met a tour guide who spoke English. He saw a sticker on my bike that was from the BMW dealer in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I’d bought my bike, and said, “Do you know Justin Kleiter?” Surprised I said yes. He was the person I’d bought my bike from. Justin had been to Mongolia the year before touring around on a motorcycle as well and had been with this guide. I loved these small world moments.
We got settled in and very happily tucked into a pair of warm beers in front of our yurt, looking out over White Lake as the sun set.
It had been a tough day but the evening was shaping up to be relaxing. That was until I said, “Oh, yeah, I meant to tell you, my clutch seems weird…”
Next post… We find more issues with my bike.