Wednesday, 12 October 2016
Kevin’s books, Bonjour! Is This Italy? and From Crystal Palace to Red Square tell of his adventures throughout Europe, Scandinavia and into Russia, first riding a Suzuki SV650S and then on his ’02 Kawasaki Ninja.
Explaining why he’d chosen to donate to this worthwhile cause, Kevin said: “I really wanted to do a charity ride or a sponsored adventure, but I have twin boys that have just turned two and finding time for a big ride was out of the question. But I realised I could essentially recycle my past journeys in the sense of donating the sales from my books; it’s not quite as exciting as getting out on the road but at the end of the day, it’s about supporting my local Blood Bikers, not going on holiday.”
Nigel Howells, Fleet Manager at SSBB said: “Shropshire and Staffordshire Blood Bikes rely on donations to maintain our machines and support our riders. Our riders embark on mini-adventures every time they head off on a potentially life-saving journey; although we like to think we’re a little better prepared than Kevin seems to be! We’re delighted to accept this donation; we’re sure readers will enjoy Kevin’s entertaining books while at the same time supporting our life-saving work.”
If you’d like to support Shropshire and Staffordshire Blood Bikes and enjoy a good read in the process, Kevin’s books and e-books, Bonjour! Is This Italy? and From Crystal Palace to Red Square are available to buy from Amazon. You can find more information about them on Kevin’s website www.haplessbiker.com.
As part of our new series of Classic Veloce extracts, we'd like to share a short passage of From Crystal Palace to Red Square ...
Finland came and Finland went and I didn’t see a great deal of it. It was a sad reality of this manic adventure, part sprint, part marathon, that I could only do so much with the time I had; something had to give, and unfortunately that something was Finland. So I carried on along the E18, on a monotonous journey that I can’t remember a thing about. It’s strange; when I think back to almost any other part of that trip, vivid images spring to mind of roads and bridges and streams and service stations. But when I recall the ride from Turku to the border, there is nothing, just a big mental blank; even my notes are limited to the road numbers and the fact that I stopped for a sandwich.
Scenery and incidents aside, the one thing I do remember is the quiver of excitement that passed through me the first time I saw a sign to ‘St Petersburg.’ That got to me; I really was going to Russia. But St Petersburg was 200km from the Finnish border and for some reason that fact had not registered. In my mind – which to be fair was still clouded with hangover and slightly numb from the day’s ride – I still had that distance to cover in Finland before I reached the border; so it was a surprise when, about 100km sooner than expected, the traffic started to back up and I found myself queuing to enter the Russian Federation.
I joined a long line of cars and buses and began sorting through my paperwork: I divided my cash by currency and placed it into different wallets, hiding the majority of my roubles to avoid losing the lot when the Russians tried to scam me. I knew they would do so; I had been told by enough people along the way. I checked my Visa, my driving license, my insurance, my entry voucher, my international driving permit and the bike documents (MoT, insurance, tax, V5); everything was there, filed orderly in my tank back.
Actually, not quite everything; I hadn’t purchased a third-party insurance document which was apparently a prerequisite for entry, or exit, one or the other. I hadn’t bought it because I didn’t really know what it was and finding out seemed an unnecessary hassle because I’d read somewhere that you could purchase it from Finnish petrol stations near the border. I’d decided to ask someone just before Russia, but the border had sneaked up on me sooner than expected, leaving no time to do so.
I figured I had two options; I could turn around, ride back into Finland and find somewhere that could help me, or I could chance it and hope everything would be okay. ‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘it’s only the Russians.’ I took off my boots and lay down on the grass verge; it was too hot to worry about paperwork.
An hour or so later I pulled up to the little hut where the border guard sat waiting impassively.
“Passport please.” He spoke reasonable English and his formality seemed contrived, as though he was really a nice guy but had to play the part of a pitiless monster. I handed over my passport with a smile and then resumed a detailed inspection of my fingernails, concentrating awkwardly on anything that didn’t involve absent documents.
“Who do you think will win the Grand Prix today?”
“What?” I replied. I was too startled to be polite.
“Kimi, huh? I think Räikkonen for the championship now, the Lotus is looking strong,” said the fellow with my future in his hands.
For a while I just stared at him. What cruel strategy was this? These Russians were more devious than I’d anticipated. Should I just hand over my cash now? Give him everything and beg for mercy. ‘No’ I thought, ‘let’s at least make a sport of it.’
“Maybe,” I replied. “It’s a shame Petrov isn’t racing.”
Yeah, name check the only Russian driver; get him on side and remember this the next time someone tells me I watch too much Formula One.
The guard laughed.
“Tell that to the guys up the road.”
“Will do,” I replied enthusiastically, wondering what on earth he was talking about. Still, I didn’t care; this chap was about as far removed from the impression I’d been given of the savage Russian border guards as you could get. I’d had more trouble entering France. I was so relieved by his conviviality that I decided to chance my luck and ask about my absent insurance document.
“Oh I don’t know about that,” he said with a frown, “You’d better ask the Russians when you get there.” And that’s when I realised: I wasn’t entering Russia, I was leaving Finland.
I will remember that moment for a long time. I will remember the sickness that materialised in my stomach, the pang of sorrow which overcame me and which manifested itself in an audible and pitiful groan.
It had been far, far too easy. Foolishly, I had allowed myself to believe the unbelievable; you don’t just ride into the former Soviet Union with a nod and a smile and hearty “Good day sir.” In my haste to enter Russia I’d forgotten that I needed to leave Finland first. Now the worst was still ahead of me and my resolve had been sapped by this crushing disappointment. And I still didn’t have that damn insurance.
In between Finland and Russia there are three ‘phoney’ border stations, small wooden sheds where guards check your passport for no discernible reason. This transitional zone is tense, quiet and empty, and the space creates a deep sense of unease. You are completely exposed as you traverse this no man’s land, watched from a distance by many cameras and, I have no doubt, many marksmen as well. A lone biker on a bright green motorcycle must have made for a curious spectacle and I wondered whether curious spectacles made for itchy trigger fingers. Were they laughing at this oddball on their monitors, or preparing to react with lethal force if I made a suspicious gear change?
Probably the latter; the Russians didn’t seem to laugh at much. Not those wearing uniform anyway. It was chaos at the border and nobody was smiling. Between the lines of cars and busses and vans there was barely room for all the people who’d left their vehicles to mill around aimlessly, dragging suitcases and dropping passports, stewing in resigned frustration under the blazing mid-afternoon sun. I parked the Kawasaki and removed my crash helmet. ‘This is more like it,’ I thought.
Asking for help in these circumstances was pointless, partly because I didn’t speak a word of Russian, but mainly because in this chaotic free-for-all, I suspected pity would be quite thin on the ground. I decided to sit tight, stay out of people’s way and let the madness play out until somebody officious noticed me and sent me in the right direction. As it happened, that didn’t take long, and a chap with a gun, who looked like he didn’t want to shoot me but would if he had to, ushered me toward a kiosk, where a lady gave me some forms to fill out and then left for the day. At least, I assume she did. I took the papers from her, filled out my name, but when I looked up to ask what the next question meant she was gone and never returned.
Which was a shame, because of all the people at the border, she had seemed the most willing to help me. She even grinned when I cut my arm on the metal edge of her booth, her mouth creasing into a smile as she decoded my crude capitalist language. She regained her composure quickly, resuming a stiff formality and bringing a stern finger to her lips, warning me to be quiet; but I didn’t miss the discreet wink that revealed she was human after all.
For about 15 minutes I stood waiting for her, dripping with sweat, frustrated, but no longer afraid. This was an experience to be savoured, because I knew, absolutely, that I wouldn’t be doing it again. When it became clear that my standing outside an empty shed wasn’t going to facilitate my entry into Russia, I traipsed across to another station, pushed my way into the queue of people and handed my half completed form to a character far better suited to the stereotype. He glanced at the crumpled paper, looked annoyed and shouted “Documents” at me.
“Which documents?” I asked holding up a handful of paperwork.
He leant forward, as one might when addressing someone really stupid.
“Doc...u...ments,” he repeated, slowly and with not a little menace. I handed him my passport but he pushed it back at me without opening it. I tried my driver’s licence, but that was dismissed with an irritable shake of the head before it had even left my hand.
Next came my hotel voucher, which received equally short shrift, followed by my international driving permit; this was my favourite because it had an old fashioned feel to it and looked like it had been forged to aid my escape from Nazi-occupied Berlin, so when the guard practically threw it back at me I felt the hold on my temper give a little.
I held his glare for a second or two, just long enough to realise I was fucked if I didn’t produce something useful soon. My mind turned to that non-existent insurance form; was that what he wanted? It seemed a distinct possibility, but I had no way of knowing for sure and no intention of revealing its absence voluntarily.
The guard began to get annoyed; I was holding up the queue, creating difficulty and turning his refined chaos into a messy shambles. I understood his frustration; understood too that I was the sole cause of it, but I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life either and I certainly wasn’t going to let a loud clerk in a fancy hat bully me all afternoon. ‘You want documents?’ I thought. ‘Fine, take the bloody documents.’ I rummaged through my rucksack and smiling politely, dumped every bit of paperwork I had in a disorganised heap in front of him.
“Documents,” I said.
For a moment it seemed the Cold War would resume. But surprisingly, my action seemed to provoke a begrudging respect from a man clearly bored with humility and reverence. To my amazement, and I think to that of the people behind me who had actually stepped back a little, he began examining the pile in front of him, wearily handing each wrong document back to me until he chanced across my V5 vehicle registration form. It was the one document I was sure I wouldn’t need, and it turned out to be the single most important thing I had on me.
That one hurdle had taken about three quarters of an hour to overcome and it was just the start of a long afternoon spent incorrectly filling out forms and being shouted at. The detail was impossible: was I carrying indivisible goods weighing over 35 kilos? What was the value of my belongings in the currency of the state members of the Customs Union? It was utterly bewildering, until at last I began to realise that it didn’t really matter what was on the forms, as long as something was there to hide the white spaces. The Russians didn’t care that I had 15 T-shirts and two pairs of jeans, or that I had written down 75 euros when I was actually carrying 84; if the boxes were ticked the paperwork could be processed, and if the paperwork could be processed it meant everything was okay. I felt like Winston Smith watching the war unfold from the high windows of the Ministry of Peace. Here was Stalin’s legacy being played out right before my eyes; an astonishing mess of bureaucracy and officialdom that had no obvious purpose other than to perpetuate itself.
Through a process of elimination and luck I eventually managed to complete the paperwork, finally gaining those precious stamps that would free me from this dreadful purgatory and enable my journey to continue. I was pulling on my crash helmet with the Ninja ticking over next to me when another guard strolled over, wearing the relaxed demeanour of a man with too much authority. He asked to see my papers and began studying a form that had already been stamped twice. He considered it for a moment, then he stamped it again and handed it back to me.
“It’s okay. You go. It’s fine,” he said.
I didn’t tell him I was going anyway, but I was suddenly struck by the thought of what might have happened had I simply ridden off without that final stamp. Would my back protector have saved me from a high calibre bullet? I began to realise that in Russia there was no such thing as a simple mistake.
It was a valuable lesson; one that had cost me three and a half hours, immeasurable stress, a bloodied arm and a very tangled brain, but I was finally – and almost entirely legally – free to enter Russia. The missing insurance form was never mentioned.