Epic Enfield journey drive of the year
The 2008 Footdown Ride or Drive of the Year is the epic run from Vladivostok to Edinburgh by Sai Kung reader John Rhodes.
We waved him and his Indian-made 2001-vintage Royal Enfield Bullet 500 off from Hong Kong in May, having learned that the British father of three had prepared for the 14,500km rumble through the Zilov Gap in Siberia to Scotland on the strength of just a 98km ride around the New Territories that reportedly took only 1? hours.
Rhodes, however, made the trip on his 18-horsepower, 500cc single-lung machine 'Mr Thomson', named after the twins in Tintin, and attended last month's Motorcycle Show in Central.
But if the drive was the achievement of a dream, touring lessons were learned en route, Rhodes says.
When we spoke to him on his return in late October he had just recovered from a haemorrhoid, which can happen perhaps with a rudimentary bike over Siberian roads that can be slightly tougher than Route Twisk.
He still wishes he had cushioned the saddle better, instead of only relying on a cut-up bit of sheepskin from Ikea. 'The other problem I had was with the skin rubbing raw a bit at the top and rear of my thighs, where it rubbed against the hard part of the saddle framework.
'It was one of the reasons for taking the ship from St Petersburg to Lubeck to allow the skin a couple of days of healing time,' he says.
There were some rough spots in Russia, he says of a route that also took in Chita, Omsk, Perm and Kazan. 'Ekatarinburg and Novosibirsk were the worst places to ride through,' he says.
'City planning forced all traffic through the city and Russian road level pollution is as bad as in China. The fuel quality is rubbish, so you need a pollution mask.
'Moscow city is not for faint-hearted drivers. It was where I saw my second dead body on the trip due to a road accident.'
He says he only had a couple of spills, 'both in the Zilov Gap but at relatively low speed; only the rear mirror/brake lever mounting snapped but I had a spare with me'.
Rhodes says his Bullet's 1950s design is robust and long-lasting if you have reasonable mechanical aptitude.
'I didn't,' he says, citing 'issues' with an 'ineffective air filter, ignition timing, carburettor'.
The original air filter set-up has a box and air filter medium 'whereas my bike had a cone filter allowing a much stronger and more direct flow of air', Rhodes says.
'It doesn't work very well at keeping out large amounts of dust.'
Rhodes installed electronic ignition timing to replace points and condenser.
'The item was by Pazon who guarantee their products for 7? years but it only lasted six months,' Rhodes says. 'This really was a major failure. I'd never [replaced the points and condenser] before so I relied heavily on the people who were helping where I'd broken down in Krasnoyarsk.
'I was on the side of the road for hours and on the phone to Hong Kong getting instructions on how to do it. But the installation was done wrong and the engine overheated, leading to head gasket failure and needing new piston and rings about 500km down the road.'
Rhodes also highlights how carburettors tested in Sai Kung react differently in the cool of the steppes (below). 'The air in Hong Kong is much more humid and mild, which means less oxygen per given volume of air,' he says. 'In Russia it was cold. This meant the air/fuel mixture was way too lean and in the long run led to burnt valves.'
Even so, he's glad he picked his bike. 'Any bike can do this trip, so the Enfield it was,' Rhodes says.
'Interestingly, the speed at which I got through the Zilov Gap [currently being filled in and the road will be completed around 2011] is the same as other people on big enduro/adventure type bikes such as BMW GSs, and Triumph Tiger.
'However, those are soulless things, and too heavy to boot. Just take a look at the two blokes on the Long Way Round [television series].
'It was obvious they were overloaded but, then again, they did have two backup vehicles following all the way to help them out,' he says.
He says having such a slow machine was a benefit, but admits 'there were many times I wished it had about 30km/h more speed'.
The Enfield's tyres wore well, he says, and he didn't have a single puncture. He used proper chunky off-roady type tyres for the first 2,500km.
'These were good and necessary; the rear tyre got worn down in that time, so I changed for some Russian-made ones,' he says.
He wishes he had bought a Fog City helmet visor insert in Hong Kong. 'It would have helped with vision in bad weather and stopped the inside from fogging up in the rain and sleet/snow,' he says.
The Hong Kong bike was well-received all along the way.
'It also garnered respect from anyone who knows what the road is like from Vladivostok,' he says. 'The Russian truck drivers especially [respected it]. It was also enjoyable watching people try to understand it only had one cylinder.'
The main low points were serious breakdowns, Rhodes says, 'which were more serious in my mind due to not knowing why it had broken down'. Even so, Russian bikers were always willing to help, he says. 'There is more of a culture of helping people stuck on the roadside due to the history and vast nature of the country.'
The continuous police checkpoints became a real grind, he says, and phone calls were costly, too. 'The time when I got the first phone bill of HK$25,000 was a downer as it bit quite deeply into the budget,' Rhodes says.
The first and only night of camping was a downer, too, he says. 'I realised I had the wrong clothing,' he says. 'I was damned cold and had every single stitch of clothing I had taken with me on. The sleeping bag was not up to it.'
He says he packed the right gear for the trip but recommends, 'a change of proper clothing is a must so you can go out with the locals and not look like a tit with all your biker gear on'.
The right paperwork is vital, he says. 'Just take a big dollop of patience with you and let [officials] work through their own processes in their own way. But make sure you do your homework about what documents are needed.'
The trip achieved its aims, Rhodes says. 'I just wanted to ride day after day without an immediate care in the world except for the bike and the road. It was damned good. I couldn't have asked for it to have gone any differently than it did and can fully understand why people end up just riding and riding on for years if they can.'
Are you planning a long-distance trip in 2009? And what was your best drive in 2008? Tell us on firstname.lastname@example.org