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A Ride in Finland: July 1994

By Markku Tuomi, 1994
It was Thursday, June 7, and I found myself in Lappeenranta, a town of some 60,000 inhabitants in southeastern Finland, only about 20 km from the Russian border. I had ridden here for the Finnish Baha'i summer school a week before with my friend Partow and we had had a most memorable ride (253 km) through the night, the rain an some of the nicest Finnish countryside. But he flatly refused to ride back with me, citing "time constraints". So, on a most beautiful hot summer day, I set out on my own, panniers fully loaded, to the northwest and Jyvaeskylae, where I live. The rest of my family were to follow in the car later. It was 12:12.

In the center of Lappeenranta I pass the newly-rich Russian tourists swarming around the shops and the harbor and get on road 408 to Taipalsaari, the municipality with the most water area in Finland. I am skimming the shores of Lake Saimaa, the largest of the 188,000 lakes in the country. I end up playing the old game with commuters and find myself exerting too much effort. There is a slight blustery wind working against me as I travel on the bike path, which darts under and over the road, changing sides, then follows the old road. This means steep little hills; the car route is leveled out, naturally. No matter, I much prefer the shade of green foliage to exhaust fumes. The land ends and the water begins. I ride on a chain of islets and isthmuses, going over one bridge after another. Hardy trees clinging to rock, sunlight playing on the waves, boats going this way and that, white puffy clouds, the height of summer in its brief glory of unending light. Suddenly Taipalsaari comes up: a few buildings and shops on either side of the road, full of city people who have come to their summer cottages. A bank displays the temperature: 29C (84F), I make use of the bank machine and continue.

The bike path is no more. The road is narrow, shoulderless and in good repair, nicely rolling and turning. Shade and sunlight alternate, on the fields hay is being baled. There is little motor traffic. Passing little villages, I concentrate on drinking, for the day is unusually hot for me. After a while, the shoreline falls back and I enter continuous woodland. I keep counting different species of deciduous trees and noting the variety of undergrowth; I am used to a slightly more barren landscape. An unexpected sign pops up, "Beware of Funeral Processions". There is a graveyard on either side. I am now waiting for Savitaipale, the next municipality, because I want to have some lunch and fill up my three bottles. A T-intersection, finally. Confidently, I turn right on road 409.

This will prove to be a mistake. Maybe I should consult the map more often instead of trusting my "eidetic" memory. Since I have already progressed several kilometers away from Savitaipale and am going in the right general direction I decide to press on rather than backtrack. I am somewhat worried about having less than one bottle left without firm knowledge of a dependable fluid supply. But the prospect of riding a virgin road is a compensation, especially as the road has a good surface and traverses pretty scenery, albeit uninhabited. This does not last. Pavement ends abruptly and gives way to a dirt road on which I am forced to dodge potholes and suffer bad washboard surfaces. Stout bastions overgrown with grass appear in view. This is a fortress built by General Suvorov in 1793 to defend this corner of Finland, newly acquired by Catherine the Great, against the former owner, Sweden. Then I hit Partakoski, a tiny village, and all my problems are solved. There is general store/coffee shop building where I find things to eat and drink as well as nutrition for the brain, a good newspaper. I consume all this at an outside table overlooking the quaint little harbor while overhearing a heated argument on the respective merits of baseball and pesaepallo, a Finnish game of considerable similarity.

I spend over quarter of an hour here before picking up some licorice and departing. Through the village, unchanged for generations, with lowly huts on small hills, sheep contained by traditional brushwood fences, over an ancient stone bridge. And the road gets worse. Now it also gets loose and dusty. Downhill curves are treacherous and there is little traction going up the steep sections. I did always think I should try mountain biking! Speed slows down, sweat runs freely but I persist through the worst. Another village store, where I stop to consume liquids for a while. Pavement appears again, and now it is a welcome challenge to trace the unmitigated terrain and I have a much easier time through the woodland and through Suomenniemi, a town that ends before I really notice it is there. Finally I make it to the big road (13). My unplanned detour is over at 16:01.

This is a typical major highway, i.e. two narrow lanes and no shoulder. First I turn south to check out a gas station but it is such a pitiful affair that I continue northwards without stopping. I am feeling hot and sweaty and my swollen feet are now aching badly. Should I really abandon these perfectly fitting French all-leather cycling shoes and these classic Christophe clips and straps? Tradition obliges. The road has quite pronounced hills because it goes across ridges left behind by retreating ice some 10,000 years ago. Traffic is moderate and not disturbing. I stop at a nice gas station for about an hour. Food and drink and drink and drink and a visit to the bathroom. Plus an interesting newspaper. I fill up my bottles again and play with a video terminal of the NRA (National Road Administration) which tells me that the temperature in Jyvaeskylae is only 22C (72F). Onwards through rolling hills and farmland to Ristiina and to Mikkeli, a largish town where I navigate past the center. This is also the halfway point. I have a break in a coffee shop where I watch the TV news at 19:00.

On the lonely stretch after Mikkeli I settle into a rhythm of pedaling continuously and shifting occasionally and drinking regularly. The road is smooth and has some minor rises but no downhills. I know it climbs very slowly but really cannot see this readily. The lack of interesting scenery and the monotony of effort make me drift into a meditative state where my mind wanders, severed of but in command of the obedient body, which really is flesh and steel in perfect union. I only need to think, power up, and it is so. Then, a rest area attracts me. My stomach is bothering me and I think I did not dilute the sports drink enough. I have some bananas and watch a strong dark current of water until a cloud of mosquitoes drives me away. A guy in his seventies on a shiny new clunker stops by and we exchange pleasant words about the salutary effect of bicycling. Forward, into the cycling dreamland again. I feel inexplicably strong and develop an illusion of untiring legs doing my mind's bidding for evermore. I am startled back into reality by the passing family vehicle. We have a brief chat at a bus stop. I take a break inside a gas station at Hankasalmi for some tea and liquids. It is getting cooler now, at 22:00, and I add a thin woolen layer.

The monotony of terrain goes on: spruces, pines, grass, ditch, road. And the road still rises ever so slightly. I begin to feel chilly and stop at a sheltered rest area to put on dry socks and a wind-breaking attire. I force down a banana while mosquitoes feast on me. At last I make it to the top of a certain hill and can see ahead: woodland as far as the horizon. Here the road goes down and I enjoy not having to pedal. I cross into the province of Central Finland and have a treat, freshly paved road that is perfectly smooth and devoid of motor traffic. I make good progress on the familiar road that is now level, on an average. That is, until the intersection of highway 9, where I turn west to Jyvaeskylae. The fun is over and fatigue creeps in. The legs are tired, the head aches from too much sunlight. I count each hill as I grind them up. The sky bathes in delicate hues of blue and orange, reflected on the lakes. It is past 24:00, the sun has set more than an hour ago. As the dusk advances I sit down for five minutes in the suburbs and deem it best to turn on my lights to be more visible to others. Bike paths are nearly empty, although a teetering drunkard forces me to jump on the street on a fast downhill. Almost home, a moped with no lights and illegally on the path manages to annoy me. Back at home it is 1:27, the temperature 16C (61F).

The distance was 239 km, total time 13:15, average speed 18,0 km/h. Rolling time was 10:45 and average speed 22,2 km/h. All sorts of junk eaten, a lot of liquid drunk.