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18th February 2005

A Latvian Adventure

Matt Little had a yearning to explore Eastern Europe - so he took the plunge last year and entered his R90S in the Kurland Rally. And he won an award, too!

The story starts in March 2002. Phil, a friend of mine with a Z900, suggested that we should visit Sam, a friend of ours who was studying at Dresden University at the time. Unfortunately I'd just sold my trusty 850 Commando to fund the building of a new garage hence I was lacking a large-capacity touring bike. 'Don't worry', I said to Phil, 'I'll take my Velo'. We decided that we would go to Germany in May.

Easter weekend that year I made a 500-mile round trip to Devon for an Enfield Owners' club rally, two-up on the Velo. It made it home but by the time I got back the primary chain was shedding rollers, the dynamo had burnt out and the kick-start spring had snapped. Things weren't looking promising for a continental trip with mates on more modern bikes.

The smell from the clutch was enough to binrg pedestrian traffic to a standstill. They all do that, sir...

I'd fancied a sporting BM for some time and the trip to Dresden was the ideal excuse for me to buy one at the eleventh hour. The R90S was faultless in every way on the 10-day trip, assuming you don't class a silencer falling off at 100mph on the autobahn to be a fault. On that trip I gained not only ultimate respect for this 29 year old (in 2002), very high mileage (possibly greater than the Star Ship Enterprise?) machine, but I also discovered how wonderful Eastern Europe can be (OK, it's a huge land area and we only got to see a tiny area of it, but still it gave me an initial flavour).

By 2004 I'd made a number of further continental bike trips, mostly on the BM but still hadn't explored Eastern Europe any further. When I saw an advert for The Kurland Round Rally in Latvia I couldn't resist the temptation to enter. Unfortunately all my mates *could* resist the temptation so I went on my own!

I had thoughts of entering on my 1960 Velocette as I thought it would be a real challenge to take a genuinely old bike to the rally, but at the last minute I changed my mind and took 'old faithful' as I didn't fancy being stranded with a broken bike on my own in the middle of nowhere. The entry requirement for the rally is the simple 25-year rule, and the 1973 BMW was more than acceptable.

I met Pat, the only other British entrant, at Lübeck ferry terminal in northern Germany. He was there with his immaculately restored 1929 Matchless Model X and the largest rucksack you've ever seen; not your usual continental touring kit! We had a pleasant trip across the Baltic Sea, drinking cheap beer and watching the Russian equivalent of 'You've Been Framed' (unlike the English programme they can't claim that nobody was seriously injured at the end of it).

Pat Gill's '29 Mod-x Matchless at the Riga Motor Museum.

Juris Ramba, the rally organiser met us from the port and took us to a superb restaurant on the way to Riga Motor Museum for the start of the rally. Before we even made it to the museum we saw a couple of historic motor vehicles in the form of ZIL (Zavod imeni Likhacheva) trucks with V8 gasoline engines. No; they weren't cherished classics, just old Russian working vehicles.

I got a bit worried on the first night at the Slokenbek estate (where the main rally was held) as when we sat down for dinner in a traditional dining hall they brought out bottles of JD in quantities that I've only ever seen wine and beer in England. It was no surprise when the BM flew through scrutineering on the Saturday morning, as I was talking to Ruta and Alexander Smertyevs, the scrutineers, for much of the previous evening. Ruta was formerly a development engineer for Red Star's successful race team in Riga. I was surprised to hear that their racing 50s were turning out 24bhp (virtually 500bhp/litre) a few years back. In England it's easy to believe that only a handful of countries make high performance machines.

Pat, whose room I was sharing (I was not so organised as to pre-book a room) was very surprised to be woken up by the whole Ramba family singing in Latvian early on the first morning of the rally. Even before the second song came I knew what it would be; it was Happy Birthday in English. It was a wonderful personal touch by the rally organisers who must have noticed my date of birth on the official entry form. I was also given a beautiful dual-language book on Latvian Art Nouveau.

These Nortons are a model of reliability, you know.

The first riding event of the rally was the competitive road run. This run took us through 150km of beautiful countryside where traditional farming practices, such as turning the hay with a pitchfork, could be seen in the tiny individual fields. The BM felt a little uneasy when travelling at speeds on some of the dusty dirt roads but making the 50kph average speed required between the checkpoints was never a problem. I rode the route with Veli Tirkkonen, the editor of 'Retro Moto Auto' a Finnish classic car and motorcycle magazine. Veli rode a 1958 Norton Jubilee that he had borrowed from Juris for the event.

We scored maximum penalty points for stopping for a long coffee on a relatively short section of the run (the distance between the checkpoints varied from about three to 25km). During our penalty point-gaining break we witnessed a minor traffic accident between a car and a van. After the collision the vehicles were left in the road, causing an obstruction -- because in Latvian law it is not permitted to move any vehicles that have been involved in an accident before the police have arrived.

Finally, the flange thrust adjuster was retreived and the rally could continue.

The second competitive event of the rally was a hill climb in the town of Tukums. You have to bear in mind that Latvia and East Anglia have similar geography so Kurland's steepest hill is no match for Porlock hill in Devon. When the lights went green on the first of my three timed runs, I gave the BM a real handful, which rewarded me with a disproportionately high engine speed and the horrible smell of a burning clutch. I took it steady for my remaining assents as I still had 1500 miles to ride home -- with no break-down insurance...

And the prize for most embarressed foreigner goes to...At the dinner dance I was awarded a cup for being the furthest travelled entrant. It seemed that every entrant got an award for some thing or other which made for a very entertaining evening, as it would not have been in the Latvian spirit to allow an award to pass without a large alcoholic toast.

After the rally Pat and I stayed in a very nice apartment belonging to the very generous Aldus Viscid, in the centre of Riga's old town, so we could see some of the capital city.

Riga seems to combine the best of both worlds with all the latest western creature comforts available in an unspoiled, traditional maritime trading port.

The Latvians complain that the prices are far too high in their capital, much as we complain about London prices, but as far as I was concerned everything was still very cheap.

Finally the time came for me to bid farewell to Latvia and head on to Lithuania for my return journey (I had decided not to take the Baltic Sea crossing back to Lübeck). As I passed from Lithuania to Poland I took a detour to avoid Kali grad -- part of Russia for which I didn't have a visa or insurance cover. I'd also received a number of warnings about crooked officials (including the border guards) in this small Russian outpost.

I found the Polish roads to be generally straight and uninteresting after the wonderful roads in Latvia and Lithuania, so Poland became very boring after 800 miles.

BMW Stuff on

Warsaw should have been a fantastic city to ride through but unfortunately it was raining heavily, so I was more concerned with looking at the cobbled road surface and tramlines than the famous sights. After eating quite possibly the worst pizza and staying in quite possibly the worst motel in the whole of Europe, I made the decision to ride over 100 miles before breakfast so I could have some nice German food. I was very glad to leave Poland and get into Germany.

As a total contrast to the Polish pizza I had a wonderful wild boar supper with some friends in Meinhard-Grebendorf (near where the East/West border was up to '89), on the following evening. After getting some scenic route advice from my friend Ulrich (also a BM rider), the following morning I set off from Meinhard. Unfortunately when putting the BM through its paces on the long uphill stretch towards the Sprakensehl ski resort in northern Germany, the dreaded clutch slip returned. Thankfully an hour's cooling down seemed to restore things to usable state. At this point I started to think that the clutch slip could be caused by oil leakage from the crank end seal. Not that I really intended to do anything about it, but it's always nice to know the root cause of a problem.

On my last night of the trip I camped just north of Hamburg at the seaside town of Großen. There was a mid-week bike gathering going on at the seafront which included 1950's OHC Horex, something you don't see at the average UK bike meet. The following morning I took a quick dip in the sea before heading for Denmark to catch a ferry home. I must remember for future reference that swimming in the sea about 20 miles from Hamburg is never a very pleasant idea!

The Kurland Round Rally is being held on 15th to 17th July in 2005;

Anyone going?

The ideal transport for an off-duty human cannonball...

Photos by kind permission of Veli Tirkkonen / Matt Little


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