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23rd September 2005
Irbit Motorcycle Show
The first RealClassic Rally took place in Leicestershire, and very jolly it was too. But we sent Anarchy just a little bit further to experience a Russian Bike Rally - all the way to Siberia, in fact...
HG Wells had the right idea. Imagine the attraction of owning your very own time machine. Being able to waft off back to the good old days at the slightest whim when the realities of the grey Monday morning commute on that static, totally charmless M25 prove just too much. Never mind the drizzling rain, your spluttering motorcycle, dodging ignorant and clearly blind car drivers who are yakking on their mobiles. No need to deal with leaking over trousers, thus surely guaranteeing a damp pride for the day: a pox on you Peter Storm, I say! Off to a simpler bygone era where the sun always shone and the hectic cut-throat pace of life had yet to be invented by that kindly iron lady who was never for turning.
The suggestion came from RCHQ Bude that I drop everything at once and bugger off on a reckless adventure to Siberia involving three-wheeled motorcycles and off-road pursuits, protected by nothing more than a simple nylon flysheet and British Tommy fortitude from the ravages of the Russian black mosquito. (Lesson to be learned here regarding never upsetting RH…). Off to a land that in rural areas is still frozen, quite literally for most of the year, in the 1970s at the very latest. A chance to visit a major motorcycle show, Russian-style.
Bring it on!
The town of Irbit is famous for two things. One, the glassworks that is a massive local employer and two, the home of the IMZ Ural heavy motorcycle. The IMZ factory sponsors a two-day motorcycle rally on the outskirts of the town every year which attracts 2000 motorcyclists from not just locally in Irbit but all over Russia.
I picked up my Ural motorcycle from the factory, loaded it with camping gear and headed off to stake my place at the Irbit showground. A shady camping area was bagged and my home from home for the next two days was set up under the trees on dry firm ground.
The show is held over two days and nights. The first day is predominantly a hard-core bikers' day whilst the second day is thronged with local people from the town of Irbit who enjoy an open-air concert and fair type atmosphere. Walking around the showground on the first day I realise that this is nothing like any other motorcycle show or rally I have been to in Europe or America.
There is a large arena with beer tents and covered eating areas along one side. There is no such thing as the ubiquitous rally hamburger; food is either Shish Kebabs cooked over wood burning barbecues, fresh melon, fruit, pastries filled with spicy cabbage and assorted sausage variations. And of course beer, thirty tons of it to be precise, guzzled gleefully over the course of the show period. Many people brought their own beer and vodka too, as verified by the deep detritus of show fallout scattered across the arena at the end of the event…
Most people were arriving and setting up on the first day. By early evening the bonfires were blazing and the bands were warming up. The music was good, quite unusual and interesting alternative bands featuring cello or violins mixing orchestral sounds into modern rock influences.
As it grew dark the scene resembled a gothic fire starter night from Hollywood movies like 'The Crow'.
Unlike at a European show where motorcycles are grouped into areas for static display and pontificating, discussing rivet types and favourite oils, in Irbit the recommended display tactic is to ride your bike back and forward through the crowd at great speed, preferably with a chick on the pillion and a bottle of vodka in your pocket.
As the evening draws on and darkness descends it becomes a manic scene of smoke, bonfires, speeding bikes and Russian bands offering local vague impersonations of the Prodigy's 'Firestarter' and 'Smack your bitch up'.
Like at an Irish horsefair, people are here to ride and celebrate. When the Russian bikers hear you are English they warm instantly to you. Words like 'respect' and tight handshakes are proffered because they are so pleased that someone from another country has made the effort to visit their show and ride their motorcycles.
You are elevated to an adventurer, explorer and instant hero. Everyone wants to try to speak with you and know you. Wonderful people. Wish I could speak Russian.
If it has two or three wheels and runs then it is here. There is a Peugeot car commercial where a Hindustani car is sat on by an elephant to try to convert it into the dream car of its owner, a sleek 307 or whatever. The owner of a Ural that was home-converted into a Ducati 916 streetfighter wannabee must have taken a similar approach. A monoshock rear end had been crafted from leftover Lada coil springs and a tank fashioned from fibreglass gave a passing if pleasing silhouette to a road racer.
Most people go for the seventies' chopper styling, with the Ural factory producing a range of official chopped bikes for local and now export consumption under the Wolf product name. Some had Harley-Davison written on their tanks. It seems that there is no escape from the lure and envy of the American dream.
There is no autojumble at the event or bikes for sale. A couple of tents sold 'bad ass' clothing at prices that very few of the locals could afford. I was offered a new handmade, thick leather, Lewis-style jacket, beautifully made for just twenty pounds. You have to remember that here the average factory wage is around fifty pounds a month. That jacket would have been almost two weeks wages. Unfortunately it was not my size. So it was back to the bar then for more Russian Sporran instead.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning I stole a few hours sleep to wake refreshed and to take a good look around on the second day.
A Jekyll and Hyde transformation had somehow happened. The site atmosphere had changed from fright night to local country fair. Locals and small children packed the arena enjoying the blistering heat of a 40-degree sun.
There were some amazing specials, variations based on the humble Ural motorcycle created by mad inventors who must be simply barking mad. There was a well-crafted swamp boat with a rear propeller, powered by -- of course -- Ural. An amazing trike that had the Ural motor mounted INSIDE the front wheel, like some cycle motor on steroids. Many unlikely vehicles had a Ural motor transplanted inside as a kind of universal power source for all modes of transport. One practical special was a Kawasaki quad bike converted to Ural power. It worked well and I hope the factory were watching as this type of utility vehicle suited the motor perfectly and requires none of the Euro 2 red tape needed for export. One mad trike had a giant coffee cup on the back just like an Alice in Wonderland prop.
I had been told that there was to be a mass ride-out of all the bikes at the show to celebrate the factory sponsors and travel through the town and park at the town square. I was told not to wear a crash helmet and that the police would be at the front of the convoy and would we ride at the front. So at around 2pm I made my way to the front of the convoy, in the sidecar of a friend's Ural so I could take pictures and try to record the event.
Imagine Sturgis in the USA and cross out Harley-Davidson and substitute Ural. As the order to go was soon to be announced a chorus of hooters erupted from the 2000-strong convoy as the excitement and fever reached a peak. We were off -- leaving the countryside showground and heading for the small town of Irbit in a snake-like, never ending line of revving glorious motorcycles. I juggled stills camera and video camera to capture this unique event whilst standing upright in the sidecar and being thrown about by the battlefield roads. People lined the streets, saluted solidarity and cheered. Wonderful.
I am sure that every motorcycle in the town which could move under its own power was part of this parade.
Returning back to the showground I celebrated through the night and woke, bleary eyed, to a semi-deserted, battered campsite. The temperature had dropped and I needed to break camp and move on. It was a unique experience. One that I am grateful for experiencing. I'd travelled back in time to the good old days where people were friendly, showed mutual respect and where the motorcycle was all about the ride and taking you to places and seeking out adventures.
They are real people in Irbit.
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