Zam is the project of a Czech cyclist Richard “Gaspi” Gasperotti who travels exotic places around the world in search for biking communities. After Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Taiwan or New Mexico, this year, he set off for the Russian Kola peninsula, located high above the polar circle. Did he find what he was looking for?
It was obvious that Murmansk has its riders, according to one YouTube video. Gaspi tried to contact the author but no answer ever came back. Regardless, he called the team together and they set out on a journey.
Some things might seem long. Like travelling to Brno. Or to Poland. This time it was Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Saint Petersburg, and then 1,300 kilometres more. All that with four people, one car, and two bicycles mounted on the roof. The E105 road is no highway but we still keep it flying over a hundred. Not much happening behind the windows. There are woods all around, only the thick taiga groves eventually shrink and thin out, giving way to tundra settled with moulted pines and decrepit birches. Above everything else, the mosquitoes are thriving here and they besiege us as soon as we stick a single leg out of the car. We buzz the same way they do because we only stop at petrol stations where, besides the fuel, we tank up the mighty Russian espresso. It’s everywhere and it’s superb. Dozing off at night poses no danger because of polar day summer. It just gets murky for a minute, then it’s light again.
From the main road, we take a turn towards Kirovsk where’s the access point to the Khibiny mountain range. The town was named after Sergei Mironovich Kirov whose murder triggered the Stalinist purges in Russia in 1934. The city appears to be in a bleak mood even today. Above the mountains – which are no mountains but piles of leftover debris from apatite mining – hang clouds that weep over the devastated land. Blocks of flats and industrial buildings loom over the Bolshoi Vudjavr lake. While the lake’s surface is being continuously rippled by a stream of dark fluid gushing from a huge pipe, we wonder who’s the “no swimming” sign supposed to discourage. Our determination to go up the mountains is also watered down by the fact that nuclear test explosions, aimed at making the apatite mining more effective, took place just outside the town between 1972 and 1984. The rain falling on our heads dilutes the last prospects of the journey to the heart of Khibiny. We turn the “Mercy” around and pick up speed for Murmansk.
While Paris features the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame or Sacré-Cœur in the guidebooks, Murmansk teases blocks of flats. There’s nothing else here. Murmansk is the largest city beyond the polar circle, housing more than 300,000 inhabitants. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the benefits of planned economy ceased to exist and central heating suffered a breakdown, which resulted in a continually thinning population – and, honestly, it’s no wonder why. The average year-long temperature is just 0.1°C. Cold summers are followed by relatively mild winters with the average temperature of -9°C. The area is warmed up by the Gulf Stream thanks to which the port doesn’t freeze over. The port is being watched by the motionless eyes of Alyosha, a 35-metre tall soldier-monument erected in the memory of the city’s defenders during the Great Patriotic War. In the port, it’s possible to visit the nuclear icebreaker Lenin that, besides its admirable ice-breaking abilities, grew infamous through two accidents connected to leakages of radioactive elements. Our smartphone apps guide us between the housing estates all the way to the Northern Star hotel. After two nights in the car, we feel like being in a Hilton.
In the morning, we set out to track down the local bikers. Google Maps lead us to a bike shop where we strike an immediate success. A young serviceman Zhenya Mamonov is a downhiller. “Da, we ride here,” he says. He’s a bit shy but willing to show us the local trails the next day after work. Until then, we’re left with almost two full days, which decides our move to the next destination: Teriberka. The little fishing community located on the Barents Sea coast was made famous by the movie Leviathan, which got a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination. The concrete housing estates, rounded fjords, decaying boats stranded in the shallows, windowless houses, and the roaring of the sea make for a perfect filming location. But this is no filming backdrop. Once there were two functional Norwegian fish-processing plants. The Soviets built schools, a hospital, playgrounds, shops, and offices, and set up a breeding station for minks and reindeer. In its heyday, the area was settled by 5,000 people but then came the downfall. New efficient ships enabled ocean fishing, which meant the coastal fishing was no longer needed. We ask for coffee at the Normann bar but there is none because the power has been down for three days in a row. After an afternoon filled with photographing and shooting, we return to find refuge in a wooden hotel, owned by a local “kiter” Alex Glebov.
We wake up to rain. We buy our supplies in a “magazin” smelling of fish. Everything has a fishy taste to it, including cookies. The shooting and picture taking continues in 4°C, crosswinds, and downpour. I’ve never before subjected my Canons to such foul weather in my life but they continue to work flawlessly – just as Gaspi the biker who, since losing his spleen and most of the cartilage in both knees, simply stopped complaining. Drenched to the bone after a full day of shooting, we return to Murmansk just in time to pick up Zhenya after work. To take off for the hills at 8:30 PM is nothing strange because the sun never sets. Accompanied by Zhenya’s friends Ilja, Sergei, and Nikita, we’re riding up and down the “Jews” trail until midnight. It’s drizzly and windy. However, it’s a bit farfetched from the romantic polar summer idea so I put on a ski cap, a knitted scarf, and a snowboard jacket. Gaspi rides in his winter clothes but the locals are pretty hardened so they gradually lose their outerwear and ride without gloves. They all have nice bikes by Western brands such as Specialized, Kona or GT, only the models are a little older with 26-inch wheels. Given the conditions and the fact that the season only lasts four months here, it’s surprising that they are not thinking of giving up. They’re enthusiastic and, at the same time, a little confused how could anyone come up with going all the way here just to ride bikes, despite Europe being warmer and having way fewer mosquitoes. Gratefully, they take the sponsor stickers and Red Bull cans from us. “Give me one more, pazhalsta, I’ll give it to my bro,” says Ilja. The next day, he and Sergei take us on the Ogni trail, which is the work of a biker and a builder Dimitri Kapitanchuk. It’s playful, a little difficult, and very well thought-out. If any of you would like to go here let us know, we’ll point you in the right direction.
We run into better weather only when we move 200 km southward, in the Kandalaksha town on the White Sea coast. On the main square, there’s a T-43 tank on a pedestal, a municipality building, and the disintegrating Belomore hotel. The Murmansk boys tipped us off about the owner of the Nord Shop bike shop Alex Kolcov. It’s no hard task to contact him because the use of WhatsApp and FaceTime apps is pretty in fashion here. We plan the group biking in the Grinvich restaurant where there’s amazing beer on tap and great grilled fish. “All of them were fished out in the Murmansk area,” the waitress assures us. Even though we’re in Russia, there’s surprisingly no vodka and no casual boozing. Alex takes us into the mountains in the morning, with wonderful views of the gulf. The rounded rocks rise from the coniferous woods all the way up to the zone where only heather and dwarf pines grow. As far as the eye can see, the sea is speckled with thousand scenic tiny islands. The wind chases the mosquitoes away and we’re overwhelmed by a heart-warming feeling that this is the moment that absolutely outweighs those last few days of discomfort.
Rider: Richard Gaspi Gasperotti
Photo and story: Adam Marsal
Cameraman and edit: Marty Smolík
Holidayman: Lukas Jusko
Thanks to the sponsors and all the people around us!