Riga Calling: Bikepacking the Baltics
Poor planning had Joshua Meissner and friends caught between Latvia and a hard place this summer. To make their rendezvous with other friends in Riga, they had to work overtime to get themselves two countries down the road. Find Joshua’s story of a cycling tour turned impromptu bikepacking race against the clock and a lovely gallery of photos here…
We hadn’t even reached the first stop of our tour along the Baltic Sea from Berlin to Helsinki, yet in our minds, we were already looking farther east. Dirty and exhausted from three days of bikepacking the sandy coast of Poland, we were brewing coffee in a park near the port city of Gdańsk and dreaming of dinner in town when Kyle broached the question that pressed on us like dark clouds on the horizon.
“So, how far is it to Riga?” Kyle asked casually. We tensed at the question. “About 750 kilometers, I think,” I replied, downplaying the true distance to the capital of Latvia, two countries down the road. “Seven hundred and fifty kilometers…” He trailed off, sipping his coffee. Jonathan pulled out his phone to confirm. “If Brittany and Cody are flying in on Monday,” he continued, “that gives us… four days!?” Kyle just laughed. “How did this happen?” he asked in disbelief.
We’d all been looking forward to a relaxed campfire-and-sandals cycling vacation, but in coordinating multiple people leaving and joining in different cities, our simple Berlin-Helsinki vision had turned into a complex logistical maneuver that required more diligent planning than we liked. And as I’d pored over the maps to plot our route, I found an unsettling problem in the middle of the track, where an inescapable challenge glared at us. After the three-day warm-up from Berlin to Gdańsk, already a respectable 450-kilometer leap, our friends’ flight schedules dictated we cover upward of 200 kilometers per day through eastern Poland and Lithuania to meet them in Riga on time, with no margin for error. No shifting of the track or itinerary would get us around this reality.
I guess we were so enamored by the idea of a chill Baltic bike cruise that nobody questioned the implausible plan, and leading up to our departure, I lacked the heart to drive home what we were getting ourselves into. I shortened the track where possible, slashed our rest days in the major cities to a minimum, and called it done. Geography wasn’t going to get in the way of our cycling vacation! Now though, we seemed to find ourselves in an impromptu bikepacking race, and I felt responsible for the unexpected urgency. This wasn’t what we’d signed up for when we packed our cook kits and comfy camp chairs—how the hell were we going to make it to Riga? In our exhausted state, we tabled the discussion for the next day over a platter of steaming pierogies and beer in Gdańsk.
The rest day that never was
The discussion couldn’t wait until after breakfast. As far as Jonathan and Kyle were concerned, the task was impossible. Bikepacking 200 kilometers of concrete and dirt roads per day would challenge us even fresh and rested. But now, after three long days in the saddle, our bodies were shutting down, and every fiber of our body cried for rest. The big wave of dopamine freedom we’d surfed from Berlin was stopped cold by the harbor walls of Gdańsk, and we didn’t even want to look at our bikes anymore. And now we were supposed to go back out and ride even further?
We brushed it aside. Tomorrow was tomorrow, and today we were going to be tourists like we’d intended. We traded cycling shoes for sandals and wandered the cobbled streets through the Hanseatic center of Gdańsk in blissful vacation mode.
Over a lunch of traditional pierogies—beef filling with caramelized onions on top—the conversation returned to our impossible challenge. We had to get to Riga in four days. None of the alternatives we explored seemed viable. Taking an extra day would put the rest of the trip—still a delicate proposition overall—under considerable time pressure. We’d just be kicking the can down the road to Helsinki. Another option would be to skip ahead by train, but surrendering early didn’t sit right with us. Perhaps “impossible” was too strong a judgment after all. To me, it seemed the only real option was to ride it out and meet our fate on the road, but my riding companions were still skeptical.
Later, we settled into a café with our backs to the great St. Mary’s Church, and the discussion shifted to a more pragmatic note. Jonathan and Kyle had come around and we focused on the “how.” It would come down to staying on the move for longer. Though we’d already been setting up our tents well after dark on the trip, we’d need to find another two hours in the day to have any chance of making the required distance day after day. Beyond that, it was merely a matter of remembering to eat enough, drink plenty, and stay kind to each other. Simple enough, right?
The body can be pushed quite far, mind willing, and recalling all the people we’d lightheartedly told of our ambitious plan—not to mention our promise to our friends flying into Riga—we didn’t lack motivation. It was a big stretch, though not unrealistic, at least by my estimation. There’s always luck involved too, as injuries, mechanicals, and distractions would have ample time to ambush us along the way. And while we’d worked well together on the first days, how would we get along when the pressure was on? This was unknown territory for us. Privately, I gave us a 50/50 chance of making it to Riga together, on time, as friends.
Multiple phone alarms announced a definitive end to our cycling vacation. Bleary-eyed, we repacked the gear explosion that had gone off in our cramped hostel room and moved our stiff bodies down to the windowless kitchen, where we filled water bottles, boiled cartons of eggs, and forced down extra-large bowls of porridge. Lined up outside, Kyle spent his last minutes stretching while Jonathan smoked his second cigarette of the day with a distant look on his face. I took the opportunity to oil all our chains and check tire pressures. It was go-time.
Space and time stretched out before us. The rest of our life would be spent on this road. Somewhere off to our left, far beyond the horizon, we knew Riga awaited, but this was an abstract piece of knowledge, disconnected from the intention of our movement. We were just hoping to make it together to lunch. At the city limit, a yellow DHL truck barreled past us in our direction. “I just want to pack myself in a box and ship myself to Riga,” Kyle called out from the back.
Our prime directive was to keep moving. The villages blurred together in our incessant pace, and our day was punctuated only by stops at Żabkas, the Polish convenience markets where we washed down synthetic chicken sandwiches with poison blue energy drinks. After each Żabka break, our speed surged as our bodies fled from the source of these questionable stimulants. Too soon though, I’d look back to see my friends trailing behind.
Above the cracked concrete, banks of great white storks soared effortlessly in the thermals. Theoretically, we could stick close together and draft each other to conserve energy like the storks, but in practice, we ended up yo-yoing through the hilly countryside. We were not made for the high-efficiency formation flying the situation demanded. My inner roadie, dormant for years now, had awoken and was throwing a fit. Just draft me, you’re wasting valuable power! Disrespectful! I had to swallow my frustration. Making it to Riga together would be more than just a physical challenge.
All stops were planned on the move and timed down to the minute. The imposed discipline felt foreign, but the vacation was over; we were racers now, overeager and clumsy on our first day on the job. Eggs, water, oats, blueberries, beer. The necessities rolled over in my mind as I rushed into the supermarket. Though irksome and counter to our touring instincts, these little minutes saved here and there permitted a quick gofry waffle stop at the end of the day, which propelled us to a promising camp spot on a lake Jonathan had identified while I’d shopped in the store. Before Gdańsk, we’d enjoyed campfires and cooked meals, now it was all headlamps and cold sandwiches. We came up short on our distance target, but at least we didn’t crash and burn. Now, we just had to repeat that again. And again. And again.
A deep purpose roused me early from my sleep. I blinked and the mission flooded back into my awareness. We have to get to Riga! Routine won out over my desire to stay in my sleeping bag, and on autopilot, I prepared three bowls of porridge while Kyle and Jonathan brewed a stream of coffee to get our bodies up to temperature. After yesterday’s trial run, today would be the real test to see if we had the right stuff.
We left the rolling hills behind us and entered the Masurian Lake District near Gyzcko. Seeing all the people sunbathing on the decks of boats and families picnicking by the shore broke our hearts. “It will be great to come back here,” Jonathan remarked. We’d have to ration that sarcastic resignation—we still had a long way to go. The only time we got to lounge was over a hasty lunch on the grass in front of a Lidl supermarket.
The further we traveled east, the worse roads we found. The staccato concrete was shaking us apart. Desperate for a break, we squeezed in a quick swim (ten minutes, no more), which refreshed our minds, but the pain caught right back up to us. The soft dirt of a national forest was a relief to our poor wrists, yet heaving ourselves over the roller-coaster ground drained us all the same. This wasn’t sustainable. We lay down by the road and cracked into our emergency cans of Coke, and a car drifting through the forest nearly ran us over. Our bodies and minds were truly rattled.
With the strain piling up and all our patches failing, something or someone was bound to crack. We struggled into Gołdap, a lonely outpost in the far northeastern corner of Poland, where we collapsed in front of the last known Żabka on our route. Kyle, who’d been in rough shape since day one but had so far managed to suppress his body’s rebellion, was on the verge of surrendering. It was time to negotiate with reality. We were past pride, and pragmatics ruled our frank talk.
From this isolated town, there was no way to bail out but to ride onward, and Jonathan and I weren’t about to leave our comrade behind in no man’s land. The track to Lithuania was our only lifeline into tomorrow, but it also meant another four hours of riding. We finished our dinner of cold sandwiches in exhausted silence, each of us pondering for himself. At last, Kyle grabbed hold of the lifeline. “Alright, let’s ship it, then,” he said and started pouring a blue energy drink into his water bottle. With grim resignation, we strapped extra sandwiches to our bags and set off with the sun casting long shadows before us.
In surrendering at Gołdap, we had moved through failure, and now we were sailing into the evening with nothing to prove and nothing to lose. There was no yesterday or tomorrow, no origin and no destination. The road in front of us was our entire future, behind us all of our past, and we were spinning our legs at the intersection in the here and now. In the dark, everything faded away, and the only important thing was to keep pedaling. We could keep pedaling.
The beams of our headlights remained in reassuring formation as we sped through the dark. Nobody was dropping out, and we moved as one. At the triple point of Poland, Kaliningrad, and the Baltic nations, our night train hooked north and Poland was behind us—finally, no more artificial chicken sandwiches and staccato concrete. Sneaking past sleeping farmsteads, rabid glowing eyes leaped at us out of the dark, held back by only by taut chains. The barking spread across the plain. It seemed every dog in the country was on guard, ready to pounce on the intruders from Berlin. Welcome to Lithuania.
We overslept on the third morning and then set off for a town called Kelmė, which stood out as one of the few pronounceable names on our route. At 160 kilometers away, this was practically a rest day—not that we were fit to do much more. Lithuania was a blank spot on our map, a place we knew nothing about except that our track to Riga led through it. In the digital age, it’s all too rare to end up somewhere you have no strong expectations about, and yet here we were. That’s the beauty of traveling to distant places by bike: you get to see the places in between.
Poland was forested and sometimes lush, but Lithuania seemed devoid of any shade. On the wide-open plains, dust storms raged behind supersized tractors working the fields. When two of these rolling factories doubled up on the wide gravel roads, we scurried out of their way like mice amid a herd of elephants. Their massive tires spewed rocks indiscriminately, engulfing us in thick dust clouds for minutes at a time. We donned our masks, but still, nostrils and lungs, chains, zippers, and camera lenses, all seized with the fine powder. It caked the tired creases at the corners of our eyes. In Lithuania, it seemed, we were cycling through the hellish desert planet of Arrakis from Dune. Or maybe Kansas.
Secretly, I was in my element. Big skies and straight gravel roads stretching to the horizon—Lithuania was my kind of terrain. Fueled by a top-tube bag full of kanelė tarts, I was soaring across the plains. I’d crossed some threshold, and I no longer felt any pain or fatigue, just effortless power, mind and body aligned. It made no sense and I was loving it. Not even the endless washboards could dampen my mood. I was flying awfully close to the sun that day, but luckily, the other two brought me back down to Earth. Burning up today would do us no good. We still had to get to Riga.
Out for delivery
The park where we’d thrown down our tents in the dark turned out to be less secluded in the morning light. Kyle’s blaze orange tent shone like a beacon among the sparse trees. He was rustling around inside but made no moves toward leaving. Maybe he was hoping we’d forget about him and ride off without him. Finally, after some prodding, we got packed up. Jonathan claimed he wasn’t hungry, but regardless, I made three bowls of porridge, and they were slurped down quickly. The plan would have us get to Riga today, but our goal seemed farther away than ever.
Finally on the road, motivation remained low, although pedaling was all we knew by this point. We passed through Sirulai, the first major city since Gdańsk, where old Soviet-era concrete living blocks bordered Western-style shopping malls. There, a road sign made my heart skip a beat: “Riga 144km,” it read. The first real evidence of our progress. Were we actually going to make it?
Having crossed into Latvia, I called out the last unpaved section. From here on out it was all asphalt into Riga. We made a right turn into an open field and collided with a wall of wind that materialized out of nowhere. The air was molasses, and with every inch we crawled forward, the shielding tree line ahead seemed to retreat further away. Kyle’s frustrated scream drowned in the wind, only his grimace showed. Jonathan, the stoic tank, just kept on cranking. I guess it had been hubris to speak in certain terms of our arrival; a higher force was intent on blowing out any flicker of hope. We pedaled in place for an eternity within eternity, praying for deliverance.
As suddenly as it had arrived, the wind vanished again. The higher force had granted us passage, evidently satisfied with our resolve. Mere minutes later, we spied the glint of the water at the end of a long driveway through the trees, a lush paradise for three dazed souls. Squeezing past the boom gate, a voice called me back. “Hey, you need to pay!” A woman in a plastic chair demanded tribute, and I was about to hand her two euros when Kyle, truly fried, wandered over to explain: “Please, we need to get to Riga.” The desperate statement made no sense, but she simply said: “Yes, you can also not pay. That is also an option.” Wait, what just happened? Too tired to sort out our disbelief, we thanked the woman and dove into the lake to be reborn.
We were done with dirt and rode the highway shoulder straight into Riga, really shipping it in a perfect pace-line. Coming up on the overpass and seeing the colorful lights of the city’s bridges and church towers appear out of the dark in front of us, we glimpsed the euphoria and relief of seafarers making landfall after months of hardship at sea. Though dirty and crushed around the edges, we had ultimately arrived on time together—delivery confirmed. We rolled over the bridge into the historic center and collapsed at the last open fast food place, where we ordered burgers and fries for six.
The next morning, we lounged in a café and caught up on four days of unanswered text messages. Our packed bikes waited outside. Eager to make the long-anticipated rendezvous with our friends, Jonathan enquired in the group chat about their time of arrival.
Jonathan: “You landed already, Brittany and Cody?” (11:17 a.m.)
Brittany: “What? We don’t land until tomorrow, lol.” (11:18 a.m.)
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