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Finding Vecaki

[reposted from Kersamänia, a chronicle of my experiences as the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer. See]



Is this thing on?

What’s it been, ten months? Who's in charge around here, anyway?

It's a damned long spell for a so-called “blog” to fall silent, whatever the case. Aren't there supposed to be rules about these things? Lapse like that, people might even call it a year-long slump in productivity, rounding up by just a bit, and everyone knows what that would mean.

There are reasons for the hiatus, which we’ll get to, but right now a performance evaluation is clearly overdue. Perhaps it is even time for a change – maybe this blog was never equipped to chronicle anything substantial at all. It might just be another tragic example of the reach, regrettably, exceeding the grasp.

Ours is the license to really ask the tough questions and blow it all wide open, and we should never shrink from that sacred trust. As enlightened administrators, we'll naturally want to steer this effort towards something more its speed – some assignment better suited to the blog’s past experiences; an ambition more in line with its skills and interests. The KSM brand could be usefully re-purposed to follow petcoke futures, or management trends, or even seasonal events: that first big snowball fight of the year; the coming and going of heavy winter coats. From the supervisory perspective, any one of these diverse opportunities could represent a strategic match for the sadly under-performing venue under discussion. “So listen, blog, we are in the midst of a major reorganization, and the time has come for some changes to be made…”

The rationale for consolidation is always close at hand, lately – we can undoubtedly find other things to do and to read, respectively – yet in this instance, the due diligence recommends we double down on a conservative position. To put a finer point on that, I can now confirm that yours truly, principal content generation coordinator here at KSM, may soon be positioned to better leverage the upkeep and guidance a borderline and wavering forum such as this one truly needs.

So what do you think – should we give it a shot? The return appears promising: for a modest outlay of the readership's attention, we can reasonably anticipate a respectable ROI, in terms of the diversionary value, to say nothing of the potential for nostalgia. Say it with me now: what does this remind you of? BAM, just like that, our investment creates a memorable opening… That would also make it the noble thing to do, right? To imagine for some other consideration, lurking somewhere beneath the old bottom line? Just think about the optics – this could be rolled out as a gesture to be proud of. And we would be primed to shape the narrative, right here on the blog! Are you with me? Sure you are. So let us begin anew:

Our second winter in Latvia was a real beast, much fiercer than the first, with snow beginning the 26th of October last year, and falling with meaningful consistency through about that same date in April. This was the more normal variant, we were assured; the first one must have been a fluke. Kerri and I both have experience with this particular norm, growing up in Minnesota and Massachusetts respectively, but from my own perspective the cold right off the sea can be bone-chilling in a way that dry Midwestern winters don't quite manage: lower temperatures acquire a more pressing significance. For her part, it would be safe to say that Kerri looks forward to continuing her work somewhere a bit warmer as well; starting with Georgetown, Guyana later this fall.

We were fortunate indeed to find ourselves with the latitude to take a couple short trips, first to Nice in November, and then to Rome closer to (winter's) end. We really liked Nice a lot. We stayed in a small apartment, close to the center of town: the food was fantastic; we were able to communicate without issue; and best of all, it got up into the 70s a few times. We’d already been a month snowbound by then, so this was an unexpected treat.

The thaw did eventually make it up to Riga, more than a month ago actually, and in so doing it lent an auspicious opening to Riga’s third annual Bike Week. I had managed to miss the whole thing our first year, not knowing any better, but this time some friends I'd met at a bike seminar over the winter had invited me to a planning meeting for the evolving series of events that was to become bike week. I understood nary a word that was spoken at first, the conversation being in Latvian, but I found the gathering very interesting all the same, and I was glad to have been included. I did eventually start to catch the odd cognate, and my friends helped with translation as well, and it soon was clear that Riga hosts quite a dynamic bike culture. A dozen different facets must have been represented: bike messengers, shops, bike polo, urban planners, student touring groups; just about everything you could think of. It was pretty cool. I was asked to participate in a ‘fix it and create it yourself’ event for Open Bikes, the Baltics’ first community bike shop, and I left excited to see what would happen.

The week kicked off with an excellent inaugural event at Piens Velo, a gem of a shop and a real hub for local bike culture. Recall the snow: it had only just left, so it felt really good to simply hang around outdoors, without suffering for it at all, surrounded by lots of other cyclists happy to at last be greeting the spring. Celebrated Latvian bicycle manufacturer Erenpreiss had a long table set up, layered with an interesting mix of their historic wares and select current offerings. The crew from Open Bikes had a table there as well, which was well received. People kept trickling in all afternoon, with bikes and children, the welcome sun bright overhead. Good times.

A friend and I had dinner that night just upstairs, at the highly recommendable Piens Bars, and then it was time for qualifying rounds on the minidrome, which sits right there in the yard next to the shop. I had never actually seen any edifice so fantastically whimsical in real life, and I am really glad we can find pictures to capture the thing, because it might otherwise be hard to describe without smirking. The minidrome is all of a solidly-built and steeply-banked bowl, maybe half the size of a high school classroom, with an oval of flat planks at its center. Riders circle, singly or in pairs, as rapidly as they can manage. The banked turns rise overhead, from the ground perspective; no guardrails are involved.

Friends back home had told me about the Human Powered Roller Coaster, but this seemed like something else entirely – smaller, faster, sleeker – another fine device that could only make sense in the context of a bicycle. I hope to get back there soon and at least try the thing myself, but many of the local riders are plenty familiar with its contours already, banking down to near horizontal in the turns: a digital display mounted on the brick wall just to the rear clocked circuits of 2.7 seconds that night and less. Think about that – the effect at speed must be something like a centrifuge.

Dizziness can become an issue when riding the minidrome, a friend advised, noting as well the practical advantage offered by the local track's fixed position: it is not disassembled and carted around like a show pony to far-flung spectacles, as some other tracks are, and the sturdier design this allows favors a greater confidence among its riders. Small; fast; sleek. Anyway, you would need to get on a bike in Riga to check it out.

Bike Week also featured a well-attended bike polo demonstration – the game is a real phenomenon here, with four teams in Riga alone, traveling as possible to compete in the neighboring countries. There was also a tour of the city, encompassing several of the sites once occupied by Riga's historic bicycle factories and workshops, of which there have been many. The nearby Saulkrasti Bicycle Museum, a short train ride away up the coast, offers a well-researched and finely illustrated bilingual volume chronicling the local bicycle industry’s resilience through wars and occupation. A study that makes for compelling reading.

I did not go to any of the discussions during bike week, which were also in Latvian, and sadly I didn’t really have a good bike for the tweed ride. (My bikes do tend to be older, but not yet classically so.) The very same week also saw the largest Critical Mass ride in Riga's history, speaking of which, a ride that ranged all over town for hours. Interestingly, there were apparently no arrests at all this time, perhaps because it also happens to be a municipal election year. The local appreciation for Critical Mass has been atypical in other respects, with the city launching a distinct, competing ride of its own a couple years back, complete with official street closures. Alas this only happens once a year, on May 1.

Anyway, I was thrilled to catch as much of Riga’s bike week as I was able to. The 'freak bike' parade might have been a personal highlight – as a group, Riga's Apokalipses Jatnieki (Riders of the Apocalypse) really brings me back to familiar elements I miss about the Minneapolis bike scene. So cool, to see the same kinds of unlikely things happening somewhere else entirely! Some of the bikes they build over here are pretty wild: a rolling barbeque, finally lit ablaze as we passed amidst the tourists in old town; strikingly minimalist A-frame tall bikes; steamroller-looking contraptions with tractor wheels. The Apokalipses Jatnieki workshop in the Andresjala district housed a respectable stock of old steel, from what I saw; alas they were in the process of being kicked out, after five years in residence, in order to make way for something more expensive. The search for a new space is already underway. And the show that night, featuring local band the Defectives, just raged.

So that was Riga’s bike week. Who could have known? Outside cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, few indeed are widely perceived as good places for cycling: usually, it is just the opposite. Yet we'll arrive to find people riding bikes regardless. Of the cities we have visited recently, only one, Istanbul – for its chronic congestion, and its conspicuous dearth of cyclists – has even caused me to wonder about the prospects for biking. And that, perhaps, only because I didn't find occasion to try it there. Cycling will obviously be different in disparate places, but it is almost always possible: when in doubt, just follow the local riders.

As for Latvia, while I cannot speak to riding conditions in the rural regions, I can confirm that in sum, the riding in Riga is truly splendid. The roads tend to be somewhat less maintained, but also less congested; the traffic is notably lighter and less aggressive than has been the case in other places I have lived, such as Arlington. And another thing? No hills.

People who do not ride themselves are too often prone to speculating on how dangerous it might be to ride a bike, in any given location. (It does not seem to matter where: already, I have been advised that bicycles represent “traffic hazards” in Guyana.) The truth tends to be  simpler: why not stick to describing what can actually be seen? Where it is possible, that view will typically include local people riding bikes. Just as some days will always be better for riding, cities tend to be blessed with routes more and less amenable to cycling. You simply have to go out and find them.

I know some locals who would probably disagree, but for me Riga is more of a 26” wheel kind of town, as opposed to 700c. I cross cobblestones coming and going, on the way to work – their shiny and imperfect old surfaces have clearly endured far longer than I, so it is for me to accommodate them. More generally, long stretches of uninterrupted smooth are kind of hard to find.

Keep an eye out for the foot-wide square drain covers along the shoulders of local asphalt roads, in particular as these approach the bridges. These slotted sinkholes are typically positioned just where you'd want to ride, between the traffic lane and the curb, and over time many have sunk far below their adjacent grades, making for a stubborn plague of pretty deep potholes, some not really visible until you're just about on top of them. More, those that have remained level are almost always aligned the wrong way, leaving their elongated openings perfectly positioned to snack on your road bike's elegant wheels.

Winter riding is also dicier, here. There are definitely places to ride, and people do, but the plowing is not quite so intensive as it tends to be in, say, (certain parts of) Minneapolis. Riding in the street becomes less possible, a fact which yields the predictable results, with cyclists and pedestrians left to compete for the same meager resources. So no, I did not bike commute through the winter here. (Some friends were nice enough to carpool with us in the mornings, and did I mention that Riga has some excellent transit options?)

Anyway, these disclosures dispensed with, and as may be obvious enough already, Riga remains a wonderful place to ride a bike. A couple different people have pointed out to me that there are greater numbers of cyclists on the road, in the wake of the country’s recent economic crisis, and clearly the bike culture is booming. You will want an option for fenders, just as you might in Portland, but happily it never really gets too hot to ride, here. Riga is between bike share programs, at the time of this writing, with the national air carrier withdrawing from the Baltic Bikes program it had previously supported, but rental bikes are easy enough to find.

Where to go? The vast Mezaparks area might be the best venue for riding, in town. If you are looking for a destination, the old bike path along the train tracks out to Jurmala is also very popular. I became a big fan of the bike path running along Brivibas, over the winter – it was usually plowed, and had been easy enough for a foreigner like me to find – but I have been ranging elsewhere, now that it is warmer, and just lately I’ve been going to Vecaki.

Riga is justifiably famous for its architecture, and Latvia remains a splendidly well-forested country, and to an extent the route to Vecaki captures both ideals. Yet Riga is also aged, industrial, changing and dynamic, and this new route I’ve fallen in to pays homage to these traits as well.

The route to Vecaki makes its way to some very pleasant woods, but it starts out in the alleys behind a minor port on the Daugava River. I started piecing things together the day of Riga’s marathon, after which some of the streets involved had remained conveniently closed: I took advantage of the momentary lack of traffic, and I just kept going. It was one of the first absolutely lovely days of summer – even too hot, some local runners would later say. (Most of the marathon’s top finishers were Kenyan.) But really, that's all we need to signal the start of a quality weekend ride – an agreeable climate, and the space to roam.

The route to Vecaki is busier on the work days, as I was to discover a couple weeks later on Memorial Day, but it is still far more copacetic than my commute, which crosses one of the bridges. I do find the new route more compelling visually, and not just for its novelty – we pass a great variety of built environments, riding up along the Daugava, from the old and decrepit to the shiny and new, and I think I have always thrived on the tension between such poles – maybe I see tangible proof that the world can and does change, and clearly sometimes in ways that would not have been anticipated. Anyway, it’s a good couple hours in the saddle.

Where to begin? Starting from the well-tagged former workshop of the Riders of the Apocalypse in Andresjala, head north on Andrejustas iela, parallel to the tracks coming in from your right. You will soon be directed to cross back over them in a tight ‘Z,’ resuming northwards again along Eksporta iela. This briefly becomes Lugazu iela, before ramming headlong into Garibu dambis, a busier street: go left.

It should be mentioned that the sidewalk/bike path/string of narrow parking lots to the right side of this industrial trunk road tends to remain empty, in the event it's rush hour or something and the traffic volume gets overbearing. I made the exception here myself, the first couple times, but nobody would have noticed. Bike paths are only sometimes distinct from sidewalks in Riga, and perhaps a majority of local cyclists make no distinction between the two, an approach which can become problematic on the bridges. But cohesive cycling infrastructure arrives nowhere overnight.

Garibu itself ends with another ‘T,’ just over a short bridge: go right this time, on Tvaika iela. You will soon roll past the massive Aldaris brewery complex, which evidently offers promising tours, if the crowds out front on the weekends know their business at all. The route continues when you are ready, cresting the barest trace of a gradual hill before turning left onto Ezera iela. I have not noticed a street sign on this end; the turn is just past the four big white oil tanks. You’ll go down an incline, and cross a few railroad tracks, before arriving to a quiet sequence of residential blocks.

This vista has become one of my favorite in Riga, on sunny days at least: the road stretches peacefully and all but vacantly ahead, framed by a rich canopy of trees arching overhead, with even rows of old wooden houses aligning to either side. It highlights the tension between what was and what must be next: the houses silently age, in the peaceful shade of the trees overhead, which will only grow.

Ezera iela initiates a gradual turn around a disused and overgrown industrial compound, ultimately doubling back under a bridge before crossing it to arrive at the town of Vecmilgravis. The road yields to a proper bike path just before the bridge, which continues across, descending as a cloverleaf exit ramp, the first such I’ve seen away from the Midtown Greenway.

The Vecmilgravis bike path turns to align with Vecaku prospekts: take the first left. The street will keep its name regardless, as they tend to do over here, carrying you on into what can only be the brilliant forest of the Ewoks. The bike lane disappears as the road crosses the railroad tracks, but the road itself unassumingly continues into the trees.

Here we find another, more specific reason to make it a weekend ride: logging trucks. You almost expect to see them rumbling past, looking out over the trees. I found their company alongside more distracting than dangerous, all things considered. Moreover, the road is tremendously popular with local cyclists.

After another few miles you will have an opportunity to turn left, onto Mangalu prospekts. Take this around bend, and you will discover a local hot spot for fishers: the road narrows to cross a tranquil inlet from the Daugava, hosting to either side waters calm enough for reeds, lily pads, and evidently some worthy fish as well. A few lucky souls have property on the water, and the cranes of the port are just visible in the distance, but the broader view is dominated by river, trees and sky.

The beach itself was not so easy to find. It took me four attempts, in fact. My first venture north along the river was purely exploratory, and I hadn't really been thinking about beaches, or really anything in particular; I turned back at the railroad tracks just past Vecmilgravis. I should also note that Latvia hosts some of the best thrift shops I've ever seen, namely Humana and Second Best, and as it happens the same town features one of each, and there ended by second voyage.

I got just past the fishing spot, the third time: I'd left my map at home once again, in keeping with the relaxed, exploratory theme, and a storm was expected. It was only this past Sunday that I made it all the way out to the beach, and I wish I could tell you how I did it, but I did not see any street signs past the fishing spot. You wouldn't need them, though. The wooded peninsula's principal road makes several turns, emerging a bit narrower from each; stick to the wider, more trafficked option every time.

The #24 bus goes to same beach as well, turning around just before the final plant-cloistered driveway/ parking lane that will take you to the shore. Alternately, you could just do what I did, and follow a local cyclist.

I only made it to the start of the beach that day, so I cannot speak to its distinct qualities. Getting there to the water's edge was all I really needed, at the time. But there will surely come another before I go, now that I have found the place. Judging by the number of cars – or better, by the fairly regular full-sized city bus – it is also a popular destination already.

Heading back, for a dash of variety one can bypass the bridge back to Garibu dambis, going straight through that intersection onto Duntes iela. You'd eventually have an option to turn right on Skanstes iela; taking the adjacent bike path past Riga Arena brings you down to Hanzas iela, where another right would get you back to where the route begins.

Still with me? Awesome. (… And that's another thing! How come these blog entries are so damned long all the time? What are you trying to do, write a book or something? 'Well, actually...')

The publisher tells me that the new Bicycle Manifesto has been doing well, thanks in part to a handful of generous reviews, including those by Urban Velo and Library Journal. Bikes feature in my current writing project as well, but more as useful details: I am hoping to bust out of the well-tested repair manual genre, and jump over to fiction.

The new manuscript has been underway since October 2011. It comes in at 75,000 words at present, or 18 of 42 outlined chapters. If nothing else I've been having a really good time with it. In any case, should the thing ever make it to daylight, rest assured I'll mention it again.

As concerns my other commitments, I recognize that the earnest little blog here has suffered for my distraction, so today at least we'll strive to make amends. And I do have other news, as it happens – as if June 1, exactly one month before we depart, I no longer work for the State Department. I'd been seeing precious little of Latvia, sitting in a desk at the embassy all week, so I had put my notice in over in the winter. Anyway, it was an interesting experience.

The summer of rock resumed immediately thereafter, with yet another raging good punk show that very night. Locals Kaiman opened for I Know, a solid political hardcore band on tour from Belarus. This was in a practice space situated in the middle of an old industrial compound south of A. Caka iela, not far from the excellent Chomsky bar, where some of us ended up afterwards.

The show drew maybe 50 or 75 people. Both bands played energetic sets – it was so much fun. I ended up talking with a couple members of the Defectives, who were also in attendance, and various other people as well. In true punk rock fashion, the crowd that night proved approachable and conversational. 'Vecaki,' I was told, translates as 'old hook,' which might fit well for an ancient fishing village.

I had been curious to see I Know, the Belorussian group, and I am glad I was able to. I stopped by their van after the show, where members assured me that there is a thriving punk scene across that border. It was the band's first visit to Riga, but they had previously toured in other countries. Visas to do so apparently run 60 Euros for each member, with sanctions applied to those who overstay in the outside world. Anyway, it was an illuminating exchange, parts in English and Russian – that must take some guts, doing political hardcore in a place like Belarus.

And here, at last, comes the biggest news of all: as some readers will already be aware, Kerri and I are expecting a son in August. We are both very excited. So if the lapse here extends anew, know that it is only for the best of reasons.


  1. The minidrome is fun as hell. I can see how it could become an addictive pursuit. It did take me a couple attempts before I was able to complete a circuit, and it would be easy enough to crash. The approach required is very specific: the trick is to start in such a position that you hit that first turn with enough speed to bank as much as you'll need to. Seemed to get more rhythmic, once that initial momentum was established. And I did start to get dizzy – I could ride maybe 12 or 14 laps at most, before starting to feel like I should hop off the bike for a minute. I can only imagine what that must feel like at more competitive speeds.

  2. Disregard the big white oil tanks, approaching Ezera iela. Riding the route again this morning, I realized that such are the dominant structures in that particular neighborhood – there are a lot more than four of them. Look instead for a black and yellow metal sign, spanning across the road just overhead: the big black arrow to the right signals Ezera.

  3. Captivated by the forest perhaps, I missed the turn to what I'll call 'bus beach.' I kept going regardless, taking Vecaku prospekts to its end, at Saulgriezu iela. Just look for the big blue arrow pointing to the left, and follow that street a few short blocks. You will see a far more popular beach directly ahead.


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