Rim repair – Barcelona vs. Astrakhan

So, time to get the rim repaired! I thought it would be a good opportunity for some Top Gear-style useful consumer advice. Where is it easier to have a rim fixed? In Astrakhan, a 500,000-inhabitant city in the Volga delta I was completely unfamiliar with and with a language I did not speak, or in Barcelona, my hometown? Let’s compare experiences!

Finding a workshop that would repair the rim proved to be a lot easier than in Astrakhan. I just had to Google it, check out some opinions on bikers forums and choose one. In Astrakhan I had to wander round the centre until I found a biker gang, enlist the help of one of its members, Arkan, and trust he would know what he was doing because he did not speak a single word of English. So, the first point goes to Barcelona.

I contacted XR Llantas, which build and repair wheels of all kinds, both for individuals and competition teams. They have a very good reputation and trusted they could do a proper job.

I sent them pictures of the damage to the rim to see whether it was repairable or not. They said that they needed to see the rim to confirm, but it looked possible. Once I had removed the tire from the rim, I took it to their workshop in Barcelona on a Monday morning.

The place was smaller than I expected,there were rims of all kinds in every available inch of space in the shop, but it seemed they clearly knew their business. I gave the rim to a guy who inspected it carefully and said that they would need to carry out some tests (he mentioned infrared light and ultrasound) to see if they could repair it. Compared to the junkyard Arkan took me to in Astrakhan, this looked like a NASA lab, so Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 0.

They said that they were very busy and would not be able to get it done until at least Thursday.  I was using the AT in the meantime, so it sounded reasonable to me. At least I was not stuck in the stifling heat of summer in Astrakhan.

A  week later I still had not had any news from them, so I called. They mentioned that they had started looking at it, but had had to stop because they had more urgent business. The guy I talked to on the phone was not the one in the workshop apparently, but he said that he thought that the wheel would be ready the following day, and that they would call to confirm. That was eight days, while in Astrakhan it only took from Monday to Friday morning. Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 1.

Tuesday came and went with no news, and I was too busy with classes to call. Back in Astrakhan Arkan had called when we said he would. Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 2.

I called the shop on Wednesday morning and the guy on the phone sounded surprised that they had not called me the day before, as he thought the rim was already repaired. He promised to talk to the workshop and call me later.

Half an hour later I got the promised phone call, but not with the news I was expecting. They had run their tests and determined that he wheel was too badly dented and bending it back into shape would weaken the aluminium too much and there was a risk that it might crack and cause an accident. So, it was not repairable. In Astrakhan they took a wheel in much worse shape than this one, fixed it with no objections in four days and it remained usable for two more years and thousands of kilometres, after which it developed a microscopic leak and I had to have replaced. Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 3.

There you go, then – if you want something fixed, get a Russian mechanic to do it.

The rim and a gun

Day 25 – Friday 19th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

Parental advisory – This post might content strong language and references to sex and drugs.

This morning at about ten I got great news – Arkan called and said that the rim was already fixed and that he would come over in ten minutes to pick me up and take me to the workshop. Valentin, my host, had been acting as an interpreter all this time, as Arkan did not speak any English at all, but today he had work to do and could not come with us, so he told me to call him if I needed anything. While I was waiting for him, Dasha wrote to me on Facebook and told me that she and her friends were going to go for a swim on the river later in the day, and invited me along. We arranged to meet at half past seven near in the same bus stop as last time. It seemed that after a few really boring days I had some things to do again.

I went down to the street and five minutes later Arkan turned up in his black car. We drove to the rough part of town again and he parked in front of a place that looked more like a junk yard than a place that could repair and balance an alloy rim. I was a bit skeptical about the whole thing and how the result would turn out to be, but I had not been able to ask many questions about it due to the language barrier and not wanting to bother my host for translation too much, as I felt I was already abusing his hospitality, having been at his place for a whole week. By now I had learnt that the best thing to do in Russia is just to go with the flow, trust people and let them do their thing, and sure enough, despite the looks of the place, the rim was repaired and it looked very professional.

We took it to a tire workshop that did not look much better to have the tire fitted again. The rim problem was finally solved, but I was a bit worried that the tire might be damaged, as I had ridden for long stretches with no air in it and on really bad roads to get back to Astrakhan. Sourcing a new tire might prove to be difficult and I was not looking forward to spending more time stuck here. Fortunately, once the tire was fitted and inflated, the guy in the workshop checked it with water and soap and it did not seem to leak anywhere. He fitted it for free, which was really nice.

We took the wheel back to the car park where my bike had been for a week. Having the bike in a car park with 24-hour surveillance might sound as a bit of a luxury for a traveler on a tight budget like me, but it only cost 20 rubles a day, which is less than what you would pay for a bottle of water. Arkan helped me fit the wheel back on the bike and when he saw that the air valve cap was missing, he took one off his own car and gave it to me. He also noticed that my chain protector was not fitted, and I explained that I had lost one of the screws due to the vibrations in Kazakhstan. While I was cleaning and greasing the chain he got Valentin on the the phone, who told me that Arkan had told him to tell me that he would take me to a shop where I could get spare screws to fix it.

We got back in the car and he took me not to a shop, but to his own place, where he found a couple of screws that fit and showed me his bike, a Yamaha Fazer 1000. He explained to me that he had had a Honda Fireblade, but had crashed it into the back of a car. I noticed that he had no numberplate on the bike and he told me that it was so that the police could not fine him. Well, rather than explain that, he just made a gesture with his right hand, as if twisting the throttle wide open and said “fuck police”.

With the screw in my pocket, we got back into his car, and he got back on the phone. I thought he was taking me back to my host’s, but then he handed me the phone again. It was Valentin, who told me that Arkan wanted to take me with him and his kids for a swim. I said I was OK with it, as long as I was back in time to meet Dasha and her friends later.

We were driving to the outskirts when we hit a long queue of stopped cars. Without thinking twice, he drove down the street the wrong way and cut to the front of the queue. It turned out it was a level crossing, they are everywhere in Russia and sometimes it takes very long for trains to pass, thus the long queues. We had been waiting for a while, but no trains turned up. Arkan, probably bored of the wait, decided to show me something. He lifted the armrest and took out… a gun. With the two kids in the back seat, who did not seem to be at all surprised. I guess it was not the first time they had seen it. He removed the gun magazine, which was charged with real bullets, removed the bullet from the chamber and gave it to me. It was the first time I had ever held a gun, and I thought that for a first time, it was quite cool that it was an outlaw Russian biker’s gun. I just hoped he did not kill anybody with it before I leave the country, as it now has my prints on it.

We finally made it through the crossing and stopped at a small shop to pick up some friends of his – a skinny guy with big tattoos that looked as badass as Arkan, his girlfriend Natasha, in very skimpy clothes and another guy with a stutter and half rotten teeth that made me think of those “Meth? Not even once” memes.

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We went to a beach between a railroad bridge and a dry dock with a rotting ship in it, which might not sound great, but it was much quieter, nicer and cleaner than the beach in the city center. While we were there we talked about the trip and bikes, and compared prices between bikes in Spain, Russia and Georgia, as it turned out that Arkan was not Russian, but from Georgia. Then, best as he could using gestures and drawing in the sand, he explained that he travelled to Germany quite often, apparently on some kind drug-related business, I gathered. The conversation then turned a bit, let’s say uncomfortable. Using gestures and a few English words, they told that Natasha gave great blowjobs – they all seemed to have had a go at that – and then said “tonight, drugs, -Russian word for sex- Natasha” I laughed and played along for a while, but when we were leaving I told them that I was already meeting other people that night, which was true.

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We dropped Arkan’s friends back in the shop and on the way back to the center he told me that he was a boxer and also practiced several other martial arts, and pointed at his nose, which had obviously been broken several times. Pointing at his kids and his wedding ring, he indicated that it was a good way to let out steam. He also told me that he used to be into illegal street racing in the past, he had owned an Impreza and an M5, but had given it up when he got married.

Back at Valentin’s I thanked him for everything, he had been a really nice guy and had gone out of his way to help me.

I packed my things to get ready for departure the following morning and then took one of the Russian microbuses with crazy drivers to the center to meet Dasha, I did not feel like walking almost 7km again. We bought some beer and she took me to a smaller beach on the other side of the island where we had been last time. It was already late, and the sun was setting, it was a beautiful sight, a huge red ball of fire behind the factories on the other side of the river while I was swimming in the cool water.

After the sun had set, we got back on the bridge and I discovered that the buses stop running at 9 pm, which meant a long walk back home… But then the guys said that there was no way I was leaving so early, we got a taxi and headed for the place where one of them lived, a really old wooden building dating from before the Russian Revolution. It had veranda overlooking the inner court, and we just sat there in the cool night air having a drink and playing the guitar. It made me think what an amazing experience this trip had been so far, there I was sitting with people I had just met, all of them really nice, offering me their drinks, telling me about the Russian songs they were singing.

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I left at midnight, as I wanted to get up early the following day for the ride back to Volgograd. It was not especially long and the roads were quite good, but I still did not know how the rim repair would hold, so I wanted to have plenty of time just in case. Dasha walked me home, we exchanged contacts and she wished me good luck with the rest of the trip.

Slow news day

Day 24 – Thursday 18th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

We called Arakan today, who gave us the number to the workshop so that we could ask them directly and they said that the rim would be ready on Friday “on the second half of the day”. That meant that I would not be able to leave for Volgograd until Saturday. Apart from that, nothing else happened today… I was about to not write an entry, but since I have got used to writing every day, I decided to do so, even if it was a short one.

First news from the wheel

Day 23 – Wednesday 17th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

Today we called Arkan, he said that the wheel is already in the repair shop and it will be ready tomorrow afternoon or Friday morning. As it was quite badly bent not just because of the road in Kazakhstan, but because the mechanic in the oil plant tried to bang it back into shape with a hammer, the result might not be perfect. Let’s see if at least it holds the air well enough to allow me to continue travelling.

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On the positive side, I discovered why my 12V plug was not working. It is rated at a maximum of 20A, but the guy who installed it had fitted a 10A fuse, which had blown, as the compressor uses 15A.

I got news from Martin, from Uzbekistan. Hit a rock on his GS Adventure and bent the front rim as well. A trucker stopped and helped him bang it back into shape. He said it is holding the air, let’s hope he has better luck than me!

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Kustodiev Art Gallery

Day 22 – Tuesday 16th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

Not much to report today, just waiting for news about the rim. To kill some time, I went to visit the Kustodiev Art Gallery, which was quite nice, and then strolled to the city center, read a bit in the park and then found myself a nice café with air conditioning in which to spend the rest of the afternoon reading and enjoying ice tea.

Good and bad news

Day 21 – Monday 15th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

First of all, the bad news – Today my parents found out that it is not possible to send parcels into Russia, only documents. Fed Ex does send parcels, but with severe weight and value restrictions, and at astronomical prices. So it seemed that it was not possible to get a replacement rim sent from Spain. Plan B it was then.

On Saturday, me and Lex had been looking for bikers in the center, as they are always good help, and had found a contact. A guy named Arkan, a real badass by the looks of it, the kind of big Russian guy that never smiled. We got his number and this morning I got Valentin, my host, to call him. He said he would come and have a look, and at lunchtime he turned up in his big black car. He drove us over to the car park where the bike was, barked at the guard to let him drive in and examined the wheel. He said that it could be fixed, and that he would come back the following days with the tools to remove it from the bike. I said I had the tools and could get it out in five minutes, so I did it. Later Valentin told me that they were a bit impressed, as they had thought I was some kind of amateur who had no idea what to do. He put the wheel into the boot and we went off to a really dodgy part of town to find a tire workshop to remove the tire from the rim. After a couple of stops we got it done and then we went to an even rougher part of town in search of a shop were they could repair it, as the one he knew was apparently not able to do it until Wednesday. We eventually found one, but he was not happy about the price they asked nor about the fact that they did not have the equipment to have the wheel balanced once the job was done. I said that I did not mind waiting a bit longer as long as it was done properly, so he took the wheel with him and said that in a couple of days he would have it fixed. So there is the good news. I hope.

Another swim in the Volga and a tattoo

Day 20 – Sunday  14th of July –Astrakán (0km)

Today I spent the morning updating the blog, counting days and kilometers to see what I can do once the bike is fixed, and I sent an email to Stephen Stallebrass, who did the same route as I am now considering.

In the afternoon, Dasha, one of the CouchSurfers from the city took me for a swim in the Volga. We had arranged to meet at a bus stop by the big bridge that crosses the river through an island, which is where the beaches are, and I walked more than 6km in 40ºC heat to get there because I wanted to walk through the center rather than take a bus.

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The river beach would have been a nice place if it had not been for the fact that there were empty bottles and plastic wrappings everywhere, the Russians can not seem to be able to keep a place other than their own home clean, which is a pity, as it was quite a beautiful place. I went for a swim and then Dasha took out a henna pen and started to practice drawing a tattoo on her leg. She told me that she wanted to make some extra money that summer painting tattoos on people on the beach, and when she was done she asked if she could practice on my arm too, so I got a nice souvenir from Astrakhan.

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Back at the apartment I checked my mail and saw that Stephen had replied, with some advice about the route he took. I also tried to find information online to see if I can unlock my phone myself, which might be easier than trying to get some Russians at a phone shop to understand what I need. More news on that tomorrow.