Rolling across Russia
Dr. Gregory W. Frazier
Exclusive to Dual-Star
The Kawasaki KLR managed Europe easily, where 99.9% of the road system was paved. In fact, if I had wanted to do some off-road riding, it would have taken some hard hunting. The gravel roads in the high mountain passes were still closed due to snow in many parts of France, where I would have normally found them. In the rest of Europe I crossed there was little off-road riding, as most of the land is privately owned and closed to motorcycles. Europe has almost no “public lands” as in America, and thus none available for off-road riding. In Germany there is a small gravel pit, privately operated, which a dual-sporter can ride in, but the daily entry fee makes it cost prohibitive. Besides that, once you have ridden around the gravel pit, about the size of a football field, you have pretty well exhausted any uncertainty about the next corner or berm.
Upon reaching my home base, Heidelberg, Germany, I switched tires from the Avon Distanzias to Roadmasters. The Distanzias looked like they had another 10,000 miles on them, but I did not want to take the chance to find out somewhere in the middle of Siberia I had guessed wrong. I chose the Roadmasters because they were described as “rock hard road tires,” so figured they could easily make 6,000 to 8,000 miles across Russia.
The changed rear sprocket of the KLR (from a 43 to a 44 tooth rear) has let the 650 cruise the autobahns at a comfortable 5,000 rpm, just around 70 mph, which is perfect for the roads and the load I have been carrying.
A valve check was performed by the local Kawasaki dealer in Schriesheim, near Heidelberg, Holy Kawasaki. It was compliments of Kawasaki of Germany and arranged through Kawasaki USA. The German technician who did the check was knowledgeable and efficient, even though they sell few KLR 650’s in Europe. The check resulted in no change in the shims, which meant that after 10,000 miles things were pretty stable.
I considered changing the spockets and chain, but decided to leave them as they were to see if they would make another 8,000 miles. I had a spare set, so felt comfortable if things needed changing once I entered Russia.
One of the things that makes riding across Europe and Asia a challenge, as compared to North America and other parts of the world, is the lack of motorcycle dealerships and thus spare parts. If I had needed a part once I left Latvia, I could expect to wait two to three weeks for it to be shipped in via DHL or some other express service. There was the remote possibility standard parts, like a tire, tube or chain, might be found in Moscow, but at a high price and considerable searching. My plan was to have the motorcycle well enough prepared before entering Russia to not need any parts or service.
The main road across Russia was nearly all paved. I did have to ride over some gravel roads, and constantly had to be on the look out for potholes, but overall the road was pretty good. There is one section of about 900 miles which was a swamp, and over which most motorcyclists cover by loading their bike onto a train. Some have managed to cross via the swamp, but at great expense in time, often waiting for a earthmover or truck to come along to hitch a ride on. The two-night train trip makes the 2-3 week swamp push-pull a question of personal intelligence. I opted for the train ride for me and the motorcycle for about $100.00 versus 2 weeks of the mosquitoe infested ride into Hell. In my short life I have done enough swamp riding to fill the rest of it and I was on a one month visa to cross all of Russia, not just a short section of mud. I did hear of one rider on a Yamaha XT 500 who had managed to ride/push/pull/truck his bike through this summer, and met another from Australia who planned to try. Last summer several others had also managed the nightmare, but not until they off-loaded all their luggage and gear onto the train. The swamp was doable, and I feel the KLR could have completed it, but not with the load I was carrying in the time that I had.
I managed some off-road work with the KLR and soon learned that the summer in Siberia had been very wet. Once off the pavement, the ground immediately became a soft bog, not well liked by the rock hard highway tires. Twice when trying to get far enough away from the main road into the woods not to be spotted pitching my tent I got so bogged down I had to stop and unload all of my luggage, including the tank bag and both aluminum panniers.
Gas was plentiful. I usually stopped every 125 miles to top-off in case there was an empty stretch ahead, but never once ran dry. Octane levels were usually 95, 92 and 80. Once I made a mistake and dumped in 20 liters of 80-octane juice, the stuff the Urals run fine on. The KLR did not ping or rattle, but my miles per gallon dropped. I carried no octane boost, but met several other riders who did, but ridding much bigger bikes.
A lot of the horror stories told by bikers about riding across Russia have to be read/listened to with a large grain of salt. I met one European rider, on a BMW R1150 GS, who had ridden across one section I managed in two days. He described the same section as if it was a Road of Hell, having taken him 4fourdays. Later I remembered his bike was spotless, with not a dead bug on it, and he was riding without any luggage on the luggage rack, just his two aluminum panniers, and was on a three-month trip. His tire choice was a pair of 90% highway tires. We obviously had different definitions of what was hard and what was easy. His four days in Hell on his BMW were two days of Ho-Hum for my Kawasaki.
The KLR 650 performed perfectly across Russia. Unlike one of its competitors in the 650 single market known for “surging,” the KLR surged only when running out of gas before I could switch the fuel tank petcock onto reserve. I told Kawasaki USA that from the time I put the spark plug in, in California, until I returned, I did not so much as even take it out to look at it. One adjustment to the chain was required, that being a complete turn of the adjuster nut.
One of my biggest surprises came when I erred by not looking ahead, distracted by a long legged dear on the sidewalk, and nailed two potholes, one right after the other, at about 50 mph. The jolt to the rear was severe enough to cause me to pull over and inspect both wheels, assured that both were bent. Not so. The Progressive Suspension, front and rear, and the Dual-Star Monster tubes had done their job. Neither wheel had the waffled rim I expected, and both tires survived without bubbles! The experience was a testament for the KLR, Progressive Suspension, Dual-Star Monster Tubes and the “rock-hard” Avon tires. As the guy with the big nose says on the TV ads: “Don’t leave home without them.”
Dr. Gregory W. Frazier, from the road, around the world on a Kawasaki KLR 650
Copyright 2002 By Dr. Gregory W. Frazier