Denver had a delightfully cool summer in 2023. While terrible heat waves swept across the rest of the US and Europe, our unusual pattern of daily storms ensured that we never had a 100-degree day. But shortly after returning from the blistering cornfields of Iowa, I noted that the forecast promised a solid 10 days in the 90s. And not really wanting to spend two weeks in a Panera Bread, I began to plot my escape.
Since moving to Denver some eight years ago, almost every trip to Europe has involved taking a red-eye to Miami, working from the airport for 12 hours, and then hopping on a flight to cross the pond. But as Frontier’s luggage rules have gotten more draconian and many of the free airport lounges have closed their doors, this approach has grown less attractive. So I was thrilled when I happened upon an Air France miles deal that would get me to Helsinki with just a single quick stop in Paris for the bargain price of $250. You’re allowed to bring whatever you want on an AF flight (even a bicycle!), and they offer you free champagne with your fancy French dinner. But there’s no cute animal on the tail of the plane. So… trade-offs.
I conveniently had plans to fly to New York on Southwest in 15 days, so it was easy to make an argument for canceling that 6am flight in favor of a slightly more circuitous route. An hour after booking, I was on my decrepit folding bike, creakily pedaling beneath the weight of my 20lb pack, bound for Union Station, DIA, and the skies beyond.
I had read that Finland was expensive and boring, thus I set my sights on the three Baltic States and northern Poland. The Iron Curtain and Baltic Sea EuroVelo routes, which follow the coast from Tallinn to Gdansk, seemed like obvious choices. But both of these run through Kaliningrad, which has a few geopolitical challenges at the moment. I would instead opt for a zig-zaggy inland route along EuroVelo 11 that cut through the Suwałki Gap, where I could join the Polish Green Velo. Halfway through the trip, the US State Department would order all Americans to leave Belarus immediately, and a top official would speculate that Putin might soon capture the Suwałki. Luckily, my mileage estimates were way off and I would never get past Vilnius.
Most of the time, the route followed quiet country roads through misty pine forest with minimal traffic. In Estonia, these were largely paved and decently signed. In Latvia, the signs mostly disappeared, and some stretches had harsh washboard, but the bucolic placidity persisted. And Lithuania was more of the same. As far as scenery and civilization goes, this route is pretty boring. But if you want many miles of fast, pleasant cycling, it’s a great choice.
The temperatures hovered around that perfect San Francisco sweet spot, where I never needed to put on a jacket, but neither was I ever even remotely hot. Most days had some threat of rain and I was hit by a couple of quick downpours, and sometimes arrived thoroughly soaked.
I spent several hours messaging sellers on Facebook Marketplace in English, Estonian, and Russian, and eventually connected with someone who could sell me a halfway decent mountain bike for 60 euros. I failed to notice until after the purchase that I couldn’t adjust the seat because it was held in place by a screw drilled through the frame. And because of the lack of attachment points, most shops refused to install a rack, but I eventually found someone willing to finagle something for 40 euros.
In the first couple days, I burned through five tubes due to tears in the valve stems, and then the rear shifter fell off. After one breakdown, an eight-time grammy winner, and his wife, the mayor of a major German city, bought me lunch and gave me a ride in their RV to the nearest mall.
When I eventually figured out that I was flying out of Vilnius, I googled for charities that would accept bike donations and found a program by the Ministry of Transportation to ship hundreds of bikes to Ukraine. The contact informed me that they had already made the shipment, but a Ukrainian living in Vilnius had recently messaged her and requested a bike for his daily commute. She met up with me the second I arrived in town, treated me to lunch and coffee, and delivered the bike to its recipient the same day.
Hotels and AirBnbs were expensive and sparse. One day, I had to ride 130 miles so I could pay $80 for the only place in town. The average was closer to $40 - usually for a room with a kettle and ensuite bathroom, and often with free breakfast hotdogs.
My rides in Eastern Europe typically involve frequent bakery stops, roadside radlers, and cheap goulash. The Baltics have no bakeries or goulash. Estonian restaurants often charge around $20/entree and are largely hotdog-centric. I don’t think I passed any restaurants in Latvia. Lithuanian hot table cafes are a bit cheaper if you can find them. There were frequent grocery stores, so I would stock up on bread and gorp, and sometimes get a croissant with a mystery filling, which was usually a hotdog.