The Road of Bones: Vladivostok to Magadan, the Hard Way

Surviving Joe Stalin's Siberian Superhighway.

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Daniel Byrne, Fred Williams, Joe Gresh

The 650's engine cases and oil cooler could not have made one day on Russian roads without the deflection qualities of those bars. The constant din of debris pounding the skid plate and rock screen accompany me wherever I go. These crash bars work so well, I may stop using the kickstand altogether; just pull up and let the bike topple over.

After dropping the bike this time, it won't start. All electrical systems seem okay except for the starter motor. Allen tells me "Screw the starter" and gives me a push. The Suzuki burbles to life.

Push-starting the V-Strom gets old fast. At our next overnight stop, I study the wiring situation. I am an electrician, after all. Turns out when the bike fell over, the left-side hand guard bumped into the clutch safety switch, knocking the wires loose and bending the switch terminals. I straighten the switch out, re-plug the wires and presto, we have ignition, as the cosmonauts say.

What started as a small rattle from the fairing is getting worse. The plastic side pieces that connect the windshield to the gas tank are flexing alarmingly over each bump. Further on, the rattle changes into a loud clunk. I suspect I ought to check it out before the whole thing falls off. At our 12:45 p.m. tea break, Harry and Gavin swarm over the V-Strom while I drink coffee and eat Bon-Bons. The front fairing hardware has fallen out, with only one loose 6mm bolt securing the bodywork. Re-bolted, we continue on to ride the ferry into Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world.

We begin the actual Road of Bones, called the Kolyma Highway locally. We're running hard today because we have to make two ferries, and if we miss the second one, we're stuck overnight. The rain starts again, turning the smooth dirt road into a slippery nightmare. Those Conti knobbies sure would have come in handy as I slip, slide and crash my way down the highway. With the perilous footing, it's all I can do to lift the 'Strom upright. Normally I cruise 10 miles ahead of the convoy, but in this mud I'm doing walking speed and the cars catch me up. There's no way we will make the ferry at this rate, so we load the V-Strom into the Equator.

The only space available for me is with Ed and Duane in the lead Kizashi. The inside of the car looks like a college dormitory. Empty soda cans, bags of chips and fruit rinds litter the back seats. Ed has the Beatles' Back in the USSR blasting and is talking crazy stuff about how he's a rally-car racer like Gavin. People must think I'm gullible.

This damn Kizashi all-wheel-drive motors through motorcycle-falling-down mud with no problems. Places where I could barely walk, the little Kizzy is pulling Gs. Ed and Duane chant "Four wheels good, two wheels bad" over and over. I shrink down into the plush passenger seat, my humiliation complete.

There's a mad scene at the ferry landing. The Russians use an inverse variation of the Rats Leaving a Sinking Ship loading system. Harry and Allen, being British, try to explain the concept of a proper queue to the uncomprehending scrum. There is no line, no order; whoever can jam their car onto the ferry wins. Gavin throws a body check on a Mitsubishi van trying to cut in front of us and we manage to get the Suzuki convoy on board.

Today is the perfect day: blue skies, warm, dry, but not dusty. The V-Strom rips down the Road of Bones, running 70-80 mph. The suspension soaks up unspeakable abuse. For a streetbike, this funny-looking Suzuki is doing a passable imitation of a Paris-Dakar rally racer. The only nerve-wracking moments come when I stand on the pegs and hit a monster pothole. Violent headshake follows the impact, and it takes all my nerve to not fight it and just let it wobble. Strangely, this headshake doesn't happen when I'm seated.

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