The Wheels Come Off, Almost Literally


KHERSON, UKRAINE — I had quite a late start out of Odessa, so I barely made it halfway to my intended destination before the sun went down and I called it a day. The drive had been unpleasant, on yet more terrible roads, and one incident in particular stuck in my craw. I’d been doing a nice sedate 80 km/h down a straight stretch of road, just minding my own business, when a rusted-out Russian equivalent of an Econoline van pulled up beside me. It started swerving menacingly towards me, pushing me over towards the gravel, and I got on the brakes. The van braked to stay alongside, and continued swerving at me. Eventually I stopped, having run out of road to my right, and the van stopped too. I looked over to see a slack-jawed yokel in the passenger seat staring at me and giggling. Christ, I thought, this is just like the non-sequitur ending of Easy Rider. We then sat there stopped on the deserted road, this shaved monkey getting his yuks, and me looking back at him, more annoyed than frightened. Eventually the van pulled a U-turn and drove away. If any of my Russian or Ukrainian friends know what the hell that was, please enlighten me. Is it some sort of local version of mailbox baseball?

Anyway. I pulled off the main road towards a nearby town called Kherson and cruised around looking for a place to sleep.

On the road towards Kherson, Ukraine

I found a decent motel and had dinner at the adjoining restaurant. There, I got to talking to a pair of Harley-Davidson riders from Kiev. They, too, were also on their way down to Sevastopol, and were to take part in a big motorcycle rally where Vladimir Putin himself was scheduled to make an appearance. They got a kick out of the fact I was doing this trip on a Vespa, and we knocked back a few vodkas before I hit the hay. They were supremely nice guys, and I appreciated for the umpteenth time how in Europe there’s little acrimony between big bike riders and scooterists. All you need is two wheels and a reasonably-sized combustion engine, and you’re in the club.

The next morning I rode downtown to find a bank machine. I took out my daily limit of Ukrainian hrivna, then got back onto the main street and pulled up to a red light. When it turned green I shifted into first, eased out on the clutch, and cranked the throttle. I expected to feel the full might of the twelve furious horses inside the Hamburglar’s motor launching me forward, but all I got was a revving engine and no launching whatsoever. Nothing. I worked my way through all the gears, and no dice. The cars behind me honked their horns, but by this point in the trip I was no longer prone to losing my cool. Huh, I thought, this isn’t good for business. It was time to walk the bike to the sidewalk, but in the former Soviet Union that ain’t so easy; main roads in cities are usually lined with foot-high curbs and rusted pedestrian railings. I walked the bike a hundred metres or so till I hit a side street, and eventually got it up on its stand in the middle of a sidewalk thronged with pedestrian traffic.

In 30,000 kilometres of Vespa riding I’d never had a powertrain failure like this. I applied my limited mechanical knowledge as best I could to diagnose the problem. Somewhere between the engine and the rear wheel, something was amiss: I figured I’d either burnt out the clutch or killed the gearbox. First I had to find a place to work on the bike, and there was the problem of my 40 kilos of gear that I couldn’t just leave there on the street. I didn’t particularly feel like humping it all over Kherson under the blazing sun, looking for a garage that may or may not exist, so I opted to uncork the hapless tourist routine that had gotten me out of so many jams before.

I find that the further east I go, the more helpless I become. Back in my familiar stomping ground of Hungary, I could apply my pidgin Hungarian to solve most any problem. Also, small Central European countries are largely bilingual; most people under 35 speak some English. Out here in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, though, they don’t have the same impetus to speak a second language; much like the English-speaking world, the Russian-speaking world is enormous, and as such most folks can get by just speaking their mother tongue. I certainly became aware of this as I stood on that sidewalk like an idiot, asking dozens of passers-by ExcusemedoyouspeakEnglish? Some people looked at me and sadly shook their heads, others said Net! Russkii!, and others still just kept on trucking like I wasn’t even there.

And then I remembered I’d been in touch with a Couchsurfer from Kherson. I looked her up on my phone, made the call, and 20 minutes later there was pleasant and knowledgeable and English-speaking Victoria in front of me. She knew of a garage nearby, and I pushed my overloaded bike there, just behind the Lenin statue on the main square. Thank you, Victoria. You saved me an enormous amount of time and effort. On my friend Joern’s advice, I got out my tools and poked around in the gear selector box and determined that it was working as it should, which was bad, because if that was the source of my problem it could’ve been easily fixed. I was definitely going to be in Kherson for at least another day.

I really should've paid more attention during my crash course in Vespa mechanics

I lugged my stuff to a hotel on a side street off the main drag. As I waited at the reception, in walked none other than George McFly. Well, not the actual George McFly, but a very convincing likeness thereof, around my age and with an unsettling, wide-eyed stare. He paced around and compulsively combed his neatly parted hair with an old-timey black plastic comb. Clearly, the guy had a hot date lined up. He then broke the ice.

“Say, you picked the best hotel in town. It’s very clean… very good. Yes. Very… clean.” He spoke in a midwestern American accent, and his voice cracked like a teenage boy’s.

“Great to know,” I said.

“So, are you here on business? Or are you here to meet a special… lady?” He nervously emphasized the last word.

“No,” I said, pointing at my helmet. “My bike broke down.”

“Oh. I’m here to meet a special someone. Lots of guys are.”


McFly: Back to the future and looking for love in Kherson

For the record, I was always a big fan of the George McFly character, and could relate to him far more than that asshole Biff Tannen. I hope that guy from the hotel finds what he’s looking for. Anyway, Kherson, it turns out, is known as the mail-order bride capital of Ukraine — and by extension, the world. The hotel I’d ended up in seemed to house the entire North American population of men looking for a Ukrainian wife, and the lobby was a constant flurry of suitors and translators and leggy women with bouffant hairdos. I knew something seemed a little different about Kherson, just from walking down the street: it’s a demographic disaster. There’s a severe shortage of dudes in this part of Ukraine, most of the ambitious ones having left, and what few men I did see had the slumped shoulders of the defeated and permanently drunk. Mo fa me, the dirtbag in me thought, but I really wasn’t in the market for a wife. I just wanted to fix my bike and get the hell out of there.

It took a full three days of trial-and-error diagnosis via a flurry of emails and text messages between Joern and myself to finally determine that my rear wheel had worked itself slightly loose. This was mostly due to irregular maintenance on my part but also because of the battering it had taken on the roads, and back at that stoplight one twist of my wrist was the last straw and it stripped out all the teeth in the brake drum. In fact, the hub inside the drum, where the teeth used to be, had been polished to a bright shine by all my insistent revving of the axle. Whoopsie-daisy. This sort of thing rarely happens, apparently, although my German mechanics had discovered the beginnings of the problem back in Belgrade when they found that I’d been driving around with a loose rear wheel nut. They’d hemmed and hawed about whether or not I should bring a replacement drum with me, but we decided it was probably okay. Note to all you Vespa drivers out there: tighten that nut regularly, and often.

There isn’t a single Piaggio dealer in all of Ukraine, and I hadn’t seen another Vespa for weeks, so it came as no surprise that I couldn’t source the part locally. (Curiously enough there are plenty of billboards, erected by a local mobile network provider, featuring smiling teens riding two-up on a P-series Vespa.) Option two was to try and jury-rig a fix. An extraordinarily friendly local scooterist I’d met drove me out to his mechanics on the outskirts of town. There, they studied the now-useless drum and proposed administering some rough Russian-style justice to it to get me back on the road. Note the red marks where they wanted to drill new slots for a modified driveshaft:

Russian mechanical ingenuity at its best

It was a brilliantly simple solution, but I didn’t want to risk ruining my driveshaft forever, so I thanked them and went back to the hotel. In a few days I was scheduled to fly from Simferopol to Canada for a week, to attend a wedding as well as handle a pile of administrative hassles that I couldn’t deal with remotely, so I resigned myself to getting going again once I’d returned from the Great White North. Joern in Hamburg shipped a brake drum he’d had kicking around to a friend in Balaklava, near Sevastopol, where I’d arranged to leave the Hamburglar behind. Just in case, I emailed Motoretta Scooter Shop in Toronto and ordered one too, which I’d pick up there and bring back with me in my luggage. I then phoned Victoria to find a truck to haul me and the Hamburglar the 250 kilometres to Balaklava. Again, without fail she came through with the goods: the next morning, a big yellow flatbed truck and its smiling owner were waiting by the garage.


71 Responses to “The Wheels Come Off, Almost Literally”