St Petersburg

From Russia, with love

Making your way to the St Petersburg Rally in Russia is no mean feat, but it’s well worth it, says Mark Cutler

“We wanted to do something different; something that other H.O.G.® chapters might not necessarily consider.” So says Mark Cutler, Director of Wolfruna Chapter, whose Russian odyssey reaffirmed the fact that wherever you are in the world, your Harley family is always there for you. And very often, the further afield you go, the bigger the welcome.

“It started via an online chat with Grigory Chernik, St Petersburg Chapter’s Assistant Director, who mentioned the namesake rally after we became friends on Facebook,” says Mark. “Then my Russian wife suggested perhaps I should visit, to get a flavour of the country.”

From there, fellow Chapter member Gavin Freebairn jumped onboard, along with Wolfruna’s Assistant Director, Michael White, and Sue O’Grady, at the age of 71.

“Having confirmed our attendance with the relevant people, we began plotting the route, which, while quite a distance, was pretty straightforward,” explains Mark. “Heading down south, we got the ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, travelling through Rotterdam towards Hamburg for out first night’s stop over.”

Copenhagen in Denmark was the second stop, then over the Øresund bridge towards Norrköping in Sweden, up to Stockholm and across to Turku in Finland, and, ultimately, Russia.

“Getting together with the St Petersburg Chapter on the Thursday at the rally was something special. It’s like meeting extended family – a friendlier bunch you could not wish to meet,” enthuses Mark.

“Grigory made us feel really welcome; in fact, the whole St Petersburg Chapter took us under their wings. We kicked off with what you might call a ‘ride out’ – in reality, a thrash around St Petersburg. I’ve never ridden so fast in the dark! There’s no drop offs, it’s a case of holding on.”

Now fully bonded, the group were then requested to join the Chapter for the ride from their dealership into the city centre on the Saturday, joining up with the main parade ride.

“It was amazing, being part of this huge spectacle. I was then summoned to meet the Rally President, Grigory Putinsev, who wanted to chat about our riding exploits. Little did I know that we appeared later on national TV in this moment! The atmosphere was absolutely superb, and the H.O.G. hospitality tent brilliant. They made sure we were all fed and watered. It was just a great weekend of entertainment. There must have been 20,000 bikes there.”

After some Russian-style partying, in part motivated by Mark’s birthday the following day, Sunday arrived and the group shipped out to Estonia, then on to Latvia and Lithuania. Then, a delayed birthday present arrived in the form of a breakdown, after encountering some less-than-perfect road conditions.

“Outside of the cities the roads are shocking. At best they’re broken tarmac; at worst they’re dirt tracks. My V-Rod® got clogged up with dirt after rain so heavy it felt like I was being water-boarded! It was seriously miss-firing and we just about managed to limp to a hotel in Poland.”

It’s times like this, far from home in a strange land, that you want the person at the other end of the emergency phone number to answer your mechanical prayers. Fortunately, Mark was with Harley Assist.

“I can honestly say they were brilliant. The bike was picked up and delivered to the Warsaw dealership – the mechanics dropped everything they were doing, which was particularly impressive as they were expecting the US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher,” says Mark, who ended up chatting with the ambassador about Harley-Davidson and the sense of community it fosters.

“She was really interested in the company, but also the brotherhood that comes with it. She could tell from the way I was being treated what it meant.”

The bike was fixed in less than four hours and, in a show of that community spirit, Mark was only charged for labour – a princely sum of £56. Back on the road and reconnected with the group, they pushed on to Warsaw, then Poznań. “Poland is the only country in which we stopped for two nights, due to its size.”

Crossing over into Germany, they rode through Berlin, then on to Hanover and the inevitable end destination back over the Channel.

I remember bumping into an ex-pat in St Petersburg who regularly helps organise the rally. He said, ‘In all my years, I’ve never ever seen a UK H.O.G. chapter here’. That really justified the effort,” says Mark.

“It’s difficult to put into words the feeling the trip inspired. The only negative thing was the breakdown, and even that turned out to be a positive experience!”