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July 9, 2012 | Heating metal

Heat. Heat has been the one constant feature these past few days. Through big successes and major setbacks, on Red Square and in satellite towns, inside the Editourmobil and on parking lots, in meeting rooms and in car workshops, at noon and at midnight – the heat never stops. Right now, two hours past midnight, inside the caravan, after what promised to be thunder and lightning but never quite materialized, it’s still well above 35°C.

Of course, this is vastly better than minus 35°C – which is sometimes reached in winter. Neither caravans nor bikes would be much fun in those conditions! The only conceivable upside in winter is that the potholes on the streets would be full of tightly compressed snow – the driving would be a lot smoother…

Those potholes caused us some major headaches this weekend. The roads are in reasonably good condition in Moscow city: They get better the closer one gets to the center. But in the countryside, they are, at least on some stretches, better described as “tracks”. The major St. Petersburg – Moscow highway was alright – not always great, yet nothing too bad – but the smaller country road we took from Luga to Novgorod was just awful. We still think the main road eastwards will be fine, but we certainly need to be prepared for some rough patches.

Our trikes themselves handle those rough patches just fine, and so do the trailers – but the solar panels mounted high upon them do not. They swing wildly from side to side, and sadly, the pivots we’ve constructed back home in Heidelberg are not nearly sturdy enough to inspire confidence. The same goes for the strings that hold the panel in position. They are attached near the four panel corners, and the forces acting on these strings are positively huge. They exert an extreme pull on their winches – and these winches are, after all, made from Lego parts and attached to our Lego motors.

We’ve made several test drives over the weekend, riding progressively faster over rough roads. Nothing broke in action – so perhaps everything would work out just fine. But the panels swung around so unpredictably and erratically that we did not feel confident at all – and having confidence in the mechanical setup is an absolute necessity. This trip will quickly become a nightmare if we can, on top of all the other unknowns, never be certain the panel won’t suddenly fall below the next truck when we hit another pothole! Our setup might work in Germany, or on a tour of a few days, but we’ve lost the confidence that it will work on 8,000 kms of roads with difficult, and partly uncertain, conditions.

Of course, without a secure way to mount the panels, we can forget about the whole endeavour. And since our energy budget is already tight, it is also very important for the panels to have an adjustable orientation towards the sun, to maximize our energy harvest. Both things were suddenly in question. Or in other words: We had a huge problem at hand!

Luckily, along the way, we had learned something else about Russian roads: They are straight – in fact, very, very straight. Also, it had turned out that our panels, in practice, can do with much less than perfect orientation towards the sun. Which is to say that our fancy automatically adjustable Lego setup was not as necessary as assumed! Instead, it might just as well be possible to adjust the panel orientation, say, only once an hour – when short breaks will be necessary anyway.

So, our first decision was to use a much simpler setup: We would do away with all the Lego parts and just use lashing straps. Easy, quickly adjustable, durable, strong! Great – this left the second part: the pivots. After long discussions, we knew what we wanted: a universal joint, welded directly to strong plates on either side! But, where to get that? The plates needed to be in a non-standard angle, Moscow’s OBI markets are not nearly as well stocked as one would assume, and we did not bring professional welding equipment with us. Enter Alexander: A friendly, helpful, quick-thinking, and even english-speaking car mechanic!

With his assistance, things quickly turned around. He described our wishes to two of his colleagues, they took our joint and our plates, and an hour later, we were proud owners of two still hot, custom made, perfectly fitting, extremely strong replacements for our previous, vastly inferior pivots. These new pivots will hold up all the way to Vladivostok – and back, if need be!

Of course, need won’t be: The way back would have to happen during Siberian winter. Snowed-in potholes notwithstanding, neither of us is crazy enough for that. Not even when faced with 35°C at – by now – three o’clock in the morning.