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PEZ Bookshelf: The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold
The world is a big place and travel writers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and styles. There are niches in travel: the luxury tour; the gourmet trip; the historical adventure. Tim Moore has identified a unique specialty: the highly personal memoirs focused on a badly-prepared trip by a gormless Brit lacking even basic diplomatic skills and involving extreme physical discomfort and some degree of humiliation. The third in his epic trilogy of terrible bicycle trips is “The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain Trail.”



His previous cycling books were “French Revolutions,” in which he rode the stages of the 2000 Tour de France, and the even more painful “Gironomo,” an account of riding the route of the 1914 Giro d'Italia, described as the most appalling bike race of all time (of the 81 riders who started, only 8 made it to the finish line), on a wooden bicycle in period costume. So when his publisher suggested he might want to take a crack at the new European bike route that followed the boundaries of the old Iron Curtain, he picked the right man. Even better: it was not clear how far the not-yet-totally-worked-out route would be and Moore's initial concern that the more than 6,000 kms suggested was more than his previous trips combined became panic at the possibility that it was actually closer to 10,000 kms. But clearly a man who could write “You Are Awful (But I Like You),” a travel book about driving in the worst British car manufactured to the most horrible places in Britain, and yet who still voluntarily lived in that country afterwards is a force to be reckoned with.

For a trip that was to begin above the Arctic Circle in Norway and end on the shores of the Black Sea in Bulgaria, you would think a seasoned cyclist would take care to choose the right equipment. Moore decides that the most appropriate two-wheeled transport would be a MIFA, a 20-inch wheel folding shopping bicycle once made in East Germany and used for zipping around campgrounds. The online enthusiasts for this bicycle (who amazingly do exist, apparently in Germany) have some doubts about this plan. As one cheerfully writes: “If you really want to do it, you have my unrestricted respect for this performance! But I think you will still find disappointment in the brake.”



His E-Bay purchased MIFA arrives and he is relieved to discover that his MIFA is an unusual non-folding version, something he did not notice when carelessly reading the ad for the bike. The enthusiasts are delighted by this rarity, particularly since the folders had a tendency to break at the frame hinge. To make this bicycle more representative of East-West conflict he installs a West German two-speed rear hub with the help of a friend. Having spent an hour or so testing it out and a bit of time on his indoor trainer, Moore feels sufficiently prepared to launch his grand expedition through 18 countries. He is completely wrong.

Continuing his list of Inexplicable Bad Decisions, he commences his trip/ordeal in winter, beginning north of the Arctic Circle. For some reason unable to countenance a south-to-north passage, the author begins in Norway, many many miles above the Arctic Circle and soon enough finds himself in Finland. Although Finland only covers about 50 pages of this 352 page book, it casts a heavy shadow on the reader who struggles with the author through snowdrifts, freezing wind, reindeer burgers and nothingness.



  1. “It was bitter. It was lonesome. After that grocery near Näätämö, I endured a barren 170 km—two full and terrible days—before the next commercial establishment of any sort asserted itself from the tundra. Overbearing desolation is what northern Finland does best, and I would routinely have entire afternoons to myself, watching the illimitable, primordial scenery fail to evolve and wondering if the regional authorities had introduced human hibernation.”


Like all things, this too passes and Mr. Moore is soon in the appalling embrace of Mother Russia before escaping into the desolation of the Baltics. Things improve somewhat as he rolls southwards through Poland and into Germany, but in case we get too cheerful he reminds us of the recent past history of these places. Of course, yet another Bad Decision is wanting to wear a German Democratic Republic jersey, which even the clueless author quickly catches on is maybe not such an amusing thing in a region where people were shot crossing the border by land or sea. This goes over especially badly during his visit to the MIFA factory which not only still exists, surviving the post-1989 meltdown of the East German economy, but where he is treated with cordial hospitality.



And so on through Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and so forth, weaving through various old borders. Serbia makes a fairly positive impression but all in all one has the sense that a lot of places have not coped particularly well with the rusting away of the Iron Curtain although history tells us that some of them, like Romania, were perhaps not that meritorious to begin with. In spite of the terrible food (perhaps owed as much to Mr. Moore's parsimony as the local cuisine), the terrible weather, the often terrible roads and relentless climbing/cold/heat/dogs/terrifying drivers, there are bright spots as the author is offered help by strangers or enjoys the sights of a lovely old city centre.



To the reader's amazement, Mr. Moore and his clown bicycle actually arrive at the Black Sea after three months and 8,558.4 kms. I suspect that without the remarkable assistance of a Finnish lady, we would be reading this book as derived from a manuscript found on a frozen, starved corpse somewhere south of Sevettijärvi. But there is plenty (outside of the desultory photos) to enjoy here: the history lessons; the puzzling languages; the sense of desolation brought on by a ride seemingly without an end:

  1. “The finale would not be the serene and pensive victory parade of my imagination between the imminent familial rendezvous at Malko Tarnovo and the Black Sea sand lay 56 savage, vibe-harshing kilometres. The lonely road would rise and fall and crumble into Russian disrepair. I would be chased a very long way by a very big dog, battering desperately through the potholes. I would run out of fuel, succumb to the cold sweats, and go a little bit mad...”


Whether it makes you laugh out loud (and it will), or cringe silently (yes, that too), “the Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold” is an epic traveller's tale that you won't forget soon. It is pretty unlikely that Mr. Moore's account of his pathbreaking expedition the entire length of the EV13 bike route will be surpassed so on, and certainly not by someone using a shopping bicycle.


The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain Trail
by Tim Moore
352 pages, paperback, with occasional small black-and-white photos
Yellow Jersey Press, London, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-224-10020-5
Available online in hardcover as well as paperback; published in the United States by Pegasus Books
Buy This Book at AMAZON.com




When not thankful to be avoiding reindeer meat pizza, Leslie Reissner may be found semi-frozen at www.tindonkey.com

 

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