Tim Moore is a British travel writer, and two of his previous books involved long-distance stunt bicycle rides. One of them was a more or less straightforward ride along a route taken by the Tour de France. Fair enough, who has taken a bike tour and not wondered what it would be like to attempt the Tour, or even its route? That appears to have whetted an appetite. In a subsequent book, he follows the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia, on a period wooden bicycle, in period costume.
For the current book, his idea is to be the first person to ride the full length of the Iron Curtain Trail (EuroVelo 13), a long-distance bicycle route tracing the border of the Soviet Bloc from Kirkenes, Norway to Tsarevo, Bulgaria. The Trail was newly complete at the time he started his ride, but of course that meant it was more notionally complete in some places than actually complete. Not content with attempting a ride of more than 10,000 kilometers, he decides the best way to live history is to make the ride on a (modestly modified) East German MIFA bike, with 20-inch wheels and two gears, a bike better suited to zipping down to the store and back. Not content to attempt the long ride on a bike with wheels smaller than a typical 12-year-old’s bicycle, he decides to take the route from north to south, and to start in March.
It’s a bad idea. He knows it’s a bad idea. Everyone tells him it’s a bad idea. He agrees it’s a bad idea. Yes, he says, this is a really bad idea. He does it anyway. He adds to the foolishness by not training for the ride, and by making the last modification — adding a cross-bar so that the bike frame is less likely to collapse in on itself — three days before departure.
I … mate, no. Don’t do this. You’ve got a wife and kids. There’s no reason to start in the north, in March. It’s not even like mountain climbing where you could say that the risk is inherent in the undertaking; it’s going out unprepared, unplanned, underequipped into an environment that’s hostile even if the roads are paved. “See me doing this totally daft thing that could get me killed for no reason at all” is not a good look.
Eventually, Moore gets something resembling a clue. It is delivered most directly when he is trying to fix a flat at minus whatever degrees.
… an ancient Audi rumbled up from the bleached horizon and slowed to a noisy halt. The window squeaked down and a mournful wail of blues guitar burst out, followed by a ginger-bearded face. “I think you are not from Finland,” declared its owner in the default toneless blare … He flicked the stereo off and impassively surveyed my predicament. “A bicycle is a bad idea. That bicycle is a very bad idea.” Then he nodded, turned [his music] up to maximum value and shouted his farewell. “If you need help, you will ask.”
Enlightenment dawned as I watched the Audi wobble and slither away. There was no malice or misanthropy in his words, just naked truth, baldly delivered. Finns were people of few words, understated to the point of bluntness. I would never meet a Finnish bullshitter. Dauntless, hard-core journeys were part of everyday winter life up here, so mine wasn’t about to impress anyone. And it wasn’t as if I needed to do this at all, certainly not at this time of year and on this sort of bike. If I’d chosen to make it harder for myself, then that was my own silly fault. Redbeard has simply called it like it was. His was a land of harsh sincerity, where spades were spades, and daft little bikes were daft little bikes. Where you got help if you asked for it, but otherwise didn’t. Where bad ideas went to die. (p. 36)
Moore learns to ask for help, and he receives plenty. People go well out of their way for him, almost never accepting payment when offered, and not even liking to receive much thanks. His local contact, who has conjured up much of this help by cellphone (it’s Finland after all), explains:
When you live in a difficult region and find a bad situation, you must depend 100 per cent on other people. They didn’t want to help you, they needed to. Now they feel happy and more safe, because they can believe that someone will be there to help them when they need it. (p. 57)
In the Finnish chapters, Moore also relates a good bit about the Winter War, when in the wake of its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The Finns fought the Red Army mostly to a standstill, retaining their independence and showing that General Winter isn’t always on the Russian side.
Once he is out of frozen climes, there’s less drama to the book, but that suits the subject better. Tootling across Europe on a shopping bike is meant to be a jaunt, not an expedition. Moore clocks up impressive daily mileage, given what he’s riding, and as the countries reel along, he mixes observation, a bit of history, and recollection of a similar journey by car in 1990 to muse on Europe East and West.
I’ve ridden a number of stretches that he covers, or at least areas that are very similar: the Baltics, Vilnius to Tallinn; northern Poland; Baltic Germany; the Czech-Austrian borderlands; and so forth. Moore gets this right, as far as I can tell, and he is a companionable traveler. One of the highlights is a visit to the MIFA factory that originally produced his bike, though Moore tries hard to get people he has only just met to tell him what life was really like under the Communist dictatorship. This goes as well as could be expected.
As he approaches his goal, the chapters shorten, his focus narrows to reeling in the distance. Serbia surprises him with friendliness, and that nobody gives his bike a second glance. Romania is remote, sparsely inhabited and sparsely provisioned. Bulgaria throws the ride’s highest climbs in his way, just by way of one last set of obstacles.
At the end, I am both in and out of the target audience for the book. I’ve ridden a quarter or so of his route, or close by, and I could conceive of doing the whole thing if I had several months free of any other responsibilities. I wouldn’t do it on a daft little bike, though, and I wouldn’t start in the Finnish Arctic in March. People less versed in the history of the Iron Curtain will also get more from the anecdotes he weaves in.
Moore’s writing is breezy and engaging. I think I would like his books on the Italian or French rides. I might also like to try Nul Points, the book where he attempts to track down and interview Eurovision performers who scored a grand total of zero in the contest’s final round. As for The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, I never quite got over my aggravation about his ill-conceived start. It’s a congenial book, but I’m with the Finns. “A bicycle is a bad idea. That bicycle is a very bad idea.”