(A.K.A. My favorite prompt from the 2015, 2016, or 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenges.)
The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Riding the Iron Curtain, by Tim Moore, was published in 2016.
The first sentence is: “‘You understand how it is here, the weather?’”
Tim Moore is a British humorist and a travel writer. The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold is his tenth travelogue.
At the age of 51 (“two years older than much too old“), Tim Moore set out to ride the length of the Iron Curtain Trail, officially named EuroVelo 13 (or EV13), which follows the line of the former Iron Curtain from the Barents Sea, at the northern border of Norway, to the Black Sea, in Bulgaria. According to his research, the trail is 6,700 kilometers long. His editor corrects him: It’s closer to 10,000 kilometers long.
Because he believes in choosing a bicycle that fits the theme of a ride, Tim Moore chose to ride the EV13 on a MIFA 900, a cheaply-made East German bicycle from the 1970s. It was designed for short shopping trips within a city. It has no gears, tiny wheels, a folding frame, and a single “spoon brake”. Tim Moore describes it as “a Trabant on two wheels“.
(He did value safety over authenticity, though. He modified his MIFA quite a bit, strengthening its frame, adding better brakes, and so on, before setting out on his 10,000 km ride.)
He started his ride in Kirkenes, Norway, in the middle of winter. Friends suggested that he do the trip the other way around, starting at the Black Sea and arriving at the Arctic Circle in the summer. He’s a slave to the “idiot’s gravity” of a map, however. He felt it would be wrong to make a trip from south to north.
So, his ride would start off in the flat north, and finish in the mountainous south.
Tim Moore did the ride by himself, but he was rarely alone. Even when he suffered mechanical failures in the remotest parts of Finland, a friendly motorist would happen by to check on him. He posted regular Twitter updates. He was in frequent contact with his editor. His wife and son joined him in Finland for a few days on his ride. And everywhere he went, he was approached by fans who had read his story in the local newspapers.
The book’s opening sentence was spoken by one of the many Finns who warned him that winter is the wrong time to ride any bicycle in Finland. Tim Moore’s many falls along the Finland-Russia border proved that advice to be true.
Rather than take a ferry across the Gulf of Finland, from Helsinki to Tallinn, as his guidebook seemed to suggest, Tim Moore followed the trail, still under construction, or not yet constructed, into Russia, where his Garmin GPS Navigator didn’t work, through St. Petersburg, and around the gulf.
He rode through Estonia, where the EuroVelo 13 merged with the EuroVelo 10. “…I rode EV13 as I’d ridden it in my pre-departure daydreams, freewheeling through sun-speckled pines on smooth and car-less tarmac, the view refreshed by glimpses of twinkly sea and fairy-tale woodland cabins.”
He rode through Latvia, which, when he compared it to Estonia, felt “…less Scandinavian and more Soviet.”
He rode past some 6-year-old cyclists and imagined one of them, in the future, saying: “Daddy, I’ll never forget the morning when you were teaching me to ride, and that man went past us on a little bike with oven gloves on the handlebars, and you said: ‘If you try, if you really push yourself, one day you’ll be able to buy a car and never, ever have to look that utterly desperate and pathetic.””
He rode through Kaliningrad, which felt more Soviet than Estonia had – and even more Soviet than Russia. “In Russia, I saw one hammer and sickle in five days; in Kaliningrad, I lost count after an hour.”
He rode through Poland. He rode through Germany, where the irony of his GDR cycling jersey was not appreciated.
He visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, where he got in trouble for parking his bicycle in the wrong place.
In Germany, he was contacted, via Twitter, by a man named Peter, who gave him a tour of a still-operating MIFA factory. At the end of the tour, he was offered a new bicycle, delivered to his home, if he would donate his MIFA 900, after his ride was finished, to their museum. He accepted.
He peddled through the Czech Republic and Austria. He rode through Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia.
His wife and son met up with him in Hungary. They brought his less-controversial, yet still era appropriate, 1970s Peugeot cycling jersey. Thanks to the weight he’d lost since Finland, it fit him.
Tim Moore had few nice things to say about Romania. “The European Union is a rich tapestry; here I was at its tattered seams.”
He met some New Zealanders who were bicycling from Spain to China – on real bicycles.
He pedaled through Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
He rode through Greece, Turkey, and finally to Tsarevo, Bulgaria. At the Black Sea, he was met by his parents and his daughters, who took him home.
Tim Moore pedaled his East German shopping bike through 20 countries, across 8,558.4 kilometers.
How long did it take him to get from Norway to Bulgaria? I’m not sure. The book mentions kilometers and temperature, but rarely time. What year did this take place? I don’t know. The Twitter posts shared in the book don’t have date stamps. I’m not sure how to react to that lack of information. (I imagine the year being important to a future historian, since, at the time of the ride, large portions of EV13 were still under construction.)
I made frequent use of Libby by Overdrive’s bookmark feature. The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold is chock-fun of witticisms. It was tough to keep myself from quoting something from every page.
The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold is a road trip, and a travelogue, and a history lesson. As he pedaled his way along the former Iron Curtain, Tim Moore told us stories of the Cold War, how it effected him as a child, and what his children thought of it now. He passed through towns once occupied by the Soviet Union, and earlier by the Nazis. At times, the curmudgeon humor of the book is replaced with wartime grimness.
The book is illustrated with Twitter posts (including photographs) and hand-drawn maps.
I enjoyed this book immensely.
Why I chose this book:
I chose this book in the opposite way that I usually choose books for the Reading Challenge. It appeared on the “reading suggestions” screen of the Libby by Overdrive app on my phone. I loved the cover, I loved the title, and the story sounded intriguing. I put it on my “For Later” shelf at the library, and tried to think up a way to make it fit a Reading Challenge category.
The solution came to me: It’s a book about a road trip.
I regret the choice I made for the “book about a road trip” category for the 2016 Reading Challenge. Sure, I loved reading The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin, and I thought it was an excellent novel. It just wasn’t the road trip book I’d been lead to believe it was. There wasn’t any other category I could have fit it into, and I was still not convinced that I’d be able to finish the Challenge, so reading a book just to read a book didn’t seem like a luxury I had, plus I’d already imposed a rule that I would finish every book I started, so I felt trapped into using it as a road trip book. It was too bad, since it was one of my favorite categories.
So, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold became the type of road trip book I wish I’d read in 2016.