The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold - Adventures along the Iron Curtain


Few writers make me laugh out loud, with abandon and in public. Tim Moore is one of them. Buried deep in his Tour de France-alike 'French Revolutions' whilst en route to my own joust with Le Grande Boucle in the shape of the 2006 Etape du Tour, I was rudely dug in the ribs by my long-suffering wife and told to shut the book. My giggling apparently was not appreciated by our fellow cyclists who sat in our coach from Geneva Airport brooding over the travails to come on the Izoard and Alpe d'Huez. Moore was my antidote to the anxiety facing all of us before that mammoth ride but I was forced to stop reading it in such company because I couldn't keep my mirth to myself. For my fellow travellers it was too late anyway - most had already developed the hundred-yard-stare.

In this, his third bike book, Tim Moore once again is pedalling headlong towards what he calls, the coal-face of offbeat travel writing. As with his previous two cycling volumes, French Revolutions and Gironimo! Moore has an uncanny knack of investing his rickety bikes and other inanimate objects with emotional resonance. In the book's opening pages he brings the Soviet era's signature car, the Trabant, to life, noting how it's,  "gormless radiator-grille smile" is an unlikely symbol for a menacing evil Communist empire, "Who could not warm to such a goofy, hopeless, squat little underdog..." he muses, before pointing out that his current bike, the MIFA 900 - the 1967, GDR-era, folding shopper, on which he intends to ride 10,000km - was a "Trabant on two wheels." As he dotingly reflects on the bike's "archaic shonkiness", Moore and MIFA quickly become a double act whose unlikely road trip makes for compelling reading.

In Gironimo!, focusing on the hardest ever edition of Italy's tour, Moore gave us an in-depth description of his vintage bicycle's wooden wheels and the fact that its braking system consisted mainly of pads of cork. Moore spent many an evening in hotel dining rooms penknife in hand, whittling spare brake blocks from wine bottle corks. On his first real descent on the bike - brakes untested - he hopes that any resultant crash will still allow him to have an open casket funeral.

Moore is back in similar form with this latest book. Only a few pages in, we learn that the MIFA 900  has  a startlingly rubbish (not the adjective Moore uses) front brake. The "spoon brake' comprised of a "metal rod that depressed a stout rubber pad onto the top of the front tyre, via a big hole in the mudguard", was, Moore informs us, a throwback to the age of the penny farthing.

In the spirit of life-preserving compromise however Moore effects some modifications including getting an amateur mechanic to knock up a makeshift cross bar for the bike where there had been none before. He also does away with the 'spoon brake' and is soon ready to pedal off on a contraption created by the "Dr Frankenstein of expeditionary shopping bicycles".

The premise this time is straightforward. A throwaway query by a Guardian colleague plunges Moore into full-blown obsession with the Iron Curtain Trail - known less catchingly as Euro Velo 13. He soon vows to pedal the entire length of the route - passing through 20 countries -  as ever, taking his readers along for the ride.

The journey starts some 400km north of the Arctic Circle. As the author struggles with "frozen tears of pain and terror stinging his cheeks" and regales us with tales of self-inflicted two-wheeled torture  we'd be forgiven for repeating the query aimed at Moore by an elderly Norwegian, "why are you WITH BICYCLE?" It's a reasonable query as Moore's adventure on the surface looks like complete folly.

Riding through the Scandanavian deep freeze he has one stroke of luck in the shape of studded winter tyres which give his humble bike, "an improbable whiff of aggression" turning it into, "the sort of thing Mad Max's auntie might have ridden to the bingo".

Passing Cold War era watchtowers, Lenin statues, T34 tanks decorating roundabouts and countless Soviet-era, "stack-a-prole five floor prefab tenements", Moore tells the unfolding story with comic gusto, always portraying himself as slightly inept. He is the underdog's underdog -  status in which he appears to take perverse pride. He is the cyclist who wears polythene bags under his socks, gardening gloves on his hands, carries pepper spray strapped to his bike frame to repel angry roadside canines and frets hilariously about the prospect of his sweat freezing and bringing on hypothermia.

All along the route, Moore reflects on the Iron Curtain and the history of the Cold War. He elegantly makes the gear change from knockabout humour, to sombre reflection on subjects such as the deaths of desperate citizens caught trying illegally to cross the Iron Curtain. This distinguishes 'The Cyclist Who Went Out in The Cold' from the previous two bike adventures. This book contains the expected bike-borne buffoonery but it also has a very serious subject at its core. Moore addresses this with sensitivity, without sacrificing his trademark comic content - quite a feat.

Moore is a clown, an explorer, an innocent aboard, a feckless wanderer - always it seems in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he finally ends his momentous cycle ride in Turkey, contemplating the "big double chins of muscle overhanging" each of his kneecaps, fans of Moore's 'out-there' cycling dispatches will be looking ahead impatiently for his next publication. Newcomers I imagine, will rush to the earlier two bicycle books to continue their fix of Moore's unique storytelling. They won't be disappointed.


Popular posts from this blog