Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore...

For a long time there has been one cycling travel book that has, in my opinion, ruled the roost. That book is Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike, the story of the author's anti-clockwise ride around the coast of the UK. It was wonderful, truly wonderful, and I still pick up it now and read large chunks of it if I want to cheer myself up. Yes, it was (it is!) that good. So good that I've been unable to find anything that comes close to beating it. Until now.

The other day, wandering aimlessly around Waterstone's in Croydon and gravitating as always towards the travel literature section, I spied The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold  – adventures along the iron curtain, by Tim Moore.

The premise is simple: Moore rides EV13, the Iron Curtain Trail, riding close to the border between East and West from the northern tip of Norway, hugging the Baltic coast and then riding through Finland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Greece and, ultimately, Bulgaria and the Black Sea coastal town of Tsarevo. Kirkenes to Tsarevo on a 'shopping bike', a MIFA 900, made in East Germany, 20in wheels and, by all accounts, not the sort of bike on which to make such a journey. But Tim does make it – of course he does – but it's clearly a hard, hard slog, fuelled by energy drinks and whatever food and drink is available, including kebabs and Eurocrem Blok.

Moore stays in hotels, but nothing fancy, he doesn't camp, he simply gets on with his job – yes, his job – which is cycling, eating, sleeping (repeat and fade) until he reaches his destination. While bears are a potential initial worry in Finland, crazy dogs, bad drivers and extreme weather conditions become his chief enemies; and while he arms himself with pepper spray, he never has to use it.

There's more to this book than simply cycling from A to B: it's a challenge, an adventure, but it's not a race, and Moore's reflexions on the Cold War give the book depth, making it much more than just another account of a bloke attempting something silly. Did you know, for example, that prior to the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, one in six people in the German Democratic Republic was a Stasi informer?
Moore and the MIFA 900 by a stretch of the Berlin Wall...
Moore has form. Riding a shopping bike over 9,000km and braving everything the weather can throw at him is a piece of cake for a man who has walked across Spain with a donkey, cycled the entire route of the Tour de France and jumped on to a wooden-wheeled old bicycle to ride the route of the notorious 1914 Giro d'Italia.

In fact, as I read Moore's book he was doing something with a vintage car in America and tweeting about it – expect another travel book with a difference soon.

I like Moore. He's certainly a comedy character. I've never met the man, more's the pity, but there's something about him, something about his writing style – he's a very good writer – and the way he writes makes me laugh – which is priceless.

During his mammoth ride Moore is constantly coming up against relics from the Cold War in the shape of watchtowers, Trabants and dreary old tenement blocks. At one point he admits that the spectre of nuclear war constantly loomed throughout his formative years in the 1980s, but nothing a can or two of Kestrel couldn't put right. I was in my early-to-mid twenties during the 80s and while there were constant references to nuclear war between East and West (Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Sting sang of it) and the politics of the period confirmed that it was certainly a reality (Reagan and his Star Wars missile defence system springs to mind) but there was always hope in the shape of Gorbachev.

I don't remember feeling the threat of nuclear war hanging over my head – I was far too optimistic for that – and my drink of choice wasn't Kestrel (perish the thought!) but Young's Ordinary Bitter in the pubs of South London. Perhaps that's why I felt so optimistic.

Like all good writers, Moore takes his readers with him on the ride and like Moore I wasn't happy as the adventure neared it's end. I like his honesty in this respect. "I went through the last rites with a light head and a strangely heavy heart," he writes, likening his situation to an old lag given parole in The Shawshank Redemption. "My sentence was almost served," he says, unsure how to deal with the eventuality, "though ideally not by hanging myself from a doorframe."

Journey's end: Moore reaches the Black Sea town of Tsarevo in Bulgaria
I placed the book on my bookshelf with a heavy heart and started to wonder about what to read next.

Postscript: Something else I must mention is that throughout the book there's no pretence from the publisher, nothing that left me wondering whether Moore was pulling the wool over my eyes. There's nothing on the cover to suggest that Moore was, say, on holiday in Norway and thought, bugger it, I'll ride that shopping bike I found all the way to Bulgaria. In Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike – as good as it is – the implication on the back cover is that Mike was cycling to work one day and thought, sod it, I'll ride my bike around the coastline of the UK, sod working for a living. No, he didn't just ride off into the sunset. He planned it, sorted out a regular stream of articles for the Guardian before he left, rented out his flat and so on. I'm not blaming Carter for the pretence, his publishers were to blame, but there was no such pretence from Moore's publishers, which makes the whole thing that little bit better. Well done, Comrade Timoteya.

Not related to Moore's or Carter's book, but click here anyway.

One Man and His Bike by Carter, click here and here.

And for Further Reading, click here.

The Travel Rider – In Conversation with Tim Moore, click here.

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