Allan Fallow is a magazine editor in Alexandria, Va.
You’ll need three things if you plan to cycle 5,318 miles from the northern tip of Finland to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast: a sturdy bike, a trusty map and a hardy sense of humor.
That makes Tim Moore one for three. In 2015, when the English travel writer set out at 51 to conquer the Iron Curtain Trail — conceived in 1990 “to celebrate the end of a beastly era of division and hatred” — he chose a politically appropriate but mechanically fickle steed: a 1990 MIFA 904, an East German shopping bike with laughably small 20-inch wheels and only two gears. Moore’s route guide to the largely unsignposted trail was “a three-volume, ring-bound anthology patchily translated from the German original.”
Yet his wit saw him through. Traversing the Finnish region of Northern Ostrobothnia in the depths of its deadly winter, Moore treats himself to the “broiled claustrophobia” of a daily sauna bath, making him an overnight expert on the custom: “The sauna is an invention cobbled together from Finland’s most abundant natural resources: wood, water and vowels. To call it a popular national tradition would be like calling respiration a hobby.”
Moore, who previously cycled around — and wrote books about — Spain (“Travels With My Donkey”), France (“French Revolutions”) and Italy (“Gironimo!”), was no stranger to lands once cloaked by the Iron Curtain. In 1990, just weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, he and his wife drove an 18-year-old Saab across the former Eastern Bloc, sleeping in a tent and subsisting on a diet of purloined bacon and mince. That trip set the template for his return adventure 25 years later, during which he would roll through 20 countries, turn the pedals some 1.7 million times and lose 22 pounds in three months. Flying down mountains at more than 40 miles per hour and climbing enough of them to equal eight Mount Everests, Moore also experienced a wild temperature swing, from 8 below zero in Finland in March to 97 in Serbia in June.
Yet “The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold” is not for bike geeks alone. It stuffs your panniers with just the right wodges of political history (keep a British-slang dictionary nearby to fully appreciate the book) and makes you cheer the invention of armchair travel: Retracing the 857-mile spoor of the inner German border in May, for example, Moore asks himself, “Why (oh why oh why) had the proprietors of even the humblest guest house subscribed to that inexplicable fashion for topping their every bed with an artful cairn of decorative pillows? And why did hotel curtains never quite meet?”
Much later in his odyssey, meandering around the base of a towering canyon wall at a pinch-point in the Danube River between Serbia and Romania known as the Iron Gates of Kladovo, Moore wonders why anyone bothers with falling-rock signs: “How are you expected to moderate your driving style to account for the imminent possibility of a granite cascade? I guess closing the sunroof might be an idea.” His reverie ends moments later, when he rounds a bend to find his way encumbered by “a boulder the size of a shipping container.”
Though Moore claims that his training regimen for a ride of 10,000 kilometers was “five hours on an exercise bike and a single lap of Kew Green,” in the book’s photos he resembles a veteran domestique not too long retired from the peloton. And considerable forethought clearly went into winterizing the bike for its 1,056-mile slog through Finland. To get any sort of traction, Moore had to fit it with “ferociously pointy-toothed snow tyres [that] had almost eaten their way out of the cardboard box they’d been delivered in. . . . Shod in these rotary maces, my MIFA exuded an improbable whiff of aggression, the sort of thing Mad Max’s auntie might have ridden to the bingo.”
Whizzing along on two wheels sharpened all the author’s senses — including, regrettably, his sense of smell as he rolls from “odourless, aseptic Finland” into Russia, where his nostrils are assailed by “a rolling miasma of unregulated neglect and decay: sulphur and solvents, fermenting rubbish, burning plastic, poo and wee.” Everything from the concrete cenotaphs to the plodding citizenry seems to be aging in triple-time, while the nation’s fatalistically nonchalant drivers court near-death encounters at every turn. “Russians have an innate ability,” Moore says, “to look right through you — irksome in a restaurant, murderous on a bike.”
But there are sober passages, too. The Iron Curtain may be little more than a blown-down garden fence today, but Moore — like many of his readers, I suspect — had been “brought up to regard East Europeans with fear or pity, depending on whether they were saluting at an endless parade of missile launchers or being pistol-whipped for wearing Levi’s.” And the Curtain’s sinister after- image lingers over much of the European heartland Moore explores, from crumbling watchtowers to forcibly depopulated border towns to “exclusion zones” (death-strips, really) still denuded of the vegetation that would have concealed fugitives. Moore revisits these ignominious outposts in historic-plaque fashion, informing us that living conditions on the other side sank so low that 2,500 East German border guards fled to the West over four decades.
Far less political are the images I’ll retain from this effervescent travelogue. There’s Moore, in my imagination, forever sailing through the vineyards and elder trees of western Hungary on “a tailwind so fierce I could hardly keep up with it . . . speeding past poppy-speckled cornfields as the wind swept pretty patterns through their deep, silvery pile.”
This cyclist may have gone out in the cold, but his book is just the thing to stay indoors with this winter.
By Tim Moore
Pegasus. 340 pp. $26.95