Title: The Cyclist Who Went Out In The Cold - Adventures Along The Iron Curtain Trail
Author: Tim Moore
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Order: Penguin RandomHouse
What it is: The master of the mamilogue - French Revolutions, Gironimo! - returns with a silly bike and an even dafter objective: to cycle the length of the newly opened Iron Curtain Trail
Strengths: Moore can be as funny as Douglas Adams and can be commendably efficient in the telling of his tale, whole weeks going by in the turn of a page
Weaknesses: It's all a bit bitty, with no strong central narrative tying it all together the way the 1914 Giro did in Gironimo!
/ˈtræv.əl.ɒɡ/ noun (pl travelogues);
A film, book or illustrated lecture about places visited and experiences encountered by a traveller.
/ˈmam.il/ noun (pl mamils)
Acronym of Middle-Aged Man In Lyrca, typically a previously non-athletic person, aged thirty-something to fifty-something, who has discovered - or rediscovered - cycling for social and/or fashion reasons and wears Lycra cycling clothing.
/ˈmam.il.ɒɡ/ noun (pl mamilogues)
A travelogue created by a mamil, recounting cycling-based excursions.
Tim Moore, the master of the mamilogue, returns with his most daring adventure yet: to cycle the length of the Iron Curtain Trail on a shopping bike, a Communist-era Moulton knock-off. From snow-crusted Kirkenes in the north east of Norway to the sunny seaside resort of Tsarevo in Bulgaria, from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea, through twenty countries and over three months. Eight and a half thousand kilometres, all told: more that the combined distance of his Tour de France and Giro d'Italia adventures.
The Iron Curtain Trail is the thirteenth of the European Cycling Federation's EuroVélo routes, EV131. Inaugurated in 2014, for Moore it represented more than just a trip from one end of Europe to the other: as well as shadowing the ghost of the Iron Curtain the journey would reawaken rusting memories of youth. Moore, you see, carries the War Child credentials of having come of age during the years the Cold War flamed violently before burning itself out:
"I shall always be grateful that, throughout my blighted late-teenage years, four cans of Kestrel lager could be procured for 99p. The early 1980s was a time to blot out horrors: Norman Tebbit, Torvill and Dean, the kids from Fame and the ever-present threat of Armageddon. How grim to have lived though an age when nineteen million of my countrymen watched Blankety Blank, and slightly more - 40 per cent of the adult population - were resigned to thermonuclear war occurring within ten years. It is difficult to convince my children, who are now the age that I was then, just how deeply ingrained the fear of annihilation was in those days2. In fairness, it's proven tricky to find an educational middle ground between the Sheffield-melting apocalypse so horrifically depicted in the BBC drama Threads, and that Frankie Goes to Hollywood video of Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Cherenko wrestling together."
Furthermore, in 1990, as the Cold War's embers burned to cinder, a twenty-something Moore and his wife had travelled from Scandinavia to Bulgaria in a clapped out Saab, a couple of tourists witnessing for themselves the death throes of socialism, a trip Moore revisits several times as he journeys south. Riding the length of the Iron Curtain Trail would, for Moore, be a personal journey into his own history as well as a journey into the history of the shattered frontier between East and West.
As a means of transport Moore chose the two-wheeled equivalent of a Trabant, the MIFA:
"To paraphrase Henry Ford, East Germans could have any bike they wanted, as long as it was a MIFA 900. And not just East Germans - the 900 was offered to/foisted upon comrades right across the Soviet world, becoming the default pedal-powered runabout from Vietnam to Cuba."
Manufactured by the Central German Bicycle Works - the name being an acronym of Mitteldeutsche Fahrradwerke - the MIFA is the Jedward of bicycle brands: fun for five minutes but anything beyond that should come with a health warning. A small-wheeled shopping bike with a step-through folding frame, the MIFA was a Moulton knock-off in an age when the Moulton was the city gent's favourite folding bike and Tom Simpson allegedly considered an attempt on the Hour record using the micro-wheeled wonder of the age. But as well as lacking the Moulton's design aesthetic, the MIFA lacked most of the other mechanical attractions of the Moulton. It offered no choice of gears, just a single speed (slow). It came with a brake that worked by pressing down on the tyre (which meant that the brake didn't really work). The hinge of its folding frame created a structural weakness (which meant the frame could collapse under you). It was, in a word, shonky. For a man who has previously employed a shonky Rolls Royce, a shonky Hirondelle, and a shonky donkey as his preferred modes of transport, a shonky shopping bike carried an allure that was all but impossible to resist. Not that Moore put up much of a fight.
The Cyclist Who Went Out In The Cold sees Moore mix his own journey from the snow-bound wastes above the Arctic Circle to the sun-drenched shores of the Black Sea with potted histories of the places he visited. These bits of local colour give the whole thing a not quite Horrible Histories feel, but over that way somewhere, with tales of Funny Finns, Ruthless Russians and Oh What A Wonderful Winter War! breaking up the misery of cycling in snow. After a few Boy's Own type World War II adventures through Scandinavia and into Russia, the story of the Iron Curtain Trail gets into its stride as Moore moves through the Baltic states. Here he is at an abandoned Cold War base:
"All at once my thoughts on the Soviet union and the Cold War crystallised, the not terribly profound and the bleeding obvious coalescing with a clearly audible schloop. Soviet rule in these countries was a ruthless foreign occupation: they sent millions to the Gulag, murdered millions more, imposed a totalitarian police state that suppressed all opposition, and fenced off vast areas like this for their malevolent ends. I wondered why people - people like me - seem so tirelessly fascinated with those what-if ruminations on how things might have panned out had the Nazis won the war: very simply, it would have panned out just like this. Yet that was hardly the fault of the Russian in the street, so why had I generally feared and despised him? It could only be my formative conditioning: to the Kestrel-fuelled youth in me, the boy who curled up with his short-wave radio and listened to creepy propaganda jingles, Russians were still the baddies. That was clearly an unfair conflation, especially as the Soviet Union was no more. And though this base was a derelict ruin, I'd hardly be allowed to poke around in the many US equivalents that still operated right across the world, with superior leisure facilities and ruder pin-ups."
In previous books Moore has come across as a bit of an innocent abroad. For The Cyclist Who Went Out In The Cold much of that innocence has been sanded off. Not by the Arctic blasts he struggled through in the early weeks of the ride: as well as having to think about the formative influences the Cold War exerted on him Moore was passing through countries where a powerful Russia is not just a bogeyman from the past, it's an ever present danger in former Soviet states and satellites keenly aware that what's happening in Ukraine and the Crimea today is a taste of things to come tomorrow. Moore also had to face the consequences of the new Cold War, streams of Syrian refugees heading north as he moved south through Hungary. Oddly, rather than making Moore morose, this dark cloud of dread hanging over the whole adventure seems to make him abandon the misanthropy one associates with the mamilogue genre:
"Outside the museum I tightened the handlebars beneath a huge plastic GDR emblem, and concluded that anyone reared in East Germany had earned the right to hate everyone and everything, and to take that wounded bitterness to the grave. Yet here's the extraordinary thing: having threaded this way and that over the border for so long, I'd established that East Germans of all ages were notably cheerier than their western counterparts. When someone shouted encouragement from a bus stop, or slipped an extra bread roll into my bakery bag with a wink, or offered me a boat ride over the Elbe, I knew which side of the border I was on. More than once in the old East my breakfast came accompanied with a ‘Guten tag, Herr Moore,' an unheard of personalised honour for the fly-by-night touring cyclist."
Of Moore's actual ride, thankfully he is not blow-by-blow3, he doesn't try to take you through every bit of the journey. Days can be glossed over in a sentence, weeks can go by in the turn of a page. He recreates a feel for the journey - which starts out hellish but ends with him wishing he had more time to spend in some of the places he passes through - rather than a roadmap of it. Here he is in the frozen north:
"So unfolded the longest, hardest days of my entire life. The mornings began with a bleary, fearful peer through many layers of bedroom glass, scanning the sullen sky, the thermometer nailed to the window frame outside, and beneath it the wobbly, last-gasp slalom my wheels had traced through the snow the night before. Twelve hours later I would stumble into a hotel reception, or a log cabin, or a reindeer farm, or a decommissioned bank, and stand there, shuddering and melting, while my refrigerated, under-nourished brain struggled to process thoughts into speech."
Moore tends to approach these things with the marvellous pluck and lack of planning that typifies a nation reared on repeats of It'll Be Alright On The Night. Me, I carry the baggage of not really getting travelogues and rarely getting mamilogues. Personally, I would have liked a stronger Cold War narrative gluing the bits of Moore's travelogue together, would have liked it all to be a bit less bitty. Others, though, I know will get this, the brief portraits of each country he passes through and the vicarious pleasure of Moore's pain. And I suspect we can all enjoy Moore's ability to wring a laugh - and even a moral - from the hardest of his experiences:
"As a rule I quite enjoyed getting massively lost: the relief at eventually rediscovering the true path was always more profound than the initial dismay of mislaying it, so I garnered a net morale boost from the experience."
1 Andrew P Sykes's Good Vibrations: Crossing Europe On A Bike Called Reggie, recounts his misadventures riding parts of EV5.