Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold," Tim Moore

Though three of British travel writer Tim Moore's ten books have been cycling adventures, he is by no means a cyclist.  He confesses that before he set out on his latest cycling escapade following the route of the Iron Curtain for over five thousand miles from Norway to the Black Sea that he'd "barely turned a pedal in a year." His ineptitude is part of this humorist's shtick.

When he rode The Tour de France route in his first cycling book "French Revolutions" published in 2002, he said he trained just 119 miles and had no qualms about getting off and pushing his bike up the mountains.  He knew better to train a bit before he duplicated the 1914 Giro d'Italia route in the book "Gironimo!" by riding a stationary bike.  Neither of those rides transformed him into a passionate need-to-ride cyclist, but neither did all the suffering they inflicted cure him of ever wanting to ride a bike again.  Though it took him more than ten years to take a long ride again after his Tour de France ordeal, he took on the Iron Curtain ride just a couple years after doing the  Giro.

He didn't make it easy on himself by setting out in mid-March north of the Arctic Circle with snow still covering the road and temperatures well below freezing.  It was weeks before he saw grass, tarmac or water that wasn't coming out of a tap.  There were long stretches between dots of civilization, and since he wasn't traveling with a tent he had to push on longer than he might have wished to find lodging.  He had to plead at times for food and a place to stay.  Not all the lodgings were open.  Never was a cyclist so happy to hear a dog bark, he wrote, when one announced that a shabby farmhouse was inhabitated.  His first thousand miles along the Finland/Russia border were the hardest days of his life.  His calls home to his wife were "routinely blighted by blubberings of self-pity."

Just as he did when he rode the 1914 Giro on a bike of the era, he added to the ardor of this trip by his choice of bikes--an East German two-speed bike of the Cold War era with 20-inch wheels.  He  refers to it as a "shopping bike," as it was hardly meant for such a demanding ride.  At least the small size of the bike gave him the luxury of not having to fall so far when he wiped out.  It also gave him the opportunity to visit the factory along the way that manufactured them.  He's ever mindful of adapting his ride for material he can write about.  His wintry start gave him the title for his book, "The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold."  He doesn't explain which came first, the idea for the title or the idea to attempt to ride in such impossible conditions.  It is a rare title that is longer than its subtitle, "Adventures riding the Iron Curtain."

His word play and exuberant prose is one of the pleasures of the book.  He is well-attuned to cinema culture dropping in references to "Borat" and "Forest Gump", "Spinal Tap" and "Ben Hur" and on and on.  When he reaches alpine scenery he refers to it as "Julie Andrews ready mountain pastures."  He calls the "we'll be back" mentality of some Russians scientists to an installation they built in Latvia as "Arnie-speak."

The book is as much a history lesson as a travel book.  He regularly references a driving trip he and his wife took in 1990 to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and what it was like then compared to now. He refers to the Lonely Planet guidebook they used as a "hand-holder," a most apt term for those who overly rely on guidebooks, as they had to in those rough times.  Several times on that trip they unleashed tears of relief and joy after crossing from a country that didn't have much food to one that did.  There are times on this trip too when he is concerned about finding food, but is relieved that it always works out, even in the seemingly most desperate circumstances, "perhaps because of the many great deeds and acts of kindness I have carried out in this life and its predecessors."

Twice on this trip he is joined by his wife and son.  The first as he transitions from the cold to milder temperatures so they can take his many layers of winter gear home.  His son rode with him for two days of fifty miles each, but was too done in to ride further.  After their second visit their departure is marked by tears as he continues on alone to the finish of his journey that he never fully embraces.  If it had won him over, he wouldn't have wanted it to end.

As just an occssional, haphazard cyclist he perceives his trip as an "inherently foolish" endeavor and thinks that everyone he encounters looks at him with a "gaze of curious disparagement,"  imbuing them with his self perception.  A more established cyclist, proud of his undertaking, knowing he is accomplishing something of significance, would interpret those looks as gazes of respect and envy, conveying the wish that they had the will and determination to break from their humdrum existence and do something similar.  Though this book may not speak to those with a spirit of conquest, and doesn't dwell much on the joy of being a fully independent touring cyclist, fashioning campsites wherever one might be, ending each day triumphal and eager for the next, it is an entertainingly written book of travel that anyone could appreciate.

Moore laces his book with many historical oddities, some that beg credulity.  He asserts that the Romanian Cold War leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who was just 5'3" tall, refused to employ anyone who was taller than him.  He is surprised by the high rate of smoking in Germany and blames it as a protest against Hitler, who was strongly anti-smoking.  Moore claims Hitler made the connection between smoking and lung cancer fifteen years before anyone else.  He banned smoking in cinemas and discouraged it in the workplace and invented nicotine gum.  He also quotes Hitler as liking to point out that he and Mussolini and Franco were all non-smokers, in contrast to his adversaries--Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.

Moore may not abide in the cult of those who live for the bike, but he can at least be commended for providing those who do with a slight embrace of their passion. This book ought to inspire a few to undertake this ride.  We can thank him for at least bringing attention to it.  He may portray his rides as something to be endured rather than enjoyed, but those of the bike cult know better.  May his next travel companion be a bike as well.  He's got a few years left in him.  He turned "forty-eleven," as he phrased it, on this trip.

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