Hell on two wheels
14 Apr 2017 Tõnu Naelapea
Britain’s Tim Moore is certainly an individual that any cyclist would respect. He has taken on numerous bicycling challenges, such as riding the 3,200 km route of the notorious 1914 Giro d’Iitalia on a 99-year-old wooden-wheeled bicycle. He also has followed a Tour de France route - in his words fueled by a diet heavy on ProPlus and rosé wine. The capper though is his latest feat, following the Iron Curtain Trail (EV 13), from the northernmost Norwegian-Russian border to a Black Sea beach in Bulgaria. This on a tiny-wheeled MIFA, which he describes as a two-geared shopping bike of East German manufacture.
Not only did he survive the 8,558.4 kilometre journey but as with the other adventures wrote a wonderful book, published late last year, about the experience. The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold (a play on the title of a famous John le Carré spy novel) combines travel, history, humour and political analysis in one side-splitting read. It should be of interest to our readers for the description of the entire journey, not only because Moore cycled through Estonia en route.
Moore was born at the height of the Cold War, just after the Cuban missile crisis. He set out on this epic journey at the age of, as he puts it, forty-eleven. Another reason to marvel. When writing he was able to draw upon his visits to the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries in 1990, before the collapse of European communism, and peppers this travelogue liberally with reminiscences and comparisons with 2015.
Beyond the fact that his MIFA – mass-produced for the proletariat, as the only alternative to the unattainable automobile – would have been no serious cyclist’s choice for such a journey, other considerations stun the reader. The average lifespan of a modern bike is 9,000 km, and the MIFA that Moore bought online was manufactured in 1990 needed a serious tune-up and customization. Two speeds and small wheels, an unreliable if not plain scary braking system, and the fact that the author did little physical training before setting off makes the accomplishment that much more impressive.
Starting off in Finland during an Arctic winter? Now fueled by a diet of reindeer (Rudolf stew, Rudolf burgers, as Moore puts it, made up the daily end-of-day menu) the intrepid cyclist slogged through many a blizzard on a bleak, cold highway. Russia and the parts of Karelia once belonging to Finland were daunting. Thus the eleven pages that Moore devotes to Estonia are noteworthy as he escapes the glum Soviet legacies and is cheered by Estonia’s roads and people. Moore writes that with regard to WW II “nowhere on earth had a worse war than Estonia.” He factures in not only war losses, occupation massacres, but also fleeing the Soviets and post-war deportations, coming up with a population loss of 25% for the nation.
With regard to the Baltic uprising that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union Moore calls Estonia the “iron-throated crucible of this very pro-democratic rebellion.” As we know, after the Warsaw Pact satellites began to “defect to democracy” the Soviet Union fiercely clung on to the Baltic States. The author’s command of events is notable with regard to every country that he cycled through.
Alas, the only flaw in this captivating book is in the section on Estonia. In every other country – especially Finland, but Latvia and Lithuania as well - Moore faithfully observes local language practice, notably with diacritics, especially with place names. Näätämö in Finland. A sign showing distance to MOCKBA. Jūrmala in Latvia. Juodkrantė in Lithuania. Schönberg in Germany But he forgot about the umlauts in Estonia. We read about Kiek-in-de-Kok. No ö. A poster that screams MUUA KRUNT! No Ü. And an enterprise called Puutookoda. Considering that Moore took the effort everywhere else this is a curious slip.
Moore dedicates a lot of attention to communism, the Vlads (Lenin and Putin), WWII, the Soviet system that encouraged informing on your neighbour. His dislike of the system then and now is obvious. Not a positive word anywhere. Nowhere is this more evident in the lengthy chapters on East Germany. All the satellite states, especially Romania, are flayed viciously in the author’s rear-view mirror. Some did not fare well in the present, either. In many ways the author cycled at times through a modern-day hell.
All this is entertainingly written, self-depreciation is part of the approach, and results in what the Irish Times called a description of a “hilariously painful – and poignant – adventure.” The book’s cover has the Independent likening Moore to Bill Bryson, a selling point, as Bryson is another talented author who combines travel and sly, dry, droll, often blatantly outrageous British wit. And a bit of crudeness for the puerility present in every man.
Hands down the funniest book that this reader has encountered in some time. Also without a doubt an educational book, illuminating the crimes and cruelties of communism in Europe, and how, as the late (and last) Czechoslovakian president Václav Havel wrote, the legacies of communism will take at least two generations to be overcome. For that political slant alone Moore’s book belongs on the bookshelf in the accurate observation category. The wit just makes it a much more delightful read.