Von Tim Moore
London — Every bike ride is a pocket drama. Reflect on the humblest cycling commute and you’ll find yourself reliving short-story excitements denied to co-workers who yawned their way in on the train: the reconstructive surgery so skilfully swerved when some idiot flung open his car door, the race you pretended not to have with that courier, those bracing exchanges with bike-blind jaywalkers and cabdrivers.
I was once fired an hour after a spectacular wipeout on the ride into work, and two decades later the wrong episode is stubbornly etched in my mind. I dare say my children endured a miserably lean Christmas that year, but I have never since underestimated the sharp S-bend on Chiswick Mall near the Old Ship pub in Hammersmith, London.
By curious serendipity, the ensuing period of unemployment spawned my first serious bike ride, and with it my first book. While retracing the Arctic travels of a capricious Victorian, I committed to crossing Iceland on two wheels, in preference to the four hooves chosen by my subject, Lord Dufferin. The terrifyingly bleak Icelandic interior is classified as an Arctic desert, an almost Martian wilderness of orange rock that Dufferin described as “an unfinished corner of the universe.”
How very interesting to tackle this environment on a machine that had hitherto existed in my life only as an occasional urban runabout. On the face of it, a pedal-bike seemed a laughably inappropriate expeditionary conveyance: vulnerable, unsteady and — let’s be honest — inherently daft-looking. But my seasonal fixation with the allowed me to see this undertaking through different eyes, the rheumy, reddened ones of a French sporting philosopher I’d recently come across in a video history of the event.
“In an apparent paradox, the rider achieves transcendence of himself, and his sense of the absolute, by reaching deep into himself and dreaming himself, as animals do when the survival instinct orders them to walk, to run, to fight,” went the magnificently overblown narration. “The racer in the Tour has his place somewhere between the animals and the gods, sometimes one, sometimes the other, often both, always oscillating between these two opposite poles of his destiny.”
This Gallic bombast alchemized my lonely, miserable slog into something noble and heroic. I arrived at Blonduos, on Iceland’s northern coast, like the spent but elated victor in some trial from classical mythology.
A template was forged. After doing almost no cycling for years, I abruptly saddled up, went abroad and did far too much of it. I doubt this binary approach has been good for either my health or my marriage, but whenever I set out on a big ride, it feels as if I’m rediscovering the joy of cycling all over again. I’m reminded anew that for the inquisitive traveler, a push-bike is right in the sweet spot: Driving is too fast, walking too slow.
Exposed to the elements and pitted against the topography, you feel every shift in landscape and climate. You catch the whiff of unfamiliar cuisine and the twang of a new accent. A region’s wealth, as expressed through its highway-maintenance budget, rumbles up your spine. Its character is manifested by locals who hail you with a cheery wave or a challenging stare.
And there’s a satisfying arc to the whole endeavor, which dovetails neatly with both the traditional principles of telling a story and the mechanics of writing it up. You start off overawed by the scale of your challenge, grovel through dark times taking each hill and paragraph as it comes, and eventually, hollowed out and blinking in disbelief, stumble over the line. I have known few satisfactions more potent than conquering a whole country with my own legs, then tapping out a whole book with my own fingers.
So it was that I rode the route of the 2000 Tour, mining deep into the event’s unrivaled back-story of chemical assistance and chicanery: a carafe of rosé downed every lunchtime; a big chunk of Brittany snipped off in questionable tribute to the Tour’s inaugural winner, Maurice Garin, who was disqualified the next year for taking the train. Thirteen years later, in a spirit of hair-shirted penance, I committed to riding every last inch of the 1914 Giro d’Italia — the most punishing grand tour in history, completed by only eight of the 81 starters — on a 1914-era wooden-wheeled bike.
Although I never earned the right to compare my own stunted, slow-motion daily achievements to theirs, come darkness — slack-jawed and glassy-eyed at a table strewn with crumpled maps and empty plates — I couldn’t help doing just that. Of course, you pick your battles down at my end of the sporting spectrum: With the finish almost in sight, I finally overhauled the average speed of the perennially hapless Mario Marangoni, who in 1914 came home a distant last in every stage he completed, once wobbling in more than seven hours behind the winner.
But when I set off last year to cycle the roughly 6,000-mile entirety of Europe’s former Iron Curtain, retracing the east-west border that became a defining symbol of the Cold War, there were no ghostly wheel-tracks to retrace, and no old heroes for narrative backup. Instead, my subplot was entrusted to a bike that embodied the relevant history: a vintage with two gears and 20-inch wheels. Shriekingly unfit for purpose and over the hill, my MIFA 904 and I seemed a perfect match.
To upgrade a journey into a full-blown adventure, things have to go at least a bit wrong. This is perhaps why I routinely fail to do any physical preparation before departing, and saddle myself with machinery that is likely to let me down. It is certainly why I elected to ride the in the wrong direction and at the stupidest time of year.
The voices of common sense urged me to start at the trail’s Bulgarian Black Sea terminus in spring, heading north through 20 nations to finish up at the tip of the Russo-Norwegian border in the forgiving Arctic summer. But previous visits to Lapland had forewarned me that a pan-flat eternity of snow-free wood and melted water might not make for a gripping first or last chapter, so I pedaled my shopping bike out of Kirkenes — the trail’s top-end start point — in a mid-March blizzard.
Almost at once things went way more wrong than they were supposed to. Ahead lay the most difficult days of my life, and beyond those, the most mind-messing weeks. Inching my Communist relic through the unpeopled, snowbound vastness of the Eurasian boreal forest — the largest terrestrial eco-region on earth, our planet’s default state on dry land — was a journey into unplumbed personal depths.
One of long-range cycling’s most rewarding privileges, and from a writer’s perspective its most useful, is to experience the evolution of your surroundings at immersive close quarters. But in that frosted forest, and most especially its thousand-mile progress from Finland into Russia, there were no evolutions. Progress was so pitiful that I came to dread those evening map consultations, a ritual source of succor on previous rides.
My motivational inner monologue became a deranged outer monologue, bellowing puerile mash-ups of 1980s commercial jingles at avalanche-inciting volume. On the Iron Curtain Trail, no one can hear you scream.
I desperately needed company and inspiration. Improbably, I found them at the pewter feet of a colossal hammer-handed laborer, standing vigil over a lonely parking pull-off beside the Russian highway. A hero worker, I guessed — some disciple of the stupendously industrious , a Ukrainian coal miner who lent his fabled name to a national drive for quota-battering productivity.
I turned the MIFA back to the slush-brimmed potholes, but from now on, it would be a little different. The Soviet anthem blared waywardly within and my propaganda newsreel alter ego was born: please to welcome Comrade Timoteya, Stakhanovite hero cyclist, on glorious mission to celebrate majesty and large scale of Soviet Union, to admire mighty border defenses against rapacity of capitalism and lackey who snivel, to live proud dream of friendship and cooperation in socialist brotherhood. Struggle for peace! Victory in sport! Small bicycles of world, unite!
Comrade Timoteya rode beside me to the end, on and off. Looking back, though, he seems very much like the creation of a man who had lost the plot. But there I go, always oscillating between these two opposite poles of my destiny.
Tim Moore is a travel writer and the author, most recently, of “The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain.”