Author Tim Moore takes on the Iron Curtain Trail
EuroVelo: You have obviously already undertaken a number of long distance cycle rides. What is the attraction of this way of travelling for you?
Tim Moore: There is no better way of properly engaging your surroundings. On a bike you almost embed yourself in the environment, taming geography and weather, obliged to interact with the remotest locals for food, lodging, mechanical assistance and energetic critiques of their driving habits. And doing all this at a pace that allows you to witness the gradual evolution of landscapes, cultures and even seasons, and that ensures the entire experience is slow-burned into your cerebral cortex. I rode 3,200km around Italy two summers back, and when I look at any random section of my route on Google Street View I always know exactly what will happen around the next bend, and the next, and the next, every farmhouse and junction. It’s almost creepy.
It must also be said that cycling all day endows a rather unsightly sense of achievement, and the related right to drink slightly too much at dinner while gloating over the map and all those conquered kilometres. Cheers!
Why the Iron Curtain Trail? What are you particularly looking forward to on this trip?
Being born in 1964, I lived out the first half of my life in the Cold War. In fact a generous chunk of those formative years were semi-defined by the looming shadow of nuclear apocalypse, a rolling threat of tit-for-tat warheads soaring over the razor-wired death strip that cut my continent in two. This nurtured a fixation with life on the other side, that almost mythical closed world of queuing and gulags and full employment, Orwellian propaganda and bootleg Beatles cassettes. I couldn’t wait to see it all for myself: in 1990, just after the Soviet empire unravelled, I set off with my girlfriend and spent three months driving all around Eastern Europe, from St Petersburg to the Black Sea via Berlin. In fact our route followed large parts of what is now the ICT. Everyone assumed we were close personal friends with Michael Jackson, and asked if our clapped-out Saab was a Porsche. We took along 20 blank video cassettes, five cartons of Kent cigarettes and several dozen Bic biros, and exchanged the lot for hotels, chicken dinners and car repairs. The people were nearly always delightful, though there was an awful lot of uniformed officialdom about that imparted a lingering sense of menace and suspicion. Maybe everything’s changed in the intervening 25 years; maybe some things haven’t. A part of me still feels amazed that I’m allowed to go into these countries at all (though it has to be said that the Russians haven’t made it much easier this time around).
It’s easy to forget that a third of the world’s population once lived under Communism, and I’ll be telling the story of this extraordinary if terribly flawed experiment along the way: asking about its impact on daily life and its ongoing legacy, and hoping not to incite violence while doing so on account of the fact that I’ll be wearing a replica DDR cycling jersey.
Plus the ICT traces an almost uniquely expansive path across what I think we can all agree is the world’s greatest continent, tracking the full breadth of the European experience. From ice hotels to the bazaars of Turkey, it’ll be an extraordinary exploration of Europe’s almost ridiculously diverse culture and history, a celebration of all the stirring stuff that no doubt inspired Michael Cramer – the German MEP who is the ICT’s founding father.
To fit in with the theme of the route, we heard that you have managed to track down an old GDR bike for your trip. In 'French Revolutions' you mention that one of your earliest bikes also hailed from East Germany but “almost every component shattered, buckled or split within weeks”! Are you confident that your latest bike from behind the Iron Curtain will perform better? And do you have a backup?!
Well remembered! That bike was my 16th birthday present. It started to rust before I’d blown out the candles. What a truly terrible machine, probably part of some foul Soviet plot to sabotage Western mobility and undermine our morale. The bike I’m taking is a 1970s GDR-manufactured MIFA single-speed folding bike with 20 inch wheels – 3 million of these were foisted upon the Communist world from Vietnam to Cuba, making it the most “popular” bike in history that wasn’t made in China. I went on German eBay and found a range-topping MIFA 904 shopper – front and rear luggage carriers, and a front brake that presses a block of rubber against the wheel rim, rather than down on to the top of the tyre as per every other MIFA folder (a system that other bicycle manufacturers phased out before the First World War).
My 904 still feels like it’s been made out of melted-down coat hangers, but at least some unknown previous owner has replaced the notoriously fragile folding hinge with a length of proper tubing – compromising its portability but giving me a fighting chance of getting halfway to the Black Sea before the whole frame buckles in two. In the interests of even-handed cross-border period authenticity (or so I’m claiming), I’ve also acquired a West German shopping bike of the same vintage – in order to transplant its clever automatic two-speed rear hub onto my MIFA. Two gears is at least better than one, and should hopefully be enough until EuroVelo 13 hits the very jagged-looking German/Czech border.
By way of back-up, I’m learning how to say “welder” in 12 languages.
You have encountered some difficult weather conditions during your previous cycle trips but starting at the northern end of EuroVelo 13 in March may present you with some new challenges. What are you expecting the conditions to be like at that time of year and how are you preparing for this section?
You’re surely not suggesting I’ll encounter anything other than the balmy sunshine northern Finland is famous for in March. You ARE? In that case it’s probably just as well that I’ve managed to source a pair of 20-inch spiked snow tyres for my MIFA. They’re terrifyingly pointy – I nearly severed an artery putting them on (in place of the original ‘Made in GDR’ tyres it was still wearing). I’ve also acquired four layers of thermal clothing (topped with a ski jacket and salopettes), and a pair of those giant handlebar mitten things that motorcycle couriers fit in winter. In no way do these look ridiculous on a shopping bike. Also full-on Arctic snow boots, which I’m sure to have no bother cycling in all day.
When (if) I make it through the snowy regions I guess I’ll have to post all this stuff home (or throw it all away, which will probably be the cheaper option given that I’ll then be in Finland).
Will we be able to follow your progress as you make your way along EuroVelo 13 – Iron Curtain Trail?
Sure, just set up a Google News Alert twinning “Iron Curtain Trail” with “underprepared English idiot”. I’ll also be endeavouring to send daily tweets and photos via @mrtimmoore. The book should be out in June 2016, assuming I escape from Russian prison hospital by then.
The ECF notes that some of the more ‘extreme’ sections of the EuroVelo network can be challenging out-of-season. Contact the relevant National EuroVelo Coordination Centre or Coordinator for advice when planning your trip.