“You understand how it is here, the weather?”
The elderly Norwegian in a Charlie Brown earflap hat was the first pedestrian I had encountered since leaving Kirkenes, a little port hunkered pluckily up in Europe’s furthest top-right corner. On his third and loudest attempt, his words had at last penetrated a howling blizzard and the many thermal layers that swaddled my head.
It was a disappointing response to my own snood-muffled inquiry: the distance to Näätämö, across the border in Finland, the only place for hours around that offered an overnight alternative to a hunched and lonely death in the sub-Polar darkness. My understanding of how it was there, the weather, was pretty solid, I felt: after all, our conversation was taking place 400km above the Arctic Circle, in winter. Nonetheless, this knowledge base had broadened memorably over the previous 18 hours, and in ways that left the tiny exposed parts of my face encrusted with frozen tears of pain and terror. I nodded feebly, expending about 8 per cent of my physical reserves.
‘So why you are WITH BICYCLE?’
This was the first day of my journey down a bike route that runs the full length of the old Iron Curtain, almost 9,000km from the tip of Norway to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. EV13 is the newest and longest of the “Euro Velo” routes drawn up by the European Cyclists’ Federation, and had lured me with its untamed enormity — nobody, I gathered, had yet conquered the whole thing unsupported — plus some deeply evocative associations. To a child of the cold war, it still seemed extraordinary that I could now wander hither and thither across that continent-cleaving death strip, and on something as cheerfully mundane as a bicycle.
And not just any old bike: in the pursuit of authenticity, I was riding an old East German bike, the two-wheeled equivalent of the Trabant. The Mifa 900 made its debut at the Leipzig Trade Fair in 1967, with whatever passed for a publicity fanfare in the German Democratic Republic — I’m seeing an encirclement of grey-suited men in horn-rimmed spectacles clapping expressionlessly. Superficially, this small-wheeled, open-framed shopper was a match for the urban bicycles launched in the west — but take that first 900 off its jerkily revolving Leipzig rostrum, and you would note the odd shortcoming. The bike lacked gears of any sort, and featured a suicidally rubbish “spoon brake” that had elsewhere died out with the penny-farthing. Structural flaws meant Mifa 900s routinely broke in half. Yet, because this was a state-socialist command economy, some 3m were produced. Ignore China, and you will struggle to find any bicycle that betters this total. I did, and failed. And having failed, I wanted one.
The €56 Mifa 900 I acquired via German eBay was shoddy and stunted, in every detail abysmally suited to the job in hand. But never mind the quality, feel the symbolism: here was a little piece of big-ticket history, a link to all those childhood hours twiddling through eerie Soviet interval signals on my wooden-clad shortwave radio, the endearingly human face of what I’d been reared to fear as an evil empire.
In truth, the tiny-wheeled, under-engineered Mifa was the least of my problems in those early weeks. I’m still not quite sure what persuaded me to start at EV13’s Arctic terminus in winter, rather than finishing there in summer. The challenge of fighting my own cold war may have played a part, as I fear did the “idiot’s gravity” of the map: starting in the north and going south feels more natural, like going downhill — right?
And so I inched and slithered through 1,700km of Finland, most of it a yawning, snowbound wasteland. Official accommodation options were often more than a day’s ride apart, obliging me to seek refuge with reindeer farmers and fishermen. One night I slept in a bank. Everything froze, even my toothpaste. And in those endless, unpeopled corridors of snow-dolloped spruce, I went ever so slightly insane. Entire afternoons were spent bellowing puerile adaptations of musical hits, and seeing things that weren’t there: a wolf on its hind legs, a burning police car.
“So, Mr Timoteya — you are come to see our country on velociped?” I was welcomed into Russia by a chirpy border guard, peering out from one of those bin-lid peaks that accessorise his nation’s military caps to such entertaining effect. “It is good, you are English gentleman!”
That cheery introduction soon seemed a distant memory. Dead-eyed drivers barrelled down the cratered asphalt, overtaking three abreast on blind corners with little regard for their own lives and less for mine. Every ramshackle small town was unsteadily patrolled by tubby, ageing tough guys, each one the shambling embodiment of a terrible statistic: two out of three Russian men die drunk. After weeks of odourless, aseptic Scandinavia my nostrils were befouled by a roadside miasma of neglect and decay: fermenting rubbish, burning plastic, dumped sanitary-ware poking through the last grubby outcrops of winter. Nobody spoke English, but their expressions were powerfully eloquent. “Oh, marvellous,” said the face behind every hotel reception desk. “A guest. With a bicycle. A really stupid bicycle.”
Spring kicked in halfway along the Baltic coast, and as my mood and the skies brightened I came to savour this expedition. How extraordinary, in the age of universal travel, that even a continent as well charted and well trodden as Europe could still offer such an epic, off-piste adventure. Lithuania’s Curonian Spit is a 100km comma of sand — one of the world’s longest beaches, and I had it all to myself. Along the Polish coast I bumped for lonely hours down weed-pierced cobbles through derelict Soviet military bases. I would find myself trundling through a field of bright-yellow rapeseed flanked by decommissioned watchtowers, or being ferried across the sunset-spangled Elbe in a fisherman’s dinghy, and think: thank you, Mifa, for bringing us here. One clause of my admittedly sketchy mission statement had been to prove that the bicycle, even in its humblest incarnation, was a go-anywhere, do-anything machine — a shopper would always get you down the shops, even if 8,000 kms away. As it was for the bike, so too for its rider: at 51, I had set off having done almost nothing in the way of physical preparation.
In Germany, with half the ride under my wheels, I took the bike to meet its makers: improbably, Mifa was still assembling bicycles, on Juri-Gagarin-strasse in the old GDR mining town of Sangerhausen. I was welcomed but the staff proved strikingly reluctant to discuss the old days, and seemed ashamed of the clunky little reminder I rolled up on. The boss even urged me to accept a replacement from Mifa’s current range, at a hastily arranged photo call with the press by the factory gates. His bemusement at my refusal was captured in a pictorial interview in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung (“Always on my little tyres,” the Englishman says with a grin. “This is simply the best.”)
Along the Czech borderlands the road pitched ever upwards into a pine-lined mist, an introduction to the novel discipline of conquering mountains on a shopping bike. After that, countries flew by as fast as they ever do on a Mifa 900. On a lonely Hungarian hillside I rattled across the site of the August 1989 “pan-European Picnic”, where a horde of East Germans ran through no-man’s-land into Austria. That was the beginning of the Soviet empire’s end, and the villages around were still bestrewn with the Trabants they left behind. Through the fragmented states that were once Yugoslavia, I toiled over broiled prairies into Europe’s rustic past, where few-toothed ancients drove horse carts and whisked scythes and watched me pass with expressions of incredulous amusement that had been my lot since the first, frozen day.
Exactly three months after wobbling out into the snow, I blinked through a veil of sweat and saw an observation gantry jutting through the pine tops into a cloudless sky. Up there, Turkey became Bulgaria: I was about to cross the old Iron Curtain for the last time. Since the first, I had lost 10kg and enjoyed a 58-degree jaunt up the Celsius scale. I had passed through 20 countries, sharing the road with reindeer in the first and tortoises in the last. Somewhere back in the Serbian dog days, I spent half an airless afternoon calculating the pedal revolutions required to propel a Mifa 900 from Kirkenes to the Black Sea resort of Tsarevo: those hairy, copper knees had now risen and fallen 1.7m times. It would have been half a million fewer on a proper bike with gears and normal-sized wheels, but the Mifa had proved astonishingly resilient. By now it was making a terrible racket, dispatching shrieks of unlubricated neglect that almost drowned out the wailing imams, but it never let me down. Somehow I only suffered a single puncture.
The finale would not be the serene and pensive victory parade of my imagination: between the mountain-top border and the Black Sea sand lay 65 savage, vibe-destroying kilometres. The lonely road would rise and fall and crumble into Russian-pattern disrepair. I would be chased a very long way by a very big dog, battering desperately through the potholes. I would run out of food and succumb to cold sweats. I would be welcomed into Tsarevo’s half-built holiday apartments by forked-lightning fireworks and a ticker-tape parade of rain. And at bruised and woozy length, with 8,558.4km on the clock, I would stumble through damp, shingled sand and unattended sunloungers and part the Black Sea with my Mifa’s filthy front wheel, the tepid, gently lapping brine as grey as the Arctic Ocean I had squinted at through bullets of iced sleet in some previous life.
‘The Cyclist Who Went in the Cold’, Tim Moore’s account of his Iron Curtain ride, is published by Yellow Jersey, £14.99. For more information on riding the EV13 route, see eurovelo13.com
Photographs: Tim Moore
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