Book Review: Off the Map (Bicycling Across Siberia) by Mark Jenkins

Ladies and gents, LONG before there were kindles and Ipods with Kindle apps, in fact, before there were e-readers of any type. I read these things we used to call books! In fact, back then, when I would come to the Oregon coast, I would scour used book stores for additions to my adventure library.

I have mountain climbing books, river conquering books, and arctic survival essays.

And, of course, in addition to all of these, I have cycling adventures.

These books were in our attic for years, but now that we have moved, Michelle made sure I had space for them. Last week, I felt myself drawn to reread and review one of my favorites….

Funny thing about this book. I read it for the first time over 10 years ago. Since then, of all the books I still own, this is one I think of most often. I was worried I would not enjoy it the second time. I was incorrect!

In the late spring, summer, and late fall of 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, 7 cyclist, 3 from the USA and 4 from the (then) Soviet Union were given the chance to ride Mountain Bikes across Siberia. Starting with the back tires in Pacific Ocean riding all the way to Leningrad (now again known as St. Petersburg.)

What I love about this book are the different tales that are told. In addition to the trials and tribulations of the trek, the author paints an amazing picture of himself as a very young kid with his first bike. There is nothing that gives more freedom to a child than his first bike, and I can only imagine the angst he felt when he lost it.

Truthfully, one of my favorite parts of the book was the story of him using dad’s bike, in secret, for a under cover trip to a local junk yard.

Mark does an excellent job portraying the different personalities on the main trek. Three of the riders, Natasha and the brothers Pavel and Fyodor, were Soviets through and through. What the officials said they would do, there was no deviation. The Americans, Mark (the author) Torie, and Tom chaffed under the rules.

Meanwhile, Tanya, who never considered herself a Soviet, found herself drawn to the Americans. AND, since she was friendly, sweet and very cute, became the best of the 7 in gaining supplies from the locals they encountered.

Early on, this was to be a documentary. The ‘team’ was followed by a film crew, and government officials s they traveled east from the pacific.

Funny thing though, in Siberia, at least 30 years ago, there is no road across the entire region. As the road ran out, the film crew and the officials wanted the 7 to hop a train and bypass a serious chunk of the countryside. Surprisingly, in the only real team unity of the book, all 7 refused. They would ride the entire distance.

The slog from the end of the road was miserable, For days on end they walked the bikes along the train tracks to avoid deep and muddy swamps. I applaud their efforts though, ride or push, they crossed in on their own. Which is one of the reasons I found myself wanting to read it again. They never gave up.

During this part of the trek, the author goes into excruciating detail of the people they meet. Old grizzled fat babushkas, who would provide milk and food. Lonely, semicrazed bearded men living alone, and in one pages long section, a MUCH too detailed description of a 14 year old girl who rode with them in a village. (NOT my favorite part)

These seven riders subsisted on the food they could obtain from the people they met, and overcame one of the most desolate places in the world using two wheels and leg power. As miserable as it sounded while reading, I wished I was there.

You can tell this book was written at the end of the cold war, as it is NOT, in any way, flattering of the Soviet government. It very much reminded me of the attitude of my 9th grade, exmarine, world history teacher when the government was discussed.

But as a cycling adventure I love it both times I read it. These 7, whether you consider them one team or two, overcame lack of roads, weather, lack of food and all manners of problems to be the first to cycle across Siberia. If you like cycling yarns, don’t miss this one!

4 stars, maybe 4.5!



2 thoughts on “Book Review: Off the Map (Bicycling Across Siberia) by Mark Jenkins

  1. This doesn’t happen often, but this is one bike book I’ve never heard of! Looks great, though! I’ll have to add it to my growing list of bike book’s to read (99% of which were suggested by Mountainstroh)! 🙂

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