Berlin Meets Seoul
Keirin Berlin and Far Ride
We first met Mo a few years ago at his bike shop in Berlin—Keirin Cycle Culture Café—or Keirin Berlin for short. After fourteen years, Keirin has closed its doors and Mo has hit the road, traveling across Eastern Europe and Central Asia on two wheels, one gear and no brakes. We caught up with Mo in our city, Seoul, and sat down with him at local frame building shop Rookey Bike to eat, chat and learn about his new life on the road.
First, can you tell us who you are?
I’m Mo. I’m from Berlin. I wouldn’t consider myself a cyclist. A cyclist is someone with shaved legs and spandex and a helmet. I’m an urban cyclist, maybe. I was a messenger for many years and I had a bike shop for nearly the same amount of time—fifteen years messengering, almost fifteen years with the bike shop. It was called the Keirin Cycle Culture Café. It was a bicycle shop with a coffee shop. We specialized mainly in fixed-gear track bikes and messenger culture.
I [recently] had to close the shop after fourteen years because the lease ran out. This was maybe harder for others than for me. Now I’m on a bicycle trip from Berlin to Japan. That’s who I am—just a guy who likes riding bicycles.
How long have you been traveling for so far?
I left mid-May, so four months. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been traveling for two years, depending on what country I’m in. And sometimes it’s like, “Fuck, man. I can’t stop."
It’s really weird because, basically, when you travel with a bicycle and you have to go from point A to point B, the only thing you have to worry about is getting from here to there, getting food and finding somewhere to sleep.
In a way it can be really exhausting, though, depending on the country. But it’s nice to see how the world is pretty much the same everywhere yet still really different.
What’s been the most difficult country you’ve visited on this trip?
I mean, Kazakhstan is really exhausting. Kazakhstan is really big—like big. I spent three weeks in Kazakhstan. After one week I wanted to get the fuck out of there. It was like 200-kilometer rides everyday—275 on one day—because there is nothing. I don’t carry a tent. A good tent costs too much money and it still weighs two kilos. I’m traveling with a fixed-gear bike and a focus on minimal weight—just getting from A to B as fast as possible.
If you ride four days in a row for 200 kilometers each day, you’re like “fuck, man." You finally come to a village and look for a hotel and there’s only a brothel. If somebody asks you, “How many hours do you want to stay?” and you’re like, “I want to stay for the night!” You check in and the bedding is like Gucci bedding. This is weird. This is odd.
The thing is, I couldn’t leave Kazakhstan because my Russian visa started at a certain point.
So you were kind of in Limbo?
I was stuck in Kazakhstan. I didn’t want to take a train, so I did a lot of riding. In Kazakhstan, I rode a lot.
What has been your favorite country?
Armenia was the most beautiful country, but also the most brutal because of the mountains and the streets. I mean, I really liked the Ukraine because the Ukraine is a place I’ve been before. It still feels a little more like home. I know people there. I was familiar with it. But I really like Armenia. The food was good, the people were nice, the countryside was amazing. There are not so many tourists. I mean I’m a tourist, so it’s kind of weird. But coming to Korea and going to the supermarket, I was like “Oh, fuck. White people." I’d rather go where the locals are. Those are the real places.
In Ulaanbaatar, I asked the guy I was staying with, “Where’s the bad neighborhood?” I wanted to see how the locals live, not where the foreigners shop.
Why are you traveling on a fixed-gear bike?
Well, September will be the twentieth anniversary of me riding a fixed-gear bike. When I first saw a fixed-gear bike I thought, “This is stupid. How can somebody ride with no brakes?” But then I was a New York messenger back in 1998, and a lot of messengers were using them. When you’re a messenger and you’re riding twelve months a year, five days a week in all kinds of weather conditions, you constantly have to replace your gear—a new cassette, new chain rings, a new chain, brake pads, another rim. For messenger work, I think a fixed-gear bike makes the most sense. Of course, it depends on the city. I don’t think they’re best for San Francisco. I don’t know San Francisco that well. For messenger work, fixed-gear bikes are low maintenance.
I’d done a trip on a track bike before, so for me, if something happens on a fixed-gear bike, I can always repair it. You can always get a chain. Your chain ring’s not gonna break, or your cog or whatever. What are you gonna do if you have a Campy 11-speed Record thing in the middle of Kazakhstan and you need a new 11-speed chain? Of course, an 11-speed chain doesn’t normally break, or the derailleur, but if it does…you’re fucked.
For me, a fixed-gear bike is the safest bike. This was not always the case in Armenia, of course. I think cycling, in general, is dangerous. If you’re used to your bike, you should stay with that bike. Fixed -gear has the best distance performance and low-maintenance combo for me.
What gear ratio are you running on this trip?
I have a flip-flop rear hub. I have a 47-17 and a 19 on the other side, which I used in Armenia and Russia a lot. Mostly, though, I stayed with the 47-17.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced on this trip?
I think Armenia with the mountains was really crazy and Kazakhstan with the distance. The thing with Kazakhstan is, there was a lot of distance to cover and there was a strong headwind. There was one day I rode 200 kilometers with a 200-kilometer headwind. Fuck this.
Another day I rode for eleven hours and for seven hours it was raining—for seven hours! This was in Kazakhstan again. Because there are no villages, there are no bus stops. Because there are no bus stops, you can’t sit for twenty minutes to take cover and relax. I’m familiar with riding in the rain from messenger work. You wake up the next day and it’s raining again so you go into your wet rain gear. So, I’m used to it, but I’m also not 25 anymore.
Tell us about the bike you’re riding.
I went to Kocmo. Kocmo is outside of Berlin. They’re titanium builders and I’ve known André forever. They’ve been building frames since ’94 and I’ve known him since ’98 maybe. I guess I’m at the age that I can get a titanium frame.
I went to him with my Cannondale track bike and said, “I want a titanium frame with this geometry. I want to do this trip.” He was like, “Aw, man. When are you going to grow up? I can build you a frame and we can hide the brakes where no one sees them.” You know how it is when you have a track bike. You try to explain it to people and they say, “But it has no brakes. How do you ride this?” I think you understand this. It’s not that difficult. But this is a secret. Don’t tell anyone. People think skidding is difficult. It’s not.
So, we made the bike with track geometry but with a little bit wider clearance so I can run 32c tires. I think 32c is the widest fast tire.
Is there anything you would change about your set-up after all this time on the road?
It’s funny because I have these bars that Blue Lug gave me from Nitto. They’re 75 centimeters. I cut them four centimeters before the trip. I wouldn’t cut them now. I would ride them even wider. This whole wide thing, MASH didn’t invent it. I went to an alley cat in Boston in 2000 and they were all riding fixed-gear with handlebars like this. And this was in 2000. We were all making fun of them.
Of course, in traffic in Ulaanbaatar, these bars weren’t so good to fit between the cars, but I can bunny-hop really well with them. Bunny-hopping is a thing that not only saves lives, I think it’s a really important skill as a cyclist to know. There’s always a situation where you’ll say, “Oh, shit! jump.”
Next you go to Japan. What’s your plan there? This will be your tenth trip to Japan?
I don’t know if this is the fourteenth or fifteenth trip to Japan. What’s the plan with Japan? I’m going to go over to Fukuoka. My friend lives there. I can stay with her. I will ride from there all the way to Tokyo. It’s pretty funny because I’ve ridden so far—I think 6,000 kilometers in the last four months—so this kind of feels like a piece of cake. I don’t know how many kilometers it is from Fukuoka to Tokyo. Maybe 1,500. I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan so many times that it feels like I’m going to my friends. I don’t have to search for a hotel. I don’t have to worry about anything—just focus on riding.
In Tokyo from the 25thof October to the 5thof November, I have an exhibition about this trip. I’ve been taking pictures. I always have on me my lovely Contax T2. My grandma gave me this in 1995. This is my baby. It’s a pretty good camera. It’s not just the name. It’s not a Cinelli. You can print that!
After having a bike shop for fourteen years, I don’t have a job. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I can’t live from being cool and traveling and having exhibitions. Maybe I’ll make some t-shirts and some cycling caps. I already have some designs, but I don’t know if this is really me—to become a label. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe Far Ride is hiring, haha.
So the adventure continues.
The adventure always continues.
You can follow Mo on all his adventures on Instagram @keirinberlin