Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Lanterne Rouge" by Max Leonard

Books on The Tour de France keep popping up thanks to the never waning interest in this seminal event and also to the bottomless reservoir of Tour Tales worthy of telling.  Whether recycling familiar topics with a fresh angle or finding a strand of unexamined material, they are all a must read for anyTour devotee.  Tales of The Tour, no matter how oft-told, never grow stale.

One of the latest Tour books examines the last placer finisher of The Tour.  In "Lanterne Rouge," as the racer is known, English writer Max Leonard profiles many of the riders who brought up the rear, not only at the end of The Race, but also a few who were last for a spell during The Race, but escaped that final bottom rung. They were never distinguished by a special jersey, unlike the Vuelta for one lone race (1936) and the Giro, where the last placed rider wore a black jersey for a six year stretch from 1946 until 1951.  Race officials try to discourage any emphasis placed on this dubious distinction, but riders and team officials know that it can bring them and their sponsors attention, so will vye to finish last.  Journalists, always looking for a story, can't help but mention it.

Leonard immersed himself in microfilm researching the early Lanterne Rouges and interviews many of those still alive and also does a little riding for a first-hand impression of signifcant episodes involving a Lanterne Rouge. He makes a clandestine climb of the Puy de Dome, now forbidden to bicylists despite being included in thirteen Tours, though not since 1988.  In 1969 the rider in last place at the time, Pierre Matignon, stunned Eddie Merckx and the peloton by getting in a break that ended at the summit of the Puy and managed to win the stage, holding off Merckx, and also climbing out of last place.  The Puy de Dome is so rich in Tour lore, Leonard was happy to devote a full chapter to it, though this was the only incident involving a Lanterne Rouge.

Another of the twelve chapters focuses on the Algerian Abdel-Kader Zaaf, who finished last in 1951 riding for a six-member Algerian team.  He's most famous though for one of the more storied events in Tour history, passing out in the extreme heat of the 1950 Tour under a tree.  When he was revived, he started riding in the wrong direction.  He finished well beyond the time limit and was stricken from The Race. Some blame wine from the fans for his behavior, as he was a Muslim unaccustomed to drinking alcohol.  The story has been embellished over the years and is one of those Tour Tales cloaked in myth that has never been resolved, though it has often been recounted.

Leonard interviews the oldest surviving Lantern Rouge, Tony Hoar from 1955, the first of two from Great Britain.  The other was John Clarey in 1968.  He also sits down with the only brothers to have finished last, the Spaniards Igor and Iker Flores riding for Euskaltel-Euskadi.  Igor did it in 2002, trying for it, knowing it was something he would be remembered for, while his younger brother three years later didn't want to be last, regarding it as an emblem of ignominy. 

The only three-time winner was the Belgian Wim Vansevent, 2006-2008, who considered it the most significant accomplishment of his career.  Only four others won it twice--Daniel Masson 1922/1923, Gerhard Schonbacher 1979/1980, Mathieu Hermans 1987/1989 and Jimmy Caspar 2001/2004.  Casper told Leonard that he wasn't really proud of his accomplishment, though after he had won it twice he would have liked to have won it a third time.  He, as every rider, could at least be proud to have finished The Race, as many don't.  He admitted the only race he ever cried over was when he abandoned The Tour.  Philippe Tesniere was also brought to tears in the 1978 Tour when he missed the time cut, going too slow on the stage 21 time trial trying to remain the Lanterne Rouge.

Most of the Lanterne Rouges had lackluster careers befitting a last-placed rider.  Many finished last in their debut Tour and many never rode another.  But three of them (Jean-Pierre Genet, 1967, Joseph Groussard 1965 and Jackie Durand 1999) wore the Yellow Jersey at one point in their career.  Durand actually won the Tour of Flanders in 1992.  He is among those who tells Leonard that he was proud to have finished last, that it was better than finishing second to last.  Commentator Paul Sherwen would not agree.  When he fell to last during his final Tour in 1985 after losing fifty minutes on one stage, he battled to finish 141 of 144 finishers. 

Leonard offers up a wide array of  trivia and oddities.  In 1950 the Lanterne Rouge Fritz Zbinden was on the same team as the overall winner, Ferdi Kubler.  In 2011 on the ninth stage the Yellow Jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler and the Lanterne Rouge Vincenf Jerome for the day were on the same team.
Only one rider won a Tour stage in the year that he finished last overall--Mathieu Hermans in 1989.  

Along with his fascination for stats, Leonard appreciates French expressions.  In the early days time trials were known as "Départs Séparés" acknowledging the riders going off individually.  They are now known as "Contre le Montre" (against the clock).  He likes the word "repêchage," the term for allowing riders who have missed the time cut back into the race.  "It suggests the hand of some more-or-less beneficent higher power," he commented, "casting around in the pit of despair, fishing riders out and putting them back on their bike."

Riders have to contend with "les aléas"--"the unforeseeable, unpredictable, unquantifiable unknowns." Drugged riders are "allumé," lit up or switched on.  Hoar tells him that in his 1955 Tour the Germans would all stop during a stage by their team car for an injection.  A couple miles later they'd roar by like a "bloody train."  The "culture de la séringue," the syringe culture, has long been a part of racing.

Leonard's bibliography isn't as lengthy as one might imagine, listing only eleven books, for the depth and breadth of his research and knowledge of The Tour.  He only make a few minor mistakes.  He wrote that the 2004 Grand Départ was in Charleroi.  It was in Leige with the first stage ending in Charleroi.  He incorrectly calls the Col de l'Iseren the highest pass in the Alps when it is the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond.  He also suggests the Tourmalet was the first mountain climbed in The Tour.  The Col d'Aubisque preceded it on that first foray into the Pyrennes in 1910.  Others would maintain that Herni Desgrange introduced mountains to The Tour in its third edition in 1905 with the Vosges and
the Col du Ballon d'Alsace. 

But these are minor quibbles.  Leonard writes with the authority of one who intimately knows and loves The Tour. He delights in sharing tidbits that he has unearthed.  He knows enough not to authenticate the story of Rene Vietto cutting off his toe and demanding his domestique Apo Lazarides do the same, though he can't help mention it in one of his many footnotes.  This is not a hastily written book by a dilettante trying to cash in on the market of those who will read anything about The Tour, but a book so rich in lore that I would read it again if there were a lull in the trickle of Tour books.  

This is one of those books that is fully worthy of The Tour.  It includes an index and glossary and a list of every final Lanterne Rouge.  Unfortunately, Leonard is not so obsessed though to list every rider who was a Lanterne Rouge during The Race. Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar and many another familiar name would be included. Nor does his research go so far as to list the most days a rider was the Lanterne Rouge, or had the longest uninterrupted stint, or if a rider was in last from start to finish, or any of the other many stats that apply to the Yellow Jersey.  That task awaits another.  

This book is another shining example that there is a good story to be found in every rider who has ever ridden The Tour and in its every stage.  A good book could be written about every rider who finished eleventh, just out of the Top Ten, or the fourth placed rider, just missing The Podium.  Leonard could be just the writer for the task.  Among his forays into etymology, he reveals in the Puy de Dome chapter that the word "puy" is derived from the Latin "podium," meaning high or elevated place.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

George Hincapie, "The Loyal Lieutenant"

George Hincapie is such a "Loyal Lieutenant," the title of his autobiography, that he may well have let the chief general he was a lieutenant to, Lance Armstrong, write these memoirs, and not just its forward. Armstrong would most certainly put his full stamp of approval on Hincapie's guilt-free description of their drug-taking.  It was no more than taking vitamins or putting air in their tires.  He makes no excuses nor apologies.  Nor does he attempt to mount any kind of defense, just a portrayal of how it was.

He describes their team's drug taking as "conservative," just as Armstrong describes it himself in one of his many capsule comments of a paragraph or two sprinkled through the book.  Hincapie further proves his full loyalty with the declaration that Armstrong and team director Johan Buyneel "never asked us to take drugs," contradicting the statements of others.  He also strongly defends team doctor Pedro Celaya, who has been portrayed as a Dr. Evil-type guy.   Hincapie said he was "always super-nice" and "always instructed us to take less and train harder to achieve our results."

Hincapie further does Armstrong's bidding with harsh words for his nemeses Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis.  He reveals Andreu was known as "Cranky Frankie."  He lived up to his nickname when Hincapie discovered EPO in the refrigerator of the apartment they shared in northern Italy near Lake Como in March of 1996.  When he asked Andreu about it, he told him to mind his own business.

Since Andreu was using EPO then, he lied to his wife Betsy later that year outside Armstrong's hospital room where he was being treated for cancer.  Armstrong had just told his doctors in the presence of the Andreus that he had taken EPO and other performance enhancing drugs.  Betsy was shocked.  She was engaged to Frankie and told him she wouldn't marry him if he was taking such drugs as well. He told her he wasn't.

Hincapie highly respected the veteran Andreu and considered him a mentor.  If he had decided to start taking EPO, he would too.  Getting it was as easy as biking over to Switzerland to any pharmacy.  He felt a little guilt, but mostly he felt proud that he was finally going to the next level in the sport and being fully professional.  He and his teammates had been considering it since late 1994 when he struggled to keep up in the World Championships and he knew drugs were to blame.  Others in the race around him were causally chatting while he was in pain from the very start.  

In the spring of the next season after Milan-San Remo he and Armstrong gave it further consideration as they drove back to Como after being thoroughly pummeled.  Armstrong was furious that he couldn't keep up with the lead pack of fifty.   He was a former world champion and knew he was as good as, if not better, than everyone else in the peloton. They weren't quite prepared to start with the drugs just yet, hoping a test would be developed to catch the cheaters.  But that wasn't to come for several years.

Hincapie describes the ease of his first of countless injections of EPO.  He'd been injecting himself with vitamins for years, so he was fully comfortable with needles.  Though he claims not to know much at the time, he knew that one administered EPO in the upper arm, near the shoulder, for better absorption.  It didn't hurt at all.

His doping continued for more than a decade.  He began to taper off in 2004 frustrated by the logistics of purchasing and transporting the drugs, not the morality. "Others have written about how they were torn apart by the weight of the secret they kept concerning their drug use," he writes.  "I was never like that.  In the later years of my usage, I was honest with my close friends and family about it."

He wasn't surprised when his former teammate Hamilton tested positive after the 2004 Olympics and at the Tour of Spain afterwards.  "I'd seen him doing dodgy shit, occasionally clandestine and noncommittal in his actions."  He said the peloton had no sympathy for those so brazen.  

That applied to Landis as well.  Hincapie tried to convince him during the 2006 Tour to stop taking drugs as he had his Discovery teammates at the start of The Tour.  It was the first Tour in years that he didn't blood dope, even though he had a bag at the ready.  But Landis just sneered, "Fuck you George, I want to win the Tour de France."

During the stage where Landis tested positive after one of the most brash rides in Tour history, he taunted the peloton before he launched his attack on the first of the day's five climbs, "You'd better take your caffeine pills, you'd better take whatever you have, even if its just aspirin.  I'm going to destroy you all today."  And he did by eight minutes, though he ended up destroying himself and nearly the sport.

Hincapie also takes a shot at Jonathan Vaughters, another of Armstrong's adversaries.  He says he was very drug savvy and was always searching for something new.  Hincapie claims "a friend told him" that Vaughters was researching the possibility of blood-doping without the assistance of a doctor.  He also chides Levi Leipheimer for going back on his word not to dope during the 2006 Tour.

Hincapie does protect some.  There is no mention of the doping guru Dr. Michel Ferrari.  Nor does he identify the two teammates, roommates actually, he knew were using EPO during the 1995 Tour of Spain.  One he walked in on as he was injecting himself.  The other had been struggling until a friend delivered him a package, which he assumed was EPO and/or other drugs.  Nor does he name the roommate the next year who gave him his load of drugs after he was injured and would be out of commission for awhile.

A large part of the book is devoted to The Tour de France as Hincapie rode it seventeen times, more than any rider until Jens Voigt rode his eighteenth this past year. Nine times he was on the winning team--seven with Armstrong and once with  Alberto Contador and the last with Cadel Evans.  His wife was a podium girl.  But The Tour was never easy.  On his first Tour in 1996, even though he had an EPO-assist, from the very start he was hoping he'd crash out.  At the end of his career he summed up, "After the Tour I never felt good.  My body would be so leached of nourishment, it would crave everything."  One time in the Pyrenees he was twenty minutes behind the leaders.  As he began a climb he passed his wife.  He was clearly in such agony his wife started to cry, which nearly crippled him with devastation. 

No experience though was more disheartening than being denied by five seconds the Yellow Jersey for the second time of his career in 2010 Tour thanks to Armstrong's Astana team and the Garmin team chasing after his breakaway group that had gained more than an eight minute advantage.  Neither team seemed to have a reason to do it.  Christian Vande Velde and other of his friends on the Garmin team later apologized, but it was still hard for him to accept.  He said if he'd been in their position and he had been ordered to chase after someone who was a friend and not a threat to his team, "I would have told my directeur to fuck off."

Mark Cavendish was his teammate at the time.  Hincapie was the respected team elder who always gave the team a pep talk after each stage in the team bus.  Cavendish said Hincapie was so crushed by being deprived of the great honor of wearing the Yellow Jersey, and further incensed by the treachery of people he considered friends, that, "Afterward it was the first time I'd ever seen George NOT talk to the team."  Cavendish is an emotional sort who is given to tears.  When he saw Hincapie join his wife and children, he couldn't help but cry, knowing what a great moment it would have been if he could have shared the Yellow Jersey with them.

Hincapie mentions several tears of his own, once with Dave Zabriskie at the 2010 Tour of California  after he received a phone call from drug investigator Jeff Novisky asking him to give him a call.   It was a call he was dreading and hoped would never come.  After he finally agrees to cooperate with the USADA investigation a couple years later he wrote, "There were many days I would get out on the bike and cry.  Not because of what I'd had to do, but because of the manner in which I'd been forced to do it and the knowledge I'd hurt people I cared about."  Another comment intended for Armstrong.

Unlike many of the American published books on bicycle racing this one didn't come from Velo Press, but rather Harper Collins.  Even a high powered publishing house with an army of editors and fact-checkers didn't make this book error-free.  Like Velo, it was inconsistent with its spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez, spelling it once with a lower case "l" and twice with none at all.

Twice it botched mentions of the Passage du Gois, a road out to the island of Noirmoutier that is submerged at high tide.  Hincapie, or his co-writer Craig Hummer, claim it is only passable four hours a day and is always slippery.  The recently published "Lantern Rouge" about the last man in The Toir de France gets it right.  It states, "Twice a day the narrow road is submerged completely by the tide, and it is safe to pass only during a four-hour window around the low-tide mark."  I have ridden it a couple times myself and can report that it does dry out and is not slippery at all times.

Hincapie was also confused when he wrote that the 2005 Tour opened with a time trial via the Passage.  The time trial did go out to Noirmoutier, but it went over the bridge at the southern end of the island and avoided the Passage to the north.

Hincapie calls Vande Velde one of his best friends and has nary a harsh word for him.  He stood up for him at his wedding.  But he doesn't give him credit for his fourth place finish at the 2008 Tour, saying he finished fifth.  The record books elevated him to fourth when the fourth place finisher was disqualified for testing positive.  

There is no discussion of money in the book other than a comment from his older brother, who served as his agent and earned him a contract worthy of a Tour contender.  He doesn't mention bonuses or payments for riding in post-Tour criteriums or deal-making that goes on during races as other books do.  He does admit to liking expensive watches and that Cavendish gave him a dream watch. 

There are at least two books out there, including Cavendish's first autobiography, that comment on the huge veins in Hincapie's legs. They are said to be without compare in the peloton.   He takes no credit for them in his own book.  The British television commentator Ned Boulting devotes a full paragraph to them in his book, "How I Won the Yellow Jumper."  

He glorified them, waxing poetic, stating that at the end of a stage they "look as if a family of vipers has crawled under his skin and begun to feed on his calf muscles.  They are among the Tour's greatest sights and, like the twenty-one switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez, will one day be numbered for posterity and given plaques bearing the names of famous domestiques who wore the Yellow Jesey."  

Despite overlooking his incomparable veins, Hincapie's book does a fine job covering his long and illustrious career.  Besides his seventeen Tour appearances he also competed in five Olympics, the most of any American cyclist.  And it would have been six, but part of his punishment for his drug-taking was not being able to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.  

The book abounds with fully-justified accolades from those in the sport. He is such a significant figure that if one googles "George Cyclist" he turns up just after this blog.   It was nice to read a "drug-confessional" that was free of the agony and despair as expressed by David Millar and Tyler Hamilton and others in their books.  He had a most exemplary career that doesn't deserve to be tainted by the drugs that were such a fact of life in his era.   

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A New York Times Writer Bikes Coast-To-Coast


More than a few of the cyclists who have ridden coast-to-coast across the United States have written a book about their trip. Not many though, have the writing credentials of Bruce Weber, a writer for the New York Times since 1986 who has had four above the fold front-page stories and also written two previous books.  His journalistic skills shine forth not only in his prose, but also in how thoroughly he covers his subject matter.  He also has the very useful skill of pitching a story he'd really like to write.  Twice he has succeeded in convincing an editor at The Times to let him ride his bicycle across the United States and write about it for the paper, in effect earning himself a paid vacation, if such an endeavor can be considered a "vacation."

The first trip was in 1993 when he was 39.  The second was in 2011 when he was 57.  He had recently published a book on baseball umpires, "As They See 'Em," and wanted to write another book, maybe regretting he hadn't written one on his first ride, since so many people do.  He had taken a two year leave from The Times to write the umpire book. He attended one of the two sanctioned umpire schools in Florida, did a little umping and then traveled the country following a few of the umpires he went to school with who had won a position among the 220 umpires in the minor league system.  He gets to know, as well, quite a few of the 68 umpires working in the majors.  As with his bicycling book, "Life is a Wheel," he gifted himself the pleasure of writing a book about something he liked a lot and knew fairly well.

He is a more ardent baseball fan though, than bicyclist, calling himself a dilettante despite two coast-to-coast rides and a few others, including the length of Vietnam with a group of sixty.  His baseball-consciousness is highly evident in his bicycle book, with repeated mentions of the game.  He times his three-month ride to arrive back in New York in time for the World Series.  Not once though does he mention biking in his umpire book.  One of his nearly forty mentions of baseball in his biking book is the movie "Moneyball," which he didn't think was particularly baseball savvy. The movie mentions, from "Planet of the Apes" to "Psycho," actually outnumber his baseball mentions.  One of them is the comment after a hard climb in the heat, that he'd like nothing more than to disappear into an air-conditioned movie theater.   

He didn't take up bicycling until after his second knee operation when his doctor told him to say goodbye to his basketball or softball playing.  Despite a number of significant bicycle trips he laments he's not very good maintaining his bike.  He replaces his chain three times on his trip, paying a mechanic to do it each time.  He describes himself as being capable of sensing when something is wrong with his bicycle, but rarely capable of fixing it. His bike terminology isn't always that of someone fully versed in the lexicon.  He refers to the bags on his bike as saddlebags, rather than panniers.  He is traveling with two on the back and no "front wheel bags," not how any veteran cyclist would phrase it.  He refers to the bicycle touring website crazyguyonabike.com as crazyoldguyonabike.com.

When he lists the components on his new $8000 bike, he doesn't give the all-important number of teeth on his chain rings, just those on his cassette, an 11-28, which he redundantly refers to as a "rear cassette."  He only test rode his new bike 65 miles before he flew out to Oregon to begin his trip.  Early on he realizes his cassette isn't adequate for the climbs, some of which he has had to walk, and replaces it.  He also has to replace his saddle after 1,600 miles of discomfort.  

He makes it easy for casual and non-cyclists to relate to him, portraying himself as an every-man without overly glorifying his ride.   He only averages fifty miles a day and stays in a hotel every night and occasionally the home of a friend or a reader of his Times coverage.  One was an ardent cyclist who had celebrated his 50th birthday by riding fifty miles in all fifty states.

He brought along a tent and sleeping bag in case of emergency, but never needs them.  He doesn't say if he ever camped during his first trip, only that he averaged sixty miles a day.  He admits that he can feel age catching up to him.  He no longer desires to ride late into the day, one of my greatest pleasures, preferring to be done by mid-afternoon.

About a third of the way into the book he confesses that he was struggling much more than he let his newspaper readers know during his first two weeks.  He came close to quitting half a dozen times, feigning an injury and flying home.  Another confession is that he will turn his bike upside down and solicit a ride when conditions are beyond his tolerance.  He does turn down the offer of a ride from a police officer in Montana, though, when he calls ahead to check if the department can book a motel room for him in their town.  They succeed and then volunteer to come and pick him up.  It was one of many countless examples of the benevolence he encountered, something he wished there was more of in New York.  "In most of the country, the default temperament is decency," he summed up.

He only rarely refers to his first trip.  Rather than repeating the route to relive it or to comment on how places might have changed, he takes a more northerly route so he can pass through North Dakota, the only state he'd never been to.  It is a great moment for him when he crosses into the state.  He debates what adjective he should use to describe the accomplishment.  He settles on "creditable," explaining, "It isn't quite remarkable, and its not special enough to be singular; amazing is way overstating it.  Estimable isn't bad, but creditable is better, more modest, a deserved but unostentatious pat on my back, self-satisfied without being smug."  

A few pages earlier he tells how he spent two days wrapped in thought over a colorful phrase on a historical marker he came upon. It described gunslingers as "tolerably lurid."  He knows how hard it would be for him to get that by an editor and tries to imagine how whoever wrote it convinced their editor not to modify it.   He can tend toward the florid himself, referring to a vast field of sunflowers as a "gigantic silk scarf." One can appreciate his literary craftsmanship, trying to find a fresh and precise word.  He describes winds as "well-behaved," "genial," "stubborn," "accommodating," "a malign cohort," "nudging me," "contrary," "heartening."  He describes some cattle as being "handsome."

Some of the best writing in his book comes from one of his emailers responding to his stories in The Times, someone by the name of "Scorpion."  He chastises Weber, calling his endeavor a waste of time and effort.  When he becomes too harsh and personal, Weber no longer allows him to post.

The book is as much a memoir of his life as it is the story of his bike ride, as implied by the book's subtitle--"Love, death, etc., and a bike ride across America."  He had recently fallen in love with a fellow Times reporter, who was based in Paris.  They had been friends for years, but became a couple on a group bike ride in Provence.  Weber had never been married, though he had had a series of girl friends, many of whom he mentions.  His new girl friend was in the process of divorce and had two grown daughters, one of whom didn't wholly approve of Weber and told her mother, "don't come crying to me if it doesn't work out."

He takes several breaks from his ride, one to fly to a friend's funeral, where he unexpectedly meets an ex, and another to fly to a wedding of a friend of his new girl friend.  She also rides along with him for a couple of days on a fold-up bike.  He devotes two chapters of the book to his ride in Vietnam, including a sidetrip where he was detained.  He calls the experience of his arrest, "Far and away the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me."

It was his first time in Vietnam, unlike some members in his group that had served in the war.  When he was in junior high school he was so beset by fears of being drafted and sent to Vietnam some time in the future, he suffered his first symptoms of depression.  His parents sent him to a psychiatrist, who he saw for a couple of years, although they mostly just played chess.  That didn't turn him off to shrinks though.  Over the years he spent "endless hours blathering with a shrink," largely about the many women who passed through his life as if it were a revolving door.

His time on the bike serves as an antidote to what he terms "life's irreconcilable vexatiousness."  It assuages his "despair over the fate of mankind."  Its not always easy on the bike, he acknowledges, and when it isn't there is always the chance that it can get worse, but he tries to be an optimist, knowing that most often it will get better.  He fully approves of Samuel Beckett's assessment, "The bicycle is a great good, but it can turn nasty if ill-employed."

I had been eager to read this well-reviewed new contribution to the ever-increasing canon of significant bicycle literature since it was published just before I headed to Europe in April.  It was a book I didn't want to end, except that I have a backlog of recently published bicycling books to catch up on--memoirs from the racers George Hincapie and Phil Gaimon, the latest book by Richard Moore on great stages of The Tour de France and another book on the lanterne rouge of The Tour, and a few others.  

Even though Weber traveled in a style much different than mine, staying in motels rather than camping wild and not once mentioning a library, Carnegie or otherwise, the two cornerstones of my travels, his book greatly inflamed my urges to be back on the road living the touring life rather than reading about it.  My friend Tim, who has joined Janina and me on our two rides to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, planted the idea of joining him for the 25th anniversary of the protest of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia next month.  It would be an 800 mile ride there and then 800 back.  How can I resist?




Friday, October 3, 2014

Millington, Illinois




A mural and statues and plaques in Ottawa's central park fully bring to life the first of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates held on that very spot in 1858 to an audience of over 10,000, just slightly less than the present population of Ottawa.  Slavery was the central issue.  Lincoln may have been the better orator, but he lost the senatorial election he was contesting with Douglas, who retained his seat. Two years later though, Lincoln prevailed, becoming the sixteenth president.



Those seven debate sites must have top billing among those on the trail of all the "Looking for Lincoln" plaques scattered around the state. They are more common than Carnegie Libraries, of which Illinois had 106, exceeded only by Indiana and  California.  I'll soon have visited all of those remaining in Illinois and then can turn my attention to Lincoln as a means of gaining a further intimacy with Illinois on my bike.  Each plaque Is a story unto itself, urging me to research it and join the tribe of Lincolnphiles, not that I need another obsession, having yet to exhaust my fascination with The Tour de France.  Even as I've been biking along I've been listening to a Les Woodland audiobook on The Tour and also reading a Kindle book about a group of English cyclists who followed the 2012 Tour.  

Woodland has written over twenty books on cycling, most devoted to The Tour.  He is another of a vast fraternity who have been totally absorbed by the rich and colorful history of The Tour and its wide array of characters that goes well beyond those who have ridden it.  France is full of guys who have collected huge amounts of Tour memorabilia and have opened museums or make their collections available in public places when The Tour passes near them.  There are quite a few French writers, like Woodland, who have devoted their careers to The Tour.  The most prolific is Jean-Paul Ollivier, who his written fifty some books on cycling.   Woodland quotes him on occasion along with many other writers.  

Woodland is a voracious searcher and will devour anything he can get his hands on relating to cycling.  Though he is English, he now lives in France, no doubt to make his research all the easier.  He even now identifies himself as being French.  His latest book on The Tour, "The Inside Story: Tour de France, Making the World's Greatest Bicycle Race," is full of stray anecdotes that other Tour histories don't include.  The book is almost a stream-of-consciousness commentary on The Race, somewhat chronological, though it jumps all over the place and doesn't mention every edition as the standard histories of The Race do.  

He inserts interesting and telling nuggets that he's picked up from reading biographies of many of the sport's principals.  He mentions that the autobiography of Jacques Goddet, the second director of The Tour after Henri Desgrange, does not explain how he allowed the Nazis to use his velodrome as the roundup point for over 10,000 Jews in Paris during WWII. He makes a case that he had to have been a collaborator, though he refused to stage The Race during the war despite the urgings of the German occupiers.  

He ventures off into stories on the wife of Desgrange and an American from LaSalle, Illinois who preceded Boyer and Mount and LeMond to the European peloton.   He calls it a myth that Rene Vietto worked as a bellhop at a luxury Cannes hotel.  The book abounds with odd little footnotes that he has stumbled upon that he just has to share.  And I am delighted with each.

But as much of an authority as he is on The Tour, he quite frequently bungles the facts.  This, as with many of his books, is in desperate need of a cycling-savvy editor.  He comments that it took the Americans more than sixty years to make their mark on The Tour.  Eighty years would be a more accurate figure.  He states that Poulidor was a better time trialist than Anquetil, when that was Anquetil's strength.  He says Armstrong had a positive drug finding in his first Tour in 1999.  Its true he tested positive for cortisone in that Tour, but it was not his first Tour, just the first that he won.

He states there were twice as many fans as usual along the road in Monaco when Lance came out of retirement and made his return to the sport after a three year absence.  I was there and that's not true at all.  Not all that many fans, especially the caravaners, showed up, knowing how expensive and compact Monaco was.  He also gets the location of one of the most storied events in Tour history wrong.  He wrote that Bahamontes stopped at the summit of the Galibier for an ice cream cone in 1954, when it was on the Col de la Romeyere.  And he gets the year wrong on the year the British team ANC competed in The Tour.  It was 1987, not 1989.

There were much fewer errors in the Kindle book, "One Day Ahead: A Tour de France Misadventure" by Richard Grady, mostly because the book didn't comment much on The Tour.  Grady is also English.  He is one of five members of a support crew, including a masseuse, driving two camper vans for four English riders who are attempting to ride The Tour route "one day ahead" of the peloton.  The book hardly mentions the riders.  It largely concentrates on the the support crew and how difficult their job is, much more difficult, he claims, than actually riding the route. 

It is mostly comic, but he does have genuine grievances with others on the crew who want to do some riding and not do their share of the work.  They have to find water and places to dump their sewage and buy food and find places to set up their encampment every night.  It wasn't glamorous in the least.  The author is continually complaining.  The wife of one of the riders, who shares his sentiments, tells him that when he sits down to write his book, if he can't remember what happened any particular day, all he need write is, "It was shit," which he agrees with.  The actual Race only gets a couple paragraph mention at the end of each chapter, told stage by stage, even though it was the first time The Tour was won by an English rider.

He does insert some Tour history and insights in what its like to be in France during  The Tour.  He knows cemeteries are a source for water and greatly appreciates the course markers, though only once does he mention the decorations along the route without being as enthusiastic about them as he should be.  One thing I learned that I have been oblivious to is that there are road signs for campers to dump their sewage, not that it is something I need to know. I'm not sure if II would have enjoyed this book as much as I did if I weren't reading it in small doses during my breaks and in my tent at night or if I were reading it as a real book, and not just on my iPad.  Still it was nice to marginally relive a Tour I had ridden starting in Liege with Andrew from Sydney.

Having Tour books to read and listen to as I've ridden along has made me less in a hurry to return home.  I've wanted to prolong my series of days on the bike and nights in the tent.  I have made this a longer ride than it needed to be, extending it by nearly five hundred miles to 2,000 miles with detours to Carnegies and friends.  The last Carnegie on my route came in Streator, fifteen miles south of Ottawa.  It was a larger town of over 10,000 people and had an exemplary Carnegie, making it a fine one to end with.


A representative of Streator paid a personal visit to Carnegie and was able to convince him to give more than three times his usual $10,000 grant.  It enabled the town to erect a two-story building with a rotunda that had murals on three of its sides, the fourth open to the grand, oaken staircase that led up to it.  The murals each feature a literary figure--Homer, Longfellow and Shakespeare.  The one with Longfellow paid homage to his writing on native  Americans.


The Carnegie in Wyoming, fifty miles to the west of Streator, was a classic single-room library with its original wooden tables and circulation desk and a long-time librarian who cherished every aspect of her historic building.




She was saddened that the Carnegie in Toulon, less than ten miles away, had recently been replaced, even though the town, with a population of not much more than a thousand, didn't really need a new library.  It was presently empty, with windows boarded up, awaiting the local Genealogical society as its new tenant.



The Carnegie in Farmington was two days from closing, also replaced by something bland and new, even though it retained its full stature and dignity on the main highway leading through the small farm community.



As I began my home stretch from Streator, rain threatened for the first time in days.   I was racing to reach a state park along the Fox River thirty miles upriver from where it joins the Illinois at Ottawa.  A drizzle started less than an hour before dark, five miles short of my target, when I came upon a large wooded cemetery that I couldn't resist.  I went off to a far corner and set up under a tree in the light rain.  I could ask for nothing better.  It made for a final wonderful night of camping where no one had likely camped before, just like every other campsite of my past month.  












Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lewistown, Illinois

There were small motels on either side of the narrow bridge over the Mississippi between Louisiana, Missouri, an historic and still charismatic town, and the nondescript dot of Pike on the Illinois side.  Louisiana was one of the rare towns I've come upon in these travels that had enough of an allure to make me want to linger and explore, and not only because it is one of three cites, along with St. Louis and Cape Giradeau, on the Mississippi in Missouri that can boast a Carnegie.  It had a prominent location on a hill just two streets over from the River.


But night was imminent and I needed to push on.  If I weren't a camper, I could have had my pick of rooms at either motel, but I gave neither a thought, other than it seemed a near miracle that both were still in business and not boarded up, as had so often been the case in Kansas.  It was a relief to see that small towns in Missouri weren't on the downward spiral to becoming ghost towns.  Rural America wasn't as grim and destitute as Kansas presented.

And as I penetrated into Illinois for the final three hundred miles of my ride back to Chicago, I was given further reason for hope.  Its small towns had plenty of life and often some character.  They gave a hint of small-town idyll, some even offering an enticement that they might not be such a bad place to live. They weren't necessarily thriving, but they weren't dominated by closed down businesses and abandoned homes.  Yards and property were maintained and there was a sense of civic pride.  I had a sense of pride myself in my home state.  Those towns with an extra shine had welcoming signs on their outskirts announcing themselves as an "Illinois Main Street Community," not unlike the French designations of a Most Beautiful Town or a Town of Flowers.  It does set a nice standard for a town to achieve.

Illinois is most certainly The Land of Lincoln.  Many of the towns had plaques commemorating a visit of Lincoln.  The regal Carnegie in Pittsfield had a photo of him taken when he passed through the town in 1858.


Outside the Carnegie in Beardsville, now the town City Hall, were a pair of laminated plaques detailing a court case Lincoln had won there.



Griggsville had no need to attach itself to the Lincoln trail as it had enough of an attraction in being the Purple Martin Capital of the Nation.  



More than five hundred bird houses are scattered about the town of 1,300, including a seventy-foot tall highrise of 562 aviary apartments in the town center.



But for me the town's main attraction was its unaltered shoe box of a Carnegie, complete with his portrait behind the check out desk and a copy of the book on the Carnegies of Illinois on an easel. The town also attracts visitors with its annual fall Apple Fest, the password for the library's WIFI.  



The somewhat tattered Carnegie in Rushville had only recently been replaced by a new library and awaited a new tenant.



The Carnegie in Havana, on the corner of Plum and Adams, appeared as sturdy and vibrant as the day it was built.  It was the proud domain of a very friendly white-haired librarian who could well be the most-liked person in this town on the wide Illinois River.   Its town plaque beside a spiffy park on the river detailed a trail along the river for over one hundred miles from Ottawa.



The neighborly librarian in Lewistown, modeling her favorite "ssssh-happens" t-shirt, was also a strong advertisement for small-town America.



Her library had had no expansion since it was built in 1906, though the addition of a side entrance and a shed prevented it from being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.



Lincoln visited Lewiston with regularity as he had good friends there.  The house of his friends that he stayed at still stands.  He also gave a noteworthy speech there in 1858 on the Declaration of Independence known as "The Return to the Fountain Speech," though no copy remains, just the newspaper reports.  












Monday, September 29, 2014

Hannibal, Missouri

White picket fences abound in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's boyhood home, paying homage to the celebrated incident in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" when Tom convinces his pals to do his painting job.  There is even a bucket with a couple of paint brushes beside one of the fences.  The bi-monthly publication of the Mark Twain Association is called "The Fence Painter."  The annual National Tom Sawyer Days, that has been going on for fifty-eight years, includes a fence painting contest.


Huck Finn's house and Mark Twain's boyhood home and his father's law office were all painted a picket fence white.



Hannibal calls itself "America's Hometown."  Norman Rockwell might agree, as fifteen of his paintings on his display in Twain's home pay homage to Twain's heroes.  So too might the religious, as Hannibal is home to fifty-three churches, including one a block from its old non-Carnegie library that holds its services in a former movie theater.  The town recognizes its heritage.  Many homes have signs out front announcing they are being restored to their original state dating to their construction in the 1800s.

There are tributes to Twain all over this river-side town--streets and businesses named for him, including a taxi service. Twain's family moved to Hannibal in 1839 when he was four.  Twain began his newspaper career when he was thirteen, dropping out of school after his father's death to help support the family.  He remained in Hannibal until he was eighteen. 

A ceremonial lighthouse was erected in his honor on a bluff overlooking the town and a bridge over the Mississippi, also named in his honor.  It is a 244-step climb up to the lighthouse from a statue of Tom and Huck.  The lighthouse was unveiled in 1935 on the centennial of Twain's birth.  It was turned on by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he pressed a gold key that had been hooked up by telegraph wires.  The Tom/Huck statue preceded the lighthouse by nine years and is said to be the first American sculpture to depict fictional characters.



Many businesses take their name from one or another.  The town's information phone number is 1-TomandHuck.  Becky Thatcher is also prominent about town.  The path up to the light house passes Becky's Butterfly Garden.  Not far from a house named for her is a Becky's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and also Becky Thatcher's Third Street Diner.

The town was rather quiet on this late September Sunday despite the balmy eighty degree temperatures. There were only a handful of others wandering the few blocks of the historic district a couple blocks from the Mississippi, hidden by a high dike.  Many of the visitors had arrived on motorcycles, traveling the scenic Great River Road  that I would follow for thirty-two miles south to Louisiana and its Carnegie and bicycle-friendly bridge, despite warnings that it was very hilly. The lone bridge in Hannibal was the start of Interstate 72. It had replaced the original bridge by the lighthouse in 2000. I may have been able to ride it, though the woman at the tourist office couldn't say for sure.  She'd never had a bicyclist ask.  But the Carnegie in Louisiana beckoned.  It'd be my eleventh in Missouri on this trip, one-third of those in the state.  

Bicyclists remain a rarity. There wasn't a bicycle to be seen in the town.  No surprise.  I am a virtual species unto my own.  Not only have I not encountered a single touring cyclist since I left Telluride three weeks ago, I've hardly noticed anyone on a bicycle anywhere I've been in the 1,500 miles I've covered.  I've long ago given up being concerned about such matters.  I am simply happy that my allegiance to the bicycle has not waned nor been diverted all these years.  Though there is a glimmer of bicycle-enlightenment in some urban areas, it is still on a very small scale.  It is not something I expect to see in my lifetime.

None of the three Carnegies on my Saturday route were open when I visited them. I was too early for the Carnegie in Moberly.



The cosy Carnegie in the small town of Shelbina only had nine to noon hours on Saturday.  I was three hours late. At least it had a drinking fountain out front, but it was out of order.  A young woman in the park in front of it saw me try it.  She told me the library was unlocked and I could go in and use its drinking fountain.  She came to lead me in, but was surprised to discover that the door was locked.



It was no surprise that the library in Monroe City was closed when I arrived after six.  The former Carnegie was now the town's City Hall with the new library adjoining it.  I was at least able to use its WIFI, unlike the day's other two Carnegies.  I downloaded a couple more episodes of Democracy Now and a couple of ESPN shows for my listening the next day if I couldn't find an NFL station.



I had half an hour of light before I had to end my cycling day.  I exited the four-lane wide highway 36 fifteen miles short of Hannibal and camped alongside a corn field on a side road to Mark Twain Lake.  








Saturday, September 27, 2014

Huntsville, Missouri

Even before I reached Springfield and its several Bible colleges, I knew I was in the Bible Belt.  Churches old and new, many with catchy sermon titles and other promotions vying for attention, dotted the road.  One had a large "Skeptics Wanted" banner out front. Another, calling itself the Church of Living Water, advertised "relationships, not tradition."

Besides their entertainment value, the churches also provide a last resort as a place to camp.  They are  often off on their own and have no one around, a perfect place to pitch a tent, as I did on the outskirts of Sedalia.  The town was a little bigger than I thought.  I didn't have enough light to get beyond its outskirts after arriving just in time to photograph its stunning White House of a Carnegie in the waning light.


It was easily the most spectacular building in another town in serious decline, the all too common plight of small town America. A sign along the highway skirting the town pointed towards its "historic downtown."  All too often the word "historic" used in this context means "forsaken" or "derelict."  I didn't notice a Walmart here to blame for all the closed down businesses and dilapidated buildings.  Amazon and the Internet share the lion's share here.  The highways are full of a continual stream of UPS and Fedex trucks making deliveries.

About the only businesses that remain are barber shops and beauty salons and Dollar stores and a bank and tattoo parlors and liquor stores and resale stores and maybe a pawn shop and an occasional oddity, such as the tanning salon in Warsaw, Missouri aptly called The Fakery.  

My route north from Springfield took me over the Missouri River and its neighboring Lewis and Clark Trail.  On the way I passed through Bolivar.  Its Carnegie now housed the Polk County Genealogical Society. It faced the town's central plaza.


The Carnegie in Fayette still served as the town library.



A sign in front proclaimed the good fortune of Fayette being just one of thirty-three towns in Missouri to have a Carnegie.  It was a thousand short though on the number of libraries Carnegie funded around the world.



As with Fayette and Sedalia, I had to detour from the highway to go to Huntsville and its Carnegie, another dandy that still functioned as it was intended.



I pitied the towns I passed through that hadn't taken advantage of the Carnegie offer.  They too could have had a distinguished library rather than the plain and dumpy buildings that presently serve the purpose.  It wasn't as if Carnegie exhausted his funds.  He wanted to give away his entire fortune for the construction of libraries, but didn't even exhaust half of it.