Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"P Is for Peloton, The A-Z of Cycling"

There is reason to celebrate any book on cycling, even if its riddled with misinformation and is a clone of other books on the sport, such as is the case with the well-meaning, 160-page compendium of cycling lore and lingo, "P is for Peloton," by Suze Clemitson, an English fan of the sport.  It is always heartening when a publisher deems a book on cycling worthy of putting out there, but disappointing when it disseminates all too much false information.

If nothing else, this book merits attention for its bounty of some seventy keenly insightful illustrations, the best of which may be a field of free wheels masquerading as sunflowers.  Though Clemitson may not venture much beyond the basics in the165 items she defines, including French and Italian terms and many of the legendary climbs in the sport and its foremost figures, being reminded of their significance reinforced my fondness for them and made the book a rewarding read in spite of its inadequacies. 

She manages to find at least one cycling-related item for every letter in the alphabet, from nineteen for the letter P to three for the letters Q and Z to one for the letters X and J.  "Jersey" was an easy one for J, but she had to test her imagination for X, choosing the X in "53 X 11," the most common high gear.  She declined to choose the X that is very often found in the names of the many Basque riders, as there is no noteworthy rider whose name begins with X, unlike other letters.  Her Zs were the riders Zabel and Zoetmelk along with the climb in the Italian Alps--Zoncolan.  One of her Qs was the Colombian Quintana along with Queen Stage and Quick Release.  

A good many of her entries are people, including Didi Senft (The Devil) and Henri Desgrange, the founder of The Tour de France.  Her strong English bias gives Robert Millar one-and-half pages  compared to just half a page for Greg LeMond. Her bias extends to giving credit to Team Sky for popularizing skin suits in time trials, though elsewhere in the book she gives credit to the Ti Raleigh team for being the first team to wear skin suits at the 1980 Tour.  If she were American she would have granted Garmin that distinction.  The book is clearly meant for an English audience as she compares Milan-San Remo to riding from London to Sheffield without offering an American equivalent.

Like many without a doctorate in the sport, whether earned from a fanaticism of growing up with it or from devouring every book and magazine she could get her hands on after developing an interest in it, Clemitson is often wrong or at least not quite right on many an item.  The book is frustratingly rife with misinformation and misunderstanding.  That is not so much an indictment of Clemitson, but rather of her publisher failing to enlist an authority on the sport to edit, or at least scan, the book.

One could go on and on pointing out its many niggling inconsistencies and falsehoods beginning with referring to Bradley Wiggins as Sir, but not Chris Hoy, who was knighted before Wiggins. She also slights The Devil and Desgrange.  She wrote that The Devil was retired.  He did miss the 2014 Tour, but he was back for 2015, allowing me to update my photo with him.


Of Desgrange she wrote that he served in WWII, despite having died in 1940.  That one was no doubt a typo, but that can't be said about several things she got wrong about Bernard Hinault.  She wrote that he was a gentleman farmer.  He gave up his farm several years ago when he realized none of his children cared to continue with it.  She mentioned a famous incident of him confronting protesters in the 1984 Paris-Nice when it was The Tour de France.  She also claims he cried when he gave up the Yellow Jersey to LeMond in the 1986 Tour.  Hinault was a notorious tough man who never gave in to his emotions.  William Fotheringham's recent biography "The Badger," doesn't cite a single incident of him and tears, whether of exaltation or despair.

Clemitson has an affinity for tears and mentions many--riders being scooped up by the Broom Wagon, riders on the snowy stage of the 1988 Giro, Paolo Bettini winning the 2006 Tour of Lombardy days after the death of his brother in a car crash, Felice Gimondi's directeur sportif the year he won the 1965 Tour, Fausto Coppi's domestique taking the Yellow Jersey in the 1952 Tour, Richard Virenque being ejected from the 1998 Tour. These are celebrated incidents and worthy of mention.  She was being fanciful, as she is prone to, to suggest tears from Hinault.

She is inconsistent on Virenque, writing in one place that he is reviled, but then later that he is a popular television commentator.  Like many not fully steeped in the sport she confuses races known as Classics and Monuments.  There are five Monuments and they are all Classics, but not all Classics are Monuments.  On page 72 she lists the riders with the most Classic wins--Eddie Merckx 50, Hinault and Jacques Anquetil 29, Sean Kelly 22.  Seven pages later she writes that Merckx holds the record with 19 Classics, meaning Monuments.  Earlier she wrote that Merckx was one of three to win all five Monuments in one year.  No one ever achieved that in a single season.  It took a career.

Many of the entries in the book are accompanied by extra tidbits of information called "bluff facts" or "bluff its," that one drop into a conversation to be taken as more of an expert on the sport than one actually is, much like Clemitson.  Some are absurd such as, "If you were to cycle 3,500 kilometers, which is what the peloton cover during a Grand Tour, you'd produce enough sweat to flush 39 toilets."

She describes being along the road during The Tour and watching the Caravan of Sponsors pass.  She claims, "you could feed yourself for the day on little sausages" that are tossed out.  I've been following The Tour for twelve years and very rarely have I managed to grab even one of the small packs with three bite-sized sausages.  Their sponsor is very parsimonious with them.  Not even an army of fans could collect enough to feed a single person for a day.  She's also wrong stating that Coca-Cola is among the sponsors in the Caravan.  It's been years, well before my time, that Coca-Cola has been a sponsor.  

She must have read somewhere that an early wearer of the Yellow Jersey, before it became an emblem of the sport and its holiest garment, protested having to wear it, complaining that the others riders mockingly called him a canary.  She said it was Philipe Thys, when it was actually Eugene Christophe.  She is also not quite right when she says Americans mispronounce Maillot Jaune as Mellow Johnny.  That was a Lance Armstrong bastardization, not a symptom of Americans.

If this book were a car it would have to be recalled, as it presents a great danger of establishing myths rather than realities. It would be a great tragedy if in its present form it were discovered a thousand years from now after our current civilization has gone the way of the Greeks and Romans, as it would give a less than accurate portrayal of the world of cycling. One can enjoy the book's fanciful illustrations, but to give full credence to its fanciful prose puts one in a state of peril.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Kindliness of the Lebanese

The The State Department may be advising against travel to Lebanon, but Janina and I experienced nothing but kindliness and welcome during our two-week stay.  Annia acknowledged she sensed a stronger air of tension in the country than she has experienced in the dozen years she has made Beirut her base, but it was something Janina and I were oblivious to despite the heavy military presence and occasional beggars and the knowledge that more than two million Syrians refigeess had been absorbed by this country no bigger than Conneticut.  

The Lebanese seemed unphased by the unrest and upheaval in the region.  All seemed normal to us.  Good-will and smiles were our dominant impression of the country, from the neighborhood orange juice salesman to the many random folk we encountered in our travels around the country.

When I took a spill on a patch of oil in a construction zone as Janina and I were biking to Byblos, twenty-five miles up the coast from Beirut, a worker rushed to help me up and pat the dirt off my back.  At Byblos the ticket-taker to the ruins unhesitantly told us it was perfectly fine to leave our bikes at the entry to the ruins and that he would keep an eye on them.  Afterwards he gladly led us to a hotel.  

We were invited into the home of the wife of the creator of a sculpture garden in the small village of Rachana.  Several people came to our assistance when the communal van we took from Baalbek back to Beirut dropped us off in the dark quite a ways from Annia's apartment.  It was easy to see why Annia has been happy to make Beirut her home.  She has a friendly relationship with the many small shop owners of her neighborhood, a refreshing change from her life in the boroughs of New York.

Her work for the Washington Post and Reuters and others, including being interviewed by the BBC during our stay, prevented her from joining us on our three-day ride to Byblos and beyond.  She would have enhanced the experience, but it was still a most enriching outing.  Janina had visited the ruins with Annia on her previous visit to Beirut four years ago, and was delighted to see them again, especially by making a bike ride of it.

Though our route along the coast wasn't particularly scenic, clogged most of the way with the sprawl of factories and businesses and residences, we did have glimpses of the coastline.  We took a break on a beach strewn with plastic bottles in front of a fenced in hotel. 


We were accustomed to seeing litter, as garbage pickup is haphazard throughout the entire country, organized on a local level.  Garbage is dumped randomly anywhere.  It wasn't as severe a problem as it had been during the summer, but the issue hadn't been resolved.




The billboards in the background for a plastic surgery company were a ubiquitous sight.  So too was the cedar tree tattooed on the woman's back.  It is featured on Lebanon's flag, the most prominent tree on any national flag.  Peru and Belize also have a tree, but they blend into a montage of elements.  The mountains of Lebanon were once covered with cedars.  But  like the American buffalo, few remain. 

Our ride to Byblos began most pleasantly when after a couple of miles from Annia's apartment in the heart of the city we joined Seaside Road and became part of a Sunday morning colonnade of cyclists, more than we encountered during our entire stay, including a club that was accompanied by a support vehicle.  We paused at a grotto with a small chapel honoring St. George.  It was speculated that it was at this site around 300 AD, George slayed the dragon that led to his canonization.  A nearby bay is also named for him.

There is no speculation about the history of Byblos.  It is acknowledged to be one of the world's oldest continually inhabited towns dating to the fifth millennium BC.  It is also known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet.  It's name is believed to have derived from the Greek word for papyrus and also to have leant its name to the Bible.  It's ruins, some Roman and others much older, lay along the sea and can be peered at from a towering Crusader castle built in the 12th  century.  There was much history to soak in as we took a couple hour meander among the excavated ruins.

The next day, rather than continuing twenty-five miles to Tripoli, we turned off the coastal road after eight miles for a steep two-mile climb past a smattering of olive trees to the small village of Rachana that was filled with the sculptures of the Basbous, three brothers, all deceased, and a son.  As we wandered amongst the first set of sculptures a vibrant red-haired woman emerged from a fairy-tale house and asked what language we spoke.  She introduced herself as Therese, the widow of Michel, the instigator of this project.  




He died in 1981 at the age of sixty. When she learned we were from Chicago, she said they had been invited there in 1973.  One of the highlights of their visit was seeing the Picasso sculpture. They had traveled the world exhibiting her husband's work.  They particularly enjoyed Japan, where they spent two months.  Two of her husband's sculptures remain there in the Uneo Sculpture Park.  She was delighted to learn Janina was an art critic and was interested in writing about Rachana.  She invited us into her home, a whimsical work of art itself in the spirit of Gaudi that her husband designed and built and gave us a booklet on her son's recent exhibition in Beirut and shared with us several of the books she had written in French.  She couldn't have been more charming.  When a few drops of rain fell, she insisted we stay until it passed, offering us some chocolates and more of her energetic stories. Not too many people venture to this small village.  There were no signs promoting it or leading us to it.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.

We didn't make it back to Byblos until after dark, returning to the same first-class hotel along the Mediterraen we had stayed at the night before.  And once again we seemed to have it all to ourselves. Our ride back into Beirut the next day wasn't as tranquil as our Sunday ride out.  By early afternoon the final few miles of the coastal road had turned one-way leaving the city.  That didn't stop the few motorcycles heading into the city from pushing into traffic on the fringe of the road.  We followed along until it became too harrowing for Janina.  The first three taxis we flagged down didn't care to take her and her bike back to the bike shop where she had rented her bike.  None spoke English, nor did the driver who finally accepted her.  

We showed him on the map where the bike shop was, but it wasn't so easy to reach through the labyrinth of traffic-clogged narrow streets.  It was only three miles away, but it took him an hour-and-a-half to reach it.  I was there in less than half an hour. As I sat waiting, I became concerned that she might have become a victim of a kidnapping, as the State Department had warned.  When she finally showed up, pushing her bike along the sidewalk with a big smile of relief, she said the driver had been frustrated by the one-way streets and had let her off a few blocks back.  She wasn't sorry to be relinquishing the bike.  It had been no fun for her riding in Beirut's dense traffic. We had only two days left and had no more need of the bike.

We had one remaining outing--to the country's premier archeological site and one of the most significant in the world, the Roman ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley.  It was a two-hour drive from Beirut beginning with a climb over a 5,000 foot pass.  We did it the local way, via a communal van for just a few dollars, picking up and dropping off passengers all the way.  It was most enjoyable other than having to breathe the fumes of the smokers.  There was snow on the mountain ranges framing the valley, Syria on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, and along the side of the road as we reached the summit.

The van deposited us right in front of the ruins in the heart of Baalbek across the street from the legendary Palmyra Hotel that had hosted DeGaulle and many other notables.  We could see the six still standing columns of the Temple of Jupiter, the largest in the Roman Empire.  At seventy-two feet high, they are the tallest known columns built anywhere.  They are nearly two thousand years old.






They face the even grander Temple of Bacchus, surrounded by a nearly complete set of columms.  It is the best preserved building anywhere from the Roman Empire.  It was truly breathtaking.  Janina said, "Now you can understand the concept of monumentality."  As at Byblos, we were swept away by the incredulity of the experience.  We were happy that we had turned down the offerings of several would-be guides at the entrance and didn't have a non-stop patter rattling in our ears and could peaceably commune with our surroundings.

When we exited the ruins we were pounced on by a souvenir salesman just as we had been as we approached the ruins.  We regretted our immediate response of saying no, as the yellow Hezballoh t-shirt he was offering was a one-of-a-kind souvenir that would have been fun to wear in the right circumstances back home.  We didn't see anyone else selling them or any of the yellow Hezballoh flags that we saw flying here and there in this Hezballoh region, just stores selling firearms.

Our drive back was in the dark.  We were fortunate that one of the passengers was headed to the same part of Beirut as we were, so when we were dropped off, not at the congregation point that we had departed from earlier in the day within walking distance of Annia, but far away, we could join him in another communal van that he flagged down.

It was our last night in Beirut.  We bought one last bottle of orange juice squeezed on the spot on our way back to Annia's.  She was as sorry as we were that we hadn't returned with a Hezbollah t-shirt, almost enough so to make the trip to Baalbek the next day herself. Though we saw and did much, there is plenty to return for--Khalil Gibran's tomb, the Cedars of the Gods, the spot where Jeaus turned water into wine.  If Annia remains in Beirut, we'll most certainly be back.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Syrian Refugees and a Palestinian Refugee "Camp"

One of the surprises of Lebanon has been its currency--the US dollar along with the Lebanese lira.  I didn't believe it when Annia told us before we left that there was no need to change money when we arrived at the airport, saying US currency is accepted everywhere.  If we hadn't known and had gone to an ATM machine, we would have seen that we had the option of withdrawing either dollars or lira. Its been 1500 lira to the dollar for years, so even though most prices are listed in lira, it is an easy computation to determine the dollar cost of an item.  So far Annia has been right.  No one has rejected my payment of an item in dollars, though I'm always given lira in change.

When I asked a Syrian refugee if dollars were a dual currency in her country as well, she laughed and said, "If I had a ten dollar bill in my pocket in Syria, I'd be thrown in jail." 

That was her only burst of emotion as she and her husband shared their experiences of life in Damascus until two months ago when they were finally able to escape Syria.  We were sitting in their apartment in Beirut along with two of their four young children and her brother Ahmad, who had preceded them to Beirut two years ago.  Among his many jobs he has worked since arriving was a stint as a bicycle messenger, by far his favorite.  So much so that when he and his family gain visas for Canada to join other members of his family, he plans to work as a bicycle messenger despite his degree in engineering.

Ahmad is a friend of Annia's and occasionally serves as her Arabic tutor.  He was going to join us on our ride to Tripoli.  We had to delay the ride when Janina suffered a case of food poisoning.  While Janina spent a day sleeping and recuperating, Ahmad and I went for a ride of our own.  Before we left the city we stopped off to see his sister and her family.  His sister worked as a pharmacist in Syria and her husband as a dentist and had enough money to afford a $900 a month apartment rather than ending up in a refugee camp.

They were able to slip out of Syria by buying airplane tickets to China for their entire family.  Since there are no flights from Damacus to China, they had to fly out of Beirut, and were allowed out of the country under such a pretence.  Ahmad had gained entry into Lebanon in a similar manner by purchasing a ticket to Thailand, which he likewise never intended to use.  They were able to recover most of the cost of the tickets, but not the money they spent for visas.

The family had had a nice life with a house in a suburb of Damacus up until war broke out.  They had to leave their home two years ago when their suburb lost all electricity and water and it became impossible to buy food.  They had been living in a series of apartments since then.  They matter-of-factly narrated their tale with nary a trace of rancor or bitterness.  Their soft features and gentle voices were accentuated by the smiles that never left their faces.  It wasn't so much the relief they feel to be in Lebanon, as they continue to live in uncertainty while they await authorization to immigrate to Canada, but rather their natural constitution.  Living in limbo is nothing new for them, as they are Palestinians who never had full rights in Syria.

They could only bring along a few of their belongings on their long taxi ride out of the country to Beirut.  It wasn't easy to find someone to drive them, as one can be hung up at the border for twelve hours or more as they await permission to leave.  Among the possessions they had to leave behind was a bike. Ahmad knows the importance of having a bike so was able to purchase a used Trek for $40 for the children.  Ahmad is front and center.


As Ahmad and I prepared to go, the three-hours of electrical blackout that daily blankets Beirut had commenced, so we walked the six floors down back to our bikes.  Our next destination was Sabra, the Palestinaina refuge camp dating to 1949 with the establishment of Israel.  Even though it is an established neighborhood within the city, the Palistinians cling to the term "camp," as something temporary, than what is truly is, s slum or ghetto.  As we approached Sabra, Ahmad pointed out an apartment he had stayed at for $200 a month when he first arrived in Beirut and also the street where Yassar Arafat had once lived.

As I clung to Ahmad's rear wheel as we sped through the traffic-clogged streets weaving from one lane to another, I felt as if I were watching a YouTube messenger video peering over Ahmad's shoulder.  It might have been terrifying and death-defying to some, but I fully trusted Ahmad's instincts and felt exhilarated as we flew through the maelstrom as if we had super-powers or were beings of a superior intelligence.  I clung even closer as we entered Sabra, but it was easier to keep up as automobiles were replaced by motorcycles and pedestrians on the narrow thronged streets.  All around us was a bustling hive of activity people selling things from carts and small stands and shops.  Several blocks in we turned down a smaller alleyway and came to a bike shop where Ahmad was well known.  My fold-up bike was a genuine curiosity.  The conversation was entirely in Arabic, other than Ahmad's translations.  While we were there several of Ahmad's students from a school he had taught at nearby happened by.  Ahmad enlisted one to take our photo.


After we left Ahmad said, "I told them you were Norwegian.  It is better."  Danish would have been more accurate, but Norwegian gave me extra favor as several Norwegian aid organizations serve the Palestinian community and they are accustomed to seeing Norwegians.  Ahmad knows about the use of having alternate nationalities, since he can go by Syrian or Palestinian, though neither carry much favor in Lebanon.

I was tempted by the aroma coming from the food offerings, but Ahmad said it was best just to avail us of bananas in Sabra.  After we left we came upon a food cart with a variety of pastries including a coup,e of types of date cookies.  Annia had already introduced us to the store commercially packaged version.  They were a tasty treat that I make sure to have in my pack.  Annia too never goes out without a handful as that is what she distributes to the beggars.  But these from the cart were an even greater treat.  They provided us with our fuel for the rest of the day.


The traffic at last thinned and we could ride hard and steady as we headed south out of the city past the airport.  We alternated between the bustling six-lane highway with a nice shoulder and the quiet, but rough side road.  On the side road we passed through several military check points.  We were waved on through, assumed to be no threat.  Such has been Ahmad's experience all over Lebanon.  We pushed on for an hour-and-half to shortly before Sayda, about half way to Israel, before we had to turn around to get back to Beirut before dark.  The hillsides weren't as packed with habitations as they were to the north.  We didn't encounter another cyclist all day, but we were told about a Syrian we lived twenty miles south of Beirut who made the commute to his job in Beirut every day and he was an old guy like me.

We had a strong south wind back and flew along at close to twenty miles per hour.  We passed through two tunnels that were a bit perilous.  Ahmad had never experienced them adding to their peril, not knowing if there were any hazardous grates that can pop up anywhere.  Along the way a motorist slowed to wave at us.  It was a messenger friend of Ahmad's who I had also met.  He was sent on s long delivery in the company car.  He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him.  He would have gladly exchanged his car for one of our bikes, but that wasn't going to happen, nor his offer of giving us a lift back.  We were sorry we arrived back at Annia's fifteen minutes before dark and hadn't pushed a little further south before returning.  It was good to learn though that Janina had slept all day and felt recovered and ready to eat.  The forecast calls for clear weather next week, so we will not be denied Tripoli.


Monday, January 4, 2016

Biking Beirut


Lebanon's rainy season commenced the day after Janina and I arrived in Beirut for some biking, but mostly to visit her daughter, Annia.  She has been living here off-and-on since 2003 working as a freelance reporter. Janina hadn't seen her in over two years, the longest stretch since she was born.  Rain, or its threat, limited our biking the first four days of our stay, but we were at least able to gain a healthy knowledge and appreciation of this war-torn city on foot, as Annia led us all over.

All that paled though when the rain broke for a few hours and I was finally able to unleash my Bike Friday for a full-fledged forty-mile ramble all about, and to search for a route out of the city, other than the main highway, for a ride to Tripoli, fifty miles to the north, in a couple of days when the forecast calls for some sunny days.  

I returned wet, but also exhilarated to have finally fully introduced myself to Beirut's much ravaged streets and also to have found a series of streets that lead out of the city and won't cause Janina and Annia too much terror.  It wasn't so easy to find an alternative to the highway, as Beirut is nestled up against the Mediterraen Sea with the mountains right behind and along the coastline for most of Lebanon's 140-mile border with the sea, limiting the number of roadways.


I knew a coastal road hugged the highway beginning shortly before Jounieh, where the country's premier casino resides on a cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean fifteen miles north of Beirut, but the maps I was consulting didn't show a clear way to reach it other than on the highway. But by biking through the port and then on a sidewalk along the highway for spell, I was led to a series of roads that will connect with the highway we want.  It won't be the most blissful of cycling, but there isn't much of that to be found in this car-packed city of few bicyclists.

Lebanon has the highest percentage of cars per capita in the world, largely due to its poor public transit system.  Most people resort to a car to get around, even though it takes for ever to get where one wants to go on the clogged, narrow streets, and then when one reaches their destination they spend almost as long to find a parking place.  People resort to any crevice they can find.  The law of anarchy that prevails in this land allows them to park anywhere.  It also allows them to ignore one-way signs and to slip through red lights and skateboard in supermarkets. But the Lebanese, despite their decades of unrest and war, have a compassionate side and don't recklessly endanger others in their flouting of the law.  When they proceed down those narrow one-way streets the wrong way, they do it with caution.  Of all the perils that one must endure here, speeding cars is not among them, maybe because it is virtually impossible to proceed at much more than a crawl.  Annia, who lived in New York for years and got around on a bike, says she feels much more comfortable biking here and isn't subjected to any of the antagonism inflicted upon her there.

The bicyclist could be the king of the city here, able to wend through all the slow-moving vehicles, but few care about being a king. A story on cycling in Beirut in yesterday's paper quoted a bicycle advocate who started the first bicycle messenger company in Beirut a little over a year ago.  He estimated that there are no more than two hundred active cyclists in this metropolis of two million. As in any cycling community, there are a few who make it their cause to get people out of their cars and on bikes. Someone has stenciled bikes here and there on roadways and on walls.  Imitation stop signs have been mounted urging the masse to give up their car for the bike.


A walkway (corniche) that extends for several miles along the sea past the city's signature Pigeon Rocks and a Ferris wheel and a long public beach and several private beaches is about the lone cycle way in Beirut.  A marked bike lane had been attempted elsewhere, but it quickly became filled with parked cars. Sanayeh, the only significant park in the city, other than the Pine Forest, which is only open on Saturdays, has a quarter mile cycle path around its perimeter, not much good for anyone other than a novice. Sanayeh is near Annia's apartment in Hamra.  Though it doesn't even fill a square block, it does offer a welcome refuge from all the bustle.  It is surrounded by a wall and has just one guarded entrance. It's guards don't carry weapons, as do many others outside of businesses and government offices.

Although there aren't any of those rental bikes in racks that have become ubiquitous in major cities all over the world, several outlets rent bikes.  Beirut By Bike has grown from one shop with sixty rental bikes in 2001 to four shops with 2,000 bikes. Janina was able to easily rent a quality aluminum bike for our two-week stay at a bargain $100 off-season rate.

Even though the sultry weather has limited our biking, it hasn't kept us from walking all over the city.  Even more than a cyclist, Annia is an ardent pedestrian. As the New Year was ushered in, she led us on an hour-long hike across the city from a New Year's Eve Sri Lankan feast back to her apartment down narrow streets without any lights.  Though there may be an air of tension in the city with Syrian refugees pouring into the country and the conflict across the border and heightened unrest in the Middle East, thievery, or at least petty thievery, is not a concern.  The biggest thieves are the government and the mafia.  

Lebanon is presently without a president or any strong government.  Mob lords take cuts on everything.   Electricity goes off for three hours every day.  Those who can afford it have generators that kick in during those three hours.  One has to pay the neighborhood mob for the privilege of having a generator.  As someone told us, "We pay double for everything, one fee to the legitimate supplier and then another to the mob for allowing it to go through."

A security guard in the park asked Janina and I how we liked Lebanon.  We told her we have very much enjoyed our stay with Annia and all she has introduced us to, from the architectural marvels in our wanderings to the wide variety of delicious foods, which is one of her areas of expertise, as she wrote about In her war correspondent memoir "Taste of Honey."  And we have especially enjoyed the many friendly people we have met, beginning with a trio at the Frankfurt airport who were on our flight from Chicago that was delayed by Chicago's first storm of the winter causing us to miss our connecting flying to Beirut.  They were the only other three going on to Lebanon, which we had to do via London. Our extra twelve hours of travel was made worthwhile by the several hours we spent with them giving us a preview of the genuine cordiality of the Lebanese.  

This woman in the park was no different.  She too spoke with warmth and sincerity, as if we were long-time friends.  She was happy to hear that we liked her country, as she made the choice to live here after spending fifteen years in the US.  She returned to her homeland after her three sons had grown up and all went to live in different places.  But she was frank when she asked us, "Do you realize how bad we have it here," and went on to tell us of all the hardships the Lebanese must endure. Among those is staying warm in the winter. Few buildings have central heating.  Everyone must make do with space heaters, as does Annia.  When the temperture plunges, as it did a couple nights ago when snow turned up on the surrounding mountains, all the space heaters go on, and off goes the electricity.  One New Year's Eve she celebrated as bombs were falling on the city.  Many of the damaged buildings still remain.


Another security guard, who only just met the woman, joined the conversation and shared his chagrin with the travails they must endure.  He was astounded that she had returned to Lebanon and hadn't stayed in the US.  Her only explanation was, "This is home."

Friday, December 25, 2015

Rebecca Rusch--The Queen of Pain

There is no crown atop the head of Rebecca Rusch on the cover of her book "Rusch to Glory" signifying her as the "Queen of Pain," as she was anointed by "Adventure Racing" magazine, and as her publisher VeloPress identifies her in its ads for the book it regularly places in "Velo" magazine, its sister publication.  It's not a title that her modesty allows her to accept.  Even though she has won world championships in three different disciplines--adventure racing, mountain biking and cross country skiing--she maintains a strong humility and doesn't consider herself a queen of anything.  She regularly mentions her vulnerable side, even writing, "I still experience fear almost daily."  As impressive as a crown might be, even more so for her are the world champion rings on the cuff of the jersey she's wearing on the book's cover.

She managed to keep "Queen of Pain" off the cover of her book, but not the somewhat trite phrase "pain cave" on the back cover.  Pain had to be there some where, as overcoming the pain that all-out exertion inflicts upon endurance athletes figures prominently in her narrative.  It's a wonder she wasn't featured in the November "Why we love to suffer" issue of "Velo."  She writes, "You have to be willing to suffer...My biggest advantage is that I know how to suffer and persevere...I break down and feel pain like everyone else, but I just don't quit."  Despite the abundance of pain, she holds off addressing the "Queen of Pain" issue until halfway through her book, a title she balked at, but is willing to go along with to please her sponsors and supporters.

Her relationship with pain began when she ran cross country for her high school in Downers Grove outside of Chicago.  One of the defining moments of her life came when she quit a race in her senior year "to stop the pain," not from an injury, but from her struggles to keep up with the leaders.  It left such a bitter aftertaste that she never wanted to quit a race again. Even though she developed into a world champion, she was no prodigy.  She briefly competed for her college, the University of Illinois, but without encouragement or distinction, so left the team.

After college she was drawn to rock climbing, which introduced her to the world of adventurers.  That led to her being invited to join a team for the blossoming sport of adventure racing--navigating wildernesses for several days, sometimes having to repel down mountains and paddle down rivers. The four or five person teams required one female. She soon distinguished herself enough to put together a team of all women and one guy, upending the notion that women were "mandatory equipment."  Her first team competing in a race in Morocco was a disaster with both her female teammates reduced to crying fits before quitting.  She referred to their performance as a "shit show." But the next team she put together finished fourth in a race in Patagonia, winning the respect and accolades of all.

Her never-die spirit has served her well in all her endeavors, keeping her going during an 18-day paddle on a board through the Grand Canyon with two other women, a feat that had never been attempted before nor since, and on a several day first ascent of El Capitan.  Any one of her remarkable adventures and competitions, not the least of which was spending a year rebuilding a truck, could have filled an entire book.  The several pages she devotes to each is hardly enough.  She doesn't even have space to write about her skiing exploits other than an off-handed mention that among her world titles was one as a masters cross country skier.

The second half of her book is mostly devoted to her mountain biking.  She didn't take up bike racing until the age of 38 when the sport of adventure racing faded away.  She wasn't ready to retire from competition, especially since she had a year left on her Red Bull sponsorship.  A friend suggested she try 24-hour mountain bike racing, since she was so adapt at dealing with sleep deprivation.  Even though she had done a fair amount of biking in adventure racing, she never cared for it.  She hated it more than any other sport she tried, and in fact hadn't ridden a bike in years when it was included in one of her first events.  She was always happy when an event didn't have a biking segment.

But her tenacity and ability to push herself to her limits was particularly suited to the biking.  She won the 24-hour national championship in her first year of competition and then the world championship later that year in 2007.  It wasn't until 2009 that she attempted the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, the highest profile mountain bike competition in the US, if not the world.  It was much shorter than what she was accustomed to and preferred, not much more than eight hours for the leaders.  The longer the race the better for her, but she won it at the age of forty, sharing the podium with Lance Armstrong, the men's winner. It was the first of four straight wins, the most by any woman.  The next year she set a course record and shared the podium with Levi Leipheimer.  She called it the most painful day she ever had on a bike, but also one of the most rewarding.  

Her string of Leadville victories came to an end in 2013 when she finished third.  She was proud of her effort, as she had trouble finding the motivation for the "extra one per cent it takes to go as fast as possible and really make yourself hurt on race day," after learning that a good friend of hers was killed in a biking accident in Ketchum, Idaho, her adopted home town.  Only her boy friend convinced her to race, rather than going home.  She finished the race in tears, not for finishing third, but for the loss of her friend and the joy of competing.

She mentions crying almost as much as suffering.  Sometimes they are linked and sometimes not.  She cries over a death that she witnessed of a fellow competitor in an adventure race.  She cries when she has to back off on a pitch on El Capitan, when her team has to pull out of a race, as she feels tendinitis coming on. She cries when she sees the banner with her name on it across the start line for a 100-mile race she put considerable effort into organizing to celebrate her favorite trails around Ketchum. In 2013.  She cries regularly during a competition in Vietnam, as her father had died there, shot down during the Vietnam War.  She cries when she sells the truck she had rebuilt and lived out of in her nomadic days of subsisting on ramen and tuna.  

Her body is covered with scars, but her favorite is the one on her left thigh from a grinder that continued spinning after she turned it off while working on the truck.  As with all her exploits, including her present work as a fire-fighter in Ketchum, she makes no big deal of engaging in activities generally considered to be in the male domain.  She does point out that women should not feel limited or confined, but she is not preachy.  Hers is an inspiring story for anyone.  The biggest surprise is that it wasn't put into book form until after her 2013 campaign.










Monday, December 14, 2015

A Biography of Bernard Hinault

After biographies on Tom Simpson, Fausto Coppi and Eddie Merckx, along with several other books on cycling, William Fotheringham tackles Bernard Himault in the simply named book "The Badger."  One might think it would have been the easiest of his books to write, since he'd been interviewing him for nearly twenty-five years ever since he began covering The Tour de France in 1990, including once at his home in 1993.  He had a further connection to Hinault, having raced himself in the early 1980s with a French club in the north of France near where Hinault grew up.  He had additional insight into Hinault having translated the autobiography of his nemesis Laurent Fignon, "We Were Young and Carefree," that had much commentary on Hinault.  But Fotheringham lamented on his acknowledgements page that writing the book wasn't all that easy, as "the stresses and strains mount" with each book.  I hope that doesn't mean this could be his last book, as they have all been worthy contributions to the writing on bike racing.

Fotheringham could have made the thrust of his book that Hinault was the greatest cyclist of all time, the honor that is generally bestowed upon Eddie Merckx, who he aggrandized  in "Half Man, Half Bike."  But instead of making any judgemental, Fotheringham chooses to give a straightforward biography with some additional commentary on the state of French cycling.  Hinault certainly is one of the all-time greats--one of only four to win The Tour de France five times along with Merckx, Jacques Anqutiil and Miguel Indurain.  He wasn't as voracious for wins as Merckx, but he was as ardent a competitor. Tour winner Lucien Van Impe, who raced against them both, said of Hinault, "I've never seen inner anger like his," which fueled his racing.  When he fully committed himself to winning a race, he generally did.  When he didn't win The Tour, he finished second (twice) or abandoned, which he did once when he was in the lead. Whenever he lined up in the two other Grand Tours, he won them--the Vuelta d'Espagne twice and  the Giro d'Italia three times--an incomparable record.  Only he and Alberto Contador have won all three Grand Tours more than once.

Hinault was such a steely competitor, Fotheringham couldn't find a single case of him being reduced to tears (whether in exaltation or disappointment), as he has in all the others he has written about.  Merckx was such an emotional sort he cried when he learned Santa Claus didn't exist.  One of the most legendary photos of Merckx is of him laying in bed in tears after his eviction from the Giro for testing positive for drugs.  Merckx would no doubt have been shedding tears if he had had to quit The Tour in the lead due to injury, as did Hinault in 1980 after having won it the previous two years, making him the youngest ever to have won it twice.  

Hinault left The Tour under cover of darkness just before the Pyrenees with a painful knee, avoiding the press, not because he was afraid that he would break down in tears, but because he feared he would turn violent, upset with the questions.  He has always been a man prone to strongly and defiantly asserting himself.  One of the photos most synonymous with Hinault is of him leading a rider's strike in his very first Tour in 1978, standing at the forefront of the peloton with his chin thrust forward.  He was one of the youngest riders in The Race, but already had a take-charge, take-no-prisoners mentality.  On another occasion he barreled headlong into striking workers barring the road and then started pummeling them with his fists.  He's hardly mellowed with age, once shoving an intruder off The Tour de France stage during the awards ceremony.

He had the audacity to win the final stage of the 1979 Tour in a breakaway, even though he had The Race all wrapped up, the first Tour winner to a pull off such a stunt since 1935, something that Merckx, The Cannibal, never accomplished.  Ordinarily, the Yellow Jersey concedes the glory of winning that final stage to someone else.

So it should have come as no surprise that Hinault wouldn't defer to Greg LeMond, his teammate, in the 1986 Tour, Hinault's last, even though he had promised he would help him win it after LeMond didn't challenge him in 1985 when Hinault struggled with an injury, as he held on to win his fifth Tour.
An entire book, "Slaying the Badger," was written about their rivalry in the 1986 Tour.  Fotheringham doesn't offer any new perspective or speculation on what Hinault's intent or motivation was, as he sticks to his by-the-numbers rendering of his life.  Most of his research comes from other books and the coverage of "L'Equipe," which he quotes over forty times, often citing the writer of the article.  Many are figures of renown and peers of Fotheringham, such as Jean-Marie LeBlanc, who went on to be the director of The Tour.  

Besides its superb analysis, "L'Equipe" is noted for it's headlines.  Among those he cites is "Now, let's love him."  It came in the 1984 Tour when he was overwhelmed by Fignon, finishing ten minutes behind him on L'Alpe d'Huez, showing his vulnerability for the first time.  Even though he was a four-time winner of The Tour at the time, the French had never fully embraced him.  He was too brash and arrogant and made the winning look too easy.  When he staggered on L'Alpe d'Huez and showed his human side, the public and the press felt a soft spot for him.  His team owner, who happened to be rooming with him, revealed that Hinault acknowledged he had reached his crisis point and was close to tears.

Fotheringham doesn't quote many of his teammates, as did Richard Moore in his Slaying book.  Moore found an array of riders who raved about what a great teammate he could be, despite his treatment of LeMond.  Fotheringham does reveal that he was a rare team leader who would wash his own clothes.

Throughout his career there haven't been enough such glimpses of his humanity to endear him to the French. He is certainly held in high esteem, having been inducted into the French Legion of Honor in  January of1986 even before he retired, but he is not revered, as are many lesser riders.  In my twelve years of riding The Tour route I have never seen a banner or road graffiti honoring him, as are common for Raymond Poulidor and Laurent Jalabert, two other retired champion French cyclists who are part of The Tour entourage and remain fan favorites.  The French prefer those who struggle and show strain.  Hinault won in a ferocious, domineering manner.  He never complained or waxed on about the suffering inherent to the sport, as many riders glorify.  He did acknowledge, "It can be painful, but it hurts because I want to hurt myself.  If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't."

The final chapter of the book is devoted to the present state of French cycling and the possibility of the French breaking their dry spell of thirty years since their last Tour win--Hinault in 1985.  Fotheringham points out that 1984 was the last year the French dominated their national Tour.  They won the bulk of the stages. Seven of the seventeen teams were French and 54 of the 170 starters.  It was shortly after Hinalt's retirement that high octane drugs took over the sport, which the French riders were less inclined to resort to than others, thus spelling their doom.  He offers a chart in his appendix of how few French riders and riders on French teams have tested positive since the 1998 Featina Affair.  With drug-taking on the wane both Fotheringham and Hinault believe the French can reassert themselves.  But to do it they must be aggressive and abide by the Law of Hinault--"Attack."




Monday, November 23, 2015

School of the Americas Protest


Over a thousand cross-bearing protesters marched solemnly outside the main entrance to Fort Benning on Sunday hoping to close the school on the base that trains officers from Latin America in the military arts.  They have been at it for twenty-six years and have accomplished little more than the renaming of the school in 2001 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.   It was the smallest turnout in years, down from its peak of over 30,000, and will be the last, as the movement will refocus its energy on immigration issues and gather somewhere along the Mexican border next year.




The waning interest didn't put a dent though in the fervor of those who participated in this annual three-day event.  The day before eleven protesters were arrested outside the Stewart Detention Center thirty miles away that houses 1,700 prisoners on immigration issues.  Workshops were held all afternoon and into the night Friday and Saturday at the Columbus Convention Center.  It was no easy task to decide which to attend with as many as ten convening at the same time on a wide range of issues--the fight for fair food, increasing the minimum wage to $15, gold mining in Guatamala, Mexico's crimes against humanity and US complicity, the victims of right-wing violence in Venezuela, torture, the left and US elections, campesinos in Colombia.

Tables lined the hallways of the center dispensing materials from a wide assortment of organizations and causes and vendors--the Progressive Catholic Coalition, the Baptist Peace Fellowship, the Deported Veterans Support Group...  One could hardly walk a few feet without being accosted by someone with a petition to sign. 

Bernie Sanders was constantly invoked and Donald Trump constantly reviled.  During the Saturday night Rythms of Resistance concert one of the singers told of someone going to a bookstore and asking for Trump's book on immigration, though he didn't know the title.  The bookseller was offended by such a preposterous request and told the guy, "Get the fuck out of here!" He responded, "That's it.  Do you have it in paperback?"  The concert also featured a short rambunctious speech by Jill Stein, running for the presidency on the Green Party ticket, as she did in 2012.

I was fortunate to be joined by fellow cyclists Dwight (in orange) and Bob (in yellow) so we could split up and attend different workshops.  Dwight had driven over from Springfield, Missouri, where he had been teaching at Missouri State University. He had spent a week in Florida testing his new hip of five months on a mini-bike tour.  He was thrilled to have culminated it with a wind-assisted, 115-mile day, his longest ever.  Bob drove down from Hammond, Indiana.  He is an equally ardent cyclist and has biked all over the world.  His next trip will be to Vietnam in January.  Both Dwight and I had biked there and had plenty to recommend.


Bob also had recommendations for us, particularly several travel websites he uses to find cheap air fares--kayak, flightdeals and travelzoo.  He has been retired from the railroad business for nearly a decade and is free to take advantage of a bargain flight whenever he sees one.  A quick look revealed round-trip offers to Moscow for $534 and Uraquay for $238.  Dwight and I had to restrain ourselves from booking something then and there.  

Bob is ever ready to hop a flight.  He has led an extraordinarily full life of adventure.  He's run marathons all over the country, including Chicago fifteen times and Las Vegas twice.  He's skied all the major western resorts and would have been skiing Whistler outside of Vancouver over Thanksgiving if he had found a cheap flight. He also had a stint as a wind-surfer until he broke his collarbone in Argentina on a bike trip nearly ten years ago that led to his retirement from the railroad after thirty-five years.  The break didn't adequately heal, so he has been advised by two specialists not to risk the strain of holding back the sail on a wind surfboard.  Vietnam offers exceptional windsurfing.  He's going to have a hard time resisting giving it a try.

Bob kept me regaled with his life of adventure on our eleven-hour drive back to Chicago.  He had only briefly met Dwight once before, so had the treat of hearing his many tales during our time together in Columbus.  Being able to hang out with two such vibrant characters was a fine reward for my two-week thousand-mile ride down from Chicago.  And so was hanging out with all the deeply committed, cause-oriented folk who had congregated in Columbus for the weekend.  Many were trying to enlist others for their particular cause.  

A young man, who was attracted by my loaded bike, hoped I would be interested in joining him next summer biking around Michigan trying to halt a pipeline.  He had ridden his bike from Detroit to New York this summer for a climate change conference as a protest against fossil fuels ruining the planet.  He had hoped I had ridden my bike to Columbus with a similar intent.  He couldn't believe that I didn't have a harangue, like so many others here, about something that irked me.  I had a similar experience at the Sundance Film Festival one year when a script scout insisted that I must have a script for sale and accused me of holding out on him.  Like film festivals, this gathering was a most energizing experience and gave a window on many important subjects around the world.  It will be hard not to bike down to the Mexican border next November for its next incarnation.