Monday, January 2, 2017

"Iron Mac--The Legend of Roughhouse Cyclist Reggie McNamara" by Andrew Homan

Andrew Homan presents the case that Six-Day racer Reggie McNamara was one of the greatest cyclists of all I time.  During his thirty-year career, starting before the first World War, he won the Madison Square Garden Six-Day, Super Bowl of Six-Days, seven times, one less than the record held by Alfred Goullets and Franco Giorgetti, and in his peak years earned more than Babe Ruth, who attended his races and from time to time fired the starting pistol to start a race.

McNamara was recruited to America in 1913 from Australia at the age of 25 after winning the Sydney Six-Day and raced until 1936 here and in Europe winning more Six-Days than any American--seventeen according to Homan, though Wikipedia and other sources offer a complete list that totals out at nineteen. Two of his victories came in Europe at Paris and Berlin.  He ranks thirty-third on the all-time list of Six-Day winners.

Homan had previously written a biography of Bobby Walthour Sr., a contemporary of McNamara, so he has gathered some expertise on the subject of Six-Day racing.  He was greatly handicapped, though,  by not having much material to work with other than newspaper articles, McNamara's scrapbook and the hazy memories of his grandchildren. 

He continually resorts to "it is unknown" on crucial incidents in McNamara's personal life, such as his falling into alcoholism during a return to Australia to visit family in 1930 after a ten-year absence.  Nor can he determine whether McNamara knew his girl friend was pregnant when he went to Europe early in 1914 and whether he was surprised when she showed up in France several months later with their one-month old daughter, or even if she had come on her own or if McNamara had sent her a ticket. They married two months later in New York.  They had another daughter, but the marriage eventually fell apart.  He had met his wife in the hospital where he was recovering from a deep gash to his leg that he suffered in his first practice session on the velodrome in Newark, New Jersey shortly after his arrival in America.  But he was back racing much faster than anyone imagined possible, soon earning himself the nickname "Iron Mac."

As all the SIx-Day racers of the time, he had countless injuries, including concussions and sliver  wounds from the wooden tracks and seventeen broken collarbones. By the time he retired at nearly fifty, he was covered with scars and to some was a horror to look at.  In the early days of the sport teams of two raced for 142 hours straight on high-banked velodromes.  That was soon deemed inhuman and was reduced to racing just twelve hours a day for six days straight, still a most demanding test.  Drugs were rampant in the sport to fuel the racers, but Homan writes that not much is known about McNamara's drug use nor even about his training.  He does quote a "New Yorker" article from 1933 that stated he tried to get eleven hours of sleep whenever possible.

Homan contradicts Mark Johnson's thesis in his recent book on doping in sports, "Spitting in the Soup," that doping was accepted and that it was considered being professional in the early decades of the sport. In 1921 New York tried to pass an ordinance for "better" enforcement of the "unlawful use of drugs" at the New York Six-Day.  The New York promoter didn't want his race tainted by drugs and flatly denied his racers used drugs.  Anyone with sense knew that not to be the case.

McNamara's first Six-Day win in America came in Chicago in 1916, where he won four times more in a total of twenty-six appearances.  He also won there in 1926, his best year of racing, when he won four Six-Days--New York twice and also Boston.  The following year after the Milan Six-Day in Italy he had an audience with the Pope in Rome and also met Mussolini, who was an ardent fan and chided McNamara for not winning in New York one year when his partner was an Italian.

McNamara wrote about that race in an essay entitled "The Race Goes to the Swift...Sometimes," that Homan discovered without determining whether it had ever been published.  He took the title from his explanation to Mussolini for why he didn't win that Six-Day.  The large New York colony of Italian immigrants booed him mercilessly for that failure.  The book includes the entire seven page essay.

After McNamara's first win in New York in 1918 he signed a contract to appear at various theaters around the city to ride on the stage on training rollers.  That was easy money compared to the racing.  It was exciting to read about an era in American sports when cycling was widely popular and its stars were prominent figures.   Police often had to be called to restrain crowds trying to get into venues as the races reached their climax.  The New York Six-Day had greater stature than The Tour de France. Tour winners Lucien Petit-Breton (1907/1908), Francois Faber (1909) and Octave Lapize (1910)  all came to New York to race in its December Six-Day.  It was so popular that in 1920 New York began holding a spring race as well.  When the new Garden opened in 1925 its first event was a Six-Day.

By 1933 there were fifteen Six-Days held in America.  Cycling in America was reaching its climax that year with a 4,300 mile race from Montreal to Chicago and back, longer than The Tour de France, except that it had to be cut short when the promoter didn't have the $1,500 that US customs officials demanded for the race to enter the US at Detroit.  McNamara was one of the featured riders, but crashed out on the first stage.  If only that race had established itself, the history of cycling might have been just as glorious on this side of the Atlantic as on the other.

That aborted race would be a good subject for Homan's next book.  This University of Nebraska publication was too short at barely two hundred pages along with twelve pages of footnotes, a twelve-page index and twenty-four pages of photographs.

As for the "tear index," there were six incidental mentions, one more than in Homan's previous book.  Some might have been literary license--a "tearful reunion" when McNamara meets his wife in Le Havre upon her arrival in Fance in 1914, at the New York railroad station in 1930 McNamara "brushed tears away from his eyes" in response to the large crowd that gathered to see him begin the first leg of his trip to Australia via train to San Francisco, and "a tear discernible here and there" when McNamara abandons one of his last New York Six-Days.  

More substantial tears came from the great Major Taylor  when he was greeted by masses of fans upon his arrival in Australia in 1902.  Taylor said, "I could not restrain my tears."  Homan could not find any evidence that a young McNamara saw him race in Australia, or even if he was an inspiration.  Homan attributes tears to Gaetano Belloni in the 1929 Giro d'Italia after he hit and killed a young boy on its eighth stage, causing him to abandon.  He also cites tears from a trainer, Charlie Meyer, during a New York Six-Day.  He was hit and knocked unconscious by McNamara.  Tears flowed when he was revived in fear that his carelessness of being on the track causing McNamara to crash might have knocked him out of the race.

These were more substantial tears compared to those in Homan's Bobby Walthour Sr. biography.  Two of the five instances in that book were of his young daughter and two of his wife.  The only manly tears came  from the French rider Paul Guignard after a crash that led to the death of a fellow rider.  That book covered a slightly earlier and more dangerous era just slightly overlapping McNamara's time, as there was more motor-pacing.  Homan mentions no deaths in this book, just quite a few broken collarbones.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Spitting in the Soup" by Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson has written about cycling for years, mostly for magazines, but also the book "The Argyle Armanada" about the 2011 season of the Garmin cycling team.  With all his cycling expertise I was eager to read his latest book, "Spitting in the Soup" on doping in sports, knowing it had to be laced with cycling lore.  Cycling certainly does get plenty of attention, but it is far from the focus of the book.  Rather, that goes to the Olympics, though there is, of course, considerable overlap between the two.

I did learn a few things about cycling, the most startling of which was that Jacques Anqutil was blood doping back in the '60s while winning The Tour de France five times, or at least according to Eddie Borysewicz, coach of the 1984 US Olympic team that caused a national uproar when it was revealed by "Rolling Stone" magazine that it had blood doped. Johnson talked with the 77-year old dynamo and said, "his memory of the chain of events leading to blood doping is still clear."  Blood doping was not against the rules at the time, but still a shady practice that was not widely practiced.  Anquetil had always been open about his use of drugs, but I had never come across this admission.  When I read this, I immediately emailed my friend the English cycling authority Les Woodland who has written over twenty books on racing, including one that Johnson footnotes, "The Crooked Path to Victory, Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing," to ask if he knew of this.  He did not and doubted its veracity.  

Borysewicz told Johnson he met Anquetil in the early '70s when he was visiting Jean Stablinski, another Tour veteran.  He asked Anquetil how he sustained himself through the long racing season.  He told him he always had two blood transfusions, one of which was before The Tour.  It is shocking that Borysewicz didn't reveal this as part of his defense when "Rolling Stone" broke the story.  Equally shocking is that if Borysewicz thought blood-doping was a means to success, why did he never introduce it to the Americans he was coaching, including Greg LeMond, until just before the Olympics, when there was an uncertainty of how the racers would react to the transfusions.  And most shocking of all is that Johnson didn't pursue any of these issues.  

But so it goes throughout this sprawling, rambling, unfocused discussion of doping that veers off onto  tangents on the Puma/Adidas wars and Mormonism and the making of the Wizard of Oz (16-year old Judy Garland was doped!) and many others, bloating this 400-page book that would have been even fatter had not his publisher cut several chapters. Johnson can't seem to make up his mind what his point is or where he is going.  One of his theses is that drugs were once accepted and that it was the professional thing to do, but then the time came that drugs became a scourge and those who resorted to them were considered pariahs.  That's not entirely true.  Anquetil was a rare exception to be open about it.  When the Pelissier brothers revealed all the drug taking they did to the highly-respected investigative reporter Alfred Londres after they dropped out of the 1924 Tour de France it was a huge story.  That doesn't fit in with Johnson's thesis,  so he ignores it.  

I had anticipated Jonathan Vaughters, head of the Garmin cycling team who made racing clean the foremost plank of his team, to be a prime source for this book. He knew him well from writing a book about his team.  Vaughters is one of the smartest minds in the sport and raced during the EPO era and has spoken most articulately on his own dabbling with drugs, but he receives just one bare mention as someone  who continually fretted about the drug issue.  Vaughters thoroughly researched any drug before he used it, their safety and their effectiveness. He knew what a difference they could make. He could have enlightened Johnson on many issues.  Vaughters set the record for the fastest time up Mont Ventoux until it was broken by Iban Mayo, but said it wasn't something he was proud of because it was drug-assisted.  When Johnson came to Chicago's Garmin store in April of 2012 on his "Argyle Armada" book tour, I asked him if he had ever discussed the issue with Vaughters.  It was a surprise he hadn't.

Rather than going into the trenches and asking riders about their quandaries and their reactions to drugs, he relies on academics for most of his information. His sources include Arthur Mandell, a psychiatrist who worked with the San Diego Chargers in the early '70s and wrote a book about it, "The Nightmare Season," Christopher Thompson, a professor at Ball State whose book "The Tour de France: A Cultural History" is footnoted sixteen times, and Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State who is a steroid expert.   

He turns to the Spanish scholar Bernat López as his authority on EPO.  He maintains that it is a myth that the rash of young cyclists dying in their sleep in the early '90s was related to EPO. He says it was media hype to discourage riders from taking the drug.  He could have asked Bjarne Riis, who was known as "Mr Sixty Per Cent" for pushing the perceived hematocrit safe limit of fifty per cent, about how he decided how much to take and how the new drug was perceived by cyclists.  EPO would thicken the blood and could clog the heart.  He cites the famous quote of the Italian doctor Michele Ferari, who was Lance Armstrong's guru, comparing EPO to orange juice--"EPO is not dangerous. It's abuse is.  It is also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice."   That is an acknowledgement that it is a drug to be wary of, like all the drugs he traces in this book from amphetimimes to steroids.

He cites Chicagoan Danny Van Haute as an early blood doper.  His father-in-law was a physician, so he had him perform the procedure preceding the trials for the 1984 Olympic team.  He was flying faster than he ever had, qualifying for the pursuit team, turning a lot of heads.  Van Haute has been the director of the domestic Jelly Bean team for years, the team that Phil Gaimon mentioned in his book "Pro Cycling on Ten Dollars a Day" whose doctor hinted to him that he had symptoms of asthm and that he could prescribe the popular medication among cyclists that would make him ride faster.  Gaimon would have none of it.   Van Haute would have made another good source for Johnson, but he too is ignored, as is the asthma issue.  The Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who dominated the Giro d'Italia for several years, was suspended in 2007 for using excessive amounts of asthma medication. Rather than writing about the iffy morality of the many cyclists who claim to have asthma, Johnson writes about the similar thinking of the growing number of high school students who get doctors to diagnose them with ADHD, which allows them extra time when they take their SAT tests, enabling them to get higher scores and gain scholarships and entry to better colleges. 

The longest of the book's twenty chapters is on the use of steroids in baseball and the national fascination with the McGuire/Sosa home run battle in 1998 to break Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a season.  This embrace's Johnson's argument that spectators are complicit in the athlete's drug-taking.  They had no issue with the bulked-up athletes for the entertainment they provided.  Johnson doesn't know baseball as well as he knows cycling, as he referred to the early baseball commissioner Ford Frick as "George Frick."  And he makes the outrageous claim that in 1996 Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles hit a lead-off home run in twelve straight games.  It was amazing enough that he did it in four straight games, as no one has ever done it more than twice.  

Johnson's cycling commentary isn't without its mistakes as well.  He wrote that Armstrong went on to be world champion after his recovery from "near-certain death" on page 351.  He won the World Championship in Oslo in 1993.  He was diagnosed with cancer after the 1996 Olympics.  How his editors at Velo Press would let this slip by is unimaginable.  It nearly discredits the entire book.  Johnson also wrote that the French three-time winner of The Tour de France, Louisson Bobet, went on to become a journalist.  It was his brother Jean who became a journalist.  A quote from his book "Tomorrow We Ride" adorns a wall in Armstrong's  bike shop in Austin.  Johnson is also a year off on the year the head of the UCI Hein Verbruggen let Armstrong back-date his cortisone excemption in The Tour, writing that it happened in 2000, when it was the year before in Armstrong's first Tour win.

One myth that I was happy to have Johnson dispel is that the extreme demands of The Tour de France don't necessarily shorten a rider's life.  The Scottish 1984 winner of the King of the Moutains Jersey Robert Millar maintains that one's life is shortened by one year for every Tour one rides.  I often feel that way myself after riding The Tour route with my loaded touring bike, as I have done the past thirteen years. Johnson cites a French study that found the 786 French riders who raced The Tour from 1947 to 2012 had a 41 per cent lower mortality rate than the overall French population.  

Johnson points out that is counter to the theory that all the drug-taking of the riders is detrimental to their health.  At times it seems as if Johnson is defending, or at least condoning, the use of drugs.  But he makes no suggestion, as some do, that there should be no restrictions.  In his epilogue he concludes that drug taking should be restrained, if only to save the young.  Even now ten percent of high school athletes jeopardize their health taking steroids and growth hormones.  It would be much worse if it were made socially acceptable.

Johnson's bio on the book jacket identifies him as a category two racer.  He avoids any mention of his time on the bike or anything personal other than that his wife and two sons "have had to listen to him rattle on for years about society's dual love affair with pharmaceuticals and sports." "Rattling on," for better or worse, is a good description for the book he wrote about the subject.  


Saturday, December 3, 2016

"The World of Cycling According to G"

G is Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas.  He was a key member of Team Sky on each of Chris Froome's three Tour de France wins and was a teammate of Bradley Wiggins on the four-man British pursuit squad that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. He rode his first Tour de France in 2007 as a 21-year old and has only missed three since, but one of those was Wiggins' Tour win in 2012, as he was preparing for the Olympics, where he won another team pursuit gold medal.

These career highlights could easily have been the focus of his book "The World of Cycling According to G," but they receive scant mention.  Instead, Thomas concentrates on the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes life of a professiomal cyclist. It is narrated in an anecdotal, conversational style broken into short chapters, some devoted to people (Froome, Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, David Brailsford), some to places (Tenerife), and others to miscellania (how it is to return home after weeks away) and sundry aspects of the sport (Pain).

In this refreshingly casual "memoir" most of his insightful minor detail is devoted to life off the bike rather than in the peloton.  He reveals that so much of a professional cyclist's life is spent on the road in strange hotel rooms, he has developed the skill of finding light switches.  On those rare visits home after prolonged spells of hanging out with the guys, one must be wary of inadvertently calling a girl friend "mate."  It may imply a measure of intimacy among his teammates, but not for a loved one,"and they will let you know it," Thomas warns.

Food is a common theme.  He's not allowed too much of it, so it is always on his mind. Shedding weight and then keeping it off is a key component of his job.  He complains that he is always hungry, that he must eat like a ballerina.  He calls Team Sky's legendary two-week training camp in the Canary Islands staying at a barebones hotel without internet on the top of a mountain "a fortnight of pain and starvation."

Three of the four mentions of tears in the book relate to food--all of pleasure over a treat when he's allowed to break his monkish diet.  One is a simple jam tart, another is piadina.  The non-food instance of tears is Cavenish sobbing in his hotel room atop the Stelvio Pass after losing the points jersey in the Giro. Thomas never admits to tears of exhilaration over a great result.  After one of Froome's Tour wins, he was thrilled to be able to gorge on pizza at the team bus on the Champs Elysees.  Another of his fond memories was his pre-race dinner as a junior when his mum would go to a Chinese takeaway to fuel him up on barbecue ribs and egg-fried rice.  "What I'd give to be able to eat like that now," he laments.  The weeks preceding Christmas before training becomes one's sole focus is a reprieve from "small portions."

Food is the one subject where he divulges some of the secrets of the Team Sky regime.  They prefer rice to pasta, as it has less gluten and clears the stomach more easily.  The team also favors cherry juice, because of its high levels of antioxidants, but not just any cherry juice.  It prefers juice from Montmorency cherries, as they are slightly superior to others.  When it comes to yoghurt, Greek is the team's choice, as it is more natural and less processed. The team's protein drink has a special ingredient to clean one out, but Thomas doesn't reveal what it is, just that it can lead to issues with smells.  Nor does he divulge when in the day it is best to eat protein for your body to most effectively absorb it, just that Sky believes there is such a time.

Avoiding airline food is among the tips Thomas offers, as it is too salty and doesn't have enough nutrients.  He also advises to cut back on coffee intake in the weeks before a stage race so one's body will get a bigger kick from it when used during the race.  And he warns not to take a caffeine gel closer than twenty-five kilometers from a stage finish, otherwise it won't take effect until one's back on the team bus.  

He gives a detailed description of the luxury of the team bus, with individualized seats for all the riders, a ready stock of fresh rice, WIFI, a shower and a pair of washing machines, one for dark clothes and one for whites, that run twenty-four hours a day during a stage race.

There's not much gossip in the book.  He doesn't take sides in the Froome-Wiggins rivalry, avoiding the controversy of Wiggins being left off Team Sky for the 2013 Tour that began in Yorkshire, despite being the defending champion.  Wiggins is only one of three Tour champions never to ride it after winning it. The book has no index, so I had to make one of my own.  Froome is mentioned on twenty-one pages plus the six-page chapter devoted to him.  Wiggins appears on four more pages, but his chapter is one page less than Froome's.  Froome comes out ahead in the number of photos--three to two.  Thomas has nothing negative to say about Wiggins, but he does take a jab at Froome, saying he's from South Africa, then admitting that he knows he's from Kenya, but it's his retaliation for Froome referring to him as being English in his autobiography.
  
Thomas is proudly Welsh.  He compares the loudness of the Italian fans to the Welsh fans at Millennium Stadium when the Welsh team runs out to face England.  That was one of many rugby, soccer and cricket metaphors that I, as an American not so well versed in those sports, had to guess at.  They may have slightly hindered my understanding of what he was getting at, but they lent the book a little extra charm allowing Thomas to remain true to his voice and not condescend to a wider audience.  

I wouldn't want an American version sanitized of such expressions as "Crashing is as unavoidable to a cyclist as losing your wicket is to a Test batsman."  Nor would I want footnotes to explain "tackles that Welsh centre Jamie Roberts routinely soaks up," or "wind gust as effective as a Sam Warburton tackle," or Wiggins comparing his move from Garmin to Team Sky as like "going from Wigon to Manchester United." It was nice to have the the book peppered with "bloke," "chap," "telly," "arse," "sod it," "punters," "bollockings," "properly chuffed," "faffing about," and "too poosh to push."  They all added a measure of authenticity to the book and made me feel like I was getting a straight story.  

At thirty, a year younger than Froome, Thomas still has a few years in him at the top of the sport.  After nearly finishing on the podium in the 2015 Tour, there is still a possibility for that to happen.  Thomas doesn't bemoan his bad luck of suffering a crash in that Tour on Stage Sixteen that knocked him out of contention.  He only mentions that the crash was caused by the French rider Warren Barguil, who got the line wrong in the corner on a descent and blindsiding him.  But rather than taking him to task, he expresses gratitude for the fans who helped pull him back up from the ravine he had fallen into.  He seems to be a man without grudges or guile.  Such is the positive tone throughout the book.  He doesn't deny how hard racing is and all the sacrifices he must make and the suffering he must endure, but in the end he feels lucky, as all should, any time he can ride his bike.  

"Even when cycling is your job," he writes, "that sense of release when you climb on your bike and pedal away from the mundane real world is still the same...It wipes the mental slate clean. Two wheels and a triangle of metal to some, an escape chute to all us riders."  Cheers to that!


Friday, November 18, 2016

"Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier"

Jon Day loved being a bicycle messenger, "every moment of it." After being on the job for a year, he began to wonder if he should make it his life's work rather than just an interlude between university courses while he tried to decide what to do with his life.  He stuck with it for another two years, finally extricating himself to become a lecturer at Kings College in London and free lance writer for the London Review of Books and others.  

He recounts his stint as a messenger, while also pondering the might and majesty of the bicycle, in "Cyclogeopraphy," a seven-part essay, published as a pocket-sized 160-page book.  He doesn't dwell much on his addiction and his dilemma of whether to give himself up to it or to do something more socially acceptable.  Instead, he mostly meditates on his privileged position of being able to roam the city on his bike and to have his thought focused on others who have placed the bicycle on an altar--H. G. Wells, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Paul Fernel, Tim Krabbe, Vittorio De Sica and others.  He even searches out Fernel for a chat when he's in London and drops in on noted author Iain Sinclair, who specializes in psychogeography and is an authority on gadding about.

He never uses the word addict, but he portrays many of its symptoms.  The job became all-consuming, so much so that he began to feel better on the bike than off it.  He doesn't quite reach the level of addiction that I did during my eighteen years of bliss as a messenger, of dreading those words from my dispatcher at the end of the day that there was no more work and to go home.  I never wanted my day of rocketing around the city delivering parcels to end, not out of greed, as I was paid by the delivery, but out of the craving to keep the endorphins surging that had me in a state of peak exhilaration.

While Day feared becoming a decrepit older messenger, I looked forward to being a fifty-year old messenger doing as many deliveries a day as my age, just as golfers who cross into their seventies anticipate the challenge of shooting their age.  And then when I reached fifty, I looked forward to turning sixty and still being at it.  Unfortunately, I fell a few years short of that second goal, as the industry dwindled to the point that I could no longer continue to come and go as I pleased.  One year when I returned from another several month absence of biking around Europe and following The Tour de France, I was told I would have to commit to being full-time and not going off for months at a time when the whim struck.

In its heyday the company I worked for my entire career employed sixty messengers and four dispatchers (known as controllers on the other side of the pond).  It was down to less than a dozen riders with just one guy dispensing orders.  I had to make a decision of whether to make the messengering my entire life, as was surely tempting, or continue to maintain my free and footloose existence.  I had been diligent about saving and investing.  I had reached the point where I was doing the work because it was fun, not because I needed to pile up more dollars, so I made the hard decision to bow out and to not take work that others needed more than I.

Not every messenger appreciates the job as much as Day and I did.  For many it is a last resort, a refuge for "the forgotten, people who have fallen through the cracks of the system."   It is akin to "running away to sea, or joining the circus."  Being on a lower rung of the societal order may be an act of rebellion for some, but it can also be a heavy burden.  It is a dangerous job, but Day's experience in London was similar to mine in Chicago--we both knew more messengers who committed suicide than who were killed on the job.

Day doesn't say in so many words that he misses the job, just that he still dreams about it.  He's not old enough, just 32, to call it the best job he ever had, as many do, including the New York Bike Snob, but it's not likely that he could say of any other job he's had, that he has loved every moment of it.  We can thank him for taking the time to write this ode, but it is hard not to feel a little sad that he couldn't remain true to his love.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Shut Up Legs," by Jens Voigt

"Shut up legs" was the motto of long-breakaway specialist Jens Voigt, so it was only natural that he made it the title of his memoirs recounting his cycling career, which came to an end in 2014 when he set the hour record.  He devotes two chapters to the achievement, one more than to his wife and six children, but doesn't mention that his record was broken multiple times within months.

So it is with this standard autobiography that doesn't scratch much beyond the surface. On the second to the last page of the book, before the acknowledgements and all that, he writes that along with his 65 victories, including three stage wins of The Tour de France and two stints in Yellow, he broke his collarbone three times, but not once does he mention them in the previous 225 pages.  

He doesn't neglect, however, his horrific crash on a descent in the 2009 Tour that left him unconscious, calling it one of his most painful memories. Along with all the grisly details, he adds that Lance Armstrong was the only cyclist, other than his teammates, to send him a message of concern while he was in the hospital.  Earlier he mentioned that Lance twice tried to recruit him to his team, but he in no way defends his doping or character, other than to say, "He's not the devil."  Fellow German Didi Senf will be glad to hear that.

Voigt is firm, though, in his condemnation of doping.  Later in his career when he became a team elder he would address his teammates at their early season camps and threaten to come to their homes and burn them down if any of them doped and put the team and his livelihood in jeopardy.

Descending was not one of Voigt's strengths.  As his career wound down his tolerance for risking his life on descents diminished.  When his speed approached forty miles per hour he was out of his comfort zone and when it reached fifty he told himself, "I don't want to be doing this anymore."  Still he clung on much later than most riders, until he was 42, riding in 17 Tours de France, the most of anybody along with George Hincapie and Stuart O'Grady.  When he was 41 he extended his career one more year knowing he could still "dish out the pain" and felt the "need to suffer more before I can be happy with the decision to stop."  He added, "My body promised me that it could keep it together for one more year as long as I promised to release it from all the stress, suffering and responsibility at the end of the year."  

He also knew age was catching up to him when he began falling asleep in the team bus after a race.  That cut into his reading time, one of his favorite pursuits, so much so that  at one time he thought he'd like to open a bookstore.  Instead, he's stuck to cycling, working as a team advisor and TV commentator.  One of the best things about retirement is that when he travels now he doesn't have to stay in his hotel room and conserve energy.  He can actually go sightseeing.

Unlike some cycling biographies, he doesn't wax on about his love of being on the bike, and going off on long rides simply for the joy of it, such as Chris Froome and Sean Yates do in their books.  Training became a chore.  He was glad to leave all the painful efforts behind.  There was no chance of his making a comeback.  "I simply don't want to hurt or suffer anymore," he wrote.  He does claim though that that was his strength, and that he had a pain threshold ten to twenty per cent higher than most others.  He doesn't claim to eat pain for breakfast, as some cyclists do, but it is a steady part of his diet and frequent theme of his book, as is the case of most cycling biographies.

Despite many significant wins, including the Peace Race and the Tour of Germany and the Critérium International five times along with his Tour de France successes, not once was he brought to tears by a win.  As a youth growing up in East Germany, his father told him, "Boys don't cry."  He asserts early on that only one thing brings his to tears, the birth of his children.  He doe cite one instance of emotional, triumphal tears, those of Bobby Julich's family as they gaze up at Julich and Voigt on the podium at Paris-Nice. Julich took the win thanks to the efforts of Voigt leading him up the final climb, when he thought he could have left him behind and won the race himself.  But Julich was the team leader in this race and had sacrificed himself for Voigt in other races, so he was happy to do it for him in this one.

His upbringing in East Germany, where life was centered on the common good and the collective, self-sacrifice was engrained in him, which inspired him throughout his career as a cyclist.  When he was fourteen he left his family to attend a sports school.  He missed home, but it laid the foundation for what he was to become, including learning "how to suffer."  He didn't realize the deprivations of his life on the other side of the Iron Curtain until The Wall came down. He was astounded by the abundance of food, but he was most shocked when he began reading history books and discovered how he had been lied to growing up.  He holds no grudges though, nor does his home town of Dassow, where in 2001 a street was named after him.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rochelle, Illinois


After crossing the Mississippi from the once thriving, but now diminishing city of Clinton, Iowa, to the smaller, but healthier town of Fulton, Illinois, I came upon the first Clinton lawn sign of these travels and then another and another.  Illinois is a Clinton state even outside of Chicago.  It is also a state, at least in its small towns, that ardently supports its high school football team. There were more signs supporting the "Riverboats"  in Fulton than Clinton signs.  Milledgeville abounded with signs exhorting its team, the "Missils."  Other towns expressed their high school football fervor with TP'ed trees and shop windows with exhortations.

For the first time in four states I was coming upon towns that had an appeal, that had some character and offered a mild enticement to linger for a few hours or days or even to disappear for a few months to see what life was like in them or to take up a new life as Edward Norton considered in Spike Lee's masterpiece, "The 25th Hour." Maybe it was because my trip was drawing to a close and I didn't want it to end.  But that wasn't entirely true, as Janina, as usual, was drawing me like a strong beacon.  I had hoped to be home by the first of October, making it a three-week ride, but had been delayed by my injury, but only by two days.

After my return I'll be eager to load our bikes in her car and return to Polo, a town of 2,000, thirty miles from the Mississippi  and one hundred from Chicago.  Not only did it have a pristine Carnegie with a simple "Carnegie" above its entrance,  it was near enough the stunning White Pines State Park to call itself "The Gateway to the Pines."  Polo also distinguished itself with an Islamic Center across the street from the Carnegie, not a sight one often comes upon in rural America.  I was there Sunday morning and there was no one to ask how it came to be there.


It's Carnegie had a small, addition that blended in to its backside to provide an entrance for the handicapped.  The Carnegie in Fulton had done the same thing.  It's gray brick exterior was so well-maintained I wouldn't have guessed it was over one hundred years old except for its 1909 cornerstone.


My final Carnegie and thirty-second of this ride came in Rochelle, a city of 9,500, seventeen miles west of  DeKalb and Northern Illinois University.  It had long ago outgrown its Carnegie, but still utilized it with a large addition that fully matched the original, including ornate decorations below the roofline around the entire building.  It maintained its prominence as the most distuished building in Rochelle--a temple and a shrine as epitomize the majority of Carnegies.


My last campsite of the trip was through a soybean field to a dilapidated barn.  As with nearly every campsite once I left the mountains of Colorado, I was regularly woken through the night by freight trains blasting their horns as they approached an intersection.  Freight trains are thriving.  At times as many as three would pass in an hour.  Their engineers must love to toot their horns, as they would occasionally acknowledge me when they'd pass on a lonely road with no traffic for miles.  

I braced myself for the heavy traffic of Chicago's sprawl that extends for thirty miles or more in three directions, all by to the east and Lake Michigan.  I am so accustomed to it, that I fully accepted what I was in for, just as I have been with my bruised shoulder, having endured such an injury three times before.  I glad it didn't deter me from finishing off my ride, which has become a virtual commute I have done it so many times before.  But unlike the normal commute, there is an inordinate amount of variety and satisfaction in each.  I am already looking forward to next year's that will take me to the lone Carnegie I have yet to visit in the southeast corner of Colorado and then a ride across Kansas rather than Nebraska.

 




Saturday, October 1, 2016

Clinton, Iowa



My days on the bike are defined by any number of events--the Carnegies along the way, something I might find along the road, my camp site, a food treat, a conversation, an extraordinary site or happenstance.  The past ten days have had the added spector of the healing process of my shoulder.  Every day has shown improvement as my shoulder regains strength and mobility, allowing me to do some simple task I couldn't do before. 

It was heartening to be able to open doors or to even carry something with my left hand.  I could gauge my progress by the amount of weight I could lift, starting with my sleeping pad and now finally able to manage a full rear pannier.  It is a joy to be able to lift my tent in the morning and shake out the debris before dismantling it.  It is a relief to be able to pull on my socks with both hands and to reach over with my left arm to unzip the tent.  I was happy to be able to push my bike up a steep embankment in the morning after camping in a cornfield without hardly a grimace.  It's nice to once again be able to reach back to a rear pannier while still straddling the bike.  

It wasn't until last night though that I was brave enough to attempt to pull my sweater over my head and wriggle my arms into it.  I didn't have much choice as I was cold and wet.  I was prepared to stay in a motel for the second time if one had presented itself, or, better yet, an old-time rooming house, as some of these small towns still offer.  But I had no such luck, camping once again behind a closed down service station.  I could have wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and hoped that would warm me up, but first I attempted my sweater. Lo and behold, it went on with only just minor wincing, not even a grimace.  That's the best news of all, as I have been starting my days chilled in forty degree temperatures, letting exertion warm me up.  Now I can put my sweater to use and a long sleeve t-shirt if it's really cold.  The final test will be if I can push Janina's lawn mower when I return.

Despite my rapid recovery, I'm riding with a cloud of wariness that is somewhat distracting.  I don't want to fall on my tender shoulder or gimpy knee.  Any fracture in the pavement raises an alarm that I might catch a tire and go tumbling.  The gravel shoulder is a constant reminder of my fall and warning to be alert.  When the wind is strong from any direction, a passing 18-wheeler can redirect a blast of it at me, threatening to blow me off the road.  I wouldn't stay upright long dashed into the thick  quagmire of gravel beside the pavement.  Route 30 across the state has too much traffic, and especially big trucks, to recommend it to cycling, but with its string of fifteen Carnegies, it was a route I had to take. Not everyone was happy about it.  All too many motorists have blasted their horns at me.  One would think cyclists weren't welcome in this state.  

A genuine ogre of a farmer ordered me off his property in a rage when I tried to camp behind a couple of his silos.  I was caught by dark and was desperate for a place to camp, as the corn fields had had no gaps in them for miles.  I thought the silos, which were surrounded by heavy farm equipment, were far enough from his home that I wouldn't be noticed or minded.  But his wife happened to be looking out as I approached them and sicced her hulk of a husband on me.  He was big enough that he didn't need to come with a rifle.  "What are you doing?" he demanded, just as I was beginning to set up my tent.  

"I was caught by the dark and needed a place to pitch my tent.  I didn't want to startle you and ask if it was okay.  I'm just passing through.  I'll be gone by first light."

"I want you gone right now.  You scared the shit out of my wife.  I don't care which way you're going, I just want you off my property."

There was no debate to the issue, so I quickly packed up and headed down the road in the dark.  Half a mile away I came to a cleared lane through a soybean field that was perfect.  I pushed my bike up over a rise so I wouldn't be seen from the road and celebrated this quiet, idyllic spot.  Ten minutes later, just as I finished putting all my gear into the tent, a pair of headlights closed in on me.  I figured it was a farmer crossing his field, but as the car approached the driver flicked on a revolving red light on his dashboard to signify he was a cop.  A young man hopped out with a badge in his hand.  By the time he reached me, a large pick-up truck pulled up behind him and out emerged the ogre.  

The officer was soft-spoken and kindly.  He could tell I was no threat, but he had to do this guy's bidding even though I was no longer on his property.  He apologized that people around here are very suspicious of strangers and that even though I wasn't doing any harm and would be gone without this farmer knowing I had been there, I couldn't stay.  He said he'd drive me to the next town a couple miles away where I could camp in its town park.  As I took down my tent, we had a friendly, neighborly conversation while the ogre silently glared in the background.   I told him about my Carnegie quest and that there were over one hundred Carnegies in Iowa including the first one Carnegie funded west of the Mississiippi.  The only Carnegie he knew was the motivational speaker.  He told me about taking a church group of twenty teens to Europe and how they had roughed it camping at churches.  

As we drove to the town of State Center he offered to stop at a Casey's service station and buy me some food.  I told him I had plenty.  After he dropped me off he shook my hand and said it was nice to meet me.  His kindness though did little to blunt the hostility of the farmer.  He really had it in for me to have known where I had disappeared to and to have called this officer, who was off-duty and a neighbor of his.  I didn't know whether to be more upset by his animosity or his fear that I might be a threat, one of them terrorists.  He was another example, like the many motorists who take umbrage at my presence, that RAGBRAI has not fully endeared cyclists to all in Iowa.  The officer confirmed that the rowdiness of many of the thousands of riders, many of whom come from out-of-state,  antagonizes the conservative side of many Iowans.  And it is a Trump state after all.

My lift to State Center got me close enough to Marshalltown and its Carnegie that I arrived in time for breakfast at a downtown diner--two of the biggest pancakes I have ever encountered.  They were enough for breakfast and lunch and filled me so well I didn't need to nibble on the nuts and raisins in my handlebar bag.


It's Carnegie too was a grand edifice, a two-story white-stoned building with a corner entrance, above which was "Gift of Andrew Carnegie."  It now serves as offices for the local government.


Twenty miles away Tama's much smaller Carnegie had also been retired.  It was on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood with no room for expansion.  There was no interest in purchasing it for enterprise.  When no buyer came forth when it was replaced sixteen years ago, the next door neighbors purchased it and used it for a woodworking shop and for a spell as a day care center.  They have done little to maintain it.  The front entrance is overgrown by bushes and the side that adjoins the owners is cluttered with cars.  But it still exudes a glow of nobility.


Then came the longest stretch on 30 between Carnegies, over fifty miles to Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa with a population of 130,000.  It was recovering from the second worst flood in its history.  The low-lying downtown along the Cedar River was closed off.  School had been out all week. The flood waters had receded and with the blocked roads not being vigilantly attended I was able to cross the still swollen Cedar on the 2nd Avenue bridge and reach the Carnegie on 3rd Avenue.  On the way I passed the still sandbagged Paramount Theater.  It had cost $35 million to restore it in 2008 after the city's worst flood.  There was enough warning for this year's flood to remove all its seats and take them to the second floor.


Just four blocks away there were no sandbags around the former Carnegie, now part of the city's large Art Museum.  It's roofline bore the names of the usual (Dante, Homer, Virgil, Shakeapeare, Irving, Goethe) and one surprise (Komensky).


The adjoining town of Marion also had a Carnegie, though it too had been replaced.  It now offered religious services for the First United Methodist Church, though it's entrance was still graced with "Carnegie Library, Free to the People."


I angled back to route 30 and Mount Vernon to Cornell College and the library funded for the school that also served as the town library.  It faced onto the quad of similar red brick buildings and was now the Norton Geology Center and Anderson Museum.  The new library also served the college and town in this pleasantly wholesome small town.


The Carnegie in DeWitt was being renovated by its new owners to host special events.  It was in the center of the town half a block from a diner that was packed on Saturday morning serving breakfast.  It's three-stack was modest enough that it was a rare hotcakes meal I could finish.


It gave me more than enough energy to reach Clinton, sixteen miles away, without having to nibble.  It's majestic Carnegie was the first since Ames, six Carnegies ago, that still functioned as a library, and was large enough that it hadn't been added on to.  It was the first building visitors saw when they crossed the Mississiippi from Illinois.  Seven of the fifteen on my route across Iowa still served as libraries.  It was a spectacular finale.  I have three that I have yet to visit on my remaining 150 miles  across Illinois beginning with one in Fulton, just across the river.