Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Gold Mine of Cycling Books

Thanks to my friend Elizabeth, a most valuable double-barreled cyclist/librarian, I just made the thrilling discovery of a gold mine of cycling books virtually out my back door. She introduced me to the invaluable website, an archive of the holdings of libraries all over the world. Enter the title of a book and in a moment it reveals where it may be found and the distance from one's location, whether a few miles away or half way round the world.

A year ago "Cycle Sport," a British magazine that is one of my favorite monthly reads, published a list of the greatest fifty cycling books of all time. I'd read half of them and knew of many of the others, but not all. England has a much richer history of books on cycling than America, so most of those I hadn't read were English publications, some of which were translations of the great French cycling books. I wanted to read them all.

Most I could have acquired through Amazon. The price of some scared me off, but also the lack of space on my already overflowing book shelves. I try to limit my book acquisitions to one or two a year. I always have plenty to read, so I was willing to patiently await these books.

When Elizabeth revealed to me when I was visiting her at Northwestern's Chicago campus Shaffner Library, I instantly began typing in titles from that list. I was overwhelmed with excitement to discover that many of them were miraculously nearby in various suburban and university libraries. I could have enlisted Elizabeth's services to acquire any of them on inter-library loan, something she was happy and willing to do. It wouldn't even have been a favor, because as a card-carrying alumnus of Northwestern, I am entitled to such privileges.

But I am above all a bicyclist. I am ever eager to pounce on the opportunity to ride my bike anywhere, especially for something that excites me. One winter I made it a mission to bicycle to every one of Chicago's 75 branch libraries, some twenty miles or more away. That led to my on-going quest to bicycle to the 1,689 Carnegie libraries scattered all over the U.S.

I have had the lingering desire to bike to Chicago's many suburban libraries. Seeking some of these books would give me that opportunity. Far better, anyway, to go to a book, than have it brought to me. Making the effort to search it out, to pluck it from its shelf, always enhances the enjoyment of a book. I love that moment of spotting and reaching for a title I've long yearned for. Going to a book also provides the chance of discovering other books alongside the one that I have come for that I might want to read.

In my pile of books to read were two of Samuel Abt's books on cycling that I had acquired in the past few months through paperbackswap, an on-line book trading service. Abt has written eleven books on cycling while covering the Tour de France and European cycling for the "New York Times" beginning in 1977. Some of the books are just collections of his stories, but still worth reading. Only one of his books made "Cycle Sport's" top fifty list--"LeMond, The Incredible Come Back of An American Hero." I had already read that and four other of his books, some from the holdings of the Chicago Public Library system.

Though his racing savvy does not match that of his European counterparts, I still read his books, starved as I am for books on cycling, and had a goal of reading all eleven of his books. I gave immediate thanks to Elizabeth and worldcat when I learned that two of the four books of his that I hadn't been able to get my hands on could be found in suburban libraries--one in Park Ridge and the other in Riverside. Of the other two, one was 113 miles away in Bloomington, Illinois and the other 141 miles away in Marion, Indiana, bike rides to look forward to in the future.

I was particularly pleased to have reason to bike out to Park Ridge, as its former library was a Carnegie built in 1909. It still stood, across the street from the new library, now home to an insurance company and a hair salon. And going out to Park Ridge rewarded me with another cycling book I was unaware of--"Eat, Sleep, Ride" by Englishman Paul Howard about riding the 2,800 mile continental divide race from Canada to Mexico. I did not know of this book, though I had read Howard's two other books on cycling--a biography of Jacques Anquetil that I wrote about last month and a book about riding the Tour de France route, both very good reads.

So I had a very pleasant two days at the Park Ridge library reading these two books. Then it was on to the Riverside library for another of Abt's books. The library was a magnificent, eighty-year old, stone chateau of a building, in a small town atmosphere. It was a rare library these days without magnetic strips in its books to guard against their theft. The bike rack had a sign reminding people that they ought to lock their bikes and offering locks inside if one didn't have one. One could sit in a leather chair and read while gazing through a forest of trees upon the Des Plaines River. It was a most tranquil setting, belying the surrounding metropolitan sprawl, another satisfying experience I wouldn't have had if I hadn't biked out for the book.

Though I have cycling biographies of Bernard Hinault to go after in Downer's Grove and Laurent Fignon in Elmhurst and Stephen Roche in Schaumberg and a book on the Spring Classics in Skokie and the Coppi-Bartoli duel in the 1949 Giro in Joliet and a cultural history of the Tour de France at Northwestern and at the nearby Evanston library a translation of "Giants of Cycling" by the great French cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier, who has written fifty books on cycling, the book I was most eager to read next was "Slaying the Badger" at the University of Chicago. It too was written by an English author I had read before, Richard Moore, whose first book was a biography of the Scottish rider Robert Millar, a former team mate of Greg LeMond who had somewhat disappeared amidst speculation that he had undergone a sex change. The book was worthy of the awards it had won.

As anyone versed in racing lore would surmise, the "badger" of the title refers to Bernard Hinault and is about LeMond's victory in the 1986 Tour de France over Hinault. The subtitle of the book calls it "The Greatest Ever Tour de France." That designation is usually given to the 1989 Tour when LeMond beat Fignon by eight seconds, but Moore makes a strong argument for the 1986 Tour. LeMond and Hinault were teammates, but also adversaries. LeMond had sacrificed himself the year before when they were teammates, not pushing on ahead on a stage in the mountains when Hinault was struggling.  Hinault was wearing the Yellow Jersey and was going for his fifth Tour win.  LeMond had finished third the year before and thought his time might be now, but he was a loyal teammate and followed his director's orders to simply follow the wheel of Stephen Roch and to otherwise hold back.

Hinault was so grateful to LeMond that he told him, "Next year it is your turn," and promised to devote all his energies to helping LeMond win. There was much speculation before the 1986 race whether Hinault would live up to that promise, especially with the possibility of becoming the first six-time winner of The Tour. At that point only he and Jacques Anquetil and Eddie Merkx were in the elite club of five, later to be joined by Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong. Hinault didn't seem to be living up to his promise when he attacked on the first mountain stage and took a seemingly insurmountable five minute advantage. LeMond was devastated by this apparent betrayal.

The Race went back and forth. One of its seminal moments came later in the Alps after LeMond had secured the yellow jersey and he and Hinault rode together up L'Alpe d'Huez well ahead of everyone else. Moore argues their arm-to-arm finish at the summit is one of the greatest moments in the history of all sport.

Moore was a thirteen-year old back in England in 1986 watching The Race on television. It was the first time it had been broadcast in its entirety in England. He seems to be living a dream to be able to intimately relive the race, interviewing everyone involved and rereading the many books and newspaper and magazine articles written about it, even a feature in "Rolling Stone."

He personalizes his narrative, describing in detail his visits with LeMond and Hinault at their homes, giving the impression that he would have been happy to have written this book for the mere pleasure of it and without any compensation. He says it wasn't easy to arrange all the interviews, but the only principal he failed to interview was the team owner, Bernard Tapie, a Donald Trump, larger-than-life character, who spent time in jail for fixing soccer matches after his few years in bicycling. He still manages to give a thorough portrait of Tapie, highly recommending the documentary "Who is Bernard Tapie?"

He offers up one fascinating anecdote after another, even boggling LeMond with his research. He interviewed LeMond with his wife Kathy and includes many of her poignant interjections, letting us truly get to know them. Andy Hampsten was one of LeMond's two English-speaking teammates on that 1986 La Vie Claire team of ten riders. Canadian Steve Bauer was the other. There were five French riders, including Hinault, and two Swiss and a Swiss director, Paul Kochli, another most fascinating individual, a great innovator who was known as "the kooky professor." Moore's visit to his compound full of computers and file cabinets is another of the many highlights in the book.

Moore has a great facility for making his subjects fully open up to him. LeMond felt so comfortable with him that he mentions in an aside that when he was standing on the podium on the Champs Elysees after his victory the thought crossed his mind wondering if the uncle who had molested him as a youth was watching. Hampsten tells him, "I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone." On a stage in the mountains Hampsten was in a small lead group with LeMond, but not Hinault. Just as the final climb began Hampsten surged ahead to lead LeMond out and to push the other riders to their limit. The others couldn't keep up. LeMond didn't chase after Hampsten, leaving that to the other riders so he wouldn't overly exert himself. When Kochli saw what was happening, he drove up along side Hampsten, as this was before the riders had radio communication with their director, and instead of reprimanding him told him to keep riding hard and to go for the stage win and yellow jersey. He said, "Your two big-headed teammates are bickering over it like its their privilege. The best thing for this team would be for you to take the Yellow Jersey tonight." Hampsten kind of laughed to himself, as he knew he didn't have the energy to sustain his effort, he was just going for a short spurt to try to shake things up, as he was totally loyal to LeMond.

When Moore told LeMond the story, he was astounded. He wasn't upset, just in awe, commenting, "Wow. Think what that would have meant to Andy." Moore interviewed Hinault before LeMond. As he interviews LeMond, he shares many of Hinault's comments on his version of events, often making LeMond shake his head in disbelief. I was constantly going "wow" myself, feeling as if I was right there with Moore, loving every minute of it, knowing how thrilling it must have been for him to be able to talk to all these people who had been involved with this legendary race.

Moore also interviews Shelly Verses, a young American who was the first woman to serve as a masseuse and soigneur in the world of professional bike racing in Europe working for the 7-Eleven team at that year's Tour before being recruited to the La Vie Claire team. She too is remarkably candid. The year before at the 1985 Giro d'Italia, when she made her first appearance in Europe, all the traditionalists were totally aghast that a woman would be massaging the legs of a team's riders. "What do their wives and girl friends think and who is she sleeping with," everyone speculated.

She was subjected to all sorts of harassment. She said the great Italian rider Francesco Moser came by before a stage and asked her to work on his legs. She didn't know who he was and initially scoffed. When she realized it was Moser, she did oblige him and was mightily impressed by his legs. "They were different to my guys," she said. Hinault too checked her out at that Giro. She learned that he liked cherries, just like Ron Kiefel, one of her American riders. She always tried to have a bowl full to please Kiefel and then would offer a few to Hinault whenever she saw him. "It was our little secret," she said. "It was adorable."

But she was utterly appalled by Hinault's back-stabbing, viper-like treatment of LeMond at the '86 Tour. Moore says that she didn't initially reveal how disturbed she was by Hinault's behavior in their first interview, and felt guilty about it. She emailed him later and said she hadn't been strong enough in her disdain of Hinault's behaviour, comparing him to a virtual Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini.

Hampsten agrees that Hinault wasn't very honorable in that Tour but also says, "I don't think he could have been nicer as a teammate. He was just so frickin' nice." Another ex-teammate, the Dane Kim Anderson, who was the Leopard Trek team director of the Schleck brothers last year, said, "I would die for that man."

The book is a deep mine of juicy observations and telling detail that reveal mountains of insight into the sport of bicycle racing and its gladiators. It was a great, great read and made even greater to be reading it in a carol at one of the premier collegiate libraries in the world. It wasn't easy to gain entrance to the University of Chicago library either. I had to get an Info Pass from the Chicago Public Library stating that they could not procure the book for me before they'd allow me in.

According to the next nearest library with a copy of "Slaying the Badger" is at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 204 miles away. The book is such an exhilarating read, I would gladly bicycle that far to read it. I wanted to find out who had procured the book for the University of Chicago and give him my heartiest thanks, and also to ask who was responsible for all the other great cycling books in their collection, some in French, Italian, Dutch and German. I'll be back for a history of Italian cycling and a few others. And I also greatly look forward to Moore's next book on cycling.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Great post, George.