Monday, March 5, 2012

Bicycle Reader

I've had a phenomenal month of reading--twenty books, all on bicycling, and many of them rare and hard-to-find. If I couldn't be off in some faraway place riding my bike, this was the next best thing. Not only was the reading first-rate, but so were some of my rides to distant libraries hunting down the books. The best was an 80-mile round trip trek for Bernard Hinault's "Memories of the Peloton" from 1989.

Most of my reading was thanks to the indispensable library website that only recently came to my attention. It took me to the Downer's Grove library, 25 miles away, for a copy of Hinault's memoirs, a book I never imagined I could find in America. I didn't bother to call the library to confirm the book was in, as I was happy to make a ride to a library I had never visited.  Plus there was the good possibility that a library that had such an obscure cycling book on its shelves might well have others.

But it was not to be. In all my worldcat searches this was the first time it had wrong information. Downer's Grove had no record of ever having the book. The librarian went to worldcat and came back with the great news that the Tinley Park library, twenty miles further south, had a copy. She offered to call to make sure. I told her that wasn't necessary. She printed out directions for me and off I went, delighted to visit another library I had never been to, hoping it had the book, but if not, happy to be able to spend a few more hours on my bike than I had expected.

Tinley Park was a score, but surprisingly, just like Downer's Grove, it had a mere shelf of bike books and no others that I hadn't read. I dove right into Hinault. It felt like Christmas. I had been eager to read this book for years. I couldn't allow myself more than a couple of chapters though, as I wanted to leave with enough time to return home before dark. I wasn't sure how many miles it was, just that it had to be more than thirty and might be as many as forty. It turned out to be thirty-five, giving me eighty for the day, my longest ride since Thanksgiving when I biked over one hundred miles finishing off a three-week ride around the Ozarks and back to Chicago.

It made for another great day on the bike, even though it was entirely through urban sprawl.  I encountered not another soul on a bicycle. I truly felt like an alien species going about my business on a bicycle amongst nothing but gas-guzzlers. If I hadn't been on such a glorious mission, I would have been tearing myself apart debating who was the insane one--me on my bike or those in their cars.

Though I was denied any bonus bike books at Tinley Park and Downer's Grove, I hit a mini-jackpot at the Elmhurst library. It was the only library within three hundred miles of Chicago with a copy of Laurent Fignon's memoirs "We Were Young and Carefree." Keeping it company were two other cycling biographies I was thrilled to discover. One was on Sean Kelly from 1991 and the other was the recent autobiography of Davis Phinney.

The Kelly book was written by David Walsh, an Irish author who has long been a thorn in the side of Lance Armstrong. In 2004 he wrote a book called "LA Confidential" that Lance was able to prevent from being published, other than in French, as it alleged without collaboration that Lance had used illegal drugs. Three years later after Floyd Landis was stripped of his Tour de France win, Walsh published "From Lance to Landis, Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France" that included a lot of material from his banned book including a legendary lengthy text message after the 2005 Tour between Frankie Andreu and Jonathon Vaughters with insider gossip on Lance and doping.

I found two other Walsh books at the Schaumberg library. I had gone out for his biography of Stephen Roche, "Agony and Ecstasy," written in 1988 the year after Roche's trifecta of winning the Giro, The Tour and the World Championships in the same year, something that only Eddy Merckx had accomplished. Schaumberg had another Walsh book, "Inside the Tour de France" from 1994. It covered the 1993 Tour de France, the first that Lance rode. He was 21, the youngest rider in the race and won a stage before dropping out half way through in the mountains as was planned. Walsh devoted a chapter to Lance and was a full-fledged fan. It wasn't until he made his return to The Tour in 1999 after cancer that Walsh began to doubt him and made it his mission to prove he was a doper.

With three shelves of cycling books the Schaumberg library had the best collection of cycling books of any library in the area other than the seven shelves at Chicago's main Harold Washington library. Those seven shelves are crammed with multiple copies of books, so Schaumberg might actually have a better collection. It certainly had more insider-books on racing than the Chicago library, such as Mark Cavendish's biography. But neither come close to the hundreds of books in the library of Adventure Cycling in Missoula, Montana. Schaumberg also had several touring books I was unaware of and another besides the two Walsh books on racing--the "VeloNews" book on the 1998 Tour, the year of the Festina Affair and Pantani's dramatic win. The book was aptly titled "Conquests and Crises."

It was the first in a series of yearly books "VeloNews" began publishing on each year's Tour through the Lance era. I was delighted to discover it, as I had just read the "VeloNews" book on the 1999 Tour and was hoping to read as many of them as I could to complete my research on the spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez and references to tears. The 1998 Tour route skipped L'Alpe d'Huez, but there were still four mentions of it. Since John Wilcockson was the chief writer of the book, three of its four mentions were spelled with the capital L. The other reference dropped the L when it called the climb up Les Deux Alpes a "mini-Alpe d'Huez."

It cited four instances of crying, one less than the 1999 book. The first was of Richard Virenque in a press conference after his Festina team was ejected from the Tour six stages into The Race when it was finally confirmed that the Festina team car full of drugs that had been detained on the way to The Tour was part of an elaborate team doping program. Virenque held out for months longer than anyone else on the team, denying, denying, until finally admitting his guilt, no doubt in tears once again.

The 1998 Tour passed the memorial to Lance's teammate Fabio Casartelli near where he died in a crash in the 1995 Tour, the third rider to die while racing in The Tour. The entire peloton stopped. Casartelli's parents were there and unsurprisingly there were tears.

Bobby Julich was the surprise of the 1998 Tour, finishing third, becoming just the second American to finish on the podium along with Greg LeMond. When he secured his third place on the penultimate day's time trial he and his fiancee were in tears as they hugged afterwards. Jan Ullrich had been the favorite to win The Tour, having won it the year before most convincingly. But he faltered and finished second behind Marco Pantani. When he struggled on the 15th stage in the rain there were tears in his eyes.

The 1999 Tour can also be told through tears. This was Armstrong's first Tour since recovering from cancer. The "VeloNews" book recounts Armstrong's battle with cancer. In a press conference five days after he had his first malignant tumor removed Armstrong confessed that he hadn't fully come to terms with his cancer and that he had spells "when I cry all the time." Not soon after when he learned that cancer had been found in his brain he "started bawling," the most emphatic of crying euphemisms.

After he made his remarkable recovery and returned to the Tour in 1999, winning the prologue, it was such an emotional high for Armstrong, confirming that all his hard work had paid of, he cried. It was the only time during the entire race. Friends and teammates were also brought to tears. The book's final crying incident was also cancer-related. The book adds the story of a 14-year old battling cancer who Lance had befriended. His mother is so proud of her son's strength that she can't help but cry.

My February reading also had a couple of quick reads, a pair of coffee-table picture books on Armstrong--"Lance Armstrong, Images of a Champion" from 2006 and "Comeback 2.0 Up Close and Personal" from 2009. Both included commentary from Lance and neither were tear-free. The comeback book describes Armstrong's return to racing after a three-year absence and the 2009 Race. Even though he was divorced, he discussed his decision to resume racing with his ex-wife and asked her permission. She cried, partly because he cared enough to consult her and also partly out of relief that he wasn't telling her he wanted to run for office.

The earlier book is a year-by-year chronicle of Armstrong's career, though skipping the one year he did not race, 1997, and had none of the grim photos of Armstrong as a cancer victim. The chapter of the year he came down with cancer was titled "1996: Triumph Then Tears." The book is interspersed with tributes from prominent people in his life--his mother, Eddy Merckx, Robin Williams, George Hincapie, Jim Ochowicz, Johan Bruyneel and a few others. His mother, who was as tough and determined as he was, commented that after they learned he had cancer, "We could sit around and cry about it, or we could find our way around the roadblocks." They kept their tears to a minimum. Merckx wrote that he was one of the first people Lance called when he learned of his illness. "Both of us were crying over the telephone," he said, and added, "It was the worst experience I've ever had to deal with."

The only other tears Lance mentions are when describing the fan who would run alongside the peloton carrying a Texas flag while wearing a football helmet with long steer horns sticking out. The full-page photo of the fan, who I once met, is accompanied by the caption, "This guy almost had us in tears. How caring can a fan be?"

The photos in the second book are by long-time Tour photographer Graham Watson. He has published some twenty books on The Tour. Among my recent reading was his "Tour de France Travel Guide." He has been attending The Tour since 1977. Several of his first Tours he biked the route as I do. There is no greater authority or lover of The Tour than Watson. I've had a couple of encounters with him over the years, once along the route when he stopped where I was to shoot the riders as they passed through a scenic small village and then at an art gallery full of his photos in London the year it was the Grand Depart. He is a most affable chap.

His travel guide offered photography tips (crouching low on bends on descents) as well as tips on finding places to stay (going to the hotels of teams where you know riders have dropped out, meaning there will be an extra room) and things to see throughout France and insights into the ways of the French. It was most worthwhile. He twice mentions close encounters with tears--Fignon after his traumatic 1989 loss and Kelly after an agonizing crash that forced him to leave the race.

When it comes to L'Alpe d'Huez he's all over the place, spelling it as Alpe d'Huez the majority of times, but once with a capital L and five times with a lower case L.  Such inconsistency is not uncommon.  Much more disappointing was a handful of factual errors--calling the Gorges du Verdon the second largest gorge in the world, giving the route of the Canal du Midi as from Toulouse to Nimes, and calling Le Puy-en-Velay the starting point of the pilgrim route from France to Santiago de Compestela in Spain. Some of his comments on the Tour were wrong as well. He wrote that Laurent Jalabert won at Mende in 1995 on July 13, when it was actually the much more significant 14th, Bastille Day, making him a national hero. He wrote that Armstrong's time trial win on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2004 brought him one step closer toward winning his fourth overall victory. It would actually be his sixth. I know that well, as I was there on L'Alpe d'Huez that magnificent day.

His book was written in 2009. Three things that he said could never happen did happen in the years since--having stage finishes at the top of the Tourmalet and the Galibier and also crossing the Passage du Gois once again. But none of these faux pas diminishes my respect for Watson and his photography one bit. His errors are the fault of those editing the book as much as his.

His slips are very minor compared to the outrageous mistelling of one of the most storied events in the history of the Tour de France by Matt Eaton in "The Escape Artist, Life from the Saddle." This was one of three books that my Northwestern librarian friend Elizabeth was able to procure for me from the network of Big Ten libraries holding over 61 million volumes. It is a quite literate memoir of an English amateur racer who had to give up his passion when his wife gave birth to twins. It ranked number eight on "Cycle Sport's" list of the best fifty books on bicycling, and justifiably so.

When Eaton begins sprinkling in references to Merckx and Anquetil and Bobet and Coppi and Gaul and other Giants of the Road, I assumed he was fully versed in bicycling lore. I should have known I could not fully trust his facts after he refers to a memoir of Henry Miller about growing up in Beverly Hills, confusing him with William Saroyan. Both Miller and Saroyan wrote most fondly about the bicycle and both are frequently quoted in Bill Strictland's "The Quotable Cyclist." Miller though was a New Yorker through and through, who went on to live in Paris for a number of years in the '30s, and then out to Big Sur. Among his many books is "My Bike and Other Friends." Saroyan wrote a book "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills," and is lauded by cyclists far and wide for his pronouncement "The bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind," taken from his introduction to "The Noiseless Tenor," also known as "The Literary Cyclist."

Thankfully its not until towards the end of "The Escape Artist" that Eaton gives a horribly mangled version of the Eugene Christophe fork-breaking incident in the 1913 Tour on the descent of the Tourmalet. In cycling lore this ranks right up there with Moses parting the Red Sea. It is such a storied event that it was reenacted on its 50th anniversary with Christophe and the young boy who was involved in the incident.

After breaking his fork Christophe trotted down the mountain carrying his bike. It was more than an hour before he reached the small town at the bottom of the climb and searched out a small blacksmith shop, that might have been mistaken as a manger. The rules demanded that he do the repair himself. It took a couple hours while Tour officials oversaw the operation, to make certain that he completed it on his own. They did not intercede when he enlisted the assistance of a young boy to operate a bellows. He was later penalized ten minutes for this infraction, though it was eventually reduced to three. It was mostly a symbolic penalty, as he lost over four hours all told, falling from first place to seventh, but a stringent enforcement of the rules.

Eaton tells the story in a vague, mythological sense stating it occurred back in the early days of The Tour, as if it were the beginning of time, "when there were no stages to the race, but one continuous epic of suffering and solidarity." That's his first misrepresentation of the facts. Every Race has been broken up into stages. The first Tour in 1903 and the second were identical six stage courses from Paris to Lyons, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and back to Paris. Every stage except the fourth was over 200 miles, with two of them over 290 miles. There were two or three days of rest between each stage. By 1913 The Race had grown to fifteen stages. It was never a non-stop race like the Race Across America or Paris-Brest-Paris.

Then he tells the story of Christophe breaking his fork, though without mentioning his name. He claims he was leading the race by several hours when he broke his fork, also not true. He began the day in second place, though by the summit of the Tourmalet he had taken the lead, but by just a few minutes. After he completed the repair of his fork and is back on his way, Eaton claims he learned at the next "relay" that he had been disqualified for the bellows assistance, a monumental exaggeration of his three-minute penalty. This event happened less than a century before Eaton is writing about it and has been written about in countless histories of The Tour. Such a grotesque distortion of the facts is inexcusable. It makes one wonder how trustworthy some of the Biblical stories might be that happened twenty centuries ago.

I could thank Elizabeth for two other noteworthy books also on "Cycle Sport's" top fifty list--Matt Rendell's history of Colombian cycling, "Kings of the Mountains," from the University of Michigan and William Fotheringham's history of British cyclists in the Tour de France, "Roule Britannia," from the University of Wisconsin. Both authors are English and both were truly passionate about their subject.

Fotheringham is a true cycling scholar having written quite a few books on the sport. The nearest copy of his biography of Coppi, "Fallen Angel," is at the Fort Wayne, Indiana library, 145 miles away. I plan on taking a bike ride over to Fort Wayne before the month is out. Rendell is catching up to Fotheringham. His Colombia book was the first of five he has written, among which is "Blazing Saddles", an entertaining history of the Tour de France.

Rendell had been a university lecturer who had grown tired of his job and decided to head off to the tip of South America to bicycle the length of the continent with a friend. When he reached Colombia at the end of his trip he was astounded to see so many racing cyclists out training and such an interest in cycling. He was fascinated to learn about the many great Colombian cyclists, many of whom had competed in the Tour de France. When he discovered no one had written a book about Colombian cycling, not even in Spanish, he decided to tackle the subject himself. He made six lengthy trips back to Colombia over five years researching. Not only did he find a career in writing about cycling in Colombia, he also found himself a wife.

Among his sources was a twelve-part biography in Colombia's leading newspaper in 1955 of Colombia's first great cyclist, Ramon Hoyos. It was written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's Nobel prize-winning author, before he started writing novels. Hoyos was so revered that many people had a picture of him in their homes besides that of Jesus. He was depicted on two 1957 postage stamps marked "Extra Rapido." Though he raced in Europe he never competed in the Tour de France.

The first Colombian to hold that honor was Martin "Cochise" Rodriguez in 1975. Five years later I saw him race in Chicago against a 19-year old Greg LeMond and the recent speed skating champ Eric Heiden and others. I didn't know anything about Cochise at the time, other than he had a cool name and that he got a lot of cheers from the Hispanic fans. Only from this book did I learn how revered he was in Colombia. Twenty years after I saw him he was named Colombia's athlete of the century. He became a national hero in 1971 when he set the amateur hour record and won the world pursuit title. Later he won a couple of stages in the Giro while serving as a domestique for Tour de France winner Felice Gimondi.

The first British cyclists to compete in the Tour de France were Bill Burl and Charles Holland in 1937, though neither completed the race. It wasn't until 1955 that another British cyclist participated in the race, a year when there were national teams rather than trade teams and a team of ten Brits was scraped together. Only two of them finished, and one just barely as the lanterne rouge. In the next fifty years there were only two years that a British cyclist wasn't at the starting line--1976 and 2004--though there were quite a few years when there was only one. Slightly more than fifty British cyclists had competed in the race up to 2005 when "Roule Britannia" was published, with less than half of them making it to the finish in Paris.

Fotheringham devotes full chapters to the few significant Brits--Brian Robinson (the first Brit to win a stage in 1958 and to finish the race in 1955), Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Sean Yates, Chris Boardman and David Millar. Fotheringham did not anticipate Mark Cavendish, as he predicted that no Brit was likely to match the eight stage wins by Hoban in the '60s and '70s. Cavendish has been averaging five wins a year the past four years and with twenty at the age of twenty-seven is a threat to break Merckx's record of 34.

My bicycle reading is far from over as Elizabeth has two more books in the pipeline for me--a history of American cycling and a biography of Louison Bobet. I also have a stack of touring books I've been resisting, knowing that if I indulge in them the pangs to be off doing it myself would be killing me. And those aren't all. I keep finding more. One of those I'm most eager to read is a history of Indiana University's Little 500 bike race. I just hope my eyes hold out.

1 comment:

george christensen said...

Friend Andrew from Sydney just read "From Lance to Landis" and found these references to tears.

Tears welled in Greg Strock's eyes in 1993 as he told his (doper) coach Rene Wenzel that he was quitting cycling after he realized that he wasn't up to it after spending two years recovering from parvovirus that he suspected was brought on by large quantities of drugs injected into him while training in Europe

Andy Hampsten in the 1985 Giro has tears in his eyes as he realizes he has won a mountain stage at Gran Paradiso

Emma O'Reilly (LAs masseuse) and Frankie Andreu cried tears of laughter after Lance told them that he had booby trapped his hotel room after an altercation with a Frenchman in the hotel car park