Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Exceptional Reading and a Disappointment

With all the cycling books I've been reading the past few months, over forty, I feel as if I'm earning a PhD in cycling history. My binge has included biographies of Anquetil, Hinault, Fignon, Bobet, Roche, Kelly, Phinney, Armstrong and an anthology of racers in the great book "Giants of Cycling," by Jean-Paul Ollivier, a Frenchman who has written over fifty books on cycling. It was one of quite a few in my reading translated from French, all a cut above.

Equally exceptional was "Tomorrow, We Ride...," perhaps the most evocative title of the lot, by Jean Bobet, brother of three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet. It was written in 2004, nearly fifty years after he and his brother raced, and translated into English in 2008. Jean was five years younger than his champion brother. He was inclined to the intellectual life, but at his brother's urging left university, putting aside a dissertation on Hemingway, to be a support rider for him.

His book offered literate insight into racing as it was in the 1950s, and the decade after, when Jean stuck with the sport as a sports writer. He was at the start of the Ventoux stage in 1967 that left Tommy Simpson dead. Bobet wrote that before the stage began Simpson mischieviously stuck his tongue out at him to reveal three pills on his tongue, as he knew that Bobet knew that is what it took to succeed in the sport, and was one of the reasons that led Bobet to an early retirement. He described quite eloquently a blistering hot Ventoux stage he suffered through that broke quite a few riders, including a Belgian who'd fallen to the road. He described him as crazy and crying in a manner such as he had never seen before. He knew Anquetil well enough to describe him as a man who found most things annoying, emphasizing, "and on this point I will brook no contradiction."

Along with the biographies, I've read quite a few history books, many on the The Tour de France, and also several on the history of cycling in a particular country--England, Colombia, Italy and the United States. All were thoroughly researched and scholarly, and very colorfully written. All that is except "The Evolution of American Bicycle Racing" by Lou Dzierzak from 2007, the only one written by an American, a nationality woefully lacking the cozy relationship necessary with the sport to write about it with eloquence and more than a superficial understanding.

Dzierzak had the best of intentions and provides a useful compilation of facts and statistics, sketching the history of racing in America and by Americans, but without making it interesting in the least or penetrating to the essence of the sport, unlike that trio of histories on Colombia ("Kings of the Mountains," by Matt Rendell), Great Britain ("Route Britannia" by William Fotheringham) and Italy ("Pedalare! Pedalare!" by John Foot). Those three were joyous celebrations of cycling and highly informative page-turners that I'd highly recommend.

One of my disappointments with Dzierzak's book is that I have a personal relationship with some of the events he writes about (the Coors Classic, the 1986 World Championship in Colorado Springs, the Tour de France, the first Tour of California in 1971) and he failed to convey in the least what they were like. The other histories celebrated such seminal events, fully resurrecting them. The others also more fully developed portrayals of their national stars, letting them be the thread for their histories. John Howard and Wayne Stetina and Jonathon Boyer and Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten and Lance Armstrong and many others are all written about, but not with the verve of these other histories.

Dzierzak's book may be good for reference, but not good for reading. He simply did not have the deep, intrinsic understanding of the sport as did these English writers, nor the gift to write more than a text-book. He piles on the stats, many of them irrelevant. Unlike these other authors, he bothers to give the overall winning time for various Tours, an utterly meaningless statistic: 110 hours, 35 minutes and 19 seconds for LeMond's 1986 Tour, 29 hours, 39 minutes and two seconds for Marianne Martin's 1984 Tour de France Feminine in l984 and on and on.

And his book was clogged with factual errors. He said that LeMond battled Claudio Chiappucci and Miguel Indurain for the lead in the 1990 Tour de France. Indurain was Pedro Delgado's domestique in that race and finished tenth. Delgado finished fourth. He wrote that at the 1998 Tour de France when Willy Voet was arrested with a car load of drugs on the way to the Tour start that the "Tour de France organizers immediately disqualified all nine members of the Festina racing team." That's not true at all. It wasn't until the sixth stage that they were finally kicked out of the race while the press howled and howled over the team still being in The Race. He also gets it wrong on the number of teams that quit that Tour, putting it at four, two less than it was. Such sloppy reporting is most disheartening and clearly impugnes Dzierzak's credibility.

It was good that someone wrote a book on American cycling, but unfortunate that it wasn't someone with the talents of a British or French writer born into the sport leading to a life long passion for it, and relished the opportunity to bring the riders and the races to life. Such a being may not exist in America. It was another frustrating example of a superficially written treatise of cycling by an American, most notably exemplified by Samuel Apt. Such books are mere attempts at a cycling book compared to the full-fledged efforts by their British and French counterparts.

The tear index as always is a reflection on the depth of a writer's understanding of the sport. Riders are constantly being brought to tears of triumph and joy and frustration and despair. The emotional depth and commitment of the riders is the essence of the sport. There wasn't a single mention of tears in Dzierzak's book, unlike these other three national histories and every other book mentioned above.

Still, one must applaud that even books on cycling as lackluster as this are being published. They are certainly better than nothing.

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