Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Friends: After a winter of biking to distant Chicago suburbs for obscure cycling books, I've expanded my never-ending quest to other states thanks to some sudden summery weather. Last week it was 170 miles to Fort Wayne, Indiana for biographies of Bradley Wiggins and Fausto Coppi. This week it has been 150 miles to Sheboygan, Wisconsin for "The Sweat of the Gods" by the Dutch sociologist Benjo Maso about the myths and legends of racing.

The rides have enabled me to add a handful of Carnegie Libraries to my life list and also get in some good training miles for my ninth annual 650-mile ride from Paris to Cannes in a little over a month. I was treated to a rush of French reveries when I reached the outskirts of Sheboygan and encountered one of my favorite features of bicycling in France--a roundabout. Even though they were invented by an American, they are an extreme rarity here. In 4,000 touring miles over four tours in the U.S. since leaving Telluride and its roundabout last September, it was the first I had come upon. France abounds with them. They serve not only as a traffic facilitator, doing away with a stop sign or stop light at an intersection, but also provide a huge pallet to decorate with flowers or landscaping or sculptures or artwork of some type, often promoting what a town or region is known for (wine, apples, golf, crayons, mushrooms).

I appreciate not only their aesthetic appeal, but also the sense of cooperation they engender--traffic gently merging, no one having to lose momentum. I can time my entry into a roundabout when there is a gap in the flow of traffic, casually joining in as if I were slipping onto a dance floor. They also offer the opportunity to deviate from the monotony of straight ahead cycling, leaning into the turn of the roundabout as gently or sharply as I choose.

If I were the writing type, I would have written a book on bicycling France by now. One of the chapters would be "The Joy of Roundabouts." The variety of their artistic flair has brought me many flashes of delight, especially during The Tour de France when roundabouts on the route are decorated with a bicycle theme, often truly grandiose and breathtaking. The effort the French put into fancying up their roundabouts testifies to their care for prettifying their environment. It is seen everywhere.

As the Tour de France is the ultimate bicycle race and Cannes the ultimate film festival, the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees offers up the ultimate roundabout. Circling about it one Friday evening with more than a hundred other cyclists on a Critical Mass was almost as thrilling as climbing L'Alpe d'Huez on race day with thousands of others.

America has yet to discover the practicality and the beauty of roundabouts. It was a great battle to install the roundabout to the entry of Telluride a few years ago, but now all heartily embrace it. It flourishes with wild flowers and is a nice introduction to the town, a town without a stop light.

Sheboygan's roundabout wasn't the only evidence of French influence or a French consciousness in this city of 50,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan. The unique preservation of its Carnegie Library was another. The French are very cognizant of their past, and do whatever they can to preserve or honor it. An essential strand of the French character is they "remember." They are happy to slap a plaque on any building that was the birth place or residence of someone who did something out of the ordinary. Many streets are renamed every few blocks to acknowledge someone of significance.

Though Sheboygan had long ago outgrown its Carnegie and replaced it with a much larger library one block away, they had not forgotten it. When it was constructed in 1901, it was the most magnificent building in town. It had deteriorated too much to make it financially feasible to restore. Rather than tear it completely down, its front wall was left standing, complete with the "Public Library" etched over its entry. Its former interior was now a park space and sculpture garden adjoining the town's Art Gallery. It was a most striking site, similar to an ancient Greek or Roman ruin. Of the more than one hundred Carnegies I have laid claim to so far in over a dozen states and several countries, this was the first such relic I had seen.

It was my third Carnegie in Wisconsin on this trip after seeing a few of its sixty-five others on its western and southern borders last November on my ride back from Telluride. I had visited two in Racine the day before. One was the former huge main library, now a historical museum. The other was a much smaller satellite library a mile away, now serving as a car dealership, a most ignominious use of a Carnegie.

The large library that replaced the Carnegie in Sheboygan "remembered" Carnegie, hanging his portrait just inside its entry. It was the usual portrait of him with an open book on his lap. I checked the small metal plate on the bottom of the painting. It said it was donated by the Carnegie Corporation in 1935. I had noticed the same plate on several of these portraits in libraries on my Indiana ride last week. Carnegie made no demands that his name be placed on any of the over 2,500 libraries he funded all over the world, or even to acknowledge him in any way, though most do in some form or another. Carnegie died in 1919. Evidently the Carnegie Corporation received so many requests from libraries for a portrait of him to hang, in 1935 on the 100th anniversary of his birth it offered this standard portrait. I have occasionally seen a different portrait, but didn't think to look closely to see if it was dated as these are. No librarian I have asked about the portraits go back as far as 1935 and, in fact, weren't even aware that their portrait had a date on it.

I was in such a gladdened state from my 150 mile ride and the roundabout and my Carnegie discoveries, I would have hardly been disappointed if the book that had drawn me to Sheboygan was not on the shelf. I still felt a sense of nervous anticipation as I approached the 796.6 bicycling section wondering if "The Sweat of the Gods" awaited me. When my eyes fell upon it, I immediately felt a great jolt of delight. According to worldcat.org the only other library in the United States to have it was 1,800 miles away in Emeryville, California at the end of the Amtrak line sandwiched between Oakland and Berkley. That is a library that I must most certainly visit, as it is the only library with quite a few cycling books of great appeal. It appears to have the best collection of cycling books in North America.

With "The Sweat of the Gods" in hand I plopped down at a table behind a bike-related "Read" poster with the slogan "Inspiration for the Imagination." It was a rare poster that didn't feature a celebrity (Oprah or Shaq or Barack or some movie star). I always scan the walls of every library I visit for an odd or original "Read" poster. One of Chicago's suburban libraries had made mock posters featuring each of its trustees urging its patrons to read. The Sheboygan library had the usual scattering of celebrity posters, but also a bike-related one starring a giant bicycle wheel with the small figure of a young woman laying face down on its tread reading a book and a young man standing on the spokes likewise reading.

I let them peer over my shoulder as I dove into "The Sweat of the Gods." The title was taken from an article written in 1951 by Pierre About for "L'Equipe" about the Swiss champion Hugo Koblet's dominant win in The Tour de France that year, winning by twenty-two minutes. Koblet was known as the "Pedaler of Charm" and was famous for carrying a comb with him at all times so he could tidy up his hair at the finish line of a race. This was in the era before television when racers were greatly mythologized by sports writers into heroic, god-like figures. About wrote that so great was Koblet that his sweat did not smell unpleasant, as "the sweat of the gods contains no urea."

Maso's meticulously researched book abounds with such fascinating anecdotes that I hadn't come across anywhere else in my reading or visits to the many bicycle museums of France. Koblet wasn't the only racer who nurtured his matinee idol looks. Maso revealed that Charles Pellisier in the 1920s introduced white socks to the peloton because they contrasted so beautifully with his tanned legs.

Maso is a clear devotee of the sport unearthing countless such tidbits. Like me, he has been frustrated by many of the inconsistencies he has come upon in his reading. His book traces the history of bicycle racing from its very beginning in 1868 up to 2003 when his book was published. His first chapter quotes a plaque in St. Cloud Park in Paris, a spot that claimed to have hosted the first bike race in France in 1868, won by the Englishman James Moore. Maso says that it was wrong on two counts. It was not the first race in France, nor was Moore the first winner, as there were two races held that day in the park and Moore was the winner of the second.

Moore was given credit for being the first winner, as he went on to have a more significant career than the man who won the first race, as he was the victor in the first long-distance race between two cities, Paris and Rouen, seventy-seven miles apart, the following year.

As he traces the history of bicycle racing he points out other inaccuracies in the lore of the sport. Most histories of The Tour de France claim the first time it sent the racers over a mountain pass was in its third edition in 1905 when it crossed the Ballon d'Alsace in the Vosges Mountains along the border with Germany. That has puzzled me ever since I biked over the Col de Republique outside of St. Etienne to pay homage to the bust of Velocio, the father of cycle touring, at its summit. That climb was included in the first two Tours. In the second edition hooligans assaulted the riders when they went over it.

Maso points out that the Col de Republique at 1,161 meters high is only seventeen meters lower than the Ballon and is an equally difficult climb. The reason the Ballon is considered the first climb is that Tour organizer Henri Desgrange hyped it before the third Tour as such a significant climb he wondered if the racers would be able to summit it without having to dismount their bikes. It was one of many examples of the race promoters trying to capture the public's interest while creating a mythic aura to the racers, elevating them to heroic status, "Giants of the Road," as Desgrange termed them on the eve of their arrival in Paris in the first Tour, when the magnitude of their achievement of bicycling around France in six stages caused a sensation throughout the country.

Maso also gives perspective to one of the most storied events in The Tour's history, Eugene Christophe repairing his broken fork in the 1913 Tour after breaking it on the descent of the Tourmalet. Maso says the incident was barely mentioned in the papers at the time, not wanting to malign the manufacturer of the bike, an important sponsor. Desgrange didn't mythologize the event until 1919 when Christophe suffered similar bad luck breaking another fork. Citing these two incidents he eulogized him as the unluckiest rider ever. He lost four hours to his first broken fork, ending the race fourteen hours behind the winner. But his broken fork in 1919 cost him victory in The Race, the year the yellow jersey was introduced with Christophe being the first one to wear it. Desgrange called upon his readers to send in donations to Christophe and thousands responded with more money than what the victor won.

Though the book is largely devoted to the Tour de France, other races are also mentioned. Like the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia was founded by a sporting newspaper to increase its sales six years after the Tour de France. France had two sporting daily newspapers that were in heated competition with one another at the time. The Italian sporting papers were only weeklies as 40% of Italy's population was illiterate. The Tour introduced the Pyrenees in 1910 and the Alps a year later. The roads in Italy were so rough, it wasn't until the l930s and l940s that the Giro included its high mountain passes in the Alps and the Dolomites.

Maso mentions that in 1982, as The Tour became increasingly commercialized, only nine of the twenty-two stages started in towns they finished in the day before, a new record for the fewest, as the organizers tried to spread stage starts and finishes in as many towns as they could, getting each to put up a hunk of money for the privilege. Since I began bicycling The Tour route eight years ago, I've felt lucky to have two or three such cities. Nine would be fantastic, but that is a luxury of the past. Those transfers are the bane of all Tour followers and participants.

Maso had previously written one other book on cycling, "We Were All Gods," on the 1948 Tour won by Gino Bartali. Unfortunately its not available in English, true of all too much of his source material. He certainly whetted my appetite to learn even more about the rich and seemingly depthless history of bicycle racing and the hold it has had on its fans. I am exhausting such books within a two day ride of Chicago. I will have to start going beyond a two hundred mile radius of Chicago for more. I could go east to Ohio to the libraries of Dayton, Oxford and Cleveland for books on my hit list, or west to Columbia and St. Louis in Missouri for a couple more. I know whichever I choose I will have a good ride and some good reading and a batch of more Carnegies. I can ask nothing more of life.

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