Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Electrical Tape (the New Porn) and Samuel Abt Revealed

Having just completely my fifth tour of the U.S. since September, I can declare that roadside porn is virtually extinct, killed off by the Internet.  It used to be I couldn't take a tour in the U.S. without finding a girlie magazine along  the road discarded by some traveling salesman or trucker who couldn't bring such a thing home. The ease and proliferation and cheapness of porn on the Internet has made the print version almost unnecessary. In these five recent tours, encompassing over a dozen states, totaling  nearly six thousand miles, I didn't see a single such item.

My last spotting was in October of 2008 in southern Illinois with Waydell on the way to Alabama.  I'm not quite prepared to state that roadside porn has gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, but that time is drawing near. "Playboy" and "Hustler" and such used to be one of the three most common items I'd find when touring in the U.S. along  with bandannas and bungee cords.  It wasn't an official tour until I'd found one of each.

The passing of porn has almost simultaneously been accompanied by the emergence of  black electrical tape on the roadside to become one of the Big Three.  It was, in fact, the only one of the three that I found on each of my recent U.S. tours.  It is a most useful item.  I have always carried some in my emergency kit.

Though I am well stocked with tape, my scavenging nature does not allow me to pass up any I come upon, or anything of use at all for that matter.  If I can't make use of something myself, I am glad to give it to someone who can or leave it somewhere for someone else to find.  I always stop for sun glasses though they are useless for me, needing a prescription pair.  I leave them in libraries beside the stack of free magazines at their entry, the same as I did a framed montage of graduation pictures of some high school student.  Clothes I drape where they will be spotted.  I generally keep whatever money I find.

Where all these rolls are coming from I can not say.  They could be a byproduct of the recession.  Rather than replacing a broken part people are trying to hold it together with tape.  The rolls could be flying out of the back of pick-up trucks or falling off the top of cars after someone has used it and forgotten to put it in their pocket.  Or they could be another by-product of the Internet age along with the death of girlie mags with all the cable needed to be wrapped and people simply not safeguarding their roll when they are finished with it.

The Internet has changed our lives in more ways than we realize. This could be another.  It certainly draws me to libraries, but no more than ever, unlike quite a few who now make it the main reason for their visit to a library.  That can not be said though for those who visit the library in Royal Center, Indiana, a small town of less than one thousand people.  Its nearly century-old library has yet to join the Internet Age. It is a Carnegie library as true to its original state as any to be found, computer-free and without handicap access or any addition.  It was one of only three of the seventeen I sought out on this trip that had not needed an addition.

As with quite a few small towns it is doubtful Royal Center ever would have gained a library without Carnegie's contribution.  Its residents would simply have made do with the large Carnegie in Logansport ten miles away, a magnificent two-story white limestone edifice with "Free to All" inscribed over its entry and "Longfellow, Emerson, St. Paul, Homer and Shakespeare" (evidently the Big Five of the time) chiseled up near the roof.  It had been seamlessly expanded with the ageless huge limestone blocks common to Indiana.  The children's section had a magical "Read" poster proclaiming, "It casts a spell on you," not unlike these Carnegies.

The Marion Carnegie was another constructed of large limestone blocks, though it now housed a museum.  The new library was attached to it, but built in featureless glass and concrete.  I spent half a day there between the pages of the final of the three cycling books that had launched these travels-- Samuel Abt's "A Season in Turmoil," about the 1994 racing season.  It was Greg LeMond's last year of racing and the year that Lance Armstrong spent wearing the World Championship jersey having won it at the end of the previous season.

And with it, I have completed my mission to read all eleven of Abt's books on racing. Nine of them can be found at libraries in the Chicago metropolitan area.  This book was no different than any of the others, largely a collection of articles he had written for the "New York Times" and the "International Herald Tribune" while serving at their Paris bureau. Like the others, the articles are often repetitious, not editing out redundant information.

For years Abt was the only American writer covering The Tour de France, beginning in 1977 and continuing to 2007.  An American covering The Tour was such a rarity that The Tour de France gave him a medal for distinguished service to The Race, the only American to receive one.  The first of his eleven books was published in 1985 and the last in 2005.

He had been assigned to the Paris bureau in 1971.  He claimed to be a sports fan, but did not bother to give The Tour a glimpse until 1977, even though The Tour concluded in Paris every year.  That was almost irresponsible journalism to neglect this great cultural event.  It has been said that one can not understand America without attending a baseball game.  It can likewise be said that one can not fully understand the French without witnessing The Tour de France and how its populace respond to it.  Once he did, he immediately fell in love with it, but those six years of neglect are a stain on his journalistic credentials.

He admitted that he chose to go mushroom hunting one year rather than accompany his girl friend, who was a fan of The Tour, to see its finish in Paris. This despite the fact that he had never gone mushroom hunting before and never did again.  The year was 1974, the last year that Eddie Merckx won The Race and also the last year that it finished in the Vincennes velodrome.  It has concluded on the Champs Elysees every year since.  It was quite a historic year.  He greatly regrets having missed it. 

As the sole American covering The Tour for years, he became good friends with both LeMond and Armstrong.   "A Season in Turmoil" was dedicated to LeMond's parents Bob and Bertha and LeMond's wife Kathy, almost as a consolation to them, as the year before LeMond had had a major falling out with his parents, firing his father from heading his bicycle business.  LeMond feared his mother would never speak to him again.

Abt had earlier written a flattering biography of LeMond.  After reading it the somewhat insecure LeMond commented to Abt with a shy smile, "You really like me."  Abt's response was, "Like a son, Greg, like a son."

He likewise connected with the cocky and brash Armstrong.  When he interviewed Armstrong in his home as he was recovering from cancer, Armstrong commented to him that he was very proud to be an American and won the world championship for all of America as much as for himself.  Abt jokingly replied, "You ought to let every American wear the jersey for a day."  Armstrong excused himself and came back with a signed replica of the jersey and presented it to Abt as a gift.

As much as Abt has learned about bike racing and The Tour over the years, he is much less of an authority than his French and English counterparts who grew up with the sport.  For anyone well-versed in cycling lore, Abt's books can be frustrating at times with their many errors and less than full understanding of the sport, some trivial and some quite significant.  Whenever I read one of his books, I am always cringing at what next he will get wrong, or not quite right.

In the  book I was presently reading he states that the German fan Didi Senf, who dresses up as The Devil, was a fan of the Italian Claudio Chiappucci, whose nickname was The Devil.  I have come to know Didi over the years. His costume had nothing to do with Chiappucci.  It was inspired by the German euphemism for the final kilometer of a race, known as "The Red Devil," as each racer suffers the throes of Hades summoning every last ounce of energy to get to the line before the next guy.  Abt also perpetuates the myth that Mont Ventoux takes its name from "wind,"  a common mistake of the ill-informed.  The proper etymology is "Vinturi," from the Ligurian root "ven," meaning mountain. 

This book was edited by John Wilcockson for VeloPress, so it doesn't have any of the racing faux pas that frequently turn up in his books.  In "Breakaway" and "Three Weeks to Glory" he states that Octavio Lapize shouted "Assassins" in rage at Henri Desgrange at the base of the Aubisque in 1910 for sending the racers into the Pyrenees for the first time.  Desgrange was in Paris and not at The Race and most reports site this incident as occurring at the summit of the climb.   An even more flagrant mistake is Abt falsely placing the Desgrange monument on the Telegraph climb rather than the Galibier in "Three Weeks to Glory."

In another book he refers to the four monuments of cycling--its most significant one-day races.  There are in fact five.  In the book I read earlier in these travels, "Pedaling for Glory," he states that the Paris-Roubaix race is known as "The Hell of the North" because of the rough cobblestones on the route.  That is another mistake frequently made by those without a full knowledge of the sport.  A reporter from "L'Equipe" pinned that nickname on Paris-Roubaix after WWI as the countryside was so pocked and marred by the fighting that had taken place there that it looked like hell.

A caption in that book states that Abraham Olano is wearing a world champion jersey.  He is actually wearing the orange-striped Spanish champion jersey.  A caption in "Champion" on Miguel Indurain shows him on the podium being kissed by two podium girls.  They are identified as "admirers."  Sadly, it goes on and on.

He states that the Tour route is usually counter-clockwise. That is far from the truth. It generally alternates the direction it takes around the country with the Alps preceding the Pyrenees one year and the Pyrenees having the honor the next. He says racers are sent off in two minute intervals in time trials when it is one minute except for the last few.  This is basic, first grade material. If Abt were working for a French newspaper and made such mistakes he would be relegated to covering grade school soccer.

He's not fully consistent when referring to the great French daily sports paper "L'Equipe." He is respectful enough to mention it with regularity, but on occasion he forgets to include the "L" that is a part of its title. And it is a minor irritant that he has to identify it as a "French sports newspaper" just about every time he mentions it, rather than assuming at a certain point that his readers know.


Still, his books are not without value.  They just mightily pale in comparison to the books of those true cycling titans of the keyboard such as the French contingent of Antoine Blondin, Philippe Bouvet, Jean-Paul Ollivier, Pierre Chany, Philippe Brunel and the English writers Graeme Fife, Les Woodland, Richard Moore and Matt Rendell.   Unfortunately, America has yet to produce a cycling writer of their caliber.  We were lucky to have anyone covering cycling for years, and for that cycle racing fans can be grateful to Samuel Abt.  He tried his best, but he certainly doesn't measure up to his counterparts on the other side of the pond.


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