Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike"

One can often gain a fairly full understanding of the mentality and career of a racing cyclist based on the  various crying episodes his biography mentions.  So it is in the recently published "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike," by the English author William Fotheringham.

One might not expect too many tears from the cyclist known as "The Cannibal," a man universally considered the greatest cyclist of all time, winning 525 races, nearly a third of all those he started, but tears do mark some of the significant events in his career.

His first Tour de France conquest in 1969 was a display of unparalleled dominance never before seen nor likely ever to be rivalled. For the only time in The Race's history he not only won the Yellow Jersey but also the mountain and points competitions.  Even while wearing the Yellow Jersey with an invincible lead he took off on Stage 17 on the Tourmalet and rode 81 miles alone to further pad his lead by eight minutes, one of the most audacious feats in Tour history.

Merckx rode The Race like a man possessed, incensed that he had been ejected for a drug offense in the Giro d'Italia the month before after the 16th stage when he was on the verge of winning it for the second year in a row.  He insisted that he had been set up, as the Italians wanted one of their own to win their race.  A couple of days before his positive test he had been offered a huge sum of money to let up.  He refused.

The photo of the devastated Merckx in his hotel room in tears upon learning the news of his ejection probably ranks number two on the list of the Top Ten photos of cyclists in tears behind Rene Vietto perched on a stone wall in the 1934 Tour after having given up his front wheel to his teammate Antonin Magne.  The Merckx episode has come to be known as the Savona Affair, named for the city where he learned of his expulsion.  It led to a diplomatic crisis between Italy and Belgium.  He was later cleared of the charge but it prevented him from becoming the only six time winner of the Giro.

It wasn't the only time in his career he tested positive.   Another was after winning the Tour of Lombardy, also in Italy, in 1973 after having won it the previous two years.  This charge he did not deny, rather saying he accidentally ingested the stimulant ephedrine in some cough medicine.  No tears reported this time.  Fotheringham does not mention a third drug positive in the final year of his career in 1977 at the Fleche Wallonne for pemoline, a stimulant that a test had just been discovered for, catching Merckx and a bunch of others.

As tough and single-minded as Merckx was throughout his career, as a youth he had a tender and sensitive temperament.  He cried when he learned from his younger twin brother and sister that Santa Claus did not exist,and he cried so uncontrollably on his first day of school, his teacher, who was a friend of his grocer parents, had to bring him home.

His parents were at odds over whether to allow him to quit school and  pursue a career as a racer.  His father wished to let him give it a try, saying if it didn't work out, "maybe he'll come back in tears."  His father understood tears.  Merckx recounted that he would be brought to tears by his early triumphs.

Early in his career he was so frustrated at losing the 1966 World Championship to Rudi Altig in his second year as a pro, due to all the riders ganging up on him as a young upstart, that he retreated to his hotel room and cried for two hours and didn't think he ever wanted to race again.  Sounds like Mark Cavendish at the Beijing Olympics, a man who wants to eclipse Merck's record of 34 Tour de France stage wins.  The book says he should have 35, as he finished third on a stage in 1977 that the first and second placed riders were disqualified for testing positive.  But since Merckx hadn't been given a drug test after the stage, he couldn't be awarded the victory.

Fotheringham records that Merckx broke into tears during the 1970 Tour when he learned that his manager Enrico Giacotto had succumbed to lung cancer.  He says nothing about tears though when Merckx attended Tommy Simpson's funeral in 1967, just that he was the only continental pro to attend.  They had been teammates.  Simpson was an established pro, eight years older than Merckx, when he began his career.

The book also mentions tears when Merckx set the hour record at Mexico City. It was such an emotional effort that Piero Molteni, the sponsor of the Italian team he rode for much of his career, who was at track side,  was crying.

Fotheringham offers one other instance of Merckx making an Italian cry--Felice Gimondi in the 1968 Giro when Merckx defeated him on a snowy stage.  Gimondi was the defending champion.  He apologized to his fans in tears for letting them down.  Merckx considers that stage win his greatest victory ever in the mountains of a major tour.  It was the first of his eleven Grand Tour victories, more than any other cyclist.

This is Fotheringham's sixth book on cycling.  He knows it well.  Two of his previous books, a biography of Fausto Coppi and a history of the English in The Tour de France also mention more than a few incidents of tears, about the same as in this book. He fully realizes they are a hidden code to understanding his subject and their sport.  He goes so far as to quote a L'Equipe reporter after Merckx struggled painfully on a mountain stage in the 1977 Tour, the final of his career, that there were "no tearful scenes," just acceptance, that it marked the end of the Merckx era.

I  have been reading so many books on cycling the past few years, I have come to develop a checklist for small but telling aspects of the sport  revealed in these books that may not seem so important, receiving just passing mention, but are indeed quite significant, almost the hidden backbone of the sport.  Tears is one of those items.  Others  somewhat less prominent that receive even slighter emphasis than tears are pay-offs between riders in a race arranging the outcome, fans pushing racers on climbs,  minor doping offenses,  the time limit rules being relaxed, broken collarbones, the use of tobacco.

All receive a check in this book.  Fotheringham manages to include rarely reported instances that all contribute to defining the Merckx story. Besides the alleged Giro payoff in 1969 he  mentions Merckx taking a wad of money to the 1964 Olympics to pay his teammates to work for him.  Unfortunately his wallet was stolen and he couldn't pay for their loyalty so they all raced for themselves, allowing an Italian to win. Later he says there is no evidence that Merckx was ever involved in race fixing, as is common, as he always raced to win and didn't need to pay to insure it nor would accept pay-offs not to win.

Even when Merckx raced in the '60s and '70s there were doctors who recommended smoking to wind down after a race.  Merckx would occasionally indulge.  One of his climbing nemeses, Jose Manuel Fuente, would light up at a stage start just to prove his individuality and would even smoke during a race.

As with all of Fotheringham's books, I was entertained as well as informed by all manner of minor and major detail.  He clearly loves his subject and loves the research.   I greatly look forward to his next.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Overflow of Tears in Tim Hilton's Cycling Memoir "One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers"

English cyclist Tim Hilton is a genuine devotee of the bicycle.  He has twelve bikes stashed in his garden shed, all of which he claims to use at various times of the year.  He witnessed cycling deity Fausto Coppi race in Paris in his teen-aged years.  He calls 1959 his year of dreams--the year Federico Bahamontes won the Tour de France.  He was a serious enough cyclist at the time to be shaving his legs and riding 300 miles a week.  He loved to race and to follow racing, but he understood that "the real goal of cycling is happiness."

In 2004 he published his cycling memoirs, "One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers."  It is an ode not only to his devotion to the bicycle but also to bicycle racing.  He writes as much about the character and accomplishments of cycling greats who have inspired him as he does about his own bicycling experiences as a club rider.

Hilton establishes early on in his book that he has a sensitivity to tears. He acknowledges that the bike can "make you weep, especially when you're a teen-ager and don't understand your body." He warns that when one "bonks," it can make one cry.

He is well versed in the capacity of the bicycle to bring pleasure and its power to bring people together and to keep one young.  So strong is its ability to elevate and to bond, that during World War II, he says, English cyclists who served in the military carried two photos with them: one of a wife or girl friend, and the other of their cycling club.

His memoir underscores the deep emotional commitment cyclists have to their riding, no better manifested than the tears it can bring.  His book abounds with mentions of crying from the personal to the well documented, such as those of Rene Vietto in the 1934 Tour de France  perched on a stone wall having given up his front wheel to his team leader Antonin Magne, forlorn over losing his chance of winning The Race.

As a fan of British cyclists, he recounts many of their noteworthy achievements.  The first Brit to ride in The Tour de France was Charlie Holland in 1937, though he didn't finish the race.  As he suffered up the Galibier, unpaved and muddy from melting snow, he passed one rider sobbing by the roadside, unable to continue. It was extreme heat in the 1955 Tour that had "brave men walking and weeping" on Mont Ventoux.

Tears were rampant in the 1967 Tour after the death of Tom Simpson on the Ventoux.  Earlier he wrote of Simpson crying after the 1960 Paris-Roubaix, devastated that he hadn't won after leading the race in a break-away only to be caught shortly before the finish.  It was the first time the race had ever been carried on television.  That immense publicity, he said, helped Simpson overcome his tears.

He devotes chapters to the great English woman time trialists Eileen Sheridan and Beryl Burton.  Sheridan was driven to tears towards the end of her record breaking 1953 ride the length of Great Britain from Land's End to John O'Groats. Her coach and nurse accompanying her had tears of their own, witnessing her heroism.  Burton confesses to tears in her autobiography determined to keep up with a male counterpart on a training ride.

In recounting the career of Coppi he mentions his struggles in the 1951 Tour, grieving over the recent death of his brother in a cycling accident, weeping and sometimes not even able to control his bike.  Coppi was so idolized by his Italian fans, they would cheer and weep over his extraordinary exploits.

He claims that the fragile and temperamental French three-time winner of The Tour, Louison Bobet, had a "tearful and petulant nature."  Before his prime when he was competing against Coppi, his younger intellectual brother, who also raced and went on to be a journalist, advised him to skip the 1952 Tour, recognizing that the Swiss rider Hugo Koblet would win it but then fade away.  "And who will weep for him?" he asked.
Towards the end of the book he writes about attending Britain's junior road championships in 2000 to see the young prodigy Bradley Wiggins.  He confesses to being prone to weeping fits at the time.  He would have been weeping with joy if he had known Wiggins would go on to win The Tour de France twelve years later.   When he published the book in 2004 only 51 British cyclists had competed in The Tour, with most of them being overmatched, as only 21 were strong enough to finish.  No Brit had ever been a threat to win The Tour.

He has enough material from the past few Tours with Mark Cavendish establishing himself as the greatest sprinter of all time and Wiggins' win and the emergence of Christopher Froome to write another book. With all the bicycle books being published, there is certainly a market for it.  There were three new biographies alone of Eddie Merckx published this past year. The biggest challenge for his sequel will be to come up with a title as distinctive as "One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers."

It will also be a challenge to match all the obscure trivia he manged to sprinkle in.  Anyone searching for bicycle trivia questions will have plenty of material.

Here are a few:

A--Which French cyclist was known as "Le Clown?"
B: Which Tour winner became a florist in later life?
C: What was the real first name of Belgium world champion Stan Ockers?
D: Of his many victories, what was Jacques Anquetil most proud of?
E: Who was the first foreigner to win the Giro d'Italia?

A: Roger Hassenforder in the 1950s
B: Ferdi Kubler
C: Constant
D: Winning a bridge tournament in Rouen
E: Hugo Koblet in 1950