Monday, January 30, 2012
When he's old enough to start riding a bicycle, he'd ride his bike to school, "even in winter." On summer vacations he regarded his bicycle as his "freedom" allowing him to range all over. Among his destinations was the Dog n Suds, where he'd go for the Dog in a Basket with coleslaw, fries and root beer, something he regarded as a "spectacular feast." He'd also bike to an A & W Root Beer stand on his way out to Crystal Lake. When he was older he'd ride his bike around the university campus "studying the students."
He also mentions giving rides on his handlebars to his friend Donald, the lone "colored boy" in his Catholic grade school. It didn't seem out of place to him at the time that a nun said Donald was "just as precious as the rest of you in the eyes of God."
His commentary on the bicycle set the tone for these memoirs, a lot of random observations, not all of which were particularly relevant or well-developed, but that give some insight into the times he's writing about and what left an impression on him. Another typical example was his comment about a high school English teacher who was a bachelor. "It was conceivable he was gay," Ebert remembers, but offers no other reason to think so. Unfortunately, that great seminal moment in everyone's life of learning to ride a bicycle hadn't left enough of a memory to make the book.
He lost whatever bicycling consciousness he might have had growing up by the time he became a movie critic. The only bicycle in cinema reference he makes is to a movie he saw when he was a student at the University of Illinois, "The Immoral Mr. Teas" in 1961. It was the first Russ Meyer movie he saw, not knowing who Russ Meyer was, as Russ Meyer had yet to become a brand. It was Meyer's first commercially successful film and the first of the nudie-cuties, a genre that evolved from the nudist camp films, the first films to sneak blatant nudity past the censors. Mr.Teas is an early-day bicycle messenger delivering false teeth. He encounters various voluptuous women who he imagines completely nude. Ebert says this barely hour long film ran for nearly two years, ten times a day, in a small theater near the campus and was a right of passage for students.
Rather than making it an outing with his frat brothers, he went on his own "hoping to slip in unwitnessed." One might have thought he would have been accompanied by a gang of his frat brothers, especially considering they would serenade sororities with the song "Phi Delta Theta Girl" that included the lyric, "If you were the kind that sold, you'd be worth your weight in gold." His frat experience is another minor confession that he wasn't comfortable with even at the time, eventually moving back home.
Ebert could hardly have imagined when he was watching with bulged eyes "Mr Teas" that he would become a good friend of Russ Meyer and write a screenplay for him--"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." He devotes a chapter of his book to him, concluding with his funeral. During the preacher's droning eulogy, Ebert's wife Chaz whispers to him, "If you don't go up there and say something Russ will come out of his coffin and strangle you." So he does.
This was one of several chapters on prominent people in film he respected or had a close relationship with. Others who warranted a chapter were Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. Herzog is a true favorite of his, a man's whose work he "instinctively identifies with." He says Herzog is the rare film-maker who brought meaning to his life. He laments that all too much of his life "has been devoted to films of worthlessness." He recounts a conversation he had with Herzog at the Telluride Film Festival. Elsewhere, Ebert has called Telluride his favorite film festival, a festival he never missed until he became ill. His enthusiastic endorsement was what inspired me to attend for the first time twenty years ago. Like many who go once, I've never missed another and even joined its staff.
I hoped there would be an entire chapter on Telluride affirming it as the ultimate film-going experience that it is. I was so eager to read what he had to say about Telluride, when I got my hands on his book, I immediately went to the index and looked up Telluride. There was just this one brief mention and with the misinformation that Herzog attends the festival every year. He is a frequent guest, but on occasion he's off filming something and can't attend. The index failed to list one other Telluride reference. In his chapter on his alcoholism he reveals he'd attend AA meetings when he was in Telluride.
I can affirm though that Ebert did not exaggerate when he wrote that he has a great affection for dogs and can hardly resist giving a dog a pet when he sees one. I once crossed paths with Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival. We were walking towards each other down a side street when he came upon a dog in the back of a pick up truck. I was surprised he wasn't in a rush to get to his next screening, as I was, and paused to give the dog a hello and a pet.
He said he had two dogs when he was growing up, Blackie and Ming. He complained that he was restricted as to what he could name his dogs as he'd been told in his Catholic religion class that one couldn't give a dog a saint's name, "such as Max," as dogs didn't have souls. This made a big enough impression on him that he mentions it twice within 25 pages. Its not the only time he repeats himself.
Not as much of the book is about Gene Siskel as one might suspect. He waits until the 41st chapter, three-fourths of the way into the book, before giving him more than a passing reference. But then he pays him full respect. One of his final chapters is on Studs Turkel, who he calls the "greatest man I knew well." He also gives accolades to Chicago columnists Mike Royko and Jon Anderson. I was particularly interested in his comments on Anderson, as he once attended a slide show I gave about bicycling across India and wrote a column about it. Ebert visited London at least once a year and even wrote a book about walking tours there. He tells of going to a strip club in London with Anderson. Anderson was married to a Rockefeller and had the money to indulge in any whim he desired. At one point he called out, "Waiter! Blow jobs for everybody."
Of all the people he interviewed, none was more extraordinary than Dolly Parton, someone Russ Meyer most certainly appreciated. "As we spoke," Ebert recounted, "I was filled with a strange ethereal grace. This was not spiritual, nor was it sexual. It was healing or comforting." He said Siskel had had the identical experience when he interviewed her, and it was something they would refer to from time to time in wonder.
Ebert manages to insert a Mayor Daley anecdote into his memoirs as well. He tells of he and Chaz having dinner with the Mayor and his wife and Robert Altman. Altman was a bit late and arrived with a strong scent of marijuana. Ebert says, "Daley raised his eyebrows at me and smiled." And that is all we learn of their meal together. There may not be as much in depth commentary on cinema or bicycling, or self-reflection, as some would have hoped for, but these memoirs still have much to offer.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
A year ago "Cycle Sport," a British magazine that is one of my favorite monthly reads, published a list of the greatest fifty cycling books of all time. I'd read half of them and knew of many of the others, but not all. England has a much richer history of books on cycling than America, so most of those I hadn't read were English publications, some of which were translations of the great French cycling books. I wanted to read them all.
Most I could have acquired through Amazon. The price of some scared me off, but also the lack of space on my already overflowing book shelves. I try to limit my book acquisitions to one or two a year. I always have plenty to read, so I was willing to patiently await these books.
When Elizabeth revealed worldcat.org to me when I was visiting her at Northwestern's Chicago campus Shaffner Library, I instantly began typing in titles from that list. I was overwhelmed with excitement to discover that many of them were miraculously nearby in various suburban and university libraries. I could have enlisted Elizabeth's services to acquire any of them on inter-library loan, something she was happy and willing to do. It wouldn't even have been a favor, because as a card-carrying alumnus of Northwestern, I am entitled to such privileges.
But I am above all a bicyclist. I am ever eager to pounce on the opportunity to ride my bike anywhere, especially for something that excites me. One winter I made it a mission to bicycle to every one of Chicago's 75 branch libraries, some twenty miles or more away. That led to my on-going quest to bicycle to the 1,689 Carnegie libraries scattered all over the U.S.
I have had the lingering desire to bike to Chicago's many suburban libraries. Seeking some of these books would give me that opportunity. Far better, anyway, to go to a book, than have it brought to me. Making the effort to search it out, to pluck it from its shelf, always enhances the enjoyment of a book. I love that moment of spotting and reaching for a title I've long yearned for. Going to a book also provides the chance of discovering other books alongside the one that I have come for that I might want to read.
In my pile of books to read were two of Samuel Abt's books on cycling that I had acquired in the past few months through paperbackswap, an on-line book trading service. Abt has written eleven books on cycling while covering the Tour de France and European cycling for the "New York Times" beginning in 1977. Some of the books are just collections of his stories, but still worth reading. Only one of his books made "Cycle Sport's" top fifty list--"LeMond, The Incredible Come Back of An American Hero." I had already read that and four other of his books, some from the holdings of the Chicago Public Library system.
Though his racing savvy does not match that of his European counterparts, I still read his books, starved as I am for books on cycling, and had a goal of reading all eleven of his books. I gave immediate thanks to Elizabeth and worldcat when I learned that two of the four books of his that I hadn't been able to get my hands on could be found in suburban libraries--one in Park Ridge and the other in Riverside. Of the other two, one was 113 miles away in Bloomington, Illinois and the other 141 miles away in Marion, Indiana, bike rides to look forward to in the future.
I was particularly pleased to have reason to bike out to Park Ridge, as its former library was a Carnegie built in 1909. It still stood, across the street from the new library, now home to an insurance company and a hair salon. And going out to Park Ridge rewarded me with another cycling book I was unaware of--"Eat, Sleep, Ride" by Englishman Paul Howard about riding the 2,800 mile continental divide race from Canada to Mexico. I did not know of this book, though I had read Howard's two other books on cycling--a biography of Jacques Anquetil that I wrote about last month and a book about riding the Tour de France route, both very good reads.
So I had a very pleasant two days at the Park Ridge library reading these two books. Then it was on to the Riverside library for another of Abt's books. The library was a magnificent, eighty-year old, stone chateau of a building, in a small town atmosphere. It was a rare library these days without magnetic strips in its books to guard against their theft. The bike rack had a sign reminding people that they ought to lock their bikes and offering locks inside if one didn't have one. One could sit in a leather chair and read while gazing through a forest of trees upon the Des Plaines River. It was a most tranquil setting, belying the surrounding metropolitan sprawl, another satisfying experience I wouldn't have had if I hadn't biked out for the book.
Though I have cycling biographies of Bernard Hinault to go after in Downer's Grove and Laurent Fignon in Elmhurst and Stephen Roche in Schaumberg and a book on the Spring Classics in Skokie and the Coppi-Bartoli duel in the 1949 Giro in Joliet and a cultural history of the Tour de France at Northwestern and at the nearby Evanston library a translation of "Giants of Cycling" by the great French cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier, who has written fifty books on cycling, the book I was most eager to read next was "Slaying the Badger" at the University of Chicago. It too was written by an English author I had read before, Richard Moore, whose first book was a biography of the Scottish rider Robert Millar, a former team mate of Greg LeMond who had somewhat disappeared amidst speculation that he had undergone a sex change. The book was worthy of the awards it had won.
Hinault was so grateful to LeMond that he told him, "Next year it is your turn," and promised to devote all his energies to helping LeMond win. There was much speculation before the 1986 race whether Hinault would live up to that promise, especially with the possibility of becoming the first six-time winner of The Tour. At that point only he and Jacques Anquetil and Eddie Merkx were in the elite club of five, later to be joined by Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong. Hinault didn't seem to be living up to his promise when he attacked on the first mountain stage and took a seemingly insurmountable five minute advantage. LeMond was devastated by this apparent betrayal.
The Race went back and forth. One of its seminal moments came later in the Alps after LeMond had secured the yellow jersey and he and Hinault rode together up L'Alpe d'Huez well ahead of everyone else. Moore argues their arm-to-arm finish at the summit is one of the greatest moments in the history of all sport.
He personalizes his narrative, describing in detail his visits with LeMond and Hinault at their homes, giving the impression that he would have been happy to have written this book for the mere pleasure of it and without any compensation. He says it wasn't easy to arrange all the interviews, but the only principal he failed to interview was the team owner, Bernard Tapie, a Donald Trump, larger-than-life character, who spent time in jail for fixing soccer matches after his few years in bicycling. He still manages to give a thorough portrait of Tapie, highly recommending the documentary "Who is Bernard Tapie?"
Moore has a great facility for making his subjects fully open up to him. LeMond felt so comfortable with him that he mentions in an aside that when he was standing on the podium on the Champs Elysees after his victory the thought crossed his mind wondering if the uncle who had molested him as a youth was watching. Hampsten tells him, "I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone." On a stage in the mountains Hampsten was in a small lead group with LeMond, but not Hinault. Just as the final climb began Hampsten surged ahead to lead LeMond out and to push the other riders to their limit. The others couldn't keep up. LeMond didn't chase after Hampsten, leaving that to the other riders so he wouldn't overly exert himself. When Kochli saw what was happening, he drove up along side Hampsten, as this was before the riders had radio communication with their director, and instead of reprimanding him told him to keep riding hard and to go for the stage win and yellow jersey. He said, "Your two big-headed teammates are bickering over it like its their privilege. The best thing for this team would be for you to take the Yellow Jersey tonight." Hampsten kind of laughed to himself, as he knew he didn't have the energy to sustain his effort, he was just going for a short spurt to try to shake things up, as he was totally loyal to LeMond.
She was subjected to all sorts of harassment. She said the great Italian rider Francesco Moser came by before a stage and asked her to work on his legs. She didn't know who he was and initially scoffed. When she realized it was Moser, she did oblige him and was mightily impressed by his legs. "They were different to my guys," she said. Hinault too checked her out at that Giro. She learned that he liked cherries, just like Ron Kiefel, one of her American riders. She always tried to have a bowl full to please Kiefel and then would offer a few to Hinault whenever she saw him. "It was our little secret," she said. "It was adorable."
But she was utterly appalled by Hinault's back-stabbing, viper-like treatment of LeMond at the '86 Tour. Moore says that she didn't initially reveal how disturbed she was by Hinault's behavior in their first interview, and felt guilty about it. She emailed him later and said she hadn't been strong enough in her disdain of Hinault's behaviour, comparing him to a virtual Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini.
Hampsten agrees that Hinault wasn't very honorable in that Tour but also says, "I don't think he could have been nicer as a teammate. He was just so frickin' nice." Another ex-teammate, the Dane Kim Anderson, who was the Leopard Trek team director of the Schleck brothers last year, said, "I would die for that man."
The book is a deep mine of juicy observations and telling detail that reveal mountains of insight into the sport of bicycle racing and its gladiators. It was a great, great read and made even greater to be reading it in a carol at one of the premier collegiate libraries in the world. It wasn't easy to gain entrance to the University of Chicago library either. I had to get an Info Pass from the Chicago Public Library stating that they could not procure the book for me before they'd allow me in.
According to worldcat.org the next nearest library with a copy of "Slaying the Badger" is at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 204 miles away. The book is such an exhilarating read, I would gladly bicycle that far to read it. I wanted to find out who had procured the book for the University of Chicago and give him my heartiest thanks, and also to ask who was responsible for all the other great cycling books in their collection, some in French, Italian, Dutch and German. I'll be back for a history of Italian cycling and a few others. And I also greatly look forward to Moore's next book on cycling.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
George Christensen Critiques Our book “On Bicycles”
By John Greenfield On January 2, 2012 · 2 Comments
For many Grid Chicago readers, George Christensen needs no introduction. A longtime Chicago bike messenger, George is one of Chicago’s best-traveled bicyclists, having toured dozens of countries on two wheels. A movie buff, he attends many of the world’s great film fests as well, and every year he rides the entire Tour de France route. You can read about his amazing adventures on the blog George the Cyclist. When I asked Christensen to write a guest post for Grid Chicago he offered the following review of On Bicycles (New World Library 2011), a new anthology by Amy Walker, to which local author Greg Borzo and I contributed chapters.
‘Tis the season for reading and there is no shortage of bike literature out there these days. The best selection in the city can be found at Barnes and Noble at Webster and Clybourn. Besides a slew of bike magazines, it offers nearly two shelves of books on the bike, covering it all--racing, touring, fitness, mechanics and advocacy.
One that encompasses a range of topics, appealing to perhaps the widest demographic, is On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life. An equally appropriate subtitle, as suggested by Where to Bike Chicago author Greg Borzo, one of the book’s 34 contributors, might have been “50 Ways To Leave Your Car.” The book is a collection of 50 articles, 25 by women and 25 by men, edited by Amy Walker, a true cycling evangelist, who wrote nine of the pieces. Walker co-founded the bicycling magazine Momentum in 2001, and served as one of its publishers, editors and writers for ten years.
She could have easily written this book herself, but instead enlisted the expertise of a host of authorities: many journalists who have written on bicycling for years along with various specialists including a lawyer, an architect, a professor, a few planners, a mechanic, and an “enchanted unicorn.” Many of the writers are from Vancouver, where Momentum is published, and the U.S. West Coast, especially Portland, but Chicago is represented by not only Borzo, but John Greenfield, a name familiar to those who follow this website.
It is a fine mix of informative journalistic pieces and poetic odes, some that could serve as sermons to be read aloud at congregations of those faithful to the bike. They all share a passion and commitment to the bicycle. Even the more whimsical and wacky pieces offer well-reasoned and convincing arguments why everyone should bicycle more.
The book is divided into four sections: “All the Right Reasons,” “Gearing Up,” “Community and Culture,” and “Getting Serious.” There are practical, informative, advice-laden pieces on subjects such as biking with children, how to behave in a bike shop, cargo bikes, folding bikes and so on. Walker describes herself as someone who likes to bike in the rain and has a chapter on that subject. There is also a chapter by a former bike rebel who writes of the joy of completely coming to a stop at every stop sign she encounters.
There is a good balance between heavily footnoted articles (Kristen Steele had the most with 17), and those that are just breezily entertaining. Nothing was so ponderous, except perhaps the article on internal hubs, that I was anxious for the next article. There were times the writing sent me to Google to find what else the author had written.
John Pucher, a professor at Rutgers University, praised Chicago’s bike rack installment program and the bike station in Millennium Park. Chicago’s supply of bike-parking spaces of 1,121 per 100,000 residents outnumbers most American cities. Portland has 725, San Francisco 466, and New York a measly 75. But they are all measly compared to Amsterdam’s 30,271 and Copenhagen’s 6,960.
However, Chicago lags behind when it comes to bike routes physically separated from motor vehicles, with just two kilometers per 100,000 residents. San Francisco has six and New York three. Once again American cities are quite pitiful compared to Europe. Copenhagen has a staggering 76, Amsterdam 61 and Berlin 33.
Borzo’s thorough article on bike-sharing programs around the world lists a handful of entities in Chicago that offer bike sharing to their employees, tenants and students: the Field Museum, SRAM, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago, Saint Xavier University and Loyola University.
An article on traveling with a bicycle by Shawn Granton gave a brief description of cycling in seven American and Canadian cities. Here’s what he said about Chicago: “The traffic can be intimidating, but there are scads of bike routes and fun settings of postindustrial decay. And it’s flat.”
Chicago receives one other mention in a highly entertaining semi-rant on freak bikes by Megulon-5. He traces the manufacture of tall bikes back to the late 1800s in Chicago. They were built for lamplighters to ride to turn streetlights on and off.
The book is mostly a positive screed extolling the virtues of the bike, though there is a certain amount of anti-car rhetoric. Lori Kessler, an architect, in a piece on designing cities for bikes wrote, “Hell isn’t other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested. Hell is other people’s cars.” Another article quoted an American Automobile Association statistic that Americans spend on average $9,641 each year on their cars. Other authors cited the tons and tons of pollutants cars spew. One of the wilder statistics was the amount of space it would take to park all the cars in America–about the size of New Hampshire.
As thorough and as fine a rallying cry as "On Bicycles" is for the bicycle, it overlooks one aspect of the bicycle movement that all such books ignore, the decline of the bicycle in former bicycle bastions such as China and Vietnam and before long Cuba. At one time bicycling advocates held these countries up as prime examples of a people embracing the bicycle. Unfortunately, once those countries began to enjoy some prosperity its citizens immediately abandoned their bicycles and upgraded to motor cycles and then automobiles, defying the supposition that one who has enjoyed the many positives of the bicycle will embrace it for life.
Two years ago I spent two months bicycling three thousand miles all over China. I hardly saw anyone on a bicycle until I reached Beijing, where some vestiges still hold out. The most stunning site I saw during those travels was a French-style bike rental program in Wuhan, a car-clogged city of ten million people. The Chinese government had the sense to try to get people back on the bike, but they weren't succeeding very well. These were people who less than ten years ago were all bicyclists. Instead, they were now all confined to cars creeping along at a few miles per hour while I and one or two others flew by on bicycles. Those motorists should have been abandoning their cars in righteous indignation left and right and flocking back to their bikes. Theoretically, they were a people who knew the sense, if not the joy, of the bike, but unfortunately they had forgotten.
The Chinese are a very practical people, but also as status-consciousness as any, preferring the misery of their proof of success to the sensibility of the bicycle. They are as prone to that all too common misconception that it is nicer to be sitting in the so-called comfort of a temperature-controlled car listing to the radio or talking on a cell phone than breezing along on a bike, getting some exercise and feeling free and not harming the environment. Walker and her gang can make countless arguments trying to reason with such a mentality, but not to much avail.
"On Bicycles" and other such books presume it is enough to give people adequate bike lanes and parking to get them on a bike. There is much more to overcome than that. Thousands get a taste of bicycle bliss during Bike to Work Day and Week. Nearly all rave how much they love it, but hardly any stick to it. David Bryne in his "Bicycle Diaries" said he couldn't convince his teen-aged daughter to bike, largely because she didn't think it was cool. There is a huge perceptional barrier to overcome. That and human nature. Let's face it, people are inclined to sloth and comfort and their present predicament. We who do bike know how practical and logical and energizing and uplifting it is. But that is a personality trait not common to all. Even in the cycling mecca countries cyclists are a minority. The best cyclists can hope for here is to be less of the microscopic minority than we are now. "On Bikes" is a book that can increase our numbers, though probably not by much.