Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Ride with the Bike Snob of New York

Eben Weiss, the notorious BikeSnobNYC blogger, stopped by Chicago on his promotional tour for his second book "The Enlightened Cyclist" a couple of nights ago. His appearance at On the Route bike shop was preceded by a 15 mile ride, mostly along Lake Michigan, from the Tati bike shop in Hyde Park on the city's south side not far from President's Obama's house.

When I arrived at Tati shortly before six the tiny shop was crammed with about 20 cyclists surrounding Eben making awkward small talk. The bearded, burly Eben was wearing a cycling cap such as he advertises on his blog and burdened with a hefty black backpack. With no one having much to say I helped fill in the silences with a brief interchange on this weekend's Tour of Flanders and asking if we'd be passing the President's house. Eben didn't know about the proximity of Obama's house and was delighted that it would be part of his Chicago experience.

We rode double file for several blocks to the lake front bike path with Eben near the front of the pack. I drafted his wheel for the first few miles waiting for the opportunity to slip up alongside him for a chat. We were both riding Surlys with clipless pedals, he the version with couplers so he could disassemble it and pack it for flights without charge and me on my Long Haul Trucker. There was no specific conversational rotation. It wasn't until we passed Soldier Field that at last he was momentarily unflanked by another and it was my turn for a few words.

His first book was so thick with movie mentions that one blurb on the book commented. "You'll probably think he's seen too many movies for his own good." So I began, "Does your latest book have as many movie references as the first?"

He said there weren't. Then I asked if he knew anything about the Hollywood messenger movie "Premium Rush" filmed in New York that was supposed to have been released in August, but has been delayed. He said he had friends who were involved with it but didn't know much about it other than it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In his first book he said that the ridiculous "Quicksilver" with Kevin Bacon was the only bicycle messenger movie ever made. I didn't correct him on that figuring that countless others had, but simply asked if he had ever seen "Two Seconds," a much more authentic French Canadian messenger movie from 1998 that was good enough to have played at Sundance. He hadn't, nor was he even aware of it. When I began describing it to him, he thought he might have seen a clip of it on youtube.

Since he'd worked as a messenger in New York, I wondered if he knew a couple of friends of mine from Chicago who had gone on to New York. He said he had only messengered for six months and that was back in l996. He had mentioned in his first book how much he enjoyed being a messenger. I asked if it was the best job he'd ever had, as he had written. At first he said yes, but then corrected himself saying that he really likes writing and would have to say what he is doing now is the best job he's ever had.

His five-day a week blog posts are so prodigiously long and cover such a wide-range of topics I wondered if he published elsewhere other than his monthly column for "Bicycling" magazine. That's it, other than working on a third book, evidently involving his young son, soon to turn two. He said he had written for "Outside" magazine for a spell, but didn't particularly enjoy that experience as its editors kept trying to dictate his writing, unlike "Bicycling" who let him be himself. "That's what is so great about blogging, I can write about whatever I want," he added.

I wondered about his freelancing, as I'd seen a piece of his in "VeloNews" a few years ago as an "At the Back" feature. I told him that when I saw it I was hoping that he might be taking over that column that had been made famous by Maynard Hershon. He was too, but it didn't work out. I mentioned that I too had had an "At the Back" column published in "VeloNews" a year or so after his. That piqued his interest. I told him it was about my scavenging a Tour de France course marker for Christian Vande Velde, and riding out to his house in a Chicago suburb to give it to him and what a genuinely nice guy he was. Then the conversation turned to me and my riding the Tour de France and being a messenger and traveling the world.

That reminded me I had a souvenir from the Tour de France for him, a Festina reflective band he could wrap around his wrist or ankle that I had collected from the publicity caravan preceding the race. He wrapped it around his handlebar.

We were still talking when we reached Wilson Avenue and had to leave the bike path and head to On the Route. There were another couple dozen cyclists awaiting us when we reached our destination a little behind schedule at 7:40. The bike shop didn't have a screen for his presentation, as he said had happened in Madison the day before, so he just used his computer as a prompter for his fifteen minute presentation that centered on bicyclists creating a religion to promote their cause. Not only would it provide them with tax-exempt status, but would also allow them to charge drivers who hit them with committing a hate crime.

Then he fielded questions for nearly half an hour from his very appreciative and mostly male audience. One woman observed that she was in a distinct minority and wondered if that had been true at all his presentations. He didn't really have an answer. Nor did he have an answer when someone asked how many bikes he has and where he stores them, giving a glimpse of his testy side that comes out in his blogging. His posts regularly receive over 100 comments, many of them as acerbic as his writing. I asked if he ever deletes comments that go too far. The only comments he deletes are spam promoting some product. "I didn't even delete comments that identified me back when I was anonymous," he said.

Someone else asked how he managed to avoid repeating himself in his second book. "I used different words," he said, drawing the biggest of his many laughs.

(The Snob wrote about his Chicago experience several days later on April 3. It includes a photo of me shot over his shoulder along the bike path, though there is no mention that the guy in the blue jacket presented him with a souvenir from the Tour de France on the ride. I was never more than half a wheel from him the entire ride. I was so engrossed in conversation with him that somehow I missed the wave that he says "nearly washed us out into the Atlantic or Pacific or whatever ocean it is that's next to Chicago.")

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.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rochester, Indiana

Friends: I had stopped to fill my water bottles at a park on the outskirts of Rochester, Indiana. When I turned back to my bike a man with a flourishing gray beard and a huge camera was approaching me.

"Mind if I take your picture?" he asked. "I'm with the local paper. I was out here photographing an eagle nesting out beyond the lake. Touring cyclists are about as rare around here as eagles. Where are you headed?"

"I'm on my way to Chicago. I'm on a 400 mile loop to Fort Wayne and back. The Fort Wayne library has the best collection of cycling books in the mid-west. Its the only library within 200 miles of Chicago with biographies of Fausto Coppi and Bradley Wiggins. After Wiggins won Paris-Nice a week ago, the first major bike race of the season, I thought I'd pay homage to him and take advantage of this summer weather and take a ride to go read his biography. I'm also in search of Carnegie libraries. I'm here in Rochester because you have one. Can you tell me where it is?"

"Its now a private residence, but you can't miss it."

"I was just in North Manchester, twenty-three miles back, and I was told the same thing about their Carnegie. Its now a law office, but like all the Carnegies, they may be one hundred years old, but they are still magnificent buildings that truly stand out."

"Ours still has Carnegie Library chiseled into its front. Its a block from the main square at 8th and Jefferson. The new library is just a couple blocks away."

"How often does your newspaper publish?"

"We're still a daily. We have the smallest circulation of a daily in Indiana with about 8,000 subscribers."

He handed me his card. It had his name on it, Mike Kenny, and "The Rochester Sentinel, The Voice of Fulton County's People Since 1858."

He was right about the Carnegie being easy to spot, right on the corner across the street from a church. It still had an original three-gloved light fixture out front. When I stopped to take a photo, a large dog appeared at the doorway and began barking. It was the tenth Carnegie I had visited on this quick dash of a trip, with a possible three or four more. It was the second one I had visited with a four-legged critter on the premises. A cat patrolled the Pierceton Carnegie, contributing to its small town feel. It had had a slight addition, but still retained its original aura.

Perhaps the most striking of the Carnegies was the first one I visited in Whiting, just across the border from Chicago in steel mill country. It had had an addition but it was hidden behind the original building that featured a pair of statuesque towers. The Gary Tolleston Branch library, built by Carnegie, was still in its original state but is presently closed down. The Carnegie in Hobart is now the town's Historical Museum.

Two of the ten on my itinerary were no longer standing--those in Valparaiso and Fort Wayne, with the new libraries built on the spot of the old one. Fort Wayne's had been the largest in Indiana thanks to the largest contribution for an Indiana library from Carnegie--$90,000. Most were built on not much than $10,000. The Fort Wayne Carnegie had been replaced by a huge county library. Along with its seven shelves of bicycling books it has the second largest genealogical collection in the U.S. after Salt Lake City.

I had a pleasant two days at the library polishing off a pair of superlative cycling biographies. The Wiggins bio, "In Pursuit of Glory" was written in 2008 just after he won two gold medals at the Beijing Olympics for individual and team pursuit, bringing his total of Olympic medals to six over three competitions, tied for the most by a Brit. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the book about his year riding with Garmin and Christian Vande Velde, as that was his 2009 season.

Garmin was his fifth professional team after Francaise des Jeux, Credit Agricole, Cofidis and HTC-Highroad. Now he is with Sky gunning for a Tour de France title, though he says in his 2008 book that the best he could ever hope for in a Tour was perhaps a stage win. He has developed as a road cyclist considerably since then, finishing fourth the year he rode for Garmin. He wrote that it would be one of the great moments in British sports history for a British rider to be wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees, never imagining that it might be him.

There have been more books written on Coppi than any other cyclist. This one was "Fallen Angel, The Passion of Fausto Coppi," written by William Fotheringham in 2009. His previous book was "Roule Britannia," about the Brits in the Tour de France that I read last month. He knows his stuff, though he did stumble saying that Bobet was the first person to win The Tour three times and implies that Bartoli's win in the 1948 Tour was his first Tour win. Coppi's career, like Jacques Anquetil, was marred by leaving his wife for a doctor's wife. It was even more scandalous in Italy, than France, as adultery was a crime in Italy until 1968. Coppi and the doctor's wife were put on trial and convicted, though their sentences were dismissed. The Pope refused to give a blessing to the 1954 Giro when it set out from Rome as it contained "a public sinner."

I would have been out of Fort Wayne half a day earlier if I could have found a benevolent librarian willing to let me borrow the books overnight. I pled my case to four of them in four different departments, but there wasn't a kind-hearted one in the lot, not even the woman who had grown up in a small town in Iowa with a Carnegie library and was impressed by what an authority I was on them.

But neither she nor any of the others were impressed enough that I had bicycled 170 miles from Chicago in less than two days just for these books to let me slip one out for the evening. Nor could I win any of them over by knowing their library resided on the spot where a Carnegie had once stood and that I had visited nine others in the past two days and all that I knew about them, much more than any of them knew. I asked if they ever loaned books to Chicago on inter-library loan. They did. I offered them my Chicago library card and anything else in my wallet as a deposit to borrow either one of the books for the evening. What I could read that night and the next morning before the library opened at noon would be invaluable to me. They each patiently listened to my spiel, but none were willing to oblige me. I'd make a lousy salesman or con man.

Nor could I find a bicyclist in the library who might have checked them out for me. If I'd thought of it then and had a little more time, I would have searched out a bike shop. I know I would have found a sympathetic soul there who would have loaned me a library card in exchange for some collateral, perhaps as simple as my honor. It was frustrating, but hardly calamitous. I arrived at the library an hour before closing on Saturday, then returned on Sunday when it was open from noon to five, and was back at nine on Monday. I had completed my reading by six and was able to get 30 miles down the road before dark.

I camped two nights in Fort Wayne in a forest along the St. Joseph River just three miles from the library on the outskirts of the city. On the other side of the road up on a hill resided the private burial spot of Johnny Appleseed. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in Fort Wayne, dying in 1845.

I was hoping the library might have a bunch more of cycling books I didn't know anything about, but the only ones it had that I hadn't already read were several of the Velo Press/John Wilcockson books on The Tour de France from the years 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007. They are not essential reading.

This has been such a nice ride, I may make another up to Wisconsin next week for another rare cycling book by a Dutch sociologist called "The Sweat of the Gods."

Later, George

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.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

John Wilcockson and the Puy de Dome

I've been reading John Wilcockson for over thirty years, first in "Winning" magazine and then in "VeloNews," as well as quite a few of his books and even via email. He doesn't reveal too much of himself, but I've still come to know him a bit. He is most certainly an authority on the Tour de France, having covered it since 1968. But the first thought that comes to my mind when I see his byline is that this is a man who was hard core enough to have biked The Tour route before he became a journalist, as did Graham Watson the photographer, and as I have done the past eight years.

He rarely mentions his bicycling exploits. It wasn't until a few days ago when I read his book "23 Days in July" about the 2004 Tour de France that I learned he was there on the Puy de Dome in 1964 with his bicycle when Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor battled it out shoulder-to-shoulder in what many consider the most dramatic stage in perhaps the greatest Tour of all time. That certainly had to be one of the great moments in Wilcockson's life. It gives me a thrill to have a small connection with someone who was there, imagining the thrill he must have been experiencing, and also all the pleasure it gives him whenever he remembers the occasion.

I've missed out on a great deal of pleasure over the years having been unaware of this until now. It is a badge of honor that he can truly be proud of. Henceforth it will be what I'll immediately associate with Wilcockson. And whenever his name comes up in conversation, I'll want to blurt, "Did you know he was on the Puy de Dome in 1964 as a fan," knowing that it will grant him instant respect from any aficionado of The Tour and will give whoever I am talking to a glow of pleasure remembering that storied stage and imagining what it must have been like to be there and could direct our conversation to other memories of such splendor.

I'm always happy to recall being on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2004 for the time trial between Lance and Ullrich and Basso when Lance was going for Tour title number six. Every cycling fan in the universe had been looking forward to that time trial from the moment The Race route had been announced the October before, all wishing they could be there. People began gathering on the climb days ahead of time. It was the largest crowd by far ever on L'Alpe d'Huez or perhaps any Tour mountain climb. Thousands of Americans were on hand and almost an equal number of Germans, all in a state of supreme ecstasy.

The Tour has returned to L'Alpe d'Huez three times since and I've been there each time. Those there are always in awe of the gathered throng of humanity, but I have to tell them that its not even half as many as were there in 2004, and as exuberant as everyone seems, it doesn't compare to what it was like in '04. My tent-to-tent squatter's campsite at the foot of the climb and my morning ride to the summit with thousands of others past all the frolicking Germans with their boom boxes blasting out drinking songs and people still painting the road and the orange-clad Dutch going berserk, everyone just super energy-charged, all remain vividly etched in my memory. That was truly an electrifying experience, as no doubt it was for Wilcockson to be on the Puy de Dome in 1964. He too was at the focal point of millions of racing fans all over the world, all wishing they could be there.

I don't know how he resists mentioning it from time to time as comparison to other great moments in Tour history or to comment on fan intensity or the great attraction The Tour has or what it was like in the old days or to firmly establish his credibility. Other writers find reason to bring it up. Making a reference to it would not be out of place at all, especially with his personal connection. Some might consider it boastful, but not me. Part of his resistance may have to do with his English roots. Even though he has been based in Boulder for many years, he may have retained a certain English reserve. His writing is generally very straightforward, not venturing off on personal or historical asides. He is not one to embellish his writing, unlike French cycling writers, who can launch into outrageously lyrical and grandiose prose, elevating the heroic exploits of the riders to mythic status. He goes easy on the adjectives and the pomposity, sticking to the point.

His VeloPress books on the 1998 through 2001 Tours, that I have recently read, are all quite clinical journalism, almost painfully so. They each follow a simple formula of a few profiles of the main contenders and their build-up to The Race and then seemingly dashed-off stage reports written immediately after each stage with a minimum of analysis or color. Those books deliver the facts but not much else.

But after reading "23 Days in July" on the 2004 Tour, it was clear that he was hand-cuffed in writing those books, getting a book out as quickly as he could and sticking to the bare minimum. But this book had a different publisher, Da Capo Press, unleashing him and allowing him to write with genuine depth and perspective, delving into the lore of The Race, mentioning the accordionist Yvette Horner and La France Profonde and Red Smith's 1960 visit and the great French sports writer Pierre Chany and many of the other small features of this great cultural event that fully define it. One gains a much greater understanding of The Tour from this book than all his VeloPress books combined. For the first time in all my reading far and wide I learned what towns have to pay to host a stage start or finish. No book or newspaper or magazine article I have read has ever mentioned it. I've asked people in tourist offies of Stage cities what they've have to pay and they don't want to say.

Wilcockson put the question to Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc. He puts the figure at 120,000 euros. It is the same amount for every city regardless of size. He explained, "We don't set the price too high because we don't want to attract only the big cities. But its high enough that only the serious candidates come forward." They usually have a pool of just under l00 cities to choose from every year for the 35 or so they need.

Wilcockson supplements his usual fine reporting with a wide range of worthwhile background material. If I had known what valuable insights it had to offer, I wouldn't have put off reading it all this years. And I would have had an enhanced appreciation of Wilcockson as a cylist. Not only did I learn he was on the Puy de Dome in 1964 from this book, but also that he raced in Brittany for a couple of summers in the mid-60s. Though he became a journalist and didn't have as much time to ride his bike, the bike hadn't lost its allure for him In 1979 when the "Sunday Times" that he was working for went on strike during The Tour, he took advantage of his freedom to go to The Tour on his bike once again. He didn't have a tent, but was staying in hotels. One evening in the Alps the hotel he was planning on staying at was closed for renovations, so he had to continue on for several hours in the dark. He arrived at Bourg d'Osians at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez at two a.m. Everything was closed up forcing him to sleep on the wooden bench of a bus shelter. That earns him another "chapeau."

I've seen Wilcockson from time to time at The Tour off in the distance, usually scampering to snag a rider for a question or two, but have never had the chance to meet him. I will make a genuine effort this year. Hopefully he will be there, but it won't be for "VeloNews," as he and several other senior writers were let go after last year's Tour. His expertise will be missed. He's still writing though. It was nice to see him in the latest edition of "Peloton" magazine writing about Greg LeMond's triumph in the 1989 Tour.

And for the record: This book includes five very telling incidents of crying, once again attesting to the deep emotional commitment of the riders. The first is Jan Ullrich after an out-of-competition drug test in May of 2002 the day after he took ecstasy in a discotheque. He says in his autobiography "All or Nothing" that he knew he was going to test positive. After the inspector left, he "cried uncontrollably, terrified that his girlfriend would leave him."

Tyler Hamilton is a crying culprit twice, once over having to put his dog Tugboat to sleep during the 2004 Tour and the other when he tells his director Bjarne Riis that he will be leaving CSC for Phonak right after the 2003 Tour in which he finished fourth. Hamilton revealed, "When I had to tell Bjarne, it was awful. We both cried." Hamilton chokes back tears telling Wilcockson about it, and adds, "It was terrible, just terrible. It was probably one of the worst days of my life."

A domestique for the Belgian Lotto team, Christophe Brandt, cries when he learns he has tested positive for methadone during The Tour. And there is a photo of Fabian Cancellara after his Prologue victory pulling his just won yellow jersey up over his face to hide his tears of joy.

And for my final research topic: the spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez. It is properly spelled with the capital L fifteen times but without the L seven times. Two are excusable when quoting Lance on page 244 and Christian Vande Velde on page 254. One of the five other L-less spellings was on the back cover of the book.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Bicycle Reader

I've had a phenomenal month of reading--twenty books, all on bicycling, and many of them rare and hard-to-find. If I couldn't be off in some faraway place riding my bike, this was the next best thing. Not only was the reading first-rate, but so were some of my rides to distant libraries hunting down the books. The best was an 80-mile round trip trek for Bernard Hinault's "Memories of the Peloton" from 1989.

Most of my reading was thanks to the indispensable library website worldcat.org that only recently came to my attention. It took me to the Downer's Grove library, 25 miles away, for a copy of Hinault's memoirs, a book I never imagined I could find in America. I didn't bother to call the library to confirm the book was in, as I was happy to make a ride to a library I had never visited.  Plus there was the good possibility that a library that had such an obscure cycling book on its shelves might well have others.

But it was not to be. In all my worldcat searches this was the first time it had wrong information. Downer's Grove had no record of ever having the book. The librarian went to worldcat and came back with the great news that the Tinley Park library, twenty miles further south, had a copy. She offered to call to make sure. I told her that wasn't necessary. She printed out directions for me and off I went, delighted to visit another library I had never been to, hoping it had the book, but if not, happy to be able to spend a few more hours on my bike than I had expected.

Tinley Park was a score, but surprisingly, just like Downer's Grove, it had a mere shelf of bike books and no others that I hadn't read. I dove right into Hinault. It felt like Christmas. I had been eager to read this book for years. I couldn't allow myself more than a couple of chapters though, as I wanted to leave with enough time to return home before dark. I wasn't sure how many miles it was, just that it had to be more than thirty and might be as many as forty. It turned out to be thirty-five, giving me eighty for the day, my longest ride since Thanksgiving when I biked over one hundred miles finishing off a three-week ride around the Ozarks and back to Chicago.

It made for another great day on the bike, even though it was entirely through urban sprawl.  I encountered not another soul on a bicycle. I truly felt like an alien species going about my business on a bicycle amongst nothing but gas-guzzlers. If I hadn't been on such a glorious mission, I would have been tearing myself apart debating who was the insane one--me on my bike or those in their cars.

Though I was denied any bonus bike books at Tinley Park and Downer's Grove, I hit a mini-jackpot at the Elmhurst library. It was the only library within three hundred miles of Chicago with a copy of Laurent Fignon's memoirs "We Were Young and Carefree." Keeping it company were two other cycling biographies I was thrilled to discover. One was on Sean Kelly from 1991 and the other was the recent autobiography of Davis Phinney.

The Kelly book was written by David Walsh, an English author who has long been a thorn in the side of Lance Armstrong. In 2004 he wrote a book called "LA Confidential" that Lance was able to prevent from being published, other than in French, as it alleged without collaboration that Lance had used illegal drugs. Three years later after Floyd Landis was stripped of his Tour de France win, Walsh published "From Lance to Landis, Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France" that included a lot of material from his banned book including a legendary lengthy text message after the 2005 Tour between Frankie Andreu and Jonathon Vaughters with insider gossip on Lance and doping.

I found two other Walsh books at the Schaumberg library. I had gone out for his biography of Stephen Roche, "Agony and Ecstasy," written in 1988 the year after Roche's trifecta of winning the Giro, The Tour and the World Championships in the same year, something that only Eddy Merckx had accomplished. Schaumberg had another Walsh book, "Inside the Tour de France" from 1994. It covered the 1993 Tour de France, the first that Lance rode. He was 21, the youngest rider in the race and won a stage before dropping out half way through in the mountains as was planned. Walsh devoted a chapter to Lance and was a full-fledged fan. It wasn't until he made his return to The Tour in 1999 after cancer that Walsh began to doubt him and made it his mission to prove he was a doper.

With three shelves of cycling books the Schaumberg library had the best collection of cycling books of any library in the area other than the seven shelves at Chicago's main Harold Washington library. Those seven shelves are crammed with multiple copies of books, so Schaumberg might actually have a better collection. It certainly had more insider-books on racing than the Chicago library, such as Mark Cavendish's biography. But neither come close to the hundreds of books in the library of Adventure Cycling in Missoula, Montana. Schaumberg also had several touring books I was unaware of and another besides the two Walsh books on racing--the "VeloNews" book on the 1998 Tour, the year of the Festina Affair and Pantani's dramatic win. The book was aptly titled "Conquests and Crises."

It was the first in a series of yearly books "VeloNews" began publishing on each year's Tour through the Lance era. I was delighted to discover it, as I had just read the "VeloNews" book on the 1999 Tour and was hoping to read as many of them as I could to complete my research on the spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez and references to tears. The 1998 Tour route skipped L'Alpe d'Huez, but there were still four mentions of it. Since John Wilcockson was the chief writer of the book, three of its four mentions were spelled with the capital L. The other reference dropped the L when it called the climb up Les Deux Alpes a "mini-Alpe d'Huez."

It cited four instances of crying, one less than the 1999 book. The first was of Richard Virenque in a press conference after his Festina team was ejected from the Tour six stages into The Race when it was finally confirmed that the Festina team car full of drugs that had been detained on the way to The Tour was part of an elaborate team doping program. Virenque held out for months longer than anyone else on the team, denying, denying, until finally admitting his guilt, no doubt in tears once again.

The 1998 Tour passed the memorial to Lance's teammate Fabio Casartelli near where he died in a crash in the 1995 Tour, the third rider to die while racing in The Tour. The entire peloton stopped. Casartelli's parents were there and unsurprisingly there were tears.

Bobby Julich was the surprise of the 1998 Tour, finishing third, becoming just the second American to finish on the podium along with Greg LeMond. When he secured his third place on the penultimate day's time trial he and his fiancee were in tears as they hugged afterwards. Jan Ullrich had been the favorite to win The Tour, having won it the year before most convincingly. But he faltered and finished second behind Marco Pantani. When he struggled on the 15th stage in the rain there were tears in his eyes.

The 1999 Tour can also be told through tears. This was Armstrong's first Tour since recovering from cancer. The "VeloNews" book recounts Armstrong's battle with cancer. In a press conference five days after he had his first malignant tumor removed Armstrong confessed that he hadn't fully come to terms with his cancer and that he had spells "when I cry all the time." Not soon after when he learned that cancer had been found in his brain he "started bawling," the most emphatic of crying euphemisms.

After he made his remarkable recovery and returned to the Tour in 1999, winning the prologue, it was such an emotional high for Armstrong, confirming that all his hard work had paid of, he cried. It was the only time during the entire race. Friends and teammates were also brought to tears. The book's final crying incident was also cancer-related. The book adds the story of a 14-year old battling cancer who Lance had befriended. His mother is so proud of her son's strength that she can't help but cry.

My February reading also had a couple of quick reads, a pair of coffee-table picture books on Armstrong--"Lance Armstrong, Images of a Champion" from 2006 and "Comeback 2.0 Up Close and Personal" from 2009. Both included commentary from Lance and neither were tear-free. The comeback book describes Armstrong's return to racing after a three-year absence and the 2009 Race. Even though he was divorced, he discussed his decision to resume racing with his ex-wife and asked her permission. She cried, partly because he cared enough to consult her and also partly out of relief that he wasn't telling her he wanted to run for office.

The earlier book is a year-by-year chronicle of Armstrong's career, though skipping the one year he did not race, 1997, and had none of the grim photos of Armstrong as a cancer victim. The chapter of the year he came down with cancer was titled "1996: Triumph Then Tears." The book is interspersed with tributes from prominent people in his life--his mother, Eddy Merckx, Robin Williams, George Hincapie, Jim Ochowicz, Johan Bruyneel and a few others. His mother, who was as tough and determined as he was, commented that after they learned he had cancer, "We could sit around and cry about it, or we could find our way around the roadblocks." They kept their tears to a minimum. Merckx wrote that he was one of the first people Lance called when he learned of his illness. "Both of us were crying over the telephone," he said, and added, "It was the worst experience I've ever had to deal with."

The only other tears Lance mentions are when describing the fan who would run alongside the peloton carrying a Texas flag while wearing a football helmet with long steer horns sticking out. The full-page photo of the fan, who I once met, is accompanied by the caption, "This guy almost had us in tears. How caring can a fan be?"

The photos in the second book are by long-time Tour photographer Graham Watson. He has published some twenty books on The Tour. Among my recent reading was his "Tour de France Travel Guide." He has been attending The Tour since 1977. Several of his first Tours he biked the route as I do. There is no greater authority or lover of The Tour than Watson. I've had a couple of encounters with him over the years, once along the route when he stopped where I was to shoot the riders as they passed through a scenic small village and then at an art gallery full of his photos in London the year it was the Grand Depart. He is a most affable chap.

His travel guide offered photography tips (crouching low on bends on descents) as well as tips on finding places to stay (going to the hotels of teams where you know riders have dropped out, meaning there will be an extra room) and things to see throughout France and insights into the ways of the French. It was most worthwhile. He twice mentions close encounters with tears--Fignon after his traumatic 1989 loss and Kelly after an agonizing crash that forced him to leave the race.

When it comes to L'Alpe d'Huez he's all over the place, spelling it as Alpe d'Huez the majority of times, but once with a capital L and five times with a lower case L.  Such inconsistency is not uncommon.  Much more disappointing was a handful of factual errors--calling the Gorges du Verdon the second largest gorge in the world, giving the route of the Canal du Midi as from Toulouse to Nimes, and calling Le Puy-en-Velay the starting point of the pilgrim route from France to Santiago de Compestela in Spain. Some of his comments on the Tour were wrong as well. He wrote that Laurent Jalabert won at Mende in 1995 on July 13, when it was actually the much more significant 14th, Bastille Day, making him a national hero. He wrote that Armstrong's time trial win on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2004 brought him one step closer toward winning his fourth overall victory. It would actually be his sixth. I know that well, as I was there on L'Alpe d'Huez that magnificent day.

His book was written in 2009. Three things that he said could never happen did happen in the years since--having stage finishes at the top of the Tourmalet and the Galibier and also crossing the Passage du Gois once again. But none of these faux pas diminishes my respect for Watson and his photography one bit. His errors are the fault of those editing the book as much as his.

His slips are very minor compared to the outrageous mistelling of one of the most storied events in the history of the Tour de France by Matt Eaton in "The Escape Artist, Life from the Saddle." This was one of three books that my Northwestern librarian friend Elizabeth was able to procure for me from the network of Big Ten libraries holding over 61 million volumes. It is a quite literate memoir of an English amateur racer who had to give up his passion when his wife gave birth to twins. It ranked number eight on "Cycle Sport's" list of the best fifty books on bicycling, and justifiably so.

When Eaton begins sprinkling in references to Merckx and Anquetil and Bobet and Coppi and Gaul and other Giants of the Road, I assumed he was fully versed in bicycling lore. I should have known I could not fully trust his facts after he refers to a memoir of Henry Miller about growing up in Beverly Hills, confusing him with William Saroyan. Both Miller and Saroyan wrote most fondly about the bicycle and both are frequently quoted in Bill Strictland's "The Quotable Cyclist." Miller though was a New Yorker through and through, who went on to live in Paris for a number of years in the '30s, and then out to Big Sur. Among his many books is "My Bike and Other Friends." Saroyan wrote a book "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills," and is lauded by cyclists far and wide for his pronouncement "The bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind," taken from his introduction to "The Noiseless Tenor," also known as "The Literary Cyclist."

Thankfully its not until towards the end of "The Escape Artist" that Eaton gives a horribly mangled version of the Eugene Christophe fork-breaking incident in the 1913 Tour on the descent of the Tourmalet. In cycling lore this ranks right up there with Moses parting the Red Sea. It is such a storied event that it was reenacted on its 50th anniversary with Christophe and the young boy who was involved in the incident.

After breaking his fork Christophe trotted down the mountain carrying his bike. It was more than an hour before he reached the small town at the bottom of the climb and searched out a small blacksmith shop, that might have been mistaken as a manger. The rules demanded that he do the repair himself. It took a couple hours while Tour officials oversaw the operation, to make certain that he completed it on his own. They did not intercede when he enlisted the assistance of a young boy to operate a bellows. He was later penalized ten minutes for this infraction, though it was eventually reduced to three. It was mostly a symbolic penalty, as he lost over four hours all told, falling from first place to seventh, but a stringent enforcement of the rules.

Eaton tells the story in a vague, mythological sense stating it occurred back in the early days of The Tour, as if it were the beginning of time, "when there were no stages to the race, but one continuous epic of suffering and solidarity." That's his first misrepresentation of the facts. Every Race has been broken up into stages. The first Tour in 1903 and the second were identical six stage courses from Paris to Lyons, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and back to Paris. Every stage except the fourth was over 200 miles, with two of them over 290 miles. There were two or three days of rest between each stage. By 1913 The Race had grown to fifteen stages. It was never a non-stop race like the Race Across America or Paris-Brest-Paris.

Then he tells the story of Christophe breaking his fork, though without mentioning his name. He claims he was leading the race by several hours when he broke his fork, also not true. He began the day in second place, though by the summit of the Tourmalet he had taken the lead, but by just a few minutes. After he completed the repair of his fork and is on his way, Eaton claims he learned at the next "relay" that he had been disqualified for the bellows assistance, a monumental exaggeration of his three-minute penalty. This event happened less than a century before Eaton is writing about it and has been written about in countless histories of The Tour. Such a grotesque distortion of the facts is inexcusable. It makes one wonder how trustworthy some of the Biblical stories might be that happened twenty centuries ago.

I could thank Elizabeth for two other noteworthy books also on "Cycle Sport's" top fifty list--Matt Rendell's history of Colombian cycling, "Kings of the Mountains," from the University of Michigan and William Fotheringham's history of British cyclists in the Tour de France, "Roule Britannia," from the University of Wisconsin. Both authors are English and both were truly passionate about their subject.

Fotheringham is a true cycling scholar having written quite a few books on the sport. The nearest copy of his biography of Coppi, "Fallen Angel," is at the Fort Wayne, Indiana library, 145 miles away. I plan on taking a bike ride over to Fort Wayne before the month is out. Rendell is catching up to Fotheringham. His Colombia book was the first of five he has written, among which is "Blazing Saddles", an entertaining history of the Tour de France.

Rendell had been a university lecturer who had grown tired of his job and decided to head off to the tip of South America to bicycle the length of the continent with a friend. When he reached Colombia at the end of his trip he was astounded to see so many racing cyclists out training and such an interest in cycling. He was fascinated to learn about the many great Colombian cyclists, many of whom had competed in the Tour de France. When he discovered no one had written a book about Colombian cycling, not even in Spanish, he decided to tackle the subject himself. He made six lengthy trips back to Colombia over five years researching. Not only did he find a career in writing about cycling in Colombia, he also found himself a wife.

Among his sources was a twelve-part biography in Colombia's leading newspaper in 1955 of Colombia's first great cyclist, Ramon Hoyos. It was written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's Nobel prize-winning author, before he started writing novels. Hoyos was so revered that many people had a picture of him in their homes besides that of Jesus. He was depicted on two 1957 postage stamps marked "Extra Rapido." Though he raced in Europe he never competed in the Tour de France.

The first Colombian to hold that honor was Martin "Cochise" Rodriguez in 1975. Five years later I saw him race in Chicago against a 19-year old Greg LeMond and the recent speed skating champ Eric Heiden and others. I didn't know anything about Cochise at the time, other than he had a cool name and that he got a lot of cheers from the Hispanic fans. Only from this book did I learn how revered he was in Colombia. Twenty years after I saw him he was named Colombia's athlete of the century. He became a national hero in 1971 when he set the amateur hour record and won the world pursuit title. Later he won a couple of stages in the Giro while serving as a domestique for Tour de France winner Felice Gimondi.

The first British cyclists to compete in the Tour de France were Bill Burl and Charles Holland in 1937, though neither completed the race. It wasn't until 1955 that another British cyclist participated in the race, a year when there were national teams rather than trade teams and a team of ten Brits was scraped together. Only two of them finished, and one just barely as the lanterne rouge. In the next fifty years there were only two years that a British cyclist wasn't at the starting line--1976 and 2004--though there were quite a few years when there was only one. Slightly more than fifty British cyclists had competed in the race up to 2005 when "Roule Britannia" was published, with less than half of them making it to the finish in Paris.

Fotheringham devotes full chapters to the few significant Brits--Brian Robinson (the first Brit to win a stage in 1958 and to finish the race in 1955), Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Sean Yates, Chris Boardman and David Millar. Fotheringham did not anticipate Mark Cavendish, as he predicted that no Brit was likely to match the eight stage wins by Hoban in the '60s and '70s. Cavendish has been averaging five wins a year the past four years and with twenty at the age of twenty-seven is a threat to break Merckx's record of 34.

My bicycle reading is far from over as Elizabeth has two more books in the pipeline for me--a history of American cycling and a biography of Louison Bobet. I also have a stack of touring books I've been resisting, knowing that if I indulge in them the pangs to be off doing it myself would be killing me. And those aren't all. I keep finding more. One of those I'm most eager to read is a history of Indiana University's Little 500 bike race. I just hope my eyes hold out.