Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Electrical Tape (the New Porn) and Samuel Abt Revealed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Bike Books of Samuel Abt

American Tour de France fans can in no way fully fathom its magnitude until they've had the chance to actually go to France and be a part of the throngs in the mountains as the riders fly by or be at a town hosting a stage finish or a stage start amidst the mobs fully consuming the town.

Nor can an American fully fathom how deeply the French honor the history of The Tour and those who have ridden it without reading some of their highly literate sports writers who are almost as revered as the riders. My French isn't adequate to appreciate the poetic eloquence of Antoine Blondin or Pierre Chany or Philippe Brunel or Jean-Paul Ollivier or others of their brethren, but fortunately some of their writing has been translated into English. It is stunning.

When I read the mighty prose of these giants of the keyboard, I feel greatly deprived that America has yet to produce a bicycle writer of such stature. We are lucky to have any newspaperman writing about the sport at all. About the only one of any longevity is Samuel Abt of the "New York Times," who has been writing about The Tour since 1977. He was such an oddity, an American in The Tour press corps year after year, that the French gave him a medal for his service.

I've wanted to give him a medal too, for being my prime source of Tour news for years until the Internet came along and for writing books about The Tour for us Americans when no one else was. He's given us eleven of them, the first in 1985 and the last twenty years later.

Abt admits in the introduction to "Off to the Races," one of his two books that are a collection of his stories from over the years, that when he moved to Paris in 1971, he had no interest in bike racing whatsoever. He didn't bother to give the Tour a look until he was assigned to cover it in 1977, even declining to join his girl friend to watch the finish of The Race on the Champs Elysees in 1974, preferring to go pick mushrooms. He admits that was a huge mistake that he regrets to this day, as it was Eddie Merckx's last Tour win and was historically significant too as the last time it finished on other than the Champs Elysees.

When he finally did see a race three years later, he acknowledges he was immediately won over. For that we are fortunate, but it is a grave indictment of his cultural sense to have ignored this monumental event that defines the French for his first six years in the country, especially since he hardly had to make any effort to see it, with it finishing right there in Paris where he was living.

Any book that tries to understand the French is suspect if it does not comment on The Tour. Any foreign journalist living in France is not doing his job if he ignores it. Hemingway spent quite a bit of time in France and writes eloquently on The Tour. Just as one can not understand Americans without attending a baseball game, one can not fully understand the French without witnessing the Tour de France. Peter Mayle authenticates himself by giving it mention in his best-selling books on Provence.

Abt claims to have been a sports fan when he was transplanted to France. If that was truly the case, he should have seized upon his first opportunity to experience this unparalleled sporting event that is viewed by more people than any other annual sporting event in the world, exceeded only by the Olympics and the World Cup, which come along every four years. Being able to fully experience The Tour could easily be the lure for some legitimate sports fan to move to France. It would certainly be mine. That said, he does deserve credit for becoming a devotee of The Tour once he did get a taste of it. But like most Americans who did not grow up with it, his understanding of the sport is almost feeble compared to his European counterparts.

That he has to write in somewhat simplistic terms for his American audience is understandable, but still he makes blunders that any European teen weened on racing from his earliest years would never make. He states that the Tour route is usually counter clockwise. That is not true. It generally alternates the direction it takes around the country with the Alps preceding the Pyrenees one year and the Pyrenees having the honor the next. He says racers are sent off in two minute intervals in time trials when it is one minute except for the last few. A caption to a photo in his book on Miguel Indurain showing him on the podium being kissed by two podium girls reads, "Indurain congratulated by two admirers."

Two of his books, "Breakaway" and "Tour de France, Three Weeks to Glory," claim Octave Lapize shouted out "Assassin" at Henri Desgrange in the 1910 Tour at the base of the Aubisque climb in the Pyrenees. That is a legendary moment in Tour lore, the first time the racers were sent into the mountains, and they weren't so happy about it. Henri Desgrange was the director and founder of The Tour. He was back in Paris overseeing The Tour, nowhere near the Pyrenees. And this storied event did not take place at the base of the climb but near its summit. It was indeed directed at some Tour officials, but not the head man, except figuratively.

That same Tour de France book recounting LeMond's third and final Tour victory in 1990 states that there is a monument to Desgrange on the Col de Telegraphe. It is in fact at the summit of the Galibier, Desgrange's favorite climb, and the most spectacular of those in the Alps. Desgrange was a tyrannical egomaniac of de Gaullian proportions before there was a de Gaulle. He commanded The Tour for over thirty years with an iron fist antagonizing many. A monument to him would have to be at the most dramatic place possible and that is the Galibier.

This climb figured prominently in the latest Tour with climbs up both sides of it on back to back stages to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its inclusion in The Tour, just as the year before the Tourmalet was honored for the 100th anniversary of the Pyrenees being introduced to The Tour. This is basic, first grade material. If Abt were working for a French newspaper and made such a mistake he would have been relegated to covering grade school soccer.

At least he never misspells "peloton" and always capitalizes the "M" in "LeMond" and is consistent in his spelling of Alpe d'Huez, though it is not of the honorific French style with either an upper case or lower case "L" and apostrophe preceding it, though when he reprints a stage route concluding at L'Alpe d'Huez it is spelled with that "L" as does the caption explaining it. Nor does Abt fully understand how exalted the climbs are. They are deities themselves with personality and much history. He does not include them in the index to "Off to the Races" as any French index would.

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

He writes that Lance would chide him for referring to the Tour de France as "the Tour de France bicycle race" thinking that it had enough of a reputation that everyone knows that it is a bicycle race. But unfortunately that is not the case. I'm occasionally asked by people who know I bicycle a lot if I have ever ridden The Tour de France, thinking that anybody can go do it. It is afterall a "tour" isn't it.

Since I began riding the course eight years ago and haven't missed a year since, I can now tell them, "Yes I have ridden The Tour de France," and not disappoint them. But it is disheartening that so many do not not realize that asking that question is like asking a recreational golfer if he has ever played in The Masters or a recreational tennis player if he has ever played at Wimbledon. Abt says that he now respects the American Tour consciousness enough that he no longer refers to the Tour de France as "a bicycle race," but he still adds that qualifier to other races that every European knows are a bike race but few Americans would.

Likewise I accept his parenthetical explanations of peloton ("the professional pack in which Lance works") and domestique ("worker bee" and "ordinary worker") and so forth . But it does make me hunger for the writing of Blondin and Chany and other French journalists, knowing I wouldn't have to be distracted by such elementary explanations. At least I'm not a Frenchman who knows baseball having to read a book by a French journalist covering baseball who explains foul balls and the double play and the infield fly rule and its three strikes and you're out.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Carmel, Indiana: Round-About Heaven

Shortly after passing a sign welcoming me to Carmel, an affluent suburb of 80,000 residents just north of Indianapolis, I was greeted by a freshly minted round-about.  It gave me a surge of delight, just as I felt three weeks ago in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, when I last encountered one of these eminently sensible and aesthetically pleasing traffic devices that are so rare in America, but most common in France.

I was still humming with pleasure when I came upon another just a couple minutes later.  I thought I was dreaming when soon after there was another, also of recent vintage, as if rushed to completion in time for my arrival.  I was so excited by this bonanza I did a full 360 around it and then another 180 to continue on my way.   And that wasn't the last one.  There were a handful more before I arrived in downtown Carmel and then over a few blocks to its library.  It was all I could do not to give each a full joyous spin.

Rather than rushing to the stacks for the book on the 1949 Giro d'Italia that had lured me to this unexpected Round-About Wonderland, a four-day three hundred mile bike ride, I pounced on the first librarian I saw and asked, "What's with all the round-abouts here?"

"Aren't they wonderful," she exulted.  "We have more than any other town in the US, over eighty of them.  Our mayor, Jim Brainard, is a great proponent of them.  He just started putting them in a few years ago.  Everyone loves them.  Last year we hosted an International Round-About Conference.  Urban planners from all over the world came to see our round-abouts.  There were Japanese everywhere with their cameras taking pictures of them from every angle.  We're very proud of them.  They reduce accidents and keep traffic flowing.  I don't know why they are so rare.  I hear France has them everywhere.  Someone at the conference said that Carmel is to America what France is to the world.  Once you get rid of a traffic signal you realize how ugly and inefficient, almost stupid, they are."

She told me I could go to the city hall and get a map showing the location of every one of them.  If I didn't have a book I was eager to read and a deadline to return to Chicago I certainly would have.  I will most definitely return, especially after I found two other bicycling books there that I would like to read.  Round-abouts in America could be my next quest once I finish my Carnegie Quest.  With more than 1,500 Carnegies still to lay claim to though, it will be a while. 

I had to scan the library's three shelves of  bicycling books twice before I found the slender, 200-page, "The Giro d'Italia--Coppi versus Bartoli at the 1949 Tour of Italy."  It was a collection of the daily articles written during the race by one of the most acclaimed writers of the time, Italian poet/novelist Dino Buzati.  They were published as a book in 1981, then translated into English in 1999.  Buzati had never witnessed a bicycle race first-hand, though he knew the sport well, as did every Italian at that time, until that 1949 Giro.  The  race was a much anticipated showdown between three-time winner  Gino Bartoli and two-time winner Fausto Coppi, four years Bartoli's junior.  They are the two giants of Italian cycling, a term he repeatedly uses to describe them. 

His writing is a joy to read, not only describing with great flourish and eloquence the exploits of the riders, but everything surrounding the race and Italy at the time, still recovering from WWII.  The narrow, smooth, taut tires of the racers look like snakes to him.  The racers dragging themselves up a steep mountain in the rain, bundled in rain coats  appear to be "big, lethargic snails."  The torturous climb up Sestriere is "the ultimate torture, destined to chastise these men for their sins."  Pep pills were the drug of choice in that era, "capable of making a corpse jump out of the casket like an acrobat."

I had visions of reading the book in a one hundred-year old Carnegie library, but I surmised that Carmel had long ago outgrown its Carnegie the instant I passed its welcoming sign and biked past palatial estates and saw a handful of twenty-story office buildings as I approached the town center.  But at least the old Carnegie still stood, looking as proud and regal as any Carnegie, even in its present incarnation as a restaurant, a restaurant though that fully acknowledges its heritage with the name "Woodys Library Restaurant."  There is a plaque at its entry describing its history and another plaque inside the door seconding it.  There is a bar on the lower level and an outdoor patio added to the side.  Book shelves remain on the upper level.  It has been a restaurant since 1998 after serving as Carmel's City Hall for a spell when the town outgrew the library in 1972.  The plaque even describes the huge community involvement transporting all the books from the old library to the new.

The Carmel Carnegie was the first in a series of three Carnegies to the north of Indianapolis that no longer serve as libraries in communities that had grown vastly since their Carnegies were built a century ago.  The Carnegie in Westfield has housed the Cave and Co. Printing Company for a couple of decades.  The red brick building had a slight addition to its rear fourteen years after it was built in 1916, but otherwise it looked as it has for decades with "Public Library" still chiseled into its front.

The Carnegie  in Noblesville bore no hint at all of having once been a library, as it had been overwhelmed by a huge City Hall addition.  But it was redeemed by the small town of Atlanta, twelve miles to the north.  Its Carnegie was still in its original state and was in no imminent danger of being tampered with.  It is only open twenty hours a week and has an operating budget of just $30,000, including the salary of the librarian, who said she earns little more than minimum wage, but has no problem with that.  It was an hour until dark.  She said the town had a haunted hotel if I needed a place to stay.  At one time the town had eleven taverns, but now just one.  I told her I wasn't done with my biking for the day, and that water was my beverage of preference.





Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Covington, Indiana

Spring time in the mid-west is notoriously windy. It is tornado season and even in areas that aren't prone to them, the aftermath of their winds can feel like a virtual tornado. So it is no surprise that I've had winds to battle on my current five hundred mile circuit into the middle of Illinois and over to Indiana on a quest for three more rare bike books in three different libraries.

Even my road side scavenging had a wind emphasis to it. For the first time ever I found a kite beside the road. It was trapped in some weeds, pitifully heaving and throbbing like a fish out of water gasping for life. I stopped to rescue it. It took some effort to fully untangle it as it clawed and fought. The gusting wind didn't make it much easier to tie it to the barbed wire fence just behind it. But once attached, it breathed back to life, fluttering as it was meant to. It wasn't the full freedom it would have liked, essentially reduced to being a gold fish in a tiny bowl, but at least it could attract the attention of someone who might adopt it and grant it once again its true destiny, such as the bicycle allows me.

I was feeling deprived of my full freedom, pummeled by the fierce, punishing headwind, the last gasps of tornadoes that had just done a number in Oklahoma. I was heading south and a bit west along Route 66 to Bloomington, Illinois for one of the bike books I was after.

I was into the second day of the 140 miles to Bloomington, battling head winds all the way, though much worse on the second day, with my average speed plunging from eleven miles per hour to seven. I didn't overly mind, as this was the final training ride for my summer in France, commencing in two weeks, making it an extra good workout. The wind was somewhat blunted at the start of my ride as I tried to anonymously slip out of town early Sunday morning on Ogden Avenue with its Historic Route 66 signs. I was passed by a couple of lycraed cyclists who said hello and asked how far I was going. A couple miles later I caught up to them where they were waiting with a third cyclist. One asked, "Is your name George." When I confirmed that it was, he said, "I read your blog." I suddenly felt like Josie Dew, who I had just been reading. I just hoped it didn't extend to people calling me "my lassie" and "me petal."

My route took me past my friend Janina's house in Countryside. I stopped to say hello and attach a rack on her bike so she wouldn't have to use her car to pick up kitty litter. I was happy to make it possible for there to be "One Less Car" on the road for at least that errand. She sent me on my way with a batch of banana muffins made with bananas, flour and eggs liberated from her Dominicks dumpster the week before.

She lives just a couple miles from the I and M Canal and its accompanying bicycle path. I welcomed its forested shelter from the wind and the company of other cyclists out on a Sunday morning amble. It wasn't Route 66, but it took me the next twenty miles to Joliet and its Route 66 museum. I was mostly interested though in its library. Worldcat.org reported it had a copy of a book on the 1949 Giro d'Italia, featuring the legendary battle between Coppi and Bartali. Unfortunately the library had eliminated the book from its collection and worldcat.org hadn't updated its record. A library in Carmel, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis also had it in its collection. I was somewhat headed in that direction for a Samual Abt book, so I didn't mind at all having to make that detour, especially since the Carmel library was a Carnegie, unlike Joliet's. The Joliet library was still a beauty, designed by Daniel Burnham and built in 1903, though greatly expanded since. I always scan libraries for "Read" posters I've never seen before. On the stairway to its second floor was one of a little girl on a fireman's lap with the heading "Read To Your Hero."

Unable to sit in the library all afternoon reading I was able to get a jump on the one hundred miles to Bloomington. I left route 66 for a spell taking route 53 so I could go by the Midewin Tallgrass Nature Preserve that Janina had recommended. It is a recently restored 20,000 acre park that had formerly been a military armory. There were plenty of trees to camp in, but it was too early in the day for that. I made it just short of Dwight, seventy-eight miles for the day, where I camped in a small forest that protected me from the wind and the evening rain.

When the temperature dropped I had hoped it meant the wind had switched from the south to the north, but I had no such luck. It was even nastier from the south. It took me three hours to bike twenty-one miles to Pontiac, from one prison town to another. Lawns on homes in both towns were adorned with signs saying "Save Dwight's Prison." Pontiac had a Route 66 Visitor Center and abounded with murals celebrating the Route 66 era. When I stumbled into its non-Carnegie library for refuge the librarian blurted, "Are you on a bicycle? I could barely even walk in this wind."

After an hour break the wind had altered a bit so it was somewhat from the west as well as the south, enabling me to increase my speed to nine miles per hour. It was another forty miles to Bloomington and Samuel Abt's "Pedaling for Glory--Victory and Drama in Professional Bicycling Racing" about the 1996 racing season. If the winds hadn't been against me, I could have arrived at the library by two or three in the afternoon, just enough time to finish off the book before the library closed at nine.

I was wondering if I'd even make it to Bloomington that day. But with the slight shift in wind, I made it to the library by six, found the book and immersed myself into the 1996 Tour, won by Bjarne Riis, breaking Miguel Indurain's reign. Lance dropped out of the race on stage six, three months before he learned he had cancer. It was also the race that his future director Johan Bruyneel, riding for Rabobank as its leader, suffered a serious crash in the Alps falling into a ravine. It can be viewed at youtube.

On the way to the library I had been scouting out places to camp. There was a nice clump of trees and bushes along a river between the sister university towns of Bloomington and Normal just a mile-and-a-half from the library that I wouldn't have recognized as a place to camp in the dark. After a quiet night I was back at the library first thing in the morning to finish off the book. If I weren't pressed for time I would have lingered to read "Lance Armstrong, Historic Six-Time Tour de France Champion," a collection of stories and photographs from Lance's home town newspaper, the "Austin American Statesman." It will beckon me back.

I left Route 66 and headed due east on Highway 9 with the wind at my back. It wasn't as strong as it had been the previous two days, but it provided a welcome assist. For fifteen miles I passed through a vast wind farm with hundreds of wind turbines. They were pleasing to the eye at first but after a while they became a blight on the countryside. The librarian in Paxton said that the turbines were quite controversial, though she was all for them.

The farmers are most happy for the money, as they earn more per acre from them than they did from their crops this past year. The librarian said they were particularly beautiful at night each adorned with flashing red lights. I had seen a sign for a viewing stand, but didn't care to detour to try to find it. She said she had gone off in search of it herself, but never found it, though she had a nice drive on back roads looking for it.

The wind turbines don't seem to be contributing much to church attendance judging by the notices on a couple of church message boards in Gibson City and Paxton right in the thick of it. One read "Now Open Between Easter and Christmas" and another, "If you're gong to sleep somewhere on Sunday, it might as well be here."

I also encountered some grumpiness in Hoopeston when I asked a hefty older guy in overalls with manure on his boots where the library was. After he gave me directions, he said, "I've never been, but lots of folks go there to loaf and git books and stuff."

After two nights in forests, I spent last night in a barn behind an abandoned house just across the border into Indiana. There was a bit of straw left that made a fine mattress.

I've added four more Carnegies to my life list. The one in Paxton is featured on the cover of the book "The Carnegie Library in Illinois" by Raymond Bial. It was magnificent with a rotunda and wood floors and built-in book shelves and a magnificent curved circulation desk. With a population of 4,100, Paxton was not much larger than it had been when the library was built in 1904, so no addition was needed. It is a rare one in its original state. At its 100th anniversary a time capsule was placed beside the flag pole to be opened on its bicentennial in 2104.

The Carnegie in West Lebanon, Indiana, a town of just 800, had had a small addition to its back in 2005 to provide a handicapped entrance and space for computers. Otherwise it too maintained its original flavor. It was a rare Carnegie with a bust of its benefactor as well as a portrait. The bust was significant enough to be included in a book written on the Carnegies of Indiana by Alan McPherson

The Carnegie in Covington, Indiana had a lithograph of Carnegie unlike any I've ever seen. It was located in a residential neighborhood and was adorned with a plaque saying it was on the National Register of Historic Places.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Josie Dew on the Loose

English touring cyclist Josie Dew had already written four books about her travels all over the world when she set out on a ride around the perimeter of Great Britain recounted in her book "Slow Coast Home." She was well enough known that she was regularly recognized, though one person thought she was Dervla Murphy, her Irish counterpart who has written even more books than Dew, but is more than 30 years her senior.

Anyone who had seen Dew on the cover of one of her books or knew much about her would have immediately identified her if they saw her with her overloaded bike. She is most distinctive--a petite five feet tall with floppy flaxon-hair unadorned by a helmet. Though she was "five years off forty" when she undertook this trip, those who didn't know her often mistook her for someone much younger. One of the many recurring themes of the book, along with people recognizing her and people aghast at all the gear on her bike and eating bananas, was people asking if she was in her "gap year," taking a break in her studies to travel. She took it as a minor insult that people thought her so young and that she was just off on a minor diversion to figure out what to do with her life.

She had long ago committed her life to bicycle touring. When she was 12 years old she rode 360 miles in seven days to England's Land's End with her older brother. She left school as soon as she could at 16 to cycle to Africa--"sitting on saddles was more my style than sitting on seats." She has traveled with boy friends, and was occasionally joined on this trip by her current boy friend, a carpenter who she refers to as "the builder," but the majority of her travels have been on her own, as she prefers. At times she met other cyclists, some who knew who she was and others who didn't, who wanted to accompany her for a few miles or a few hours or a few days. She discouraged all of them, never sure if they might be a serial killer, even a guy who presented her with a banana knowing that they were her lifeblood.

Her femininity and her cuteness attracted attention of all sorts, some comical and some boorish. Men and woman showered her with a wide array of distinctly English terms of endearment, as in "That's quite a load you've got, me petal." She was most commonly referred to as "luv" and "love," though she doesn't explain the difference. There was also an occasional "my lovely" and "luvvie," and the series of "lassie," "my lassie" and "young lassie." She was also addressed as "pet" along with "me petal," as well as "sunshine" and "sweetheart" and "me darlin'," none of which she took offense to. It is the English way. On the unwelcome side were comments of "nice arse" or "lucky seat." She silently berated one offender as a "cheeky bastard."

The book could have used a glossary to explain its many Englishisms, many more than any of her other books starting with "The Wind in My Wheels" in 1992. But the book was already over 500 pages and it would have required another chapter to explain clobber, clunder, clappers. cock-a-hoop, moggies, kerfuffle, widdle, bladdered, shuddered, shilly-shally, doo-lalley and all the others. There were also expressions such as "How the sweet Douglas Adams was I supposed to know that," such as I often wondered about her use of words.

At times it seemed as if she were making up a language of her own. It was a distinct possibility, as she's not so much a writer as a player of words. No play on words is too low or too absurd for her. She passes up no opportunity, sometimes forcing some conglomeration she has concocted into her narrative. She ran off a long string of family and pet names beginning with the letter "P" that she said would not come out of the mouth of some bashful guy she met. Another of her "P" extravaganzas was, "I homed in on a pod of puffins perched precariously on a piece of precipitous cliff (don't try saying that with a portion of pelican pie in your mouth)." Hardly a paragraph passes without some alliterative assault--"chirpy children," "lazy loll," fey female form," "past penned offering," "bored blokes," dithering dilemma"...

It could be overwhelming at times. Such writing is best taken in small doses. Unlike some travel writers who have me eager for the next episode, hers were so repetitive, I needed to periodically put the book down for a breather. She was not so concerned with searching out interesting historical or sociological anecdotes or insights into the people she's amongst, but interesting word combinations. She regularly quoted clever or odd signs and t-shirts and post cards and graffiti and newspaper headlines that give her a chuckle, such as the sign at a campground that read, "Unattended children will be sold as slaves." She's a travel writer who wishes to amuse rather than to inform.

Still, she is a legitimate touring cyclist and fully understands and captures the experience. She's not another of those many one-timers writing about a trip in response to all those she met along the way who said, "You ought to write a book." She gives a distinctly woman's perspective from sexist comments to menstrual moments and finding places to pee. Voiding bodily wastes is rarely mentioned in books written by men. It was one of the themes of Dew's book, much much more than finding a place to bathe, as she regularly stays in camp grounds and bed and breakfasts, so neer seems despeate for a shower. For others that is often such a momentous even that they mention whenever they have one.

She does wild camp. On one occasion when she pitched her tent in not the best of spots between a busy commuter train line and a roadway, she had no place to sequester herself for bathroom duties. For the first time ever she had to do a number two in her tent. She proudly said, "If our boys in the Special Air Service could crap into a plastic bag, then so could I."

Her can-do spirit happily prevails at all times, though she doesn't make a theme of the hardships or make them more than they are as some writers are prone to do. She knows they are part of the experience and fully accepts them. Never does she make a condition seem so unwelcome as to make one wonder why one would want to be doing such a thing. She's constantly inflicted with rain in these travels, mentioning the wet on at least 125 pages, yet never lets it get to her.

She does acknowledge at one point, "I'm soaked, I'm freezing, I'm filthy and I'm wondering why I just don't jack it all in and go and buy a nice, big, warm and safe four-wheel drive and give birth to 2.4 children and live crappily ever after. Because...because...because...this is my life--flailing around in the grime of the roadside...loving moments...hating moments. Pain. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Elation. Delight and despair. It's all fun in the long run."

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Friday Quiz

BikeSnobNYC posts a weekly "Friday Fun Quiz" on his blog, so I thought I'd offer up a Friday quiz myself. Its not meant so much as a test, but rather as an outlet to share some fascinating facts I recently picked up from "The Spring Classics," a coffee-table sized book originally published by "L'Equipe" in French in 2007 and republished in English by VeloPress three years later.

According to worldcat.org only 25 libraries in the United States have a copy. Lucky for me one of them is in Skokie, a ten-mile bike ride from my apartment. This was a most appropriate time to read it, the week after the Queen of the Spring Classics, Paris-Roubaix, won by Belgian Tom Boonen, joining fellow Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck from the 1970s as the only two riders in the 115-year history of the race to win it four times.

More than half of the 200-page book is photographs. They are interspersed with four or five page essays on the various Spring Classics written by five of "L'Equipe's" foremost cycling writers. They give short histories of Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, Paris-Tours, Bordeaux-Paris and a few others. Just a couple years before this book, "L'Equipe" devoted an entire book to Paris-Roubaix, as it could to any of these races, most of which are over 100 years old. This serves more as an introduction to these great races for neophytes, rather than an in depth study. Still it was most worthwhile.


Here are ten questions (bits of trivia) from the book. Unlike the Snob I won't offer up cute and clever multiple choice answers. You're on our own:

1. Which French classic moved from spring to fall and in what year?

2. Which French classic was run in reverse for 14 years? (A two-point bonus if you know the years.)

3. Who was the first cyclist known as the Campionissimo and who invented the term?

4. Most of the classics were founded by newspapers as a means to increase circulation. What is the only one that is still publishing?

5. How many climbs are in the Amstel Gold and which is climbed three times?

6. Where did Coppi begin his 180 km breakaway in the 1946 Milan-San Remo, his first great breakaway that gave birth to his legend?

7. Who was the first Swiss rider to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and the year?

8. What was the time limit for the first Bordeaux-Paris in 1891?

9. Who did away with motor-pacing in Paris-Brest-Paris and what year?

10. Who is the only German to win Paris-Roubaix?

This was the third book on cycling I've recently read that mentioned the practice of racers in the early days of the sport sprinkling nails on the road behind them to give their adversaries flat tires. According to "The Sweat of the Gods" the German rider Hans Ludwig gave advice on the best type of nails to use in a book he wrote in 1913. "The Spring Classics" mentions that the first four riders in the 1904 Paris-Brest-Paris were all demoted for various offenses, including tossing nails. "Ride and be DAMNED" also commented on the practice in English races in the '40s and '50s.

Though such a practices is no longer a factor, contending with dogs remains an issue. Hardly a Tour de France passes without a dog running out on the course and causing a crash. "The Spring Classics" mentions two such instances, both in Paris-Roubaix. In the very first edition in 1896 Joseph Fischer was able to escape his breakaway companion Arthur Lenton and win the race when a dog knocked Lenton down. A dog also brought down Bernard Hinault in 1981, but it didn't prevent him from winning the race. Hinault vividly remembered, "It was a small black poodle with a red collar. The only thing I didn't know was its name."

Nor is the book without its mentions of tears. A full page photo of Paul Sherwen accompanies the introduction he contributes to the book. It shows him with his head thrust back, eyes squinting and face cringing, splattered with mud at the end of the 1983 Paris-Roubaix. He said his mum cried when she saw this photo, "because she finally understood how tough the sport was that I had chosen." Paolo Bettini sheds tears of release after winning the 2006 Tour of Lombardy as a tribute to his brother Sauro, who had died in a car crash just days before. Fausto Coppi collapses in tears after losing out in a sprint in the 1956 edition.

Though the Classics venture no where near the Alps, as they are saved for the stage races, L'Alpe d'Huez still receives mention four times in the book, all spelled with the capital L. The toughest or most iconic climb or feature of a Classic is referred to as its L'Alpe d'Huez.

And for the answers:

1. Paris-Tours in 1951

2. Paris-Tours (1974-1987)

3. The Italian Costante Girardengo by Eugenio Colombo, La Gazzetta's race director

4. La Gazzetta dello Sport, created in 1896, the same year as the modern Olympics

5. 31 climbs with the Cauberg three times

6. The Turchino tunnel

7. Paul Egli in 1936

8. Four days to do 572 kilometers. The winner accomplished it in one day and 2 1/2 hours.

9. Henri Desgrange in 1911.

10. Joseph Fischer in 1896 thanks to a dog.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Ride and Be DAMNED" by Chas Messenger

When I recently read mention of a book entitled "Ride and Be Damned" by someone with the last name of Messenger, I thought, "This could be the ultimate book on cycling." Such a provocative title gave promise of a no-holds-barred rant against all those who condemn cyclists, whether for infringing upon their roads or for thinking that biking is anything other than a trivial recreational activity.

When I discovered it had been written in 1998, I figured it had to be some underground cult classic to have evaded my radar all these years. Some quick research revealed it was the fifth and final book by an Englishman with the first name of Chas who lived from 1914 to 2008. His previous books also had most evocative in-your-face titles ("Conquer the World," "Cycling Crazy," "Cycling's Circus" and "Where There's a Wheel") all written in quick succession between l968 and l972.

Twenty-six years later, at the age of 84, he offered up "DAMNED", what had to be the final word from someone holding back nothing, spewing out harsh truths so subversive that it had been largely suppressed. As a philosopher once said, "If I told the truth for five minutes I would lose all my friends. If I told the truth for ten minutes I would be exiled from the land. If I told the truth for 15 minutes I would be put to death." A book's worth of unvarnished truth was lucky to find a publisher.


Worldcat.org revealed that there was only one library in all of the United States that had a copy, the University of Illinois. Though it would have only been a 150 mile bike down to Champagne, I put my Northwestern alum privileges to use, going the easy route, simply requesting it from this sister Big Ten school, as I have resorted to on occasion. Normally the book arrives in less than a week. This one took over two weeks, adding to its mystique.

It was boldly autographed in black magic marker on a page with nothing but the title. For the first time I learned the book's title wasn't simply "Ride and Be Damned," but rather "Ride and Be DAMNED." Yes, this guy meant it. It was an over-sized book of just 151 pages full of dazzling photographs, some filling a page. The foreword by a sportswriter who knew Messenger promised the book was written in Messenger's "familiar racy style" and was a chronicle of the great struggles of introducing actual road racing to Great Britain.

For over fifty years up until 1942 the powers-that-be largely restricted road racing in Great Britain to time trials, riders going off one at a time, a minute or more apart, barely making their presence felt on whatever road they were riding on. There were no mass start races as had been going on in Europe since before the turn of the century. These time trials were barely races and were virtual underground events with the riders compelled to dress inconspicuously so it didn't appear as if they were engaged in a race. Start sheets were headed "Private and Confidential." Even competing in these semi-sanctioned races one was made to feel like an outlaw. It was quite a contrast to what was going on across the Channel, where events such as the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix and countless other races were wildly popular and a great sensation, the leading sporting events of the time.

Finally in 1942 Percy Stallard, someone who had raced on the continent and knew the excitement and magnificence of true road racing, organized a "rebel" mass start race on June 7, l942. And with it was born the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) to promote such racing. This book is essentially a history of the BLRC. Up until its formation British racing had been administered by the Road Time Trials Council (RTCC). The two organizations became bitter rivals. The RTCC maintained that "bunched racing is an utterly selfish and irresponsible use of roads" and did everything it could to suppress it. The BLRC felt Great Britain was greatly deprived not to have such racing and fought with ardour for it.


Messenger was an active participant with the BLRC during these years. Though the book is a diatribe of a sort, it is more the cranky recollections of someone who had been in the thick of it. His book documents the history of the BLRC in year by year chapters from 1942 until 1959, when finally in 1960 government legislation was introduced making it fully legal for racing to take place on the road. It was a triumphant day for Messenger and his cohorts. "There must have been many ghosts from the past who looked down on the scene and wept," he wrote.


As evidenced by the many magnificent photos in the book, the racing quickly captured the interest of the public. Crowds in the thousands lined the race courses just as they did over in Europe. But still it was a long battle between the rival race organizations. Time trial advocates would interfere with road races riding in amongst the riders and dropping tacks and nails on the road and turning course markers the wrong way. Police officers were a hindrance as well. One rider leading a race was stopped by a "man of blue" and issued a ticket for failing to stop at a "Halt" sign while his competitors flew on by him. There were no road closures, so riders had to observe stop signs and were penalized ten minutes if they didn't.

In the early days of road racing the BLRC had very strict rules to insure they did not upset the authorities. Riders were obliged to race single file through towns and could not attack duringsuch stretches to insure they did not threaten the safety of spectators, one of the chief reasons the RTTC was opposed to such racing. In the first stage races there was no money to put up racers at hotels. They had to scramble on their own to find a bed or a couch after each stage, sometimes ending up in a hay loft.

By 195l the BLRC felt it had arrived when it promoted three major stage races, including the first ever Tour of Britain, attracting racers from the continent. Still, it wasn't until nine years later that legislation was passed making it fully legal. It was a long and hard-fought battle.

The early pioneers competing in these races endured much. They did feel as if they were DAMNED. Tom Simpson was just getting his start during this era. Even though he won 16 races as a junior and was clearly destined for greatness, he was suspended six months for failing to stop at a "Halt" sign in a race. He was frustrated enough to nearly give up the sport. But he stuck with it, racing in the 1956 Olympics as a l9-year old, and went on to be Britain's greatest cyclist, the first to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and to win the World Championship road race and two of the sports monuments--Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy--before his death on Mont Ventoux in 1967 in the Tour de France.

That short paragraph glorifies him more than Messenger did. Exalting the racers was not the objective of his book. There are no vivid portraits of riders nor accounts of their heroics, as often highlight cycling histories. The focus of this book was solely on the rival racing organizations. Messenger mentions from time to time that if one wants to know more about a certain race to go to one of his other books.

Though the book wasn't the manifesto I had imagined it might be, I am glad there is such a titled book out there. It was nice to be introduced to Messenger and his work. I am eager to see what his other books have to offer, and if they have as many typographical errors.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Bike Snob and the Parenthesis

The Bike Snob is the King of the Parenthetical Comment. There are as many as three or four on a page in his latest book, "The Enlightened Cyclist." They define his writing style, generally a snide wisecrack with an element of truth. They are asides that can be a distraction, but comments he can't resist. Sometimes they are pertinent, but often they simply allow him to lampoon some innocent bystander who he has it in for even though the object has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

When he makes the sweeping comment, "We now live in the 21st century," he adds "(Well, excluding people like the Amish, the Taliban and Larry King)." His book has a Biblical theme to it. When he cites Genesis, he clarifies, "(the Bible book, not the band)."

His book regularly takes to task hipsters and the smug, though at times he might be describing himself. When he used the word "oft" he virtually confesses to being among the clan with his parenthetical disclaimer "("oft" is pretentious for "often")."

The Snob was sporting a beard at his Chicago appearance last week despite his frequent flippant remarks about beards in his book. He says people with beards love bicycles. At one point he gives a definition of smugness, a quality all too many cyclists are prone to. Smugness, he maintains, leads to making one feel like an all-powerful wizard, which "could explain why so many smug cyclists wear beards."

It is a shame the book doesn't have an index. Besides making it easy to find the many smug and beard and hipster references, one could be entertained by a quick scan of the wide array of off-the-wall cultural oddities that irk or bemuse him. Along with the Amish and Larry King, one would find mime, Froot Loops, Segway, ring tones, Chicken McNuggets, bamboo bikes, urban bee keeping, ghost bikes, Howard Stern, Oprah, Billy Joel, David Bryne. There are also multiple references to Portland and Critical Mass, targets he never tires of taking potshots at. There would have been 17 movies listed, down from 43 in his first book. There were three movies mentioned in both books--"Jaws," "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," one of his favorite movies of all time.

To a certain extent the book is a response to the response of his first book. He wants the world to know he is not some loud-mouthed, irrational, anarchist preaching the destruction of the automobile and reviling those who do not embrace the bike, as some regard him. Most radio interviewers on his first book tour asked him why he hated cars. He doesn't hate cars at all. "Cars are for the broad strokes and bikes for the detail work," he asserts. He owns a car and drives it embarrassingly long distances with his bike to compete in cyclocross races. On the morning of 9/ll he was all set to drive his dog to the vet to have a tooth extracted. If his alter ego, BikeSnobNYC, knew about that, he'd certainly have some pointed comment.

He tries to be a voice of reason in the battle between cars and bikes. When he sets out on his bike he has two goals, not to get killed and not to get angry. He preaches acceptance of untoward behavior by motorists. He can tolerate Billy Joel, so bicyclists ought to tolerate cars.

He sees much progress in the number of people riding bikes. He thinks we may be at a major cultural intersection with the possibility of cycling finally going mainstream. He encourages cyclists to do as little as possible to antagonize motorists. He has learned to take great satisfaction at stopping at red lights, especially since it can befuddle, if not disturb, motorists and pedestrians.

He knows the cultural transformation is a gradual process. He compared it to a prison break with the prisoners trying to dig a tunnel with spoons. Every time they leave their cells they must take a pocketful of dirt. Every ride a cyclist takes is a pocketful of goodwill promoting the cause of the bicycle. "If we all do our tiny part, we may get to the other side of the wall," he writes.