Monday, December 31, 2012

2012's Third Merckx

Not to be outdone by a pair of rival English publishers, who each put out an Eddie Merckx biography in 2012, VeloPress, America's premier publisher of cycling books, issued one of its own, "Merckx 525," the translation of a 2010 Belgian book.

It would make a fine companion to either of the two equally worthwhile English offerings, "Merckx, the Cannibal" and "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike," as it is largely a book of photographs.  It also includes year-by-year tables, unlike the other books, listing every one of Merckx's 525 wins beginning in 1961 when he was sixteen.  Every chart is given its own page in this chronological documentation of Merckx's career.  There is some text, but it is very much secondary to the sterling photos in this coffee table-sized book with some of the photos spread across two pages.

Merckx provides an introduction to the book, authenticating it with his approval, in contrast to the other two books, which he had no hand in, not even agreeing to interviews with their authors.  "Merckx 525" doesn't have the breadth or depth to be considered the definitive Merckx biography, but it can certainly be said to be the final word on certain events in his career.

When he is quoted as saying that finishing fourth at the 1973 World Championships, losing in a huge upset in the sprint to Felice Gimondi, Freddie Maertens and Luis Ocana, was the most crushing defeat of his career, so it must be.  When he is quoted as saying that the most difficult day of his career was at the 1977 Tour de France, his last, when he finished 20th on L'Alpe d'Huez, 13 minutes and 51 seconds behind Hennie Kuiper, so it must be.

Both these traumatic occasions brought Merckx to tears.  Twice the book describes Merckx as "going to pieces"--after that World Championship loss and also when he is informed that he tested positive for drugs in the 1968 Giro, one of the most famous crying episodes in the history of cycling, captured as it was by photographers who happened to be in his hotel room when he was given the news.  The book includes a different photo than what traditionally accompanies that incident, an effort the editors made with many of the book's photos.

Merckx is not bashful at all about admitting to crying.  In his introduction he wrote that when he had to leave his family to race it was "often with tears in my eyes and pain in my heart."  After his near fatal accident on the velodrome in Blois after his first Tour de France victory in 1969 he never felt the same on his bike and was often in pain.  Sometimes it was so unbearable, he said, "I sat crying on my bicycle."

Although this book doesn't recount Merckx's career with the same detail as the two other biographies, partially in recognition that its Belgian readers probably know it by heart anyway, it does offer specifics that the other books don't, heightening the impact of the novelistic prose of Frederik Backelandt.  It gives the exact minute (10:22 a.m.) when Merckx was informed of his Giro drug positive as he sat in his hotel bed.  It also gives the precise distance from the finish line when he was punched in the kidney by a spectator on Puy de Dome in the 1975 Tour--150 meters.  It also gives the exact date of his first win--October 1, 1961 in Petit-Enghien, the fourteenth race he took part it.

If one appreciates detail, there is much to be discerned in the large, mostly black-and-white, photographs that are the book's shining glory.  Merckx's raw thrilled emotion as he crosses the finish line in many photographs is matched by the ecstasy of fans cheering their hearts out as he passes them along the road.   The expressions of unfettered glee of the fans, especially women and children, truly capture the essence of the sport.  The explosion of jubilation of racers as they win and fans getting a close glimpse of their heroes is unlike that of any other sport.  A photograph of a huge plaza jammed with adoring fans celebrating Merckx standing on a balcony puts his popularity on a par with any hero.

There are also highly telling photographs of a more relaxed Merckx lolling on the ground with rivals, walking his Dalmatian with his wife, posing with the King and Queen of Belgium, meeting the Pope.   There is a photograph of his wedding as he and his wife walk under a canopy of bicycle wheels held up by friends outside the church.  No mention is made though that they made their vows in French, upsetting the Flemish half of Belgium.  There is also a photograph of Merckx being pushed by a pair of teammates, though not explaining that they are providing him locomotion while he answers nature's call.

Photograph after photograph is worthy of hanging, penetrating to the core of cycling's most monumental figure. They are fully absorbing, stirring the emotions and making it hard to turn to the next page. This collection full does justice to the man and his career.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Tears of Marty Nothstein

Early in his autobiography, "The Price of Gold," Marty Nothstein writes that growing up he was taught to never cry, as "tears are for the weak."  I feared this might be a warning to researchers such as myself, who seek instances of tears in the world of cycling, that we should set this book aside and look elsewhere.  I am glad that I didn't, as not only did tears flow here and there, but the book was also a most unflinching and quite well-written portrayal of racing on the track.

Though Nothstein only cites one crying episode of his own, when he fails to medal as an 18-year old at the 1989 Moscow junior world championships, he came very close to tears once again when he realized his all-consuming ambition to win the gold medal in the sprint at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  Before the podium ceremony he could feel his eyes welling, but he refuses to let himself cry, as he reminds himself that tears are a sign of weakness.  Tears do stream down his mother's face in the stands, not the only time she cries in the book.  Earlier he tells how tears would well up in her eyes when her husband would stay out late after work drinking, eventually resulting in their divorce.

For four years Nothstein devoted his life with a single-minded drive and determination to win gold in Sydney after finishing second in the Atlanta Olympics, failing to win gold on his home turf despite being the favorite.  He might have cried then, though he doesn't say so.  Instead, he physically punishes himself in the weight room and on the bike to get as strong as possible.  He trains and trains with hardly a break for four years, pausing only during the hunting season.  Nothing matters to him other than winning that medal.

The book's subtitle is "The toll and triumph of one man's Olympic dream."  The toll, he acknowledges, is allowing his narrow focus to transform him into an intolerable person to everyone around him.  He neglects his wife, a former elite track rider herself, and their two young children.  When he calls home during his long absences he can hear his children crying in the background, but his wife doesn't want to bother him with why.   He writes of her being in tears when she tells him she's pregnant before they have decided to marry two years before the Atlanta Olympics.  He's not upset, though he doesn't want it to disrupt his training.

He testifies that being at the birth of his son was the happiest day of his life, "a million times better than winning any bike race."  Only a few months before he had won his first world championship at the age of 23 and thought that was the happiest day of his life.

His compulsion to be number one, and with the number 1, so consumed him that whenever he pumped gas he would stop at $11.11.  When he traveled, he requested seats on airplanes and rooms in hotels rooms with the number 1.  Whenever he went on a training ride he made sure the mileage on his cycle computer ended with the number 1.  His wife caught him once circling around their driveway after a ride and asked him why.  He didn't tell her.  It was his own private motivational device.

Track racers, especially the sprinters, built up their chest muscles, unlike road racers.  They are big, tough guys, who show no weakness,thus is aversion to giving in to his emotions and crying.   He confesses to being a beast on the bike.  Before a match with an arch rival he writes, "We revert to our most hardened demeanors. I want to kill him.  He wants to kill me.  I ready myself for a cage match."  Riders are regularly disqualified for rough riding.  He once swerves a wheel into an opponent and shaves off a piece of his shoe with his bladed spokes.

He competed in more than 28 European six-day races, more than any American in the modern era.  He admits the results are always fixed, so only had one win in Moscow.  Matches are sometimes fixed too, or at least one rider bribes another to let him win. He once refused a pay-off from a German rival to let up at the 1995 World Championships even though he could have used the money as his long-time EDS sponsor had just withdrawn from the sport. The German initially offered him $8,000, then twelve and then fifteen just before the start.  The German won anyway.  It ended Nothstein's five year streak of winning at least one medal at the world championships.

But the world championships didn't matter as much to him as the Olympics.  He did not do any tapering to peak for the World Championships in that four year period between Atlanta and Sydney, using them as part of his Olympic training. And he has no regrets.  During his 15-year career as a cyclist he won 35 National Championships, four Pan-Am gold medals and three world championship titles and set numerous national, world and Olympic records.   He concludes that he would gladly trade them all for that lone Olympic gold medal, fulfilling a dream he had since he was a kid.

Drugs receive no mention in the book other than marijuana.  As a 17-year old he catches some of the older pro riders passing around a joint before a race at his home town Trexlertown, Pennsylvania track.  His mentor, former Olympian Mark "the Outlaw" Whitehead, was among them.  Whitehead grabs him and says, "Don't you ever fucking touch this stuff.  If I ever see you smoking this I'll fucking kill you."  He never does.

Nothstein and his co-writer, Ian Dille, a racer himself, offer a most honest portrayal of the sport, citing such incidents that a more rose-tinted biography might have skipped.  The book largely dwells on Nothstein's hard work and his triumphs, and only makes passing reference to his "neuroses," almost as if they felt they had to concoct some such thing to make his story more compelling.  This is not a book about a disorder, other than a deep commitment to being the best one can be.  He is not haunted by demons as are other cyclists in their autobiographies--Bradley Wiggins over his absent, alcoholic father, Graeme Obree by his suicidal tendencies, Davis Phinney and his Parkinson's disease.

The book hardly insults the intelligence of the well-versed cycling fan just explaining a few of the basics (a velodrome, BMX and rollers). But the editors there at Rodale Press manage to allow the spelling of this year's Tour de France winner as Wiggans.

The book also offers up a curiously paradoxical index.  It neglects Armstrong, but not LeMond.  Likewise, it overlooks Wiggins, but not Cavendish. Merckx makes the cut, but not Zabel.  But at least it does have an index, lending an extra degree of authenticity to the book.  It is a most worthwhile contribution to the literature on the sport.  It may have been late coming just published this year, six years after his retirement, but worth the wait.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Merckx

There can not be too many books on Eddie Merckx, or so thinks the publishing world, and me too.  Dozens were written during his heyday in the '70s and they don't stop coming.  Three more have been offered up this year to the English reading public.  I have read two of them and will gladly read the third as soon as I can get my hands on it.

The many exploits of his record-setting career make for an exhilarating read, no matter how familiar they may be.  Not only was he the greatest cyclist of all time, but one of the greatest athletes, finishing second to Michael Jordan in one poll selecting the greatest athlete of the past century.

We in America can only be dimly aware of what a phenomenon he was and how much he captured the interest of Belgium and the rest of the European cycling world, so much so that the King of Belgium made him a baron and the French anointed him a Commander in their Legion of Honor.  When he tested positive for drugs in the 1968 Giro d'Italia under very mysterious circumstances it caused such a furor in Belgium that the only bigger story during the decade was the assassination of President Kennedy.  When he was involved in a near fatal accident racing on a velodrome in Blois in 1969  after winning his first Tour de France, the King of Belgium sent a Pembroke military plane to have him brought home.

Daniel Friebe in "Eddie Merckx, the Cannibal" cites all these anecdotes and more to portray what a monumental figure Merckx was, many, many more  than did William Fotheringham in "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike,"  which I read and reviewed last month.  Both expertly chronicle Merckx's career, Freibe with just a bit more passion and flair.

Friebe's book reads like the intimate memories of an ardent fan who lived  during the Merckx era, though he is in fact a 30-year old English journalist who simply thoroughly researched his subject, interviewing many of Merckx's teammates and rivals, more than did Fotheringham.  Neither though gained a sit-down with Merckx, as he aligned himself with the other of this trio of recent books, "Merckx 525," named for the number of his career victories, a book Merckx says is the first he has authorized and the "first truly complete record of my accomplishments."  Besides the abundance of interviews, Friebe's research also included "painstakingly poring over dozens of volumes written about and with him," books he regularly mentions.  Despite his scholarly thoroughness, the book lacks an index, which Fotheringham's doesn't.

During the '70s, when he was three times voted the greatest athlete of the year over Pele and all others, journalists from all manner of periodicals, even those who knew little of cycling, wrote profiles of him trying to understand what made him tick.  So insatiable was the public's  desire to read about Merckx, almost as insatiable as his desire to win, a Flemish newspaper sent thirteen journalists one year to cover his exploits in The Tour de France.

Merckx's wife Claudine could come up with no better explanation to explain her husband's greatness than that he must have been vaccinated with a spoke. Friebe's verdict is that cycling was his calling, that he was preordained to greatness as a cyclist, blessed with abilities and a drive never before seen, just as Mozart was to be a musician and Michelangelo a painter and Napoleon a general.

If the measure of how deeply a biographer probes his subject's psyche is the number of times he mentions tears, Friebe's book is three times as deep as Fotheringham's, citing nearly thirty examples.  Friebe describes not only the tears of Merckx, but also those of rivals and teammates and fans and sportswriters and his mother and a few others.

Merckx's most famous crying episode came when he sobbed uncontrollably in his hotel room in Savano, Italy after being informed that he had tested positive for drugs while leading the 1969 Giro.  A  photographer was present and the picture was plastered on front pages all over Europe.  Friebe says the crying did not end there.  When Merckx fled to Milan after being ejected from the race, he was still intermittently crying between threats to quit the sport.

All the world had been looking forward to Merckx's debut in the Tour de France less than a month away.  The president of the International Cycling Federation flew in from Switzerland to console Merckx and to try to resolve the issue so the sport wouldn't lose its greatest star.  He put his arm around Merckx and brought him to tears once again.  His penalty was a one-month suspension.  There was consideration of delaying the start of The Tour by three days so Merckx could ride.  That wasn't necessary.  The charge was dropped as there had been too many suspicions regarding the test.

One of Merckx's rivals at the time, Jan Janssen, a Dutch rider who won the 1968 Tour, looking back on the episode told Friebe that Merckx, "cried like a baby so they let him off."  Janssen wasn't so sympathetic, as he had tested positive for drugs himself three times between 1967, when testing was first instituted, and 1972, and was never let off.  Merckx himself tested positive two more times during his career.  It is a subject that Friebe tackles more head on than did Fotheringham, who doesn't even mention Merckx's third positive test towards the end of his career at the 1977 Flech Wallone.  Years later Merckx acknowledged that "riders who weren't caught that year were lucky," as they were surprised by a new test.  Merckx felt no guilt as the drug they were using, Stimul, he said was "no magic potion."

Merckx cried not only out of despair, but of pride, of having accomplished something that meant so much to him and that he had invested so much effort and emotion to achieve.  When he presented the King of Belgium with one of his Yellow Jerseys from the 1969 Tour de France there were tears in his eyes.

He could cry to in sympathy for others, crying when he learned his team manager Cinzenzo Giacotto had died during the 1970 Tour.  He cried too when he let down his teammate Davide Boifava in a two-man time trial, not being able to ride as hard as him, as he hadn't fully recovered from his horrific crash on the velodrome in Blois a month before.   Boifava came to be known as "the man who made Eddie Merckx cry."

Merckx made his mother cry on occasion for his struggles in school.  In 1961 at the age of sixteen he decided racing was for him and not school.  He failed every subject that year and had to repeat the year, inducing tears from his mother. He brought her to tears too on his seventh or eighth birthday when he asked the barber to shave his head so he could look like the convicts he'd seen on work detail in his town.

Friebe acknowledges, as did Fotheringham, that Merckx did not cry when he announced his retirement on May 18, early in the 1978 season, at a Brussels hotel, when it was clear to him that he was no longer competitive.  The only ones to cry were those in the audience.  And he's still capable of bringing fans to tears over his exemplary achievements.



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Hollywood Rides A Bike"

Philadelphia film critic Steven Rea happened to have collected a few photographs over the years of Hollywood stars on bikes.  He created a website to share them and discovered there was a great interest in such photos.  It inspired others to send him some they had and sent him searching for more.  It resulted in the 159 page book "Hollywood Rides A Bike: Cycling With the Stars."  It contains 125 dazzling, most black and white, photographs, some of them taking up two pages.

Its a delightful array of stars on all manner of bikes--Vincent Price on a penny farthing (one of three penny farthings in the book), Nat King Cole on a stationary bike, Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth on a tandem (one of four tandem photographs), Barbara Streisand pedaling a cargo bike, Elvis being transported in a pedacab, Doris Day on a Stingray.  The Beatles fill a two-page spread hanging out with matching bikes.  Spencer Tracer pedals along with Mickey Rooney sitting on the rear rack clutching his waist.

There are photographs celebrating the great bicycling movies--"Breaking Away,"
"The Bicycle Thief," "6 Day Bike Rider," "Quicksilver"--and photographs of memorable cinema bike scenes--"Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid," "The Sound of Music."

There are photographs of people one would never expect to see on a bike--Alfred Hitchcock, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, Shirley Temple, Robert Mitchum, Joan Crawford, Sean Connery.

Not all the photographs are of Americans. European sex goddesses Ingrid Berman, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, Bridget Bardot  and Claudia Cardinale join the peloton. 

The book reveals quite few movies with significant bicycle scenes--"Athena" from l954 with Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell, "A New Kind of Love" from l963 with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, "American Heart" from 1992 with Jeff Bridges, "A Thousand Clowns" from l965 with Jason Robards, to name a few.

The book provides a pair of indexes---one of all the stars mentioned and another of all the bikes.  Unfortunately, there is not an index of the many movies.

Romance is a common theme, a man riding with a woman sitting uncomfortably on the cross tube of a bike--James Stewart and Grace Kelly, George Gobel and Diana Dors, Robert Goulet and Nancy Kwan.  There are loads of a man and a woman off on a bike ride with shining smiles.  And there are a handful of studio photos of young starlets in micro shorts showing a lot of leg, Betty Grable among them.

There are four photos of crashes, including one of Jane Fonda in her screen debut in "Tall Story" (1960) and another of Doris Day on a full-sized bike with a basket in "The Tunnel of Love" (1958).

Dogs also feature in four photos--one being pulled along on a leash, one in a box behind the seat, another perched on a pillow behind the seat and Rin Tin Tin sitting on a board mounted between the seat and the handlebars.

There is not a great deal of copy, just a short paragraph accompanying each photo, sometimes with a second studio blurb.  A photo of a young Lauren Bacall leaning against a bike holding a cup of coffee was one of those with a pair of paragraphs.  The studio copy promoted Bacall as someone who "prefers slacks, sweaters and bicycles to dresses, silk stocking and open cars.  She likes to be free and unencumbered."

May the day return when stars prefer bikes to autos.   The book is testimony to an era when it was fashionable for stars to be seen on a bicycle. They all look so happy and carefree, these photos will make anyone wish to get out and ride or see the movie they are promoting.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Grant Peterson's Racing Acumen

If there was a Review Board certifying the accuracy of a book's comments on The Tour de France and bicycle racing lore, Grant Peterson's "Just Ride" would not earn its seal of approval.

Despite being the long-time editor of the "Rivendell Reader," Peterson committed a host of serious factual blunders in his recently published slim volume of  bicycle advice.  Perhaps it was intentional, as Peterson expresses so much antagonism to racing, his purpose may have been to diss the sport by slighting some of its corner stones.  His disdain for the influence that racing has on the world of bicycling inspired his "book," which might be more aptly termed a "manual" or "pamphlet" or "booklet."

He proclaims in the very first sentence of "Just Ride" that his main goal is to "point out what I see as bike racing's bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitude and then undo it."  He goes on to say that he "can't think of anything good that comes from racing," this despite admitting he uses a heart-rate monitor and that he raced for "about six years."  Nor does it prevent him from planting an endorsement for his pamphlet from Giro champion Andy Hampsten on its inside cover, along with ones from fellow iconoclast New York Bike Snob and Jan Heine of "Bicycle Quarterly."

Peterson is a self-confessed bike geek and just might still be recovering from his long-ago years as a racing cyclist.  He admits he used to time all his rides and has point-to-point times for dozens of rides in his vicinity.  He's obsessive enough to prick a finger ten times a week to check his glucose level to study the effect of food and exercise.  He says nothing about weighing his food, though he does say that bicycling isn't a very good way to lose weight.

Despite its inaccuracies and inconsistencies this is a bible, as David Eggers wrote in the "New York Times," for the non-Lycra cyclist unconcerned about the weight or appearance of his bicycle.  It is hard to argue with many of his grievances and recommendations, all summed up in the book's title.  "Just ride," he preaches, and don't worry about what you wear or shaving grams off your bike.  He argues for practicality--fenders and kickstands and baggy clothing and ponchos and utility, all alien to the racing mentality.

Despite all its credible advice, it is unfortunately another example of an American book dispensing faulty information on bicycle racing.  It gets wrong what are basic tenets to any European who has grown up with the sport and knows it as intimately as Americans know theirs.  No American baseball fan would get wrong the number of career home runs Babe Ruth hit, just as no European racing fan would get wrong the number of career victories of Eddie Merckx, the Babe Ruth of bicycle racing.  They all know he won 525 races. It is such a seminal number that Velo Press has just published a $60 coffee table book simply titled Merckx 525. Merckx sells a bike featuring the number 525. Peterson puts the number at "450 or so," though he does know enough to acknowledge that Merckx is the "winningest pro racer of all time."

An even more insulting bungle of the facts was his commentary on Eugene Christophe's legendary repair of his broken fork in a black smith's shop in the middle of a stage after breaking it on the descent of the Tourmalet in the 1913 Tour.  Rules at the time required racers to perform any repairs needed to their bike, whether a flat tire or a broken frame.  Christophe was penalized ten minutes, later reduced to three, for allowing a seven-year old boy to operate the bellows as he forged his fork.  This is one of the most storied events in Tour lore.  There is a plaque on the former black smith shop where it took place and the scene was reenacted on its 50th anniversary with Christophe and the boy. 

All European racing fans know this story as well as the story of Christmas, but not Peterson.  He wrote that Christophe, without naming him despite no doubt riding at some point in his career with toe straps bearing his name, was disqualified for accepting help.   That's not true at all.  Christophe was just slapped with a time penalty and continued on to Paris, finishing seventh despite losing over four hours to his mishap on the Tourmalet.  Peterson also wrote that he broke his frame not his fork.  Shame too on Maynard (Hershon?), who Peterson thanks on his acknowledgement page, who he said "read and improved early crummy drafts."

Maybe his mangling of this episode is a residue of his prejudice against The Tour de France for calling itself a "tour."  Its no tour Peterson says and refers to it as the "Big Old Race Around France." He gives it the acronym "BORAF," one of a handful of acronyms he scatters throughout his booklet.  One of the better is  "S24O" for "Sub-24-Hour Overnights," quick single-night bike tours within a few hours of where one lives.  One of his axioms is that no bike ride is too short.  Even a five minute ride can be fun and productive.  The same goes for tours.

As sensible as he can be, he all too often comes across as being cranky or eccentric, as if he's trying to be a provocateur.  He maintains that helmets aren't all that necessary if one just rides a little more carefully, though he usually wears a helmet at night.  He spells "derailleur" as "derailer," inspired by Sheldon Brown, a man of his ilk, who he also thanks in his acknowledgments.  He says he carries mace about 20% of the time, though doesn't specify when those occasions may be.

Though I can't be as enthusiastic as I'd like to be about this booklet, I did answer true to all ten of his final true-and-false statements to determine if one is an "Unracer," as he considers himself.  One needed only answer true to six of them to qualify.  If there had been more clarity to his final true-and-false statement, "I can name zero to five professional bike racers and their teams," by including the phrase "no more than,"  then I would have only answered true to nine of them.  Hell yes I can name five riders and their teams.  I can name practically everyone on several of the nine-man rosters from this year's Tour de France--Garmin, Sky, Radio Shack, BMC and assorted others and am proud of it.