Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eddie B. and a Pretender

There has been a steady trickle of racing how-to-books over the years, but none compare to Eddie Borysewicz's classic "Bicycle Road Racing" published in 1985, a year after he coached the American cycling team to nine medals at the Los Angeles Olympics, the most American cyclists have ever won. Some of its material is dated, such as recommending horse meat and vitamin B-12 injections, but no other book is as thorough or informative or provides such a solid program for becoming a successful racer or is peppered with such colorful assertions ("Each morning say hello to the bike.").

Borysewicz was a prominent racer and coach in Poland during the '60s and '70s before immigrating to the United States in 1976 at the age of 37.  A year later he was appointed the first coach of the US Cycling Federation and became known as Eddie B.  In short order American junior riders began winning international competitions. Suddenly American riders had to be taken seriously.

"Wheelman," the recent book on the downfall of Lance Armstrong, acknowledges the significance of Eddie B., devoting several pages to him.  And the latest how-to-book, "Reading the Race," by race announcer Jamie Smith, mentions him a couple of times as well.  Smith's book is another in a long line of pale imitations of Eddie B's tome, barely scratching the surface of what it takes to succeed as a racer. It gives the advice of bunny-hopping over obstacles but doesn't bother to explain how to do it, as Eddie B. does.  As with his first book, the somewhat clever and witty "The Misunderstood World of the Bike Racer," Smith seems more inclined to levity than going much beyond the obvious that anyone who has raced a couple of times has picked up.  It may be a pleasant book to read, but don't expect to learn much if you know anything.

There is no better example of the contrast in tone and approach of Smith's and Borysewicz's books than their mentions of all the bones in the human body.  Smith references them with a light-hearted swipe, writing, "Most of us have to return to the real world on Monday morning with all 206 bones in tact," while Eddie B. authenticates his credentials commenting that he had to learn the name for every one of those bones in Latin and Polish while earning a master's degree in physical education.  Someone who has studied physiology to that extent is someone to listen to.

American racers are divided into categories from five for novices to one, just below the Pro Elite riders who are the best in the world.  If race training books were similarly rated, Eddie B's would be there at the top, while Smith's would be closer to the beginner category.  That is not to say it is without merit. It is a worthwhile introductory manual that goes down easy, but it is just another of many.

I can't say I've read them all.  It has been a long time since I have raced and I have no need of more than an intermittent dose of racing technique and strategy.  I still give such books a glance when they turn up, hoping to gain some additional insight into the sport or to pick up some conditioning tips that might help me in my long-distance touring.  I was enticed to give Smith's book a full read not only for these reasons, but also because the book's cover implied that it had been co-authored by Chris Horner, a master tactician.  I knew he would have interesting insights to offer.

Unfortunately, Horner's contributions don't amount to anything more than twenty-five anecdotal asides of a few paragraphs each interspersed amongst Smith's text.  At times readers have to wait twenty pages or more for a dollop of Horner on subjects such as "how tactics have changed" or "echelons" or "riding in the rain" or "bridging the gap" or "deals made with rivals."

Some of his tips are only applicable to those riding in the pro peloton, though they at least give a glimpse into what its like to ride with the big boys.  In his capsule "Tour de France Survival" he writes of struggling on a stage in the 2006 Tour.  He feigns an injury just before a climb so he can latch on to the medic's car and get a free ride while the doctor tends to him. He manages to prolong the session long enough to get towed almost to the top.  That's considered craftiness, not cheating.  If he'd held on to his team car, as riders sometimes try to get away with, he would have been kicked out of the race.

Eddie B. would have needed a baseball consultant to decode portions of Smith's book, as it is liberally sprinkled with baseball metaphors.  Eddie B.'s unsurprisingly has not a one. Smith compares being in a paceline to playing center field and being in a breakaway to being on second base, in scoring position. He also makes mentions of choking up on the bat, third base coaches waving runners home and Fenway Park.  Eddie B. delivers his message straight, not even resorting to chess metaphors, unlike Smith, who claims racing is a rolling chess game.  When Eddie B. mentions someone waving his arm, it is a racer signaling his team car that he has a flat tire--left hand up means a front wheel, right hand means rear.

Eddie B. is too "crazy for cycling," one of his favorite terms, to allow time for anything else.  It is one of the three essential qualities one must have to succeed in racing.  The others are a "very fast recovery" and "a desire to work extremely hard."  Note the words "very" and "extremely."   Eddie B. says it is not possible to be too "crazy for cycling. " A rider will only reach his potential when he is "crazy for cycling" one hundred per cent of the time.

One area that present training methods have diverged in the nearly thirty years since Eddie B.'s book is on the subject of eating.  Eddie B. preached that one must eat heartily, "like a farmer."  Another time he says one must eat like four regular people.  Present-day riders starve themselves to get as thin as possible to increase their power to weight ratio.  Both generations would agree though on the quality of food one ingests.  Eddie B. warned that racers can't skimp on their food budget, that they must eat better meat than hamburger. He was of the thought that meat was best eaten raw, though he acknowledged that might be difficult and that he wouldn't fault anyone for cooking their meat, just as long as they didn't cook it too much.

Eddie crams in so much advice on so many subjects that other books don't touch, it seems that his book must be ten times as thick as any other book.  Its not, he just doesn't waste words on trivialities.  He advises that one must see a dentist twice a year.  "Must" is italicized.  He also thinks it essential that serious racers join a health club for training that one can't do on a bike.  Other essentials are taking one's pulse when one awakes and no car rides around town.  All local transportation must be by bike.  He demands, "You live with the bike, you are married to the bike. I'm sorry for you if you don't think this is necessary.  Believe me, it is what it takes to be a top rider."

On and on it goes.  It may be the ultimate cycling textbook, but it doesn't read like a textbook.  One can clearly detect his strong Polish accent, such as when he expresses his love for America and  freedom, though he thinks too much freedom can be a bad thing.  He's certainly not adverse to limiting the freedom of his riders.  He makes demands on them even during their off-season.  He says its okay to "enjoy some parties, but stay away from beer, wine and other alcohol."

Eddie B. would not approve of the coffee addiction of many of today's riders.  Caffeine should be saved for crucial moments in a race.  He recommends a shot of espresso.  "It will open your eyes," he writes, "and give you a good heart reaction, especially if you follow a good athlete's diet and do not have coffee regularly."  For those who don't have a taste for coffee, a Coke will do, even though it doesn't have as much caffeine.  But he advises shaking the Coke before putting it in a water bottle to rid it of its bubbles so one can avoid burping.

He is matter-of-fact about injecting vitamins during stage races, as shots can be absorbed much faster than pills.  But he knows injections can be dangerous and advises against doing it one's self. He says nothing though about blood-doping, which he oversaw at the 1984 Olympics, earning him a suspension.  He was among the first to introduce it to cycling.  He was also on the cutting edge of radio transmissions during races.  He was the first to do it at the 1983 Junior World Championships.   The powers that be have been trying to ban the practice, as they have recently accomplished with needles.

He has specific advice for coaches as well.  One no-no is discussing the day's race and criticizing one's riders at dinner, as it will upset their digestion.  Coaches should check on their riders in their rooms before they go to sleep to make sure they've had their massage and vitamin injection.  And a coach must have good judgement to divide prizes fairly among the riders.  He also says at times one must make illegal feeds during races.  Its a good risk, as he's gotten away with it ninety per cent of the time.  Even if caught, the penalty is a small price to pay for the well-being of one's rider.

One might think that Eddie B.'s book would be a hard-to-find relic with only a few still around, opening up a market for all these other books, but that's not the case at all.  In 2005 Velo Press republished the book twenty years after it came out.  It is readily available at Amazon.  Read it and enjoy.  It is loaded with photos with hardly a helmet to be seen.  Eddie B. was old school when it came to them as well.  He didn't think they were necessary if one knew how to fall correctly.  He acknowledged that helmets could give some riders a little extra confidence and then added, "perhaps some day they will wear shoulder pads too."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cavendish Autobiography Number Two

When Mark Cavendish wrote his first autobiography, "Boy Racer," four years ago at the age of twenty-five, it was not premature at all.  He'd been cycling's dominant sprinter for two years, winning four and six stages in the past two Tours de France. His ten stage wins were the most ever by an English rider. Not only did his future promise many more wins, but also more books.

Since then he's won fifteen more stages of The Tour, moving up to third on the all-time list, behind only Eddie Merckx and Bernard Hinault.  He's also won the World Championship and become a father and had quite a few more of his trademark crying fits, providing him with more than enough material for a second installment of his life story, "At Speed, My Life in the Fast Lane."

He's always been one of the most colorful personalities in the sport, and his personality shines brightly in his writing. Both his books are laden with profanity and punctuated by bursts of tears.  He is so prone to tears, a friend points out to him that at some point he has cried in every Tour de France he has ridden. The 2010 Tour was the first of four this book covers.  Cavendish got off to a slow start.  His first win didn't come until the fifth stage.  When he narrowly lost the fourth stage to Alessandro Petacchi, he buried his head under a towel and wept. He "blubbers" to a team press officer, "What's fucking happened."

A day later he shed tears of joy, when he finally wins the first of the five stages he would win that year.  He cried at the finish line and then on the podium the tears came in an "uncontrollable flood"  when The Tour Anthem is struck up.  The book includes a photo of those tears with a caption of "Blood, sweat and tears," and "undoubtedly one of my most emotional victories."

He is so cognizant of crying, that he surprises himself when he doesn't cry on the podium after winning the World Championship Road Race in 2011 in Copenhagen as the English national anthem is played. On another occasion he imagines tears when none are there, thinking he sees tears welling in Lance Armstrong's eyes during his Oprah confession, as he watched from a hotel room in Argentina where he was racing. He may have been blinded by tears of his own.  Lance had been a friend and someone he greatly admired.  He doesn't condemn Armstrong.  He's no harsher than saying he takes "a dim view of at least some of what he was alleged to have done."  But at the time he wrote his book, he hadn't spoken to him in a year.

Tears figure so prominently in his psyche that he wrote he wanted to cry after a fan threw urine on him during the first time trial in the 2013 Tour, a day after he was involved in a crash that some blamed him for, knocking down one of Krippel's teammates in the sprint that resulted in another Krippel win.  The Sky team psychiatrist, who Cavendish didn't particularly care for, nearly reduced him to tears when he gave him an unwelcome diagnosis.  And as if tears don't get mentioned often enough, twice he refers to wounds and cuts as "weeping."  

This book is no less frank and provocative than his first.  He criticizes teammates and opponents and his manager and a team doctor and his factotum.  And he doesn't spare himself.  He was less than considerate to his super-model wife during her pregnancy.  He admits that ex-teammate and arch rival Andre Griepel is "basically a nice bloke" and that he isn't.  The book isn't quite as heavy with Englishisms as was the first, but he is clearly writing for his home audience using such metaphors as "like Lionel Messi on a dribble."  But the home-grown expressions (prat, scalawag, wonky, punter, piss-take, knackered...) only add to the book's charm and are mostly self-explanatory.

For those who might think his five-year reign as King of the Sprinters came to an end at this year's Tour,  he offers an explanation for his sub-par performance, only winning two stages and losing on the Champs Élysées for the first time in five years.  He said he arrived at The Tour with an infection and was weakened by a dose of antibiotics.  On the second stage in Corsica he could barely generate 300 watts of power, something he could ordinarily do without breaking a sweat.  And then late in The Tour he discovered he had been riding with mismatched crank arms,  one a 172 and the other a 172.5.  His first book, too, mentions a mechanical mishap with someone putting a wrong wheel on his bike for one stage, though it didn't prevent him from winning that stage.

He says his year on the English Sky team wasn't much fun, even though it included being part of the team that helped Bradley Wiggins become the first English rider to win The Tour de France.  He wasn't happy at all about the minimal support given him during The Race, enabling him to win only three stages, when he had been accustomed to winning five, and not allowing him to contend for the Green Jersey.  Team director Sean Yates so upset him after a crash on an early stage in that 2012 Tour, not letting him draft the team car, or sending back a teammate to help him regain the peloton, or even giving him a push, he didn't speak to him again.  He called him, "Cold, uninspiring and miserly in praise."  It was then he knew he'd leave Sky.

The book also covers his final season with the HTC-Columbia team before he moved to Sky and his friction with team owner Bob Stapleton.  He is unmincing in his lack of respect for him.

Weight is an occasional issue.  A nutritionist was sent to live and cook with him before the 2012 Olympics to get him to optimum weight.  He usually ends The Tour de France at his lightest, 152 pounds, but can balloon up to 167 pounds during the off-season.  If he has the motivation of early-season racing in January, it helps him keep his weight down during the holidays.

The only supplements he admits to taking are multivitamin and beta-alanine tablets.  The recently mandated no-needle policy has made recovery more difficult.  Intravenous drips during three-week tours made a noticeable difference.  He doesn't comment on the drug-testing other than to mention that it took him over an hour to provide the requisite 90 milliliters of urine after his third-place finish on the Champs Élysées this year.  He gave an initial 75 milliliters, but that wasn't enough.

Along with only winning two stages at this year's Tour, his fewest since his first in 2007 when he won none, the price of the book may be a further indication that he has peaked out.  "Boy Racer" was priced at $21.95.  "At Speed" has a price of $18.95 on its jacket.  In all likelihood there will be at least one more installment in his series of autobiographies.  Wouldn't it be nice if the same could be said for Armstrong, who also released two autobiographies in the midst of his career.  His first fully honest book could be the highest selling cycling book ever.

One last thing that both Cavendish books share: misinformation about the Tourmalet.  Book number one stated it was the first climb in the Pyrenees ever climbed by The Tour in 1910.  It was in fact the third, preceded by the Peyresourde and the Aspin.  Book number two states it was on the Tourmalet in that 1910 Tour that Octavio Lapize called The Tour organizers "assassins" for sending them over these mountains.  It was actually on the Aubisque, the final of the day's four climbs. Maybe his next book can get something wrong about Eugene Christophe breaking his fork on the Tourmalet in the 1913 Tour as so many books do.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"A Tour of the Heart"

I have been anticipating the publication of a "A Tour of the Heart," a travel/memoir about bicycling in France, for years, as its author Maribeth Clemente is one of my many Telluride friends.  I've known for some time that she was working on a book about a pair of biking sojourns in France in 2000 and 2001 with her boyfriend in between her other writing and working as a ski instructor and also hosting a bi-weekly travel show on Telluride's community radio station, which I have been a guest on.  It would be her fourth book about France.  The others had all been buying guides.   

Not only was I looking forward to what she would have to say about bicycling, but also her insights into the French.  She knows their ways well, having resided amongst them for eleven years, some of them married to a Frenchman. I met Maribeth over ten years ago before I began my annual summer tours in France attending the Cannes Film Festival and following The Tour de France.  Her boy friend Pete was the first person I met who had biked up Mont Ventoux during their first trip, immediately winning my respect.

Maribeth wasn't much of a cyclist when she met Pete, who was working in a bike shop in the town in New York where she was living after leaving France. They weren't a perfect match, as he was somewhat of a jock, while she was "often impossibly feminine," but their "visions of the world coincided more often than they collided."

They were enough of a couple to go to France for some bicycling, though not as much as Pete, an occasional amateur racer,  would have liked.  They rent a car and drive around the country for six weeks with a pair of bicycles, stopping here and there for day rides of not much more than twenty-five miles, often accompanied by a local guide that Maribeth arranged with her connections.  Pete becomes increasingly frustrated over how few miles they are biking and the speed at which they are riding.  He calls her "Pokey," a name Maribeth did not care for at all.  When that fails to prod her into riding any faster, he declares the imposition of a ten mile per hour minimum on their speed.  That truly infuriates Maribeth, especially since she thought she had been improving enough to satisfy Pete.  She responds with an emphatic "No way."

Rather than a book about bicycling, it is more a book about bickering.  One reviewer suggested that a better subtitle for the book than "A seductive bicycle tour through France," would have been "Eat, Bicker, and Bike." They argue about everything, even how to do laundry.  Maribeth is reduced to tears over their frequent inability to understand one another.  She becomes so infuriated with Pete she tells him, "You're going to therapy as soon as we return home."   Whether he does, she does not say, but they agree to return the following summer for some more biking.  Pete cancels at the last minute. Maribeth goes on her own and has the time of her life, happy to have "no one there to yell at me to go faster, to change gears, to pedal nice round circles, or to tell me how to wipe my nose."

She intersects with the Tour de France and ends up at the same hotel with the US Postal Service Team one night.  She is thrilled to meet Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, and is disappointed that Pete isn't along to share in the experience.  As proud as she is to be managing on her own, she misses Pete and arranges a flight for him so he can join her for The Tour's arrival in Paris. They still have their moments of friction.  He is upset that she can't adequately translate the post-Tour interviews they are watching on television in their hotel room. Maribeth is relieved he manages to chill before they have another a blow-up.

In all her years living in France she had never seen The Tour, as her sophisticated French husband had no interest in it, thinking it beneath him.  He was from a noble family and considered bicycle racing a sport for the masses.  Tennis was his sport.

But Maribeth is instantly captivated by the electricity and the energy of The Tour.  She becomes an enthusiastic devotee.  After watching the finish on the Champs Elysees with Pete she gushes, "I still can't believe I missed this all the years I lived in France."  Samuel Abt, who covered The Tour for the "New York Times" for over twenty-five years had a similar conversion.  He lived in Paris for six years while working for "The Times" before making the effort to give The Tour a look. He too was immediately won over and expressed great regret that he had neglected it all those years, even once choosing to go mushroom hunting rather than accompanying his girl friend who did go watch it, not realizing the magnitude and power of the event.

Maribeth acknowledges the transformative power of the bicycle.  It gave her a boost of self-esteem.  She no longer felt dependent on her wardrobe to make her feel good about herself.  She  attends a Paris fashion show in less than appropriate attire when her baggage on her flight over is delayed, something she wouldn't have dreamed of doing pre-bicycle.

The bicycle though didn't fully break her from her cocoon of self-concern.  Riding with a group of French cyclists on her first trip with Pete she learns that cemeteries are a good source of water.  But she admits when she is on her own a year later, she wasn't quite thirsty enough to bring herself to partake of water from a cemetery.

Even though this is more a book about male/female relations than bicycling, it does manage to include some racing lore.  She and Pete pass a plaque on the Aubisque in the Pyrenees where 1951 Tour winner Hugo Koblet suffered a legendary fall knocking him out of the1953 Tour, though she gets the year wrong.  She mentions Laurent Jalabert winning the Bastille Day stage when she is there on her second cycling trip during the 2001 Tour, bringing great joy to all of France.  Earlier she gives him the first name of "Alain."  She also mistakenly refers to PMU as France's lottery, when it is in fact a parimutuel horse racing entity that sponsors The Tour's points competition.

But these small foibles, which Maribeth said no one had pointed out to her, are more than compensated by her insight into the French ways, something she is truly an expert on.  She gives advice on how to gain sympathy from the French when you need something from them--don't protest, make them feel sorry for you.  She explains that noon is the sacred hour in France when all civilized folk rush to the table.  Five to seven is considered the most opportune time of day for making love.  She warns not to ask a French woman for a recipe, as they are very possessive of them.  One mystery she can't explain is how French woman remain thin.  She has also not figured out how they manage to make men put down their remotes and pay attention.

Any reader would have grave doubts of Maribeth and Pete enduring each other for long.  It is almost a surprise that they moved out to Telluride together, but few would be surprised that their partnership did not endure.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Book Celebrating Amsterdam as a "City of Bikes"

When I discovered the recently published "In the City of Bikes, The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist," by Pete Jordan, I was certain I had gotten my hands on a book that I wouldn't want to put down. And my certainty was absolutely correct.  Anyone who likes reading books about cycling will be delighted by this book, part memoir and part history.

The author is an American who moved to Amsterdam in 2002 when he was thirty-five after spending the better part of his working life traveling all over the U.S. washing dishes.  He had a goal of practicing his trade in all fifty states, recounted in his book "Dishwasher."  Part of his pursuit was to find an agreeable place to live.  When he couldn't find one, he decided to give Amsterdam a try, drawn by its bike culture. He managed to keep his great love for the bicycle a secret in his dishwasher book, other than mentioning he never wanted a job that was beyond an easy walk or bike ride. He gives one hint that he was a "bike nut," as he calls himself in his Amsterdam book.  After he quit one of his jobs, as he chronically did, he wrote, "I rode my bike aimlessly through the night, still unsure of where to go or what to do, but with a smile on my face."

Jordan likes to count things.  One year in nineteen states he found 1,362 coins and eight bills--1,089 pennies, 79 nickels, 151 dimes, 43 quarters, six ones and two fives.   He once found change 47 days straight.  He thought Portland was an impressive bike town when he counted nineteen cyclists go by one point in thirty minutes.  He is staggered in Amsterdam when he counts that many in thirty seconds and then even more so when he counts 927 in twenty minutes. I count bike mentions in books. I was somewhat disappointed when I read "Dishwasher" after "In the City of Bikes" and had to read 125 pages before his first mention of the bicycle and then only came upon fourteen more. But he more than makes up for that in the Amsterdam book.

He is immediately enraptured by Amsterdam and its hoards of bicyclists.  It is as he dreamed it would be.  His wife joins him and he arranges permanent residency by gaining Irish citizenship, thanks to his heritage.  He gets janitorial work after no one will hire him as a dishwasher because the minimum wage for someone his age would be double that of someone under twenty-three, who could easily handle dishwashing chores.  He is a compulsive researcher and starts reading about the history of bicycling in Amsterdam.  Soon they have a son, who he takes on bicycle expeditions all over the city.  Introducing him to the crane that fishes bikes out of the canals was akin to American fathers taking their sons to their first baseball game.

A greater portion of the book is historical narrative rather than personal reminiscences, but it is all most fascinating.  He quotes visitors to the city from the 1920s on who were as overwhelmed as he was by all the bicycles.  An Italian observed that bicycles were as numerous as frogs in the canals.  A Czech compared the droves of cyclists to teeming bacteria and dancing gnats.  A Chicagoan was so overwhelmed by the quantity of bicycles that he suspected all the bicycles in the world must have just converged on Amsterdam.

Several chapters are devoted to the Nazi occupation of the city.  They offended the Dutch by making it illegal for Dutch cyclists to hold hands as they cycled and then positively infuriated them when they began to randomly confiscate bikes for their own use.  It so enraged the Dutch that for decades afterwards when Germans came to Amsterdam they would demand, "Give me back my bike."  When Holland played Germany in the championship game of the World Cup in 1974 in Munich, Dutch fans gathered in the city center and sang the same slogan and brandished such banners during the game.  It didn't prevent the Germans from winning though.

Bike theft has always been endemic to Amsterdam. Police early on blamed people for not locking their bikes.  A law was passed in 1928 making it illegal not to lock one's bike.   When Jordan arrived, there was a bridge known as the place where bike thieves went to sell bikes. Tour boats on the canals actually pointed it out. Soon after he arrived Jordan had a bike stolen that he left unlocked while eating at a cafe.  He went to the bridge to try to recover it.  He was offered several others but not his.  It never showed up on any of his visits, nor did he ever spot it as he scanned bikes for years afterwards looking for the initials he had carved into its rear fender.

In the late 1990s it was estimated that there were 180,000 bikes stolen a year in Amsterdam, twenty an hour, many by drug addicts.  The price of a stolen bike was so cheap, it was less expensive for one to buy a bike at the bridge then take a taxi.  Ann Frank mentions in her diary that her bike was stolen from out front of her apartment in 1942 before she went into hiding.

Jordan's remarkably well-searched book abounds with such tidbits.  One of the heroes of the book is Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned from 1890 to 1948.  She would anonymously ride her bicycle among her subjects.  When one of her heirs married a woman from Argentina, everyone in the country wanted to know if she rode a bicycle.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a 14-year old took a bike tour through Holland and Germany in 1896 with his tutor.  They fit right in as they toured in Holland, but bike touring was so rare in Germany, they were questioned several times by the police.

Jordan has a keen eye for small, telling details.  Nothing seemed to impress him more about how widespread and deeply ingrained cycling was among the Dutch than all the pregnant women he saw cycling.  When he conducts cycling tours for people new to the city, he promises them that they will see at least three pregnant women on bikes per hour.

During the '70s there was a threat that automobiles would take over the city as they had just about everywhere else.  Activists stemmed the tide, to the present relief of most Amsterdamers.  Some of this history is discussed in a very worthwhile ten-minute video on Amsterdam as a City of Bikes.  Jordan is one of five experts who provide commentary.

Jordan got his start as a writer publishing a dishwasher zine in the '90s.  It was popular enough that he was invited to appear on the David Letterman show.  He didn't care for attention, so let a friend of his appear in his stead while he sat back stage in the Green Room. Letterman later invited him back as himself when he was promoting "Dishwasher," which he didn't write until he moved to Amsterdam.  Several publishers, impressed by his zine, tried to get him to write a book much earlier, but they couldn't convince him to make the effort.  He also declined the solicitations of filmmakers who wanted to make a documentary of his life.  It was only when he began telling people in Amsterdam about his dishwashing  exploits that he was inspired to write the book.  It too is a fine read, even though he didn't fulfill his goal of dishwashing in all fifty states.  He did get to Alaska three times.  He also dished on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and had a one-day stint on a train.

He seems fully entrenched now in Amsterdam.  He did make a trip to Copenhagen, another City of Bikes, to see if it might be more agreeable.  He liked it a lot, but not more than Amsterdam.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Wheelmen" and "The Armstrong Lie"

It was several months after his Oprah confession that Lance Armstrong finally agreed to meet with Travis Tygart, the man who brought about his downfall with his report on his doping.  Armstrong no longer flew around in a private jet, having sold his after losing $75 million in endorsements, and knowing he would be losing millions more of his fortune in law suits.  But he still had money enough to charter a jet for the flight to the meeting in Denver, bringing along his girl friend and their two young children.

Tygart was concerned that Armstrong might be suicidal, as his findings in another case had caused a star athlete to take his life.  Armstrong's lawyers assured Tygart that Armstrong was doing okay, but that he would be much better if Tygart would reduce his life-time ban from competition.  Armstrong sat outside the meeting until certain arrangements had been made.  When he joined the proceedings,  he was wearing a baseball hat and was looking haggard.  Armstrong was willing to cooperate with Tygart if he would reduce his punishment to a one-year ban.  Tygart wouldn't go further than eight years.  That was totally unacceptable to Armstrong, as he had his eyes set on winning the Triathlon World Championship, and that wouldn't be possible as a 49-year old.  So nothing was accomplished at the meeting.

Such is the intimate detail that "Wall Street Journal" reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell offer in their remarkably well-researched "Wheelmen." The book traces Lance's entire career and American cycling since the 1984 Olympics where blood-doping helped American cyclists won nine medals, their most ever.  Their research included spending two weeks with Floyd Landis in a remote Southern California town where he was living in a cabin, taking days to persuade him to talk.

Landis makes some startling accusations, not all of which they can corroborate, but they are too juicy not to publish, as they betray not only his mindset, but the climate of the sport during its recent era of rampant, high-tech doping. Landis claimed that when he switched from Armstrong's team to Phonak, he asked the team owner Andy Rihs to provide help with his doping, as he'd recently had a bad reaction to a blood transfusion that he had attempted on his own.  Rihs denied to the authors through a spokesman of any knowledge of doping on his team.  Landis also claims that during the 2006 Tour de France, when he was in the lead, that Armstrong offered any rider $20,000 to prevent him from winning The Race.  The authors asked around, but they couldn't get anyone to acknowledge this.

The authors spice their book with other gossipy items. They report that Armstrong had a high sex drive and "like many of his ilk, slept with other women often."  He dated Tyler Hamilton's ex-wive Haven after he and Hamilton had become arch enemies.  Armstrong would invite strippers to his agent's office to party.  Oakley rep Stephanie McIlvain was known to give him blow-jobs.

If anyone should be on a suicide-watch it is McIlvain.  She is also trashed in the just-released documentary "The Armstrong Lie."  She was among those in Lance's hospital room in 1996 when he told doctors he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.  When forced to verify this under oath, she denied Lance said any such thing, contradicting Betsy and Frank Andreu.  After her testimony she left a phone message with Betsy that someone ought to break a baseball bat over her head.  The documentary replays that phone message, including subtitles to insure that it is fully understood.

Unlike the authors of "Wheelmen," who had a less than amiable relationship with Armstrong, even mentioning that Armstrong made insulting remarks about the appearance of one of them, the director of the documentary, Alex Gibney, liked and got along with Armstrong.  He spent a considerable amount of time filming Armstrong in 2009, the year of his Comeback, following The Tour that year.  He was set to release the film in 2010 until Landis made his sweeping confession during the Tour of California about all his doping with Armstrong.  Gibney couldn't release a film that glorified Armstrong under such circumstances despite all his outstanding racing footage and behind-the-scenes interviews.

Over three years later now he has been able to salvage his film by recutting it and adding two additional interviews with Armstrong after his Oprah confession and lots of other interviews.  He got  the Andreus and Jonathan Vaughters to talk after refusing to be part of the original movie, perceiving it as a puff piece on Armstrong.  He also added lengthy interviews with George Hincapie and journalists who wrote books about him--Bill Strictland, Daniel Coyle, Reed Albergotti and David Walsh.  Gibney accompanied Armstrong to the Oprah interview. He filmed him on the set greeting Oprah and then interviewed him, looking a little battered, immediately afterwards.  He conducts a more thorough and reflective interview with him later. 

His tight camera shots catch Armstrong's every inflection and smirk, giving glimmers of his cold-hearted cockiness, such as when he tells how the team dreamed up a story of using a cortisone cream to explain his positive test during the 1999 Tour.  He confesses to some of his drug-taking, but not all.  He reveals that his doping guru Michele Ferrari, the best in the business, wouldn't let him take EPO during the 2000 Tour, as he was concerned a test to detect it was imminent.  That made Armstrong nervous, as he feared he couldn't win without it.  He admits he was always on his heels after 1999 denying his doping.  

His doping, or at least the more serious doping, didn't begin until after the 1994 season that he spent wearing the World Champion jersey.  He was getting annihilated and knew he had to resort to EPO to keep up.  Hincapie explained, "We weren't trying to beat the system, just be in the system."  It is a tough, grueling sport.  Hincapie couldn't understand why Lance wanted to return after three years of retirement.  "This sport is not glamorous.  You just suffer all the time," he says.

A teen-aged Armstrong earlier in the film explains what motivates him--"I like competing with the best.  I like beating people."  The two-hour film includes considerable racing footage from his entire career with a heavy emphasis on the 2009 Tour.  There are many interviews in his hotel room after a stage.  Gibney catches him quite crestfallen sitting on his bed watching his time being beat in the Prologue.  He is quite giddy after he outsmarts his teammate Alberto Contador on a later stage and gains a few seconds on him.  He is thinking Yellow Jersey.  But then he has to acknowledge that Contador is the better rider after he convincingly beats him on the first mountain stage.

Gibney is also allowed to film Armstrong with his agent Bill Stapleton and director Johan Bruyneel sitting around like corporate sharks expressing frustration that The Tour may not let him ride in the 2009 Race because of drug insinuations.  They'll strong arm their way in if need be.

"Wheelmen" too gives plenty of examples of the bullying nature of Armstrong and his accomplices.  One of his early and chief supporters was Thom Weisel, a big-time investor who poured millions of dollars into the sport and was used to having his way in all things. When The Tour de France doesn't fully cooperate with their wishes, he considers buying the organization that runs The Tour for one-and-a-half billion dollars. He is portrayed as a virtual thug, someone who would often yell at his wife and bragged about his art collection.  Greg LeMond was so repulsed by him, he would no longer invest with him despite the great return of his investments.

The authors of "Wheelmen" have no difficulty getting LeMond to criticize Armstrong.  He tells them that Armstrong's mother flew up to Minneapolis early in his career to ask for advice on how to handle her son.  He had no advice, as he could be a jerk himself.  Before Armstrong won his first Tour he told LeMond at a dinner at LeMond's house that he intended to win The Tour four times, one more than LeMond.  Everyone at the table was totally baffled, as Armstrong had shown no evidence at that point that he could accomplish such a thing.

"Wheelmen" abounds with nitty-gritty insight into the Lance reign.  Albergotti isn't merely a journalist who was assigned to the cycling beat. He grew up with the sport and races as a Category Two.  His father was an avid amateur racer and served as a director of cycling competition at the 1984 Olympics.  The book though does make some less than fully-informed observations.  It states that Lance finished second in the 1996 Paris-Nice, "so he knew the course."  Like The Tour de France, Paris-Nice changes its course every year.  Early on the book states that Hamiiton was suspended for EPO, but twice later gets it right, stating it was for being found with someone else's blood in him.  It also makes a faulty assumption stating that it was clear to everyone that Armstrong slowed down and let Pantani win on Mont Ventoux during the 2000 Tour.  Lance didn't slow, he just didn't challenge Pantani at the line.

The book is incorrect when it states that during Armstrong's sixth Tour win he was dominant in every aspect of the race--"the sprints, the climbs, the race against the clock."  He did win five stages, but none of the sprint stages.  It mistakenly refers to Santiago Botero as a Spaniard.  He's from Colombia.  It states that Coyle wrote an article on Landis' pending hip surgery for the "New York Times" Sunday magazine in June before the 2006 Tour.  It actually appeared on the first rest day of the 2006 Tour and was startling news.  I thought it confused Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie when it called Vande Velde "goofy" and Zabriskie "shy," but Christian told me he was "a bit goofier than the other guys" early in his career.

The book is also not precisely correct on a number of other points.  It states the US was so successful at the 1984 Olympics  because of the Russian boycott.  Even more significant for the cyclists was the boycott of the East Germans.  It claims that team coach Eddie Borysewicz was only peripherally involved in the blood doping.  That is highly unlikely.  It exaggerates when it states that the apartment of the Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was discovered to contain blood plasma from half the professional peloton.  There was a lot, but no where near half.  There is also an occasional slip of not capitalizing the "T" when referring to the "Tour."

The book validates itself though with its multiple mentions of tears--Armstrong in a BMX race as a kid when he wipes out, crying with his mother after winning the World Championship, his wife crying over an email from Betsy Andreu, his agent and his wife crying when Lance put on the Yellow Jersey for the first time in 1999 after his Prologue win, Livestrong staff members when Armstrong stops by to apologize on his way to the Oprah interview.  

There are two instances of Zabriskie crying--on the phone with his mother after Bruyneel orders him to start taking EPO and then as he gives his deposition.  Hincapie is said to be near tears after winning a mountain stage in the 2005 Tour.  The lack of tears is given a mention too.  It says none were shed by anyone on the Postal Service team when Landis broke his hip in a training accident months before The Tour, despite being on the Postal Service team, reflecting what a business it is.

"Wheelmen" should also be commended for appropriately placing the writing of long-time "New York Times" reporter Samuel Abt in perspective, saying he "built a career as Armstrong's unofficial post-cancer propagandist."  That is a bold and brave statement, as the retired Abt is generally respected for his thirty-one years of covering The Tour, many of those as the lone American, even earning a medal from the French.  Besides his fawning over LeMond and Armstrong, his coverage was extremely superficial and non-controversial.  Despite his years of covering the sport, his knowledge of it didn't compare to his European counterparts.  He avoided negativity as much as possible.  He did not pursue the stories that a true journalist would have.  That had to be galling to the authors of "Wheelmen," who have made a career of getting to the bottom of whatever they were covering.  They certainly weren't concerned about hurting the feelings of many of those they profile in their book.  Theirs is not the final word on Armstrong, but it is a worthy contribution to reaching it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Scholarly Study of the Bicycle in France

The biggest challenge for an academic writing a book on the influence of cycling upon French culture is deciding how much weight to accord The Tour de France.  Hugh Dauncey in his "French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History" does not shy away from giving it the utmost of importance, acknowledging that it could be the very key to understanding the French.

A good portion of this most readable book dwells upon The Race and how as a shared experience it reflects French culture.  He profiles many of its key figures, mostly prominent French racers from different eras who captured the public imagination and provided metaphors for the consciousness of the time.  The duels between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor galvanized the country for years and were a reflection on the country's modernization.   

But when it comes to individuals in cycling who had the greatest effect molding French culture, towering above all else is Tour founder Henri Desgrange, a man with the same initials as Dauncey's.  So prominent was Desgrange his initials, HD, graced the Yellow Jersey for years.  Dauncey justifiably anoints Desgrange as the most significant figure in the history of French cycling.  No one else contributed more to making cycling an intrinsic thread in the fabric of French society.  He cites two others, both prominent in the early 1900s as well when The Tour was launched, as seminal figures in popularizing and promoting the bicycle.  One was  Pierre Giffard, a rival newspaper man and bicycle race promoter, who early on recognized that cycling was as much a social benefit as it was a sport.

No one emphasized that concept more than Paul de Vivie, also known as Velocio, a tireless advocate of cycling as a social and moral force that could contribute to the betterment of society.  He is known as the father of cycle touring.  He invented the derailleur and published a magazine.  

The much-beloved novelist and sports writer Antoine Blondin is another key figure he credits for giving The Tour a cultural legitimization and instilling a bicycling consciousness in the French.  He was a life-long passionate follower of The Tour covering it for "L'Equipe" from 1954 to 1982 with a florid literary style mythologizing the feats of the racers and the mountains.  He was only slightly exaggerating when he wrote that DeGaulle  was president of France for eleven months of the year, but come July that title applied to Jacques Goddet, Desgrange's successor as director of The Tour in 1936.  Another writer, Serge Laget, termed The Tour "Christmas in July."

Dauncey is more an authority on France, as a senior lecturer in French at Newcastle University in the UK and a PhD on the French space program, than on cycling, but this isn't his first book on the subject.  He previously edited "The Tour de France 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings and Values," a collection of essays by twelve scholars from France, Great Britain and the United States.  This book is part of a series on contemporary French and Francophone  cultures meant for academics, as indicated by its price--$99.95, a quite hefty price for a 250-page book without photos. I was able to acquire a copy from the Michigan State University Library on interlibrary loan.

One doesn't need an advanced degree, though, to plow through it.  It is most breezily written and could be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in matters pertaining to the bike.  It would help though if one could read French, as only rarely does he offer a translation of the book's many French quotes.  Even Velocio's Seven Commandments are in their original French without translation.  It is impressively well-researched with a fourteen-page bibliography.  It is curiously, though, footnote-free. 

He also draws upon cinema to reflect upon the significance of the bicycle to the French.  He devotes several pages to Jacques Tati's 1947 "Jour de Fête" about a small-town bicycling postman as a commentary on the "Americanization" of France as it seeks to modernize.  He also mentions Tati's "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" as another example of this, even though he got the title of the movie wrong, neglecting to include "Holiday."  This wasn't his only cinema faux pas.  He makes a positively egregious mistake when he cites Renoir as the director of "Le Jour se leve" from 1939 when it was Marcel Carne.  He invokes this movie as the proletarian hero of the film is inseparable from his racing bike, the symbol of his freedom, and in the movie's climax, a crowd of his workmates all clutch their bikes as they plead with him to surrender to the police.

Dauncey makes a few such blunders too when it comes to racing, betraying a less than full understanding and knowledge of the sport.  As Christopher Thompson, author of "The Tour de France: A Cultural History,"  pointed out in his thorough and positive review, his assertion that the 1984 Tour was effected by EPO, was way off base, as it didn't make its appearance in the sport until the early '90s after the Greg LeMond era.  There were a handful of lesser errors that only a close follower of the sport would catch.  He wrote that Jacques Anquetil was the first to complete the double of the Dauphine-Libere and Bordeaux-Paris.  That is true, but it would be more accurate to say he was the only one to accomplish this monumental feat.  It was so amazing that "L'Equipe" called it the greatest sporting accomplishment of the 20th century.  He's also  a bit off when he writes of the influx of riders from outside Europe into The Tour mentioning Paraguay, Colombia (misspelling it Columbia) and "even Australia."  There was most certainly a sudden surge of Colombians, one year with even two teams from the country, but Paraguay is far-fetched and Australians had been competing in The Tour for years, though their numbers did increase, as did those from America.  There were actually more Colombians in The Race for a number of years than either of those nationalities.

He gives a list at one point of various first events over the years at The Tour, such as the first time it started outside of France and the first time Mont Ventoux was included and also the first time there was a finish at altitude, but he does not mention the first time L'Alpe d'Huez was included, which was the year of the first finish at altitude in 1952 when there were three such stages.  He is wrong when he writes that during the 1904 Tour there was just one day of rest between each of the stages after the six days of rest between stage one and two. There were three days between stages two and three and three and four and then two days between stages four and five and five and six in this early six-stage editor of The Race. The Brits might dispute him when he writes that the UK has never had a national Tour. Some would say that the Milk Race was.

These don't detract much though from the overall comprehensive sweep of his book. He traces the rise of the Decathlon sporting goods chain from its birth in Lille in 1976 to its present day breadth of over 300 outlets in France and more than 100 more world wide.  When Peugeot stopped manufacturing bikes in 1986, Decathlon began producing its own line of bikes in 1996.  He also documents the take over of Paris in 2007 by thousands of rental bikes and writes of an early rental system in La Rochelle in the '70s.

He does acknowledge that France lags behind other European countries in bicycle usage, invoking the cycling term "lanterne rouge" for bringing up the rear to describe France.  Only three per cent of trips in France are made by bike, compared to ten per cent in Belgium and Germany and twenty-seven per cent in Holland.  France is near the forefront with 5.7 bikes per one hundred inhabitants, but near the bottom with those bikes only being ridden fifty miles a year and only ten to fifteen per cent of the population cycling on a weekly basis.  In Holland and Denmark fifty per cent of their populations bicycle weekly and their yearly total is 600 miles.

But he sees signs of improvement and that the bicycle can reclaim its status as a "revolutionary" pursuit.  Rather than being a symbol for backwardness, as implied by "Jour de Fête," it can represent progress as the enlightened give up or reduce their auto usage in favor of this noblest of vehicles.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Cycling Book Number Five from Richard Moore

Richard Moore is establishing himself as the premier English cycling journalist of our time.  His is a by-line I am always happy to see, whether on the cover of a book or in a magazine.  He always has something cogent and well-informed to offer, writing with the enthusiasm of the fan he once was growing up and the expert he became as a racer.

He has contributed five significant books on cycling in the past seven years beginning with a biography of the elusive Robert Millar, "In Search of Robert Millar," in 2007, trying to get to the bottom of an enigma that had all racing fans wondering.  Continuing his emphasis on the UK, he has also written books on the emergence of Great Britain as a cycling power on both the track and the road.  His book on the trackside, "Heroes, Villains and Velodromes," centered on Chris Hoy and his six Olympic gold medals, the most ever by a Brit.  Team Sky was the subject of his book, "Sky's the Limit," documenting Britain's increasing success on the road, culminating with two Tour de France wins after the book was published.

His masterpiece though is "Slaying the Badger," as fine a cycling book as has ever been written.  It dissects the battle between teammates Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault at the 1986 Tour de France, one of the most exciting ever.  Moore watched it on television as a thirteen-year old, fully infecting him with a love for the sport. It was the first time The Tour had been broadcast in the UK in its entirety.  To interview all the principals was like a dream come true for him.

It was only natural that Moore would be enlisted to write a book on The Tour de France celebrating its centenary race this year.  He provided the copy for the hefty coffee-table picture book "Tour de France 100."  He was somewhat shackled though with only 37 pages of the 224-page book given to copy.  The photos are sensational, but Moore unfortunately isn't able to thoroughly cover the rich history of The Tour, all too often giving an abbreviated, and not entirely correct, version of a storied event.  Two of those involve Eugene Christophe, the first man to wear the Yellow Jersey.  The first was in regards to his repair of his broken fork on the Tourmalet in 1913.  He wrote that he was given a ten-minute penalty for allowing a boy to assist him, operating a bellows, but not that the penalty was subsequently reduced to three minutes.  The penalty was a minor slap on the wrist anyway, as he lost over two hours doing the repair, knocking him out of contention after being in the lead.

Moore doesn't give the full story either on Christophe being the first rider to wear the Yellow Jersey.  It happened before the eleventh stage of the 1919 Race.  Moore writes that the color yellow was chosen by race director Henri Desgrange, as it was the color of the pages of his newspaper "L'Auto" that sponsored The Race.  Other histories say that isn't so clear.  It may have been the only brightly-colored jersey available when Desgrange gave in to the demands of the press and fans to make the race leader more visible.  Christophe wasn't happy at all to be so easily spotted by his rivals.  They mocked him and called him a canary for his bright plumage, sides of the story too that Moore couldn't include.

Moore's fact-checkers also missed a couple of blatant errors, uncharacteristic of his other nearly flawless books. The book states that three of the top four finishers in the 1904 Tour were disqualified.  It was actually the top four with the fifth placed rider nineteen-year old Henri Cornet elevated to victory.  The book also gets it wrong when it states there was a lone rest day between each stage from 1903 to 1924.  Some of those early years the stages had three to five rest days between them, not just one, and on occasion they did race back-to-back days.  More faulty information was the statement that The Race was changed from a time competition to a points competition in 1904.  That didn't happen until 1905 after the disaster of all the cheating in 1904.

Moore probably can't be blamed for a sloppy caption calling the fans lining the road four-deep on the Puy-de-Dome for a time trial in 1978 "supporters" of Joop Zoetemelk.  Hardly any of them were even applauding as he passed and it would be impossible to call them the supporters of any one rider unless it was a local hero and the fans were all wearing something relating to his uniform or holding up signs or truly going berserk as the rider passed.  It was a great picture nonetheless, one of the few in the book capturing the fervor of the fans.  The fans were neglected, with not even a photo of The Devil.

Nor did the book's rather paltry index do full justice to the sport.  It neglects to include its mountains, who are as noteworthy as the racers.  Moore recognizes this.  L'Alpe d'Huez is mentioned over sixteen times, more than any racer other than Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault.  The index is almost exclusively racers other than a few odd exceptions--Shelly Verses and  Willy Voet.  The only non-people listed are domestique, soignieur, caravan publicitaire and  voiture balai.  Moore mentions the great sports writer Antoine Blondin, but he is overlooked in the index.

One thing Moore does not neglect is tears.  He knows how intrinsic they are to the sport citing six such incidents.  Two were significant enough to mention twice.  One of them includes a full-page photo--the iconic shot of Rene Vietto perched on a wall after having given up a wheel to his team leader.  Two pages after the photo, Moore describes the incident again as one that "instantly captured the hearts of the French people." 

Richard Virenque's tears over his drug involvement with the Festina team in 1998 also merit two mentions.  The first came when he was protesting his innocence when his team was expelled from The Race.  The next came when he broke down at his trial two years later having to confess, after having written an autobiography the year before called "My Truth" proclaiming his innocence. 

There are three instances of racers crying over having to abandon The Tour--Pascal Simon in 1983 while wearing Yellow, Ottavio Bottecchia in 1926, after having won The Tour the previous two years, in atrocious weather in the Pyrenees and three-time winner Louison Bobet in his first Tour in 1947, earning him the nickname "Crybaby," which he eventually shed.

There is one incidental reference to tears relating to the USADA report that revealed the extent of Lance Armstrong's doping.  Moore wrote that it outlined its case in "eye-watering detail."  It indeed had to bring any devotee to the sport to tears or near tears.  He had to be speaking of himself.  And it is that deep emotional passion and devotion that makes him the writer he is. He genuinely cares about the sport.  Keep the books coming.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cindie's Version of the Travis Travels in China

Ever since 2002 when Cindie and Tim Travis set out on a bike tour with enough money to keep them on the road for seven years, I have been haphazardly following their travels, wondering if they would stick with it.  Indeed they did, fully embracing the life and writing three books about it.  It was big news, then, two years ago when Cindie announced she'd had enough and wanted a divorce. She was tired of the nomadic life and wanted to settle into a Buddhist community in India they had recently visited.

When I learned that she had written a book of her own, "Finding Compassion in China" under the name of Cindie Cohagan, I was hoping it would fully explain her decision to stop traveling, especially since her website described the book as a quest that left her questioning her seven-year marriage.  It didn't say though that this book about China came three years into their travels and that she stuck with Tim for another six years before calling it quits and ending their marriage.

The book is only minimally about her disenchantment with her husband and the traveling life.  Rather it is the usual, though better than average, self-published travel book about their experiences on the road.  She does mention from time to time her sense of loneliness and increasing alienation from Tim and her need for a sense of community, but does not harp on these issues.  She expresses the typical traveler's frustration of having just fleeting moments with people she'd like to know better.  It seems to touch her a little deeper than most.  When an eight-year old boy starts crying when he learns that she won't be coming back, she cries too. 

Its not the only time she is brought to tears.  The long and high climbs in the Himalayas weakened her, making her vulnerable to tears of relief and gratitude, once when a Dutch woman gave her some chocolate and another time when she crawled into her tent after an impossibly hard day in the rain.  The rigors of the road also reduced her to tears earlier in their travels in Costa Rica, thrilled to come  upon air conditioning for the first time in months at a Burger King, as Tim mentioned in his first book.

Cindie expresses occasional doubt about the value of what they are doing.  She felt troubled that people were so nice to them, especially people who had so little, and that she couldn't adequately reciprocate, not realizing that she brought joy to others, allowing them to meet someone doing something out of the ordinary and giving them the opportunity to be kind and generous.

Her biggest grievance with her husband was that he had turned their travels into a business proposition, spending more time on the computer than exploring the areas they found themselves in.  She felt she had no choice in the matter and that their relations had been reduced to a "get-by mode,"  but does not explain why she chose to endure it.  When they would arrive somewhere,  Tim would bury himself in his computer while she went out to give it a look.  It was a happy day for her when the computer broke.  Telling Tim so led to a full-blown fight.

Though the book didn't tackle these essential issues, it at least gives a better portrayal of the touring life than those written by her husband, which are filled with inane, simple-minded detail and a naiveté that knows no bounds, making comments such as, "the Dutch are people from Holland," and "Cindie loves trying food she has never eaten before."  After reading his first book, "The Road That Has No End, How We Traded Our Ordinary Lives for a Global Touring Adventure," about their first year on the road bicycling from Arizona to Panama, hoping it would be more reflective than his blogging, I had no desire to read another.  But I did have a sense from some of Cindie's blog posts that she was a more perceptive and sensitive writer. I was perfectly willing to make  her book my first Kindle purchase, especially since she was offering it for a mere 99 cents, money well spent.

A better book though might have been about their final travels together through India, reflecting on their nine years on the road and her decision to stop.  As I know all too well, the challenges of biking in India would have given her as much material as China.  It is far different than biking anywhere else and would have made for a fine read.  But I can understand, as well, why she'd want to write about China. I too spent a couple months bicycling there several years after they did and had many noteworthy experiences.  

I was joined by my friend Stephen, who was nine months into an around the world bike tour, for part of my travels.  It was at the top of his list of countries he'd like to return to for further biking, just like me.  And for both of us, India would be near the bottom.  The Chinese were remarkably hospitable, and it was exciting to be in such a rapidly changing and increasingly influential place.  Cindie agrees with that, though she lets that aspect of their time in China be overshadowed by their paranoia of being spied on.  

As they were, I was detained briefly by the police, me for venturing into a Forbidden Zone and they for taking a photo of a prison.  They were much more rattled by the experience than they needed to be, almost making it the defining moment of their travels.  It should have been all the compassion they were showered with, as is the title of her book.  But instead, she prefers to lament government policies, rather than accentuating the great warmth of the people, as that is the essence of the travel experience and what ought to have kept them going all those years.

She does lapse into an occasional lame brained comment symptomatic of her ex-husband, such as, "I believed one should have the freedom to practice the religion of one's choice."  And she managed to twice use the word "peddled" when she meant "pedaled."  But one needn't fear being distracted by too many such typos.  There are fewer than one often finds in self-published books.  She did quite well with this her first solo attempt at a book.  I hope her sales have been enough to encourage her to write another.

Friday, October 11, 2013

More Inside Racing with CVDV

Recently retired Christian Vande Velde spent more than an hour on stage at Chicago's Garmin store offering articulate and insightful answers to a wide range of questions last night, demonstrating why NBC  has hired him to be a commentator for its cycling broadcasts. He'll also continue his association with Garmin, mostly in a PR role.  He doesn't intend to do any coaching.

His last race was less than three weeks ago at the World Championships in Italy, where he competed in the team time trial.  He hasn't shaved his legs since, something he ordinarily does two or three times a week, and is happy to no longer have to pay sharp attention to what he eats. He said it was a great pleasure to make huge sundaes this past weekend for everyone in his family and to be able to eat as much as he wanted.  

When asked what were his proudest moments from his sixteen-year career in the pro peloton, he unhesitantly said they all came from The Tour de France.  It was a slight surprise that nothing else merited a mention, not even winning Colorado's USA Pro Challenge last year or wearing the pink jersey in the Giro in 2007 or his two Olympic appearances or his big breakthrough winning the Tour of Luxembourg in 2006 or perhaps winning the Tour of Missouri in 2008.  The magnitude of the Tour de France trumps all. His three proudest moments were being a part of Lance Armstrong's first Tour win in 1999, finishing fourth in The Tour in 2008 and helping Garmin win the team award in the 2011 Tour along with winning the team time trial that year and defending the yellow jersey for a week.  

Later a young cyclist asked him what it was like being a teammate of Ryder Hesjedal when he surprised the cycling world and won the Giro in 2012.  Christian was his roommate and to this day he still doesn't know how Ryder did it. He said when it became evident that Ryder had a chance to win the race, it was not a subject that anyone discussed.  When Christian would make his nightly phone call to his wife, he would leave the room so Ryder wouldn't hear him talking about his own excitement about the possibility.  When the race came down to the final two days and all was on the line, Christian gave it his all setting a hard pace for over an hour weakening Ryder's rivals before the serious climbing began, putting him in position to take control.  He remembers that as one of the finest moments of his career, a career that was always noted for his service to others.  

As with all his answers he made a fascinating story of it with multiple asides.  He spoke with such great warmth and sincerity, he made it seem as if he were the privileged one to be able to share his experiences rather than us his audience listening in. His life story will make a great book.  It is something he is considering, but he's not quite ready to do it.

He rode for four of the most prominent directors of his era during his career--Johan Bruyneel, Manola Saiz, Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters and learned much from all of them.  When he rode for Riis, he would sometimes stay over at his house in Lucca, Italy.  He was extremely devoted to his riders, happy to drive a motorbike for Christian to train behind.

When Christian switched from Bruyneel's Postal Service team to ride for Saiz, he was the only English-speaking rider on the team.  He didn't speak a word of Spanish at first.  He helped his former teammate at Postal, Roberta Heras, win the Tour of Spain, before moving on to Riis' team, the best in the world while he was there.  Before he and Dave Zabriskie left CSC to join the new Garmin team, as they stood on the podium in Paris after winning the team award at The Tour de France, they told each other to enjoy the moment as they never expected to be in such a position again, so when they were in 2011, it made it all the more thrilling.  Christian so genuinely expressed that sense, we could feel it ourselves.

For the first time in these annual appearances at the Garmin store someone brought up the subject of doping, asking Christian if he would be in favor of a Truth and Reconciliation Board for cyclists to unburden themselves.  Christian is fully in favor of confession.  He said it was a great relief when he went through the process before a Grand Jury, allowing him to clear his conscience.  But he isn't so sure how much he would trust others who would come forth, uncertain if they would give a full, or just a partial confession, so as not to diminish their results.  Erik Zabel is an example of that.  A few years ago he confessed to taking EPO briefly in 1996 before The Tour, outed by the book of a teammate.  He claimed he quit because he didn't like the side effects. However, this past year when it was revealed that a urine sample of his from the 1998 Tour tested positive when it was retested in 2004,  he had to greatly expand his confession.

As he reflected on his career, he said the sport is almost unrecognizable from what it was when he started, that the attention to detail has accelerated so much from recovery drinks to team buses and all their amenities.  Helmets were not required when he started.  He shudders to remember descending the Tourmalet at 65 miles per hour without a helmet.  His mother was right to worry about him, he said. So-called skin suits back then were ridiculously flappy, no tighter than the shirt he was wearing.  There was little attention paid to aerodynamics compared to now. There were no special time trial helmets. "I'd just wear a cycling cap turned backwards," Christian said.

The suffering though is no different.  Someone asked, "How do you get through the pain?"  Christian said that his dad, a two-time Olympic cyclist as well, told him to remember that everyone is suffering.  There is simply no way around it, but it is part of the gamesmanship to try to hide it.  For Christian, the hardest suffering is when he is training and having to push himself to his limits without the pay-off of a result or serving a teammate.

Someone asked where he trains locally, as he still lives in the southwest suburb of Lemont where he and his wife grew up.  He said he has a route that takes him towards Joliet.  Janina blurted out, "Do you ride on 52 and 53," as she and I had just done a ride out that way the weekend before to Midewin National Prairie.  There was a fair amount of traffic on the roads and she actually wondered at the time if Christian would dare such roads.  I thought he would, and Christian confirmed that was the case.  

Afterwards when we had a private chat with him and he autographed a Garmin poster for her, he signed it, "See you in Joliet?  Maybe.  Not."  He annotated my poster with "George, Push me next year."

I was able to introduce another friend to Christian, Tim, founder of Urban Bikes that has been renamed Uptown Bikes.

He joined Janina and I on our overnight ride to Midewin.  Tim mentioned to Christian that I had told him about our encounter in a Corsican cemetery before this past year's Tour as I was filling my water bottles and the Garmin team passed by on a training ride. Christian said that it was David Millar who had first spotted me and called out, "Hey Christian, there's your friend up ahead."  Christian peeled off for a quick greeting and then sped off to rejoin his teammates.

During the Q&A, I asked Christian how Daniel Mangeas, the long-time official voice of The Tour, would introduce him at the official sign-in before each stage, a Tour ritual for the fans that I rarely see as I am well down the route at that point.   It varies, as the riders can roll up to the stage any time they wish during a ninety-minute window.  If there is a bunch of riders at the time, it is very quick, but if there aren't others Mangeas might give a long dissertation citing the accomplishments of a rider, as Mangeas talks non-stop like an auctioneer for those ninety minutes.  Christian said Mangeas often surprises him, mentioning some result, such as finishing third on a stage of the Tour de Dunkirt, that he has totally forgotten about. I asked if he ever mentioned that his dad was one of the Team Cinzano riders in "Breaking Away."  He didn't think so, though his French isn't the best, so its possible that he might have.

As with many of his responses, Christian offered an unexpected insight into a racer's mentality and thinking process.  Mangeas' voice is so ubiquitous at The Tour, it becomes engrained in the mind of all Tour followers and can trigger a wide range of associations. For me it is a sense of great delight. For Christian it is at times a "sense of horror," as he associates it with the start of a stage and the torture to come, especially since the first hour of a stage is often the most difficult with 180 guys riding like bats out of hell trying to establish a breakaway. 

I was curious to learn what tricks Christian might have picked up over the years to minimize the effect of long trans-Atlantic flights and others on his legs, as they invariably leave my legs feeling tight and heavy.  He said he tries to get a bulk-head seat so he can stretch out his legs or hope to get upgraded to business or first class.  And he'll wear compression socks.  He makes no point of getting up and walking around.  He'll just sit and catch up on his movie-watching.  But it still usually takes him a week to fully recover from long flights.

As always, some of the most interesting insights into life in the peloton that Christian offered came in small asides.  Talking about the chatter in the peloton, he told about a couple of Italian teammates arguing over the use of hair driers on their team bus.  Three of them had had their hair driers going simultaneously, shorting out the bus electrical system.  

NBC is to be commended for presenting the bicycle racing community the gift of Christian's expertise and personality.  TV audiences will be greatly educated and entertained by his vast reservoir of knowledge in the years to come.

Before the event I emailed Christian asking if he had need of another course marker or two, as I usually provide him.  He replied just as I would, "I will always take a course marker. I put them up everywhere and they make great gifts."

And there were gifts for all attending the event--a slice of a chocolate cake with the inscription "Congrats Christian on Your Stellar Career," an autographed poster and a  seven-dollar DIVVY pass that permit one 24 hours of use of one of the new rental bikes scattered all over Chicago in 30-minute increments.  Janina can use it, as she has just begun giving them a try without a bike at present in the city. The day before she took advantage of the bikes for four rides, sparing her of public transportation each time.

For a full set of photos from the event, including the cake, click here -- http://flic.kr/s/aHsjKD7HLa