Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Fifty Places To Bike Before You Die" ?

Of course I'm going to read a book entitled "Fifty Places To Bike Before You Die."  It doesn't matter that I've biked most of them or that most of the rides are less than a week and not even 200 miles, far from my preference of going off for weeks and weeks and thousands of miles.  I read it with hopes of learning a thing or two and also to see how my passion was being represented.

The book is the latest in a series of "Before you Die" books by Chris Santella. Others in the series are devoted to birding, diving, hiking, sailing, golfing and fly fishing. The book is more of a guidebook than a book of adventure.  Nearly a quarter of the book is full-page photos.  It is more concerned with giving basic information than a full immersion into a ride.  The prose is that of guidebook vernacular.  No less than six of the rides are "breath-taking." If a locale isn't "beautiful," it's "picturesque"  or "spectacular" or "incredible" or "amazing" or fantastic."  At least four places are described as "magical"---Ireland, Italy, Canyonlands White Rim Trail and Vermont's fall foliage.

Riding through a wine-growing region is a common theme of the rides.  There are such rides in British Columbia, California, France, Italy and Spain, as well  mentions of wine along the way on quite a few other rides.  The wine ride in Spain passes a wine museum complete with 3,000 cork screws.  Three of the 46 photographs in the book, nearly one for each chapter, show cyclists riding past vineyards.  If one couldn't tell from the daily average mileage of usually no more than thirty miles for most of the rides, the photos make it clear that these rides are mostly for leisure cyclists on supported tours. Some of the cyclists in the photos are having such a good time they are waving to the camera.  In only three of the photographs does a bike have panniers, and one of those is a cyclist with just one pannier, clearly not an independent, self-supported touring cyclist.

Santella enlists the advice of cyclists who have extensive touring experience for his choices, mostly guides from touring companies.  The three or four pages he devotes to each ride are largely based on interviews he has conducted with those who suggested the ride with long paragraphs in quotation marks.  Each chapter includes a profile of the the cyclist responsible for the ride along with hotels to stay at and airports to fly into and tour companies to ride with.  Its not clear how many of the rides Santella has actually ridden himself.  Representatives of Trek Travel had the most suggestions with five.  Adventure Cycling and  Backroads had four each.  Austin-Lehman Adventures and Butterfield and Robinson had three.

Santella also takes suggestions from three accomplished cycling authors.  Former racer Joe Parkin, who has written two acclaimed books on the racing life, suggests Belgium.  Joe Kurmaskie, known as the "Metal Cowboy" with even more books to his credit, recommends a ride in South Africa.  Jan Heine, editor of "Bicycle Quarterly,"  offers up the most audacious of rides--a 24-hour 330-mile ride from Seattle to Mount Rainier and back known as the Washington State Challenge. That is more miles than all but four of the rides listed.  The longer ones are RAGBRAI with close to 500 miles, an eight-day ride in Switzerland of 480 miles,  the Natchez Trace with 444 miles, and an eight-day ride in Nova Scotia of about 350 miles.  Only one of the book's rides is longer than eight days, a nine-day ride in Thailand.  A seven-day Backroads ride from Hanoi to Cambodia of over 1,000 miles that I rode in 2002, is done mostly by van, broken into seven thirty-mile segments, hardly doing justice to a stupendous ride down Vietnam's Highway One.

The chief marketing director of LL Bean naturally plugs the state of Maine.  The gear editor of "Bicycling" magazine recommends New York City.  Bicycle advocate Mia Birk is allowed to recommend her city--Portland, Oregon. They all offer fine riding, but hardly rank among the fifty greatest places to ride a bike.   Nearly half of the rides are in the US and Canada.  There are three rides in France and Italy and two rides in Spain and South Africa.

The owner of a pannier company selected Taiwan, the most unexpected, and for me the most enticing, of all the places listed. Not many touring cyclists make it their destination, so the Taiwanese are extra welcoming.  The roads are excellent, the terrain varied and the country is prosperous enough that there is little crime.  It was just one of four places in the book that I haven't cycled.  The others were Bali, the Baltic and Majorca.  Majorca is a popular place for professional cyclists to train.  The Sant Salvador monastery on the island has six rainbow jerseys won on the track by Guillermo Timoner Obrador, Spain's first cyclist to win a world championship in 1959.

The book intersects the world of professional cycling on other occasions too.  The Tour de France is sprinkled in here and there.  Lance Armstrong makes three appearances--in the chapters on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Majorca and Texas hill country.  He is also alluded to in the chapter on RAGBRAI, when it is mentioned that "a few Tour de France champions" have ridden it.  Mont Ventoux is brought up twice, once in the chapter on Provence and also by Heine as a destination similar to his Mount Rainer.

If I'd been asked to contribute to the book, it would have been very difficult for me to choose one place over another.  I might have made a choice similar to that of Taiwan, a place that few would consider but that I liked very much. That would be through the tepui region of Venezuela.  The tepuis are table top mountains, many with their own flora and fauna.  They are other-worldly mini-islands in the sky unlike anything I have ever seen.  They were breathtaking and magical.

I'd also be happy to recommend the Ring Road around Iceland, the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Alaskan Highway, Baja, Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca in Mexico, the Bastille Day stage of The Tour de France,  the Most Dangerous Road in the World in Bolivia, Lake Como to the Madonna de Ghisallo, the Nullarbor Plain of Australia, through the fjords of Norway to the North Cape beyond the Arctic Circle, bicycling across the US as at least two of the contributors to the book have done, or rides in Japan, Morocco, Colombia, China or Laos. The book includes a circuit of Oregon's Crater Lake.  I would counter with rides around Africa's Lake Victoria or Turkey's Lake Van.

The list of exceptional places to ride one's bike is nearly endless.  Santella made a decent start for someone whose chief interest is not bicycling. His seems to be fly fishing, his first book back in 2004, followed up by golf a year later.  He wrote sequels for both as well as books on other topics (birding, sailing, hiking, diving) before he turned to biking.  If this book had been written by an ardent cyclist, the list would have been considerably different and more insightful.  These aren't necessarily places to bike before one dies, but rather good introductory places to bike for the neophyte.  Kurmaskie's excellent introduction conveyed better than anything in the book the  flavor of the touring experience.  So too did a Dutch contributor to the book, one of sixteen women, who summed up the transformative power of the bike:"When I ride my bike, the day becomes mine."

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