Sunday, March 31, 2013

The "Rough Ride" of Paul Kimmage

In 1990 Paul Kimmage, a recently retired Irish cyclist, published "Rough Ride," as honest and insightful of a book about life in the pro peloton as has been written. He describes in graphic detail how hard that life is, much harder than he ever imagined, and how most of the pros resort to drugs of one sort or another to survive.  He was determined to remain pure, but he succumbed as many do.
His professional career lasted four years beginning in 1986, the year Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France and ended in 1989, the year of LeMond's second Tour win.   Kimmage was the 131st of 132 finishers of that 1986 Tour.  Two hundred and ten riders started the race.  Kimmage called arriving in Paris the happiest day of his life, not only to complete the race but also to end the ordeal.  Every finisher is given a medal. That medal meant more to him than anything he had ever won, even winning the Irish national championship at the age of nineteen, the youngest ever, or competing in the 1984 Olympics. The last race of his career was the 1989 Tour, which he abandoned on the twelfth stage after fifty-five kilometers, not injured, but totally done in and incapable of finding the will to keep going.

When he retreated to the broom wagon he buried his head in his hands and cried.  He didn't realize he would never race again, but it was a decision he did not regret.  The effort to compete, the pain and suffering one must endure to keep up, was just too much.  He had begun writing for an Irish newspaper and saw that as his career, which it has been.  He, along with his fellow Irish sportswriter and benefactor, David Walsh, has been at the forefront of trying to rid the sport of drugs for years.  It was Kimmage who Floyd Landis opened up to about his drug taking in a remarkable seven hour interview when he decided to bare his soul.

During Kimmage's time vitamin injections were standard practice and not against the rules. Kimmage resisted them, as he considered such injections a minor form of doping.  But after nine stages of the 1986 Tour, he was utterly depleted, "on his hands and knees," as he phrased it, and gladly accepted an injection. "I dropped my shorts," he wrote, " and abandoned my virginity without a second thought."  But that was as far as he was prepared to go, at least for a time.

It wasn't until a year later before a post-Tour criterium without dope controls that he went over the edge and took an injection of amphetamines, as he was concerned about being able to keep up with all the other charged-up riders.  If he did not put in a good performance he feared he wouldn't be given his 250 pound appearance fee that he desperately needed.  Only two other times in his career did he take another such an injection, and both under similar circumstances.  But he continued with the vitamin injections and occasional caffeine suppositories, which weren't illegal, but which he still considered doping and gave him qualms.  He even had regrets about starting every race with two vitamin C tablets in his water bottle.

He tells of team directors letting riders know before a race if there would be no dope controls, implicitly advising them to dope.  He said riders were always happy to know, as taking drugs made it easier on them.  It was such a charade that the riders in team meetings would let out a good chuckle at the good news that they were free to charge themselves.  Kimmage said he felt more like crying.

Tears come out time and time again.  This book, as well as any, illustrates how intrinsic tears are to the sport.  They reflect the deep emotional commitment riders have to succeeding.  Both winners and losers express their feelings with such bursts.  Kimmage may have been extra prone to them, as he acknowledges he would erupt into tears of rage as a kid when he would lose a race around the block to his neighbor Davy Casey.  But he also acknowledges that "men are not supposed to cry," and that he would hold his feelings in, unlike his girl friend, who would cry when he would have to leave their home in Ireland to go race.

Tears marked all four of his Tours de France, even the 1988 Tour when he was left off the team roster.   When he learned the news that he had lost a position on that year's team to a German teammate who had just won his national championship, he was shattered and spontaneously found himself crying.  The depth of his disappointment surprised him.

It was no surprise though that he cried when he abandoned the l987 and l989 Tours.  It l987 he was struggling horrifically up the Galibier.  Tears filled his eyes as he contemplated quitting. He found the energy to keep going but not very fast.  He was so far behind that a bearded cyclist with panniers rode past him, completely demoralizing him.  "A bloody Fred," he calls him.  He makes it over the Galibier but  quits after the descent as he begins the next climb up the Col de Telegraph.  His director Thevenet tries to console him but he breaks down and "weeps as I have not done in a long, long time."

Even the greats are not immune to such tears.  He tells of Sean Kelly abandoning that same Tour in tears several stages before.  Stephen Roche was in tears during the l989 Tour in the mountains before he quit the race three stages before Kimmage did.

Kimmage describes tears of joy as well.  After finishing his one and only Tour in 1986 his teammate Bernard Vallet knew how much effort it took for Kimmage to hang in to the end and was so proud of him that he was in tears as he told him, "Now you know what it is to ride the Tour de France."  He had had to dig deep to keep riding on numerous occasions during The Race. He nearly quit on L'Alpe d'Huez.  "I wanted to get off the bike and kiss the road and sit down and weep my tears of defeat," he wrote,  but he kept going remembering the words of Roche at the start: "Whatever happens, finish.  If you are eliminated (failing to make the time limit) there is no shame--but don't abandon."

He cried tears of joy at the l987 World Championship when his teammate Roche won the race, but then a year later at the l988 Championship he cried tears of bitterness when he abandoned with five laps to go, unable to salvage a season that had been a "complete and utter disaster."

Tears also figure in some of his anecdotes portraying the racing life.  His fellow Irishman Martin Earley didn't know whether to laugh or cry when a German woman with large breasts pushed him up L'Alpe d'Huez for a spell in the 1986 Tour and her left breast kept hitting him in the face.  He tells too of a French teammate on the verge of tears, as he was so thrilled to be on a training ride through the fabulous vineyards near Bordeaux.  It was before Kimmage had gained an appreciation for wine.  Even after becoming a wine-lover, he resolves not to be tempted to continue living in France after his career when he sees a funeral with a hearse and a lone car following it.  "I didn't want to die in this place with just two people crying over me," he wrote.

He expresses a strong national pride.  He felt blessed to have a close relationship with the two Irish racers Kelly and Roche, who were a dominant force in the peloton, a benefit that not too many domestiques enjoyed.  Despite the many accolades he heaps on them in his book, his drug revelations cost him their friendship, even though he didn't directly implicate either.  Like many in the sport, they did not appreciate his breaking the omerta and "spitting in the soup," as is one of his chapter titles.

Even though the book was written over two decades ago and before EPO took over the sport, it still rings true, vividly giving insight into the racing mentality and what a demanding sport it is and how one can be drawn to taking banned substances to alleviate the suffering and to do one's job.  It had always been his dream to be a professional cyclist.  His father won the Irish national championship in l962, two months after Kimmage was born, and continued racing for years afterwards.  Kimmage grew up watching his father race.  His father warned him that he would experience more heartbreak than happiness in cycling.  He admits he was correct.  Still, he has made the sport his life and continues to be one of the best writers covering the sport.

Monday, March 18, 2013

An Ultimate Cycling Book

Whenever I need a nourishing dose of cycling lore I need only pull down Philippe Brunel's "An Intimate Portrait of The Tour de France" from my bookshelf and give it a look.  I can open it to any page and begin reading about any of the cycling luminaries it profiles and feel an immediate jolt of affection and respect for the sport and its most significant totem--The Tour de France.

The book is not a history of The Tour, but rather a collection of biographies of "the masters and the slaves of the road," as Brunel calls his subjects, each reflecting in some manner or another on The Great Race.  Some are only a page long and none longer than ten, and all liberally enhanced with photographs. Only about half of the book's subjects are about actual winners of The Tour.  Since it was written in 1995, it concludes with Miguel Indurain and doesn't breath a mention of Lance Armstrong.

Brunel is one of a long line of French masters of the keyboard who write about cycling as if they were writing about the opera.  He elevates to grand status the exploits of the racers, vividly portraying their triumphs and tragedies. He draws comparisons to figures from the highest of literature and art and film.  He writes that Rik Van Looy had "the beauty of a Rubens,"  that the legs of Gianna Motta were so muscular that it "appeared they were sculpted by Michelangelo himself," that Italo Zilioli was "the Hamlet of cycling, tormented by his inner conflicts," that Jacques Anquetil's wife Janine was as close to him as was Signoret to Montand and compares Indurain and Pedro Delgado to Picasso and Goya.

He regards The Tour de France as a holy shrine.  For him it is not a job, but a privilege, to cover it for the daily French sports newspaper "L'Equipe."  He thanks it for allowing him "to serve" the Tour.  The Italian racer Claudio Chiappucci, featured in one of the book's twenty chapters, echoes those sentiments.  He says, "For me bicycle racing is a passion.  When I stop, I will be proud to have served and gloried the sport."

The book fully captures the French regard for the sport.  The chapter on Bernard Hinault does not fault him for betraying his promise to Greg LeMond to help him win The Tour in 1986 and trying instead to win it himself and become its first six-time winner.  "That's what we all were waiting to see," Brunel writes.  A caption to a two-page photo of the two of them looking eye to eye calls them student and teacher and their relations as "passionate, often to the benefit of the Tour."

Brunel's vivid prose is matched by the book's exemplary array of black and white photographs catching the riders in unguarded, natural moments that reveal their souls and torments and epitomize the "Intimate" of the book's title.  Few of the photos are of the racers on their bikes, but rather capture them sprawled in bed or pouring a drink down their throat or on their knees praying or being massaged or soaking in a bath, sometimes two together.  Fausto Coppi and Anquetil are shown resting in bed with their wives alongside.  Hinault is shown bare-chested being greeted by his parents.  It is one of many photos of  racers shed of their jerseys revealing their sharp tan lines.

In another bed photo the Dutch Tour winner Jan Janssen is joined by his young daughter. It is one of four photos showing racers with a cigarette, including the most famous one of all--a pair of racers in the 1920s with tires wrapped around their shoulders and cigarettes in their mouths during a lull in a race, a photo that is a popular poster.

It should come as no surprise that a writer of such stature and such an understanding of the sport would invoke tears on occasion to emphasize the depth of cycling's hold on its followers.  "Tears" is the first word of his chapter on Gino Bartali.  He writes that they "flowed down the cheeks of his fans, who kissed the ground he walked on."  In the very first chapter on the the first Italian Tour winner Ottavio Bottecchia he says the entire country wept over his mysterious death on a training ride when he was still in his prime.  All of Belgium was in tears over the retirement of Eddie Merckx and "took to the veil for this incomparable champion."

Brunel is at his best describing the best, surmising that "Merckx had evolved from another planet."  He says he is part Coppi and part Anquetil "plus something indefinable, like a soul supplement...He was, in short, the incarnation of bravery itself."   Alien or not, Merckx is not immune to tears.  Brunel recounts his well known tears upon being told he had tested positive for drugs in the 1969 Giro as he sat in bed and then crying again in the arms of his wife when she joins him.  Brunel also mentions more tears from Merckx over the death of his idol Stan Ockers while he was racing on the track.

Belgium and Italy may be the most fanatical of bicycle racing countries, but they aren't the only ones that cry over their cycling heroes.  Brunel writes that the arrival of Anquetil in the 1950s ended an era of disappointment and tears for the French--"Prior to Anquetil, France had cried in the face of Rene Vietto's sacrifice and then there was Roger Rivere's crashing spectacle at the bottom of the Perjuret.  In him, France was able to wean herself away from crying over past tragedies."

How refreshing it is to read cycling literature that is written for connoisseurs of the sport not having to explain Vietto's sacrifice or Rivere's crash.  This American edition though does feel obligated to add sloppy paranthetical explanations to a couple of common cycling terms--the "Grand Boucle" and "palmares."  The editors give a literal translation of the "Grand Boucle," a term of endearment for The Tour, as  the "Great Circle," and also the "Big Circle" on another occasion.  The editors also felt the need to explain "palmares,"  referring to it as "list of victories" after its first use and then "list of wins" the second time it appears.  Nor can the editors decide whether to capitalize or lower case palmares, doing both. Greg LeMond is subjected to similar treatment with his name once spelled with a lower case "m," though capitlizing it all other times.

Most demoralizing of the shoddy editing was the misspelling of one of The Tour's most celebrated climbs, the Galibier.  Not once, but twice, it is spelled "Galiber." This despite it being referred to as "famous."  Such a commanding book deserved better editing. Unfortunately, the bungling of cycling lore, and even the basics of the sport, is all to common in American publications.  The sister race of The Tour, the Giro d'Italia, was once referred to as "Giro Tour" and another time spelled all in caps--GIRO.   Colombia, which has supplied more racers to The Tour than all other South American countries put together,  was misspelled "Columbia," and most astounding of all, "catastrophe," a favorite French word, was spelled "catastrophy."

The photo captions must have been added by the American editors, as it is unimaginable that the French edition could have made the mistakes of this edition.  A caption to a photograph of Rik Van Steenbergen says he only made one appearance in the Tour de France.  Two pages later Brunel writes Van Steenbergen won four stages of the race but "only finished the great race twice."  Another faulty caption states that Merckx was punched "on the descent of the Puy-de-Dome" in the 1975 Tour, when it was actually as he was climbing within a kilometer of the finish of this legendary extinct volcano.  The Tour only climbs the Puy-de-Dome.  It never descends it.

Though the book certainly glorifies the sport and the courage and bravery of those who lend themselves to it, doping is not ignored by any means.  In fact one of the chapters is devoted to Michel Pollentier, the Dutch rider who was apprehended with a rubber tube leading to a capsule of urine under his arm pit trying to pass off urine that wasn't his after he won the L'Alpe d'Huez stage of the 1978 Tour.  It was a common practice at the time.  Brunel refers to it as having his "hand caught in the cookie jar."

Brunel accepts that doping is part and parcel of racing without moralizing about it.  He refers to a German magazine that did a story on Dietrich Thurau after he retired.  He was relieved to say, "My closets now will be empty of syringes and prohibited substances.  The majority of racers have resorted to drug products, and those who refuse to admit it, are liars."

Brunel also quotes Anquetil as saying that everyone takes drugs, and congratulates him for having the courage to say it. In 1967 three years after his fifth and final Tour win he told the French Minister of Youth and Sports on a television show how one is drawn into drug taking.  "You begin by taking a sugar cube," he said, "then coffee, then some chocolate and from then on its like a frenzy.  You are drugged."

The drug mentions don't diminish the book in the least.  Rather they contribute to its veracity.  I know of no book that better portrays the majesty and the essence of this great sport.  Though it is only 157 pages it is a "War and Peace" of a book and evidently not all that common.  There are fifteen used copies available at Amazon starting at $36 on up to several hundred dollars and two new copies going for $385.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Bicycle Utopia of "Cycle Space"

There's been a steady trickle of books the past few years announcing or advocating a bicycle revolution.  The latest is "Cycle Space" by Steven Fleming, an Australian professor of architecture who confesses to being mad about cycling.

Unlike other such books that tend to offer reasoned commentary on the increasing numbers of those cycling and  the positives of riding a bike, this is an unrestrained manifesto placing the bicycle on a pedestal high above all other means of transportation.  Fleming is such a bicycle enthusiast he makes the declaration: "Of course bikes should be worshipped among tools of locomotion."  Fleming goes beyond simply urging urban planners not to forget the bicycle.  He demands that all cities be redesigned with the bicycle as the chief means of getting around.   Those cities that don't are blind to what he sees as the inevitable bicycle take-over.

This isn't another polite and prissy polemic taking satisfaction with a slight increase in bike lanes and people using them. Fleming isn't interested in merely the "theoretically possible" but the "ideally possible."  This is not a plea, but an articulate, uncompromising diatribe, envisioning no less than a cycling utopia where people will ride bikes as surely as they wear shoes, where whole populations will have added bicycles to their bodies like prostheses, and almost everyone will be moving by bike rather than by car.  His city of the future is one where three quarters of trips are by bicycle, one quarter on foot and cars are an oddity.

Fleming is so unmincing in his opinions, he knows that there are those, even in the bicycle community, who will want to make a bonfire of his book.  He had to go to the Netherlands to find someone who would publish it.   And he evidently figures his audience is mostly European, as whenever he cites the cost of something it is given in euros, not dollars.  He refers to the US as the United States of the Automobile, "the world's premier motoring nation," where drivers are the reigning defenders of public space.  But he isn't overly harsh on Americans.  Individual chapters are given to each of three American cities (Portland, New York and Chicago) for their progressive bicycling consciousness.

Fleming acknowledges that Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the pre-eminent cities in the world for cycling, meccas where one-third of all trips are made by bicycle.  He certainly applauds such huge numbers of cyclists, but he still finds it reprehensible that two-thirds of trips are made by car, bus or train.  He contends that if so many people are sensible enough to embrace the bicycle, that ought to be enough to convince everyone else to take to the bike, and can't understand why they don't.

Not only does he ridicule the folly of driving, he dares to criticize walking and the "walkable" movement as well.  He considers walking tiresome, boring and slow.  He regards someone on foot as a car person "who has just been let out for air."  Planners shouldn't waste their time making cities walkable.  They should solely focus their attention on making them bikeable.

"Why stroll when you can roll" is the title of the first of his eight chapters, each devoted to a different city and different one-word theme.  Amsterdam is practical, Copenhagen is design, New York political, Portland cool, Paris theatrical, Singapore free, Sydney prestigious and Chicago green.

He repeatedly cites, almost like a mantra, the three-pronged obvious reasons for the inevitable ascension of the bicycle.  It promotes health, it saves people money, and it improves the environment.  He further contends that bicycle commuting should be considered a leisure activity.  He is such a confirmed cyclist that he is fully convinced that anyone who gives it a try will be won over.  I'd like to think the same, but I know otherwise.  Thousands do it every year in Chicago and elsewhere during Bike to Work Day or Week, depending on the city, and claim how much fun and invigorating it is, but only a handful stick to it.

He is a purist through and through.  Even though he worked for a spell transporting people on a bicycle rickshaw, he regards them as an absurdity, thinking everyone should have their own bike.  He has raced as an amateur for years, but doesn't overestimate the athletic ability it takes to get around on a bike.  He makes the valid point that just about anyone, regardless of conditioning, can ride a bike across a city. Not only is he an idealist and an optimist, he is also a pragmatist and a realist. He regards riding a bike as a most matter-of-fact activity that everyone could and should do.  There is nothing brave or heroic about it.  He doesn't drift off into cutesy portrayals of bike commuters or mothers who bike their kids to school.

Fleming borrows from the gay community for the title of his book.  The gays coined the term "queerspace" for areas that they colonized and felt comfortable in.  Cyclists too can appropriate any area as their space. He furthers the comparison with gays, stating that both communities are often misunderstood and maligned and are forced to claim space not freely given.  He compares Critical Mass rides to Gay Pride Parades.

Though he is all for improving the infrastructure for cycling, even converting bike routes into wind and weather protected tubes, he maintains that cyclists can find cycle space anywhere.  It does not have to be provided for them.    "It cannot be dictated," he writes.  "Cycle space is a personal thing for each of us to define in our own way."  Even in Denmark and the Netherlands where it would seem that "bicycling infrastructure should magically appear wherever one points their nose, some cyclists shun officially sanctioned routes that don't suit their mood."

He does not deny that cyclists are an affront to many drivers' belief systems and that that there is a perception that only society's outcasts use bikes as a means of transportation. But he is confident that there will be a mass awakening and the masses will end their enslavement to their cars. Though we presently live in a world completely overcome by cars, he finds reason for hope in the increasing number of people who are embracing the bicycle and rejecting the automobile.  Though his utopia of reversing the percentages of cars to bikes on the road may seem a fanciful dream, it is a dream worth having.  It is assuring to know that there are such visionaries among us and that they can state their case so well.