This year's cold spring has been a hard pill to swallow for anyone eager to go off on a local bicycle tour. And that, of course, always includes me. The last I'd squeezed in was in January during a brief warming spell. It was just an overnighter, but I still was able to spend a day biking, wild-camp, and then spend another day biking.
I didn't expect it to be such a long wait for the weather to moderate once again, especially after last year's balmy March with eighty degree temperatures that opened the door for a couple of mini-tours of three and four hundred miles. I've been pining for weeks to do the same again this year. The first day of spring had a high of only twenty-five, the coldest since 1965, and the average highs for March were nearly twenty-five degrees less than a year ago.
I had my eyes set on two prospective tours, one west to Rock Island, Illinois and the other north to Appleton, Wisconsin. As with my destinations a year ago, their lure was a library with a cycling book that no nearer library had on its shelves. When April arrived I could wait no longer, even though patches of snow remained and sub-freezing nights awaited me. One bonus of the cold though was that it allowed me to carry perishable food. Another was that it allowed me to make a golf course my camp site one night.
Golf courses aren't the best of places for camping. One never knows when the sprinklers might go on or when early morning golfers might come approaching. I'd much prefer camping in a forest, but there were none available when dark caught me as I was closing in on Sterling, Illinois last week on my second day out of Chicago heading to Rock Island.
As dusk approached I saw a few clusters of trees up ahead. I thought I might have found my forest, but as I closed in on them, I discovered they lined the fairways of a golf course and weren't thick enough to disappear into. At first I thought I better keep going until I noticed there were no flag poles on the greens or any other indication that the course was open. It suddenly became more inviting. I was confident I could camp without being disturbed. The fairways were hard enough to keep pedaling, so I rode a couple good long drives from the highway and pitched my tent in a clump of trees. It was a pleasantly quiet night, though cold enough to freeze the water bottle I left out on my bike.
As with my U.S. tours of late, my route was somewhat dictated by what Carnegie libraries I might visit. I headed due west out of Chicago on North Avenue, just a block from where I live. Thirty-four miles later, battling ugly urban sprawl all the way, I came to the first of this trip's nine Carnegies in St. Charles. It was dwarfed by a huge addition that spread out from it like an oil spill. The original majestic four-columned entrance was sealed. One had to enter half a block away by the sprawling parking lot. The Carnegie portion of the library had become a reading room in the furthest corner of the library from its new entrance. It was easily the most cosy and comfortable space to sit and read, a genuine haven from the sterility of the rest of the library.
Three miles south, following the Fox River to Geneva, was another Carnegie, this built in 1908, two years after the one in the larger city of St. Charles. It too had had an addition that paled pitifully compared to the original. A garbage can with a slot on it in front of the library had a sign explaining it was for litter and not the return of books.
I had to wait until the second day of my travels to come upon a Carnegie that retained all its majesty, looking much as it did when it was constructed. It was in Waterman, a town of 1,300 that hadn't grown much since its Carnegie was built in 1913 with a grant of $3,500. That was considerably less than the $7,500 grant Geneva received and the $12,500 grant of St. Charles, but it was proof that money spent does not necessarily mean something finer. It was only open four days of the week for a total of twenty-five hours. I wasn't there during a time when I could take more than a peek inside.
I continued west for twenty-five miles on route 30 and than took a slight detour north to include a Carnegie in Sterling. Thirteen miles before Sterling I passed through Dixon, home town of Ronald Reagan. Though its library wasn't a Carnegie, I gave it a look anyway, suspecting it might honor Reagan in some manner. It did with a plaque stating he acquired his first library card there at the age of nine in 1920.
The Sterling library was a typically grand Carnegie regally perched on a hill in the town center, known as Library Plaza. It had had an addition, but it was barely detectable when gazing upon its front. Its original entrance had been supplemented by a ramp that tastefully zigged up its side. A sign out front gave two dates, 1904 for the construction of the Carnegie and 1878, the year the town first established a library.
If I had known how complicated it was going to be to bicycle into the Quad Cities from the east I would have continued on route 30 to Fulton, across the Mississippi River from Clinton, to add the Fulton Carnegie to my collection. But I had been battling a headwind and was eager to get to the Rock Island library that afternoon, so took the more direct route angling south west until my highway merged with an interstate forcing me to back track and head north to find a road west that permitted bicycles. It took a person on a road crew with a GPS device several minutes to figure out a way for me to do it. When I reached the Mighty Mississip I had a pleasant ride on a bike path dotted with parks. It was too cold though for the water to have been turned on in any of them. It was also too cold for anyone else to be out enjoying the bike path or parks.
Moline preceded Rock Island. I passed a John Deere plant and John Deere visitor center with a huge combine out front. As I approached Moline's sadly depressed and largely abandoned downtown, I recognized its two-story tall Carnegie from a couple blocks away by its stunning Renaissance style poking above all the drab architecture surrounding it. It was closed though, replaced by a "modern" library out in the mall land that had killed the downtown. There were several commercial real estate signs plastered on its windows, looking for a buyer or renter. It was the only of the Carnegies on this trip that had Carnegie chiseled on its facade, above its doorway, flanked by two columns on each side. As I gazed inside a young woman came by, not realizing the library was closed. She gave me directions to the Rock Island library, just a few miles away following a road a couple blocks over.
Downtown Rock Island didn't have any more life to it than did Moline's. There wasn't any activity around its library and only a few parked cars, making me fear it too had been replaced. Like Moline's, it had a majesty to it, though it wasn't a Carnegie. A local industrialist donated the money to build it in 1901, two years before Moline solicited funds from Carnegie for a library of its own. Rock Island's library though was still alive, though there was hardly anyone making use of it. Each table and carol had a small vinyl sign prohibiting eating, drinking and using phones. I didn't have a phone, but I was hungry and thirsty having already biked seventy-five miles that day and two hundred in a little over two days. What was I to do?
The book I had come for awaited me in the well-stocked 796.6 bicycle section. It was a highly original book on The Tour de France called "The Official Treasures, Le Tour de France," from 2007, co-authored by the French Tour authority Serge Laget and an English lover of the Tour, Luke Edwards-Evans. They were both full devotees of The Tour, regarding it as a "privilege" to have been involved with The Tour and to be able to write this book about it.
The title aptly described the book, as it not only wrote about but actually contained a host of Tour artifacts that are true treasures. Many of the pages were extra thick cardboard with pockets holding all manner of memorabilia--postcards, trading cards, a Salvador Dali print from 1959, brochures, replicas of paper hats distributed by the caravan, the rider's contract from 1910 with twelve pages of regulations, a menu from a dinner in 1985 commemorating the fifty years of service to The Tour by its second director Jacques Goddet, media credentials, a hand-written story by the sport's premier chronicler Antoine Blondin, classic posters folded into quarters, maps and more. It was amazing that none of them had been pilfered. It could have been a collector's scrapbook. It was as if the authors had scoured bike museums all over France for their most interesting material. Treasures that weren't conducive to replicating, such as key chains, a Poulidor pen, signed jerseys and such, were photographed and inserted in the written copy.
It is probably more appropriate to say that this book was compiled, rather than written. It is a coffee-table-sized book that is deceptively large. When I began paging through it I was quite taken aback to discover it had only sixty-four pages of copy, as all the extra material makes it bulge into a volume that looks as if it is a couple hundred pages long. Each page is craftily designed with photographs scattered here and there and little nuggets of information inserted around the written copy. The page numbers are each centered in a chain ring, but only of thirty-two teeth, much fewer than any self-respecting racer would allow on his bike.
The book is divided into two page chapters tracing the history of The Tour--the early years, the high mountains, the Yellow Jersey, Italian dominance, kings of the mountains... There are also chapters devoted to The Tour's more dominant racers and their eras--Bobet, Anquetil, Merckx, Thevenet, Hinault, LeMond, Indurain and Armstrong.
The title of the book referring to The Tour as "Le Tour" gives the assurance that it is French centric and will offer an unimpeachable history of The Tour. That is pretty much the case. All but one of the twenty-one mentions of L'Alpe d'Huez include the capital "L," verifying for those in doubt that such is its preferred spelling, something that the VeloPress and other publishers don't always get right. The one exception in this book occurs in the forward by Bernard Hinault, that must have been translated by someone other than the person who translated the rest of the book.
That wasn't the only mistake. It states that Greg LeMond and Jonathan Boyer were the first two riders for the US "to join a Tour de France winning team in 1981." Boyer was the first American to compete in The Tour in 1981. LeMond was the next in 1984. It also makes the common mistake of saying that Fignon was a graduate of veterinary science. He was a short-lived student who quickly gave it up for the racing. There were a few other minor mistakes that should not have seeped into such a book by such authorities. They must not have had a final edit on the book. But still, it was a very fine read that managed to recount a great many of The Tour's fabled events as they are known to have happened. It was well worth a four hundred mile bike ride to read. I can report there was only one mention of tears--those of Pascal Simon when he had to abandon The Race in 1983 while wearing the Yellow Jersey.
I read half the book the afternoon I arrived at the library and returned the next morning to finish it off after finding a forest to camp in on the outskirts of the city along the Rock River. Then it was two hundred miles back to Chicago with a tailwind my first day and then a headwind the next. I had to bike nearly one hundred miles before I came upon the next Carnegie in Mendota. It had been converted to the Hume Carnegie Museum, named for a local industrialist who had donated a million dollars to build a new library and also the funds to maintain the Carnegie library as a museum.
The Carnegie was in pristine condition, a true gem built with white stone, doffed with a green dome and an entrance flanked by a pair of columns and stained glass windows. A light dangled in a lantern outside the entrance. Out front in a park the library overlooks was a statue of Wild Bill Hickok with shoulder length hair, as he was born in a nearby town, Troy Grove. He returned to Mendota in l869 at the age of 37 to rehabilitate at his mother's home from a wound he received from a Cheyenne's lance. The museum was only open on weekends and by special appointment. The best I could do was climb the twelve steps to its entrance for a peek.
When I returned to my bike a woman came from around the building and asked if she could help me. I told her of my interest in Carnegies. She invited me in for a look. She was a retired school teacher who knew everything about the town. She gave me a half hour lecture on its history and its greatest benefactor, the Mr. Hume who had provided for the museum. He was an inventor of harvesting equipment. His first was for cranberries. He had a factory in town though he was no longer alive. He had lived to one hundred, out-living three wives. The museum contained some of his inventions. A corner was also devoted to Hickok. A cabinet contained several books on him written by Joseph Rosa, an Englishman who had taken a fascination in Hickok and had become his biographer. The town flew him over for the unveiling of the Hickok statue in 2008. Another of the town's notables is Bill Brown, a running back for the Minnesota Vikings for thirteen years beginning 1962, who still holds some of their records. On and on she went recounting one proud tale after another with all the friendliness one would like to think is characteristic of small town America and often is.
The next Carnegie was in Plano, thirty miles down the road. It was another of those with a closed former entrance, as it's five steps made it inaccessible to the handicapped, a common feature of Carnegies. Behind it was an addition that was three or four times larger than the original library and not very sensitive to its architecture. Like the one in St. Charles, the space of the old library was the most peaceful and inviting portion of the library. The standard portrait of Carnegie with an open book in his lap that had been sent out in 1935 to any library that wanted one was hung on the wall blocking the former entrance above a couch. Portraits of Lincoln and Washington added to the charm of the room. An original card catalogue, stripped of its cards, stood in a corner. It was a pleasant step back in time. There was no mention of Carnegie outside the building, just "Public Library" chiseled over the old entrance.
After Plano I began to feel the first few ripples of Chicago's sprawl as I closed in on Aurora, the second largest city in Illinois with a population of 180,000, just as dark was descending. Despite its size, I had no problem finding a forest to camp in, so I could return to its Carnegie library the next morning, such as it was. It had been wholly swallowed by an expansion built around it in the late 1960s. A plaque out front had a photo of it in its former grandeur. Aurora had earned a a $50,000 grant from Carnegie, the fifth largest of the 111 grants Carnegie gave to communities in Illinois. The plaque described it as having been built in the classical revival tradition popular at the time with a temple-like appearance featuring a pair of Ionic columns. What had been done to it was a travesty. Carnegie wasn't forgotten though, as a plaque just inside its entrance acknowledged that it had been "Erected through the beneficence of Andrew Carnegie, A. D. 1904." Across the street from it was a building with genuine character, an Elks Lodge built in 1926 in the style of a Mayan ruin, as it was at that time Mayan ruins were being discovered in the Yucatan and were capturing much attention.
One more Carnegie awaited me on my home stretch run into Chicago in Naperville, a suburb whose police/fire station complex is described as a "Public Safety Center." Naperville had long ago outgrown its Carnegie and had no space to expand it beyond a small eyesore of an addition off to one side. When it was replaced in 1987, it served as a park district building for a spell, then was taken over by the Truth Lutheran Church. Coincidentally, just the week before on a car trip to St. Louis and southern Illinois with Janina, we came upon a Carnegie in Harrisburg that also had been converted to a church, this one Episcopal, the first such conversion I had encountered among the 150 Carnegies I have so far searched out. It ranked right up there with the Carnegie in Chillicothe, Illinois, which is now a used book store, as the highest calling a Carnegie could be put to. The Carnegie in Harrisburg was much more striking than the one in Naperville, highlighted by half a dozen stained glass windows in its rounded backside facing the congregation, and unmarred by any addition. If I was ever in the mood for worshipping, that was a place I might do it.
Janina and I managed to seek out only two other Carnegies on our week-long road trip that was more concentrated on visiting state parks and friends than libraries. One was a branch library in St. Louis that Janina utilized when she lived there attending Washington University and taught at a Catholic girl's high school. The other was in Vienna (pronounced Vyenna), Illinois, an unaltered Carnegie other than the addition of a canopy over its entrance and a transport system to haul people up the twenty-two steps to its entrance, perhaps the most steps of any Carnegie. The day we arrived it didn't open until one p.m. We were there at noon. Once again I was accosted by a most friendly soul who worked in the library after I peered in, offering to let us in. He was a native American who had worked on the canine patrol with Chicago's CTA. He had a tepee in the woods and recommended a place for us to camp. He pointed out an oak in the front of the library that had come from Jefferson's Monticello. He was another shining example of small town hospitality that makes touring in rural America as fine as anywhere. I hope I will have time for one more dose with a ride to Appleton before I fly off to Paris the first week of May.