Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Chasing the Chimney Sweep"

Just as we did last year after I returned from The Tour de France, Janina and I drove up to Michigan for some R & R--camping, hiking, biking and a dose of cinema at Michael Moore's film festival in Traverse City.

Moore modeled his film fest, now in its ninth year, after Telluride, considered the "crown jewel of film festivals."  They both offer a nightly free screening in an outdoor park and a handful of other free films in other venues along with free panel discussions.  They both open with an opening night feed on the town's Main Street and include tributes to film luminaries in their program.  And most importantly, they are dominated by a strong sense of celebrating, not marketing, cinema. 

Traverse City makes for a good appetizer to Telluride, which I head out to for my annual four-week stint looking after its shipping department after returning from Michigan.  We enjoyed Traverse City even more than we did last year and extended our stay an extra day caught up in Michael Apted's Up series.  Apted was one of the tributees and Moore played the entire series he is famous for, which began in 1964, and even brought one of the subjects of the film to Traverse City--Susan, one of the East End girls.  It was her first time to America. She is well accustomed to talking about the films, as every seven years, when the next one is broadcast on British television, it is a huge national event and she is invited to appear on every British chat show around.  Janina and I were the lone stalwarts seeing each of the installments, though quite a few others, who we got to know very well, saw a good many of them.

Though there were no bicycling films in the festival, I did discover a cycling book at the local library that had somehow eluded me since it was published in 2006--"Chasing the Chimey Sweep."  The Chimney Sweep was Maurice Garin, the winner of the first Tour de France in1903.  In 2003 four touring cyclists from New Zealand ventured to France to follow the route of that first Tour de France.  "How did I not know about this book?" was my first reaction upon pulling it from the shelf.  It was all I could do not to plunge immediately in to it and forsake the film festival.  I immediately went on line to check to see if any library near Chicago might have a copy.  Not another library in America had it on its shelves.  Traverse City made me acquire a library card to use its computer.  It didn't matter that I lived nearly 400 miles away.  So I was actually able to check the book out and read it as soon as I returned home.  

This was the tenth book by Selwyn Parker, all of them mostly about history.  That promised good research as well as good writing.  I was given some pause though when the back of the book referred to this endeavor as a "bizarre quest."  There was nothing "bizarre" about it in the least.  It was a great idea for a book and as good of a bike tour as bicycling around New Zealand, as I have done, or any other country, with the added benefit of reliving that first Tour de France. 

That was an initial warning that this book might not be quite up to snuff and the reason why it hadn't caught  my attention.  Though Parker was a veteran cyclist, he hadn't done much touring.  He was novice enough that he and his wife chose to ride mountain bikes, as he was uncertain of the quality of roads he'd find in France. He couldn't have done much research on that, as the roads of France are as good as any in the world.

An even bigger mistake was to decide to travel with packs on their backs rather than panniers.  His wife, who turned fifty at the end of their travels, quickly switched to panniers.  Their travel companions had more touring experience and rode with panniers from the start.  They also traveled with a tent and sleeping bags and camped, while Parker and his wife stayed in hotels.  All too much of the book was devoted to them trying to find hotels and also trying to find their way.  They were repeatedly getting lost.  At least Parker was fluent in French.

Their undertaking was sabotaged by the hottest summer France had experienced in years.   The heat repeatedly forced them to cut their riding short, once after only twenty-five miles.  At one point he admits he was so done in that it felt as if his "brain was suffering from a slow puncture."  His wife whines about the hygiene of squat toilets, rather than being happy about the ubiquity of public toilets.  They remain clueless to cemeteries being a source of water, something that would have made the heat much more endurable.  The book doesn't exactly live up to its subtitle--"A joyride around the first Tour de France."

They quickly discovered that following the entire route of that first Tour was beyond their capabilities even though it avoided the Alps and the Pyrenees, which really would have had them staggering.  Rather than continuing from Lyon all the way to Marseille, they turned west towards Bordeaux well before reaching the Mediterrean.  Nor did they continue all the way to the Atlantic, turning north back to Paris without even coming close to Bordeaux.  At the end they give up on going to the Parc des Princes velodrome where The Tour finished.

The book is fully redeemed though by its regular updates from that first Tour.  They aren't as frequent or as long as my tastes would prefer, but at least they elevate this from a mere touring book.  Parker understood enough of Tour history to include much material on its founder, Henri Desgrange, a character as interesting as any Tour rider. Parker aptly credits him for being "at the forefront of making cycling much more than a tool of transport...embedding its intoxicating pleasures into the marrow of French culture."  He doesn't get all his facts correct though, such as stating that Desgrange was on the scene when Eugene Christophe repaired his broken fork during the 1913 Tour, one of the most legendary events in Tour history.   The book regularly quotes books, but does not include footnotes.

They conclude their 28-day, 1250-mile tour before that year's Tour de France commences, not even trying to intersect with it.  They had a naive concern that they needed to complete their ride before July when they feared the roads would become clogged with French motorists on vacation, a concern even more misplaced than the quality of the French roads.

Despite its many shortcomings, the book did receive New Zealand's Whitcoulls travel book of the year award.  There is no denying that Parker had a great idea for a book.  But it was a book that needed to be written by someone who was more of a bicyclist and Tour enthusiast.  It is another example that it takes more than a little research to truly understand a subject.  Parker is an accomplished writer, but he was often straining to meet a quota of words when he didn't have something relevant to write about, even observing at one point, "the sun returns from the east after having gone down in the west."  He is so prone to excessive detail that he mentions nocturnal visits to the loo.

I don't regret in the least though discovering this book.  If nothing else, it informed me of a plaque in Lyons marking the conclusion of the first stage of the 1903 Race that I will have to search out.  He also mentioned a bike shop in Fourchambault owned by a former Tour rider, though he didn't mention who, that I will add to my list of places to visit next year.

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