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 --