Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Book Celebrating Amsterdam as a "City of Bikes"

When I discovered the recently published "In the City of Bikes, The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist," by Pete Jordan, I was certain I had gotten my hands on a book that I wouldn't want to put down. And my certainty was absolutely correct.  Anyone who likes reading books about cycling will be delighted by this book, part memoir and part history.

The author is an American who moved to Amsterdam in 2002 when he was thirty-five after spending the better part of his working life traveling all over the U.S. washing dishes.  He had a goal of practicing his trade in all fifty states, recounted in his book "Dishwasher."  Part of his pursuit was to find an agreeable place to live.  When he couldn't find one, he decided to give Amsterdam a try, drawn by its bike culture. He managed to keep his great love for the bicycle a secret in his dishwasher book, other than mentioning he never wanted a job that was beyond an easy walk or bike ride. He gives one hint that he was a "bike nut," as he calls himself in his Amsterdam book.  After he quit one of his jobs, as he chronically did, he wrote, "I rode my bike aimlessly through the night, still unsure of where to go or what to do, but with a smile on my face."

Jordan likes to count things.  One year in nineteen states he found 1,362 coins and eight bills--1,089 pennies, 79 nickels, 151 dimes, 43 quarters, six ones and two fives.   He once found change 47 days straight.  He thought Portland was an impressive bike town when he counted nineteen cyclists go by one point in thirty minutes.  He is staggered in Amsterdam when he counts that many in thirty seconds and then even more so when he counts 927 in twenty minutes. I count bike mentions in books. I was somewhat disappointed when I read "Dishwasher" after "In the City of Bikes" and had to read 125 pages before his first mention of the bicycle and then only came upon fourteen more. But he more than makes up for that in the Amsterdam book.

He is immediately enraptured by Amsterdam and its hoards of bicyclists.  It is as he dreamed it would be.  His wife joins him and he arranges permanent residency by gaining Irish citizenship, thanks to his heritage.  He gets janitorial work after no one will hire him as a dishwasher because the minimum wage for someone his age would be double that of someone under twenty-three, who could easily handle dishwashing chores.  He is a compulsive researcher and starts reading about the history of bicycling in Amsterdam.  Soon they have a son, who he takes on bicycle expeditions all over the city.  Introducing him to the crane that fishes bikes out of the canals was akin to American fathers taking their sons to their first baseball game.

A greater portion of the book is historical narrative rather than personal reminiscences, but it is all most fascinating.  He quotes visitors to the city from the 1920s on who were as overwhelmed as he was by all the bicycles.  An Italian observed that bicycles were as numerous as frogs in the canals.  A Czech compared the droves of cyclists to teeming bacteria and dancing gnats.  A Chicagoan was so overwhelmed by the quantity of bicycles that he suspected all the bicycles in the world must have just converged on Amsterdam.

Several chapters are devoted to the Nazi occupation of the city.  They offended the Dutch by making it illegal for Dutch cyclists to hold hands as they cycled and then positively infuriated them when they began to randomly confiscate bikes for their own use.  It so enraged the Dutch that for decades afterwards when Germans came to Amsterdam they would demand, "Give me back my bike."  When Holland played Germany in the championship game of the World Cup in 1974 in Munich, Dutch fans gathered in the city center and sang the same slogan and brandished such banners during the game.  It didn't prevent the Germans from winning though.

Bike theft has always been endemic to Amsterdam. Police early on blamed people for not locking their bikes.  A law was passed in 1928 making it illegal not to lock one's bike.   When Jordan arrived, there was a bridge known as the place where bike thieves went to sell bikes. Tour boats on the canals actually pointed it out. Soon after he arrived Jordan had a bike stolen that he left unlocked while eating at a cafe.  He went to the bridge to try to recover it.  He was offered several others but not his.  It never showed up on any of his visits, nor did he ever spot it as he scanned bikes for years afterwards looking for the initials he had carved into its rear fender.

In the late 1990s it was estimated that there were 180,000 bikes stolen a year in Amsterdam, twenty an hour, many by drug addicts.  The price of a stolen bike was so cheap, it was less expensive for one to buy a bike at the bridge then take a taxi.  Ann Frank mentions in her diary that her bike was stolen from out front of her apartment in 1942 before she went into hiding.

Jordan's remarkably well-searched book abounds with such tidbits.  One of the heroes of the book is Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned from 1890 to 1948.  She would anonymously ride her bicycle among her subjects.  When one of her heirs married a woman from Argentina, everyone in the country wanted to know if she rode a bicycle.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a 14-year old took a bike tour through Holland and Germany in 1896 with his tutor.  They fit right in as they toured in Holland, but bike touring was so rare in Germany, they were questioned several times by the police.

Jordan has a keen eye for small, telling details.  Nothing seemed to impress him more about how widespread and deeply ingrained cycling was among the Dutch than all the pregnant women he saw cycling.  When he conducts cycling tours for people new to the city, he promises them that they will see at least three pregnant women on bikes per hour.

During the '70s there was a threat that automobiles would take over the city as they had just about everywhere else.  Activists stemmed the tide, to the present relief of most Amsterdamers.  Some of this history is discussed in a very worthwhile ten-minute video on Amsterdam as a City of Bikes.  Jordan is one of five experts who provide commentary.

Jordan got his start as a writer publishing a dishwasher zine in the '90s.  It was popular enough that he was invited to appear on the David Letterman show.  He didn't care for attention, so let a friend of his appear in his stead while he sat back stage in the Green Room. Letterman later invited him back as himself when he was promoting "Dishwasher," which he didn't write until he moved to Amsterdam.  Several publishers, impressed by his zine, tried to get him to write a book much earlier, but they couldn't convince him to make the effort.  He also declined the solicitations of filmmakers who wanted to make a documentary of his life.  It was only when he began telling people in Amsterdam about his dishwashing  exploits that he was inspired to write the book.  It too is a fine read, even though he didn't fulfill his goal of dishwashing in all fifty states.  He did get to Alaska three times.  He also dished on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and had a one-day stint on a train.

He seems fully entrenched now in Amsterdam.  He did make a trip to Copenhagen, another City of Bikes, to see if it might be more agreeable.  He liked it a lot, but not more than Amsterdam.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Wheelmen" and "The Armstrong Lie"

It was several months after his Oprah confession that Lance Armstrong finally agreed to meet with Travis Tygart, the man who brought about his downfall with his report on his doping.  Armstrong no longer flew around in a private jet, having sold his after losing $75 million in endorsements, and knowing he would be losing millions more of his fortune in law suits.  But he still had money enough to charter a jet for the flight to the meeting in Denver, bringing along his girl friend and their two young children.

Tygart was concerned that Armstrong might be suicidal, as his findings in another case had caused a star athlete to take his life.  Armstrong's lawyers assured Tygart that Armstrong was doing okay, but that he would be much better if Tygart would reduce his life-time ban from competition.  Armstrong sat outside the meeting until certain arrangements had been made.  When he joined the proceedings,  he was wearing a baseball hat and was looking haggard.  Armstrong was willing to cooperate with Tygart if he would reduce his punishment to a one-year ban.  Tygart wouldn't go further than eight years.  That was totally unacceptable to Armstrong, as he had his eyes set on winning the Triathlon World Championship, and that wouldn't be possible as a 49-year old.  So nothing was accomplished at the meeting.

Such is the intimate detail that "Wall Street Journal" reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell offer in their remarkably well-researched "Wheelmen." The book traces Lance's entire career and American cycling since the 1984 Olympics where blood-doping helped American cyclists won nine medals, their most ever.  Their research included spending two weeks with Floyd Landis in a remote Southern California town where he was living in a cabin, taking days to persuade him to talk.

Landis makes some startling accusations, not all of which they can corroborate, but they are too juicy not to publish, as they betray not only his mindset, but the climate of the sport during its recent era of rampant, high-tech doping. Landis claimed that when he switched from Armstrong's team to Phonak, he asked the team owner Andy Rihs to provide help with his doping, as he'd recently had a bad reaction to a blood transfusion that he had attempted on his own.  Rihs denied to the authors through a spokesman of any knowledge of doping on his team.  Landis also claims that during the 2006 Tour de France, when he was in the lead, that Armstrong offered any rider $20,000 to prevent him from winning The Race.  The authors asked around, but they couldn't get anyone to acknowledge this.

The authors spice their book with other gossipy items. They report that Armstrong had a high sex drive and "like many of his ilk, slept with other women often."  He dated Tyler Hamilton's ex-wive Haven after he and Hamilton had become arch enemies.  Armstrong would invite strippers to his agent's office to party.  Oakley rep Stephanie McIlvain was known to give him blow-jobs.

If anyone should be on a suicide-watch it is McIlvain.  She is also trashed in the just-released documentary "The Armstrong Lie."  She was among those in Lance's hospital room in 1996 when he told doctors he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.  When forced to verify this under oath, she denied Lance said any such thing, contradicting Betsy and Frank Andreu.  After her testimony she left a phone message with Betsy that someone ought to break a baseball bat over her head.  The documentary replays that phone message, including subtitles to insure that it is fully understood.

Unlike the authors of "Wheelmen," who had a less than amiable relationship with Armstrong, even mentioning that Armstrong made insulting remarks about the appearance of one of them, the director of the documentary, Alex Gibney, liked and got along with Armstrong.  He spent a considerable amount of time filming Armstrong in 2009, the year of his Comeback, following The Tour that year.  He was set to release the film in 2010 until Landis made his sweeping confession during the Tour of California about all his doping with Armstrong.  Gibney couldn't release a film that glorified Armstrong under such circumstances despite all his outstanding racing footage and behind-the-scenes interviews.

Over three years later now he has been able to salvage his film by recutting it and adding two additional interviews with Armstrong after his Oprah confession and lots of other interviews.  He got  the Andreus and Jonathan Vaughters to talk after refusing to be part of the original movie, perceiving it as a puff piece on Armstrong.  He also added lengthy interviews with George Hincapie and journalists who wrote books about him--Bill Strictland, Daniel Coyle, Reed Albergotti and David Walsh.  Gibney accompanied Armstrong to the Oprah interview. He filmed him on the set greeting Oprah and then interviewed him, looking a little battered, immediately afterwards.  He conducts a more thorough and reflective interview with him later. 

His tight camera shots catch Armstrong's every inflection and smirk, giving glimmers of his cold-hearted cockiness, such as when he tells how the team dreamed up a story of using a cortisone cream to explain his positive test during the 1999 Tour.  He confesses to some of his drug-taking, but not all.  He reveals that his doping guru Michele Ferrari, the best in the business, wouldn't let him take EPO during the 2000 Tour, as he was concerned a test to detect it was imminent.  That made Armstrong nervous, as he feared he couldn't win without it.  He admits he was always on his heels after 1999 denying his doping.  

His doping, or at least the more serious doping, didn't begin until after the 1994 season that he spent wearing the World Champion jersey.  He was getting annihilated and knew he had to resort to EPO to keep up.  Hincapie explained, "We weren't trying to beat the system, just be in the system."  It is a tough, grueling sport.  Hincapie couldn't understand why Lance wanted to return after three years of retirement.  "This sport is not glamorous.  You just suffer all the time," he says.

A teen-aged Armstrong earlier in the film explains what motivates him--"I like competing with the best.  I like beating people."  The two-hour film includes considerable racing footage from his entire career with a heavy emphasis on the 2009 Tour.  There are many interviews in his hotel room after a stage.  Gibney catches him quite crestfallen sitting on his bed watching his time being beat in the Prologue.  He is quite giddy after he outsmarts his teammate Alberto Contador on a later stage and gains a few seconds on him.  He is thinking Yellow Jersey.  But then he has to acknowledge that Contador is the better rider after he convincingly beats him on the first mountain stage.

Gibney is also allowed to film Armstrong with his agent Bill Stapleton and director Johan Bruyneel sitting around like corporate sharks expressing frustration that The Tour may not let him ride in the 2009 Race because of drug insinuations.  They'll strong arm their way in if need be.

"Wheelmen" too gives plenty of examples of the bullying nature of Armstrong and his accomplices.  One of his early and chief supporters was Thom Weisel, a big-time investor who poured millions of dollars into the sport and was used to having his way in all things. When The Tour de France doesn't fully cooperate with their wishes, he considers buying the organization that runs The Tour for one-and-a-half billion dollars. He is portrayed as a virtual thug, someone who would often yell at his wife and bragged about his art collection.  Greg LeMond was so repulsed by him, he would no longer invest with him despite the great return of his investments.

The authors of "Wheelmen" have no difficulty getting LeMond to criticize Armstrong.  He tells them that Armstrong's mother flew up to Minneapolis early in his career to ask for advice on how to handle her son.  He had no advice, as he could be a jerk himself.  Before Armstrong won his first Tour he told LeMond at a dinner at LeMond's house that he intended to win The Tour four times, one more than LeMond.  Everyone at the table was totally baffled, as Armstrong had shown no evidence at that point that he could accomplish such a thing.

"Wheelmen" abounds with nitty-gritty insight into the Lance reign.  Albergotti isn't merely a journalist who was assigned to the cycling beat. He grew up with the sport and races as a Category Two.  His father was an avid amateur racer and served as a director of cycling competition at the 1984 Olympics.  The book though does make some less than fully-informed observations.  It states that Lance finished second in the 1996 Paris-Nice, "so he knew the course."  Like The Tour de France, Paris-Nice changes its course every year.  Early on the book states that Hamiiton was suspended for EPO, but twice later gets it right, stating it was for being found with someone else's blood in him.  It also makes a faulty assumption stating that it was clear to everyone that Armstrong slowed down and let Pantani win on Mont Ventoux during the 2000 Tour.  Lance didn't slow, he just didn't challenge Pantani at the line.

The book is incorrect when it states that during Armstrong's sixth Tour win he was dominant in every aspect of the race--"the sprints, the climbs, the race against the clock."  He did win five stages, but none of the sprint stages.  It mistakenly refers to Santiago Botero as a Spaniard.  He's from Colombia.  It states that Coyle wrote an article on Landis' pending hip surgery for the "New York Times" Sunday magazine in June before the 2006 Tour.  It actually appeared on the first rest day of the 2006 Tour and was startling news.  I thought it confused Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie when it called Vande Velde "goofy" and Zabriskie "shy," but Christian told me he was "a bit goofier than the other guys" early in his career.

The book is also not precisely correct on a number of other points.  It states the US was so successful at the 1984 Olympics  because of the Russian boycott.  Even more significant for the cyclists was the boycott of the East Germans.  It claims that team coach Eddie Borysewicz was only peripherally involved in the blood doping.  That is highly unlikely.  It exaggerates when it states that the apartment of the Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was discovered to contain blood plasma from half the professional peloton.  There was a lot, but no where near half.  There is also an occasional slip of not capitalizing the "T" when referring to the "Tour."

The book validates itself though with its multiple mentions of tears--Armstrong in a BMX race as a kid when he wipes out, crying with his mother after winning the World Championship, his wife crying over an email from Betsy Andreu, his agent and his wife crying when Lance put on the Yellow Jersey for the first time in 1999 after his Prologue win, Livestrong staff members when Armstrong stops by to apologize on his way to the Oprah interview.  

There are two instances of Zabriskie crying--on the phone with his mother after Bruyneel orders him to start taking EPO and then as he gives his deposition.  Hincapie is said to be near tears after winning a mountain stage in the 2005 Tour.  The lack of tears is given a mention too.  It says none were shed by anyone on the Postal Service team when Landis broke his hip in a training accident months before The Tour, despite being on the Postal Service team, reflecting what a business it is.

"Wheelmen" should also be commended for appropriately placing the writing of long-time "New York Times" reporter Samuel Abt in perspective, saying he "built a career as Armstrong's unofficial post-cancer propagandist."  That is a bold and brave statement, as the retired Abt is generally respected for his thirty-one years of covering The Tour, many of those as the lone American, even earning a medal from the French.  Besides his fawning over LeMond and Armstrong, his coverage was extremely superficial and non-controversial.  Despite his years of covering the sport, his knowledge of it didn't compare to his European counterparts.  He avoided negativity as much as possible.  He did not pursue the stories that a true journalist would have.  That had to be galling to the authors of "Wheelmen," who have made a career of getting to the bottom of whatever they were covering.  They certainly weren't concerned about hurting the feelings of many of those they profile in their book.  Theirs is not the final word on Armstrong, but it is a worthy contribution to reaching it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Scholarly Study of the Bicycle in France

The biggest challenge for an academic writing a book on the influence of cycling upon French culture is deciding how much weight to accord The Tour de France.  Hugh Dauncey in his "French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History" does not shy away from giving it the utmost of importance, acknowledging that it could be the very key to understanding the French.

A good portion of this most readable book dwells upon The Race and how as a shared experience it reflects French culture.  He profiles many of its key figures, mostly prominent French racers from different eras who captured the public imagination and provided metaphors for the consciousness of the time.  The duels between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor galvanized the country for years and were a reflection on the country's modernization.   

But when it comes to individuals in cycling who had the greatest effect molding French culture, towering above all else is Tour founder Henri Desgrange, a man with the same initials as Dauncey's.  So prominent was Desgrange his initials, HD, graced the Yellow Jersey for years.  Dauncey justifiably anoints Desgrange as the most significant figure in the history of French cycling.  No one else contributed more to making cycling an intrinsic thread in the fabric of French society.  He cites two others, both prominent in the early 1900s as well when The Tour was launched, as seminal figures in popularizing and promoting the bicycle.  One was  Pierre Giffard, a rival newspaper man and bicycle race promoter, who early on recognized that cycling was as much a social benefit as it was a sport.

No one emphasized that concept more than Paul de Vivie, also known as Velocio, a tireless advocate of cycling as a social and moral force that could contribute to the betterment of society.  He is known as the father of cycle touring.  He invented the derailleur and published a magazine.  

The much-beloved novelist and sports writer Antoine Blondin is another key figure he credits for giving The Tour a cultural legitimization and instilling a bicycling consciousness in the French.  He was a life-long passionate follower of The Tour covering it for "L'Equipe" from 1954 to 1982 with a florid literary style mythologizing the feats of the racers and the mountains.  He was only slightly exaggerating when he wrote that DeGaulle  was president of France for eleven months of the year, but come July that title applied to Jacques Goddet, Desgrange's successor as director of The Tour in 1936.  Another writer, Serge Laget, termed The Tour "Christmas in July."

Dauncey is more an authority on France, as a senior lecturer in French at Newcastle University in the UK and a PhD on the French space program, than on cycling, but this isn't his first book on the subject.  He previously edited "The Tour de France 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings and Values," a collection of essays by twelve scholars from France, Great Britain and the United States.  This book is part of a series on contemporary French and Francophone  cultures meant for academics, as indicated by its price--$99.95, a quite hefty price for a 250-page book without photos. I was able to acquire a copy from the Michigan State University Library on interlibrary loan.

One doesn't need an advanced degree, though, to plow through it.  It is most breezily written and could be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in matters pertaining to the bike.  It would help though if one could read French, as only rarely does he offer a translation of the book's many French quotes.  Even Velocio's Seven Commandments are in their original French without translation.  It is impressively well-researched with a fourteen-page bibliography.  It is curiously, though, footnote-free. 

He also draws upon cinema to reflect upon the significance of the bicycle to the French.  He devotes several pages to Jacques Tati's 1947 "Jour de FĂȘte" about a small-town bicycling postman as a commentary on the "Americanization" of France as it seeks to modernize.  He also mentions Tati's "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" as another example of this, even though he got the title of the movie wrong, neglecting to include "Holiday."  This wasn't his only cinema faux pas.  He makes a positively egregious mistake when he cites Renoir as the director of "Le Jour se leve" from 1939 when it was Marcel Carne.  He invokes this movie as the proletarian hero of the film is inseparable from his racing bike, the symbol of his freedom, and in the movie's climax, a crowd of his workmates all clutch their bikes as they plead with him to surrender to the police.

Dauncey makes a few such blunders too when it comes to racing, betraying a less than full understanding and knowledge of the sport.  As Christopher Thompson, author of "The Tour de France: A Cultural History,"  pointed out in his thorough and positive review, his assertion that the 1984 Tour was effected by EPO, was way off base, as it didn't make its appearance in the sport until the early '90s after the Greg LeMond era.  There were a handful of lesser errors that only a close follower of the sport would catch.  He wrote that Jacques Anquetil was the first to complete the double of the Dauphine-Libere and Bordeaux-Paris.  That is true, but it would be more accurate to say he was the only one to accomplish this monumental feat.  It was so amazing that "L'Equipe" called it the greatest sporting accomplishment of the 20th century.  He's also  a bit off when he writes of the influx of riders from outside Europe into The Tour mentioning Paraguay, Colombia (misspelling it Columbia) and "even Australia."  There was most certainly a sudden surge of Colombians, one year with even two teams from the country, but Paraguay is far-fetched and Australians had been competing in The Tour for years, though their numbers did increase, as did those from America.  There were actually more Colombians in The Race for a number of years than either of those nationalities.

He gives a list at one point of various first events over the years at The Tour, such as the first time it started outside of France and the first time Mont Ventoux was included and also the first time there was a finish at altitude, but he does not mention the first time L'Alpe d'Huez was included, which was the year of the first finish at altitude in 1952 when there were three such stages.  He is wrong when he writes that during the 1904 Tour there was just one day of rest between each of the stages after the six days of rest between stage one and two. There were three days between stages two and three and three and four and then two days between stages four and five and five and six in this early six-stage editor of The Race. The Brits might dispute him when he writes that the UK has never had a national Tour. Some would say that the Milk Race was.

These don't detract much though from the overall comprehensive sweep of his book. He traces the rise of the Decathlon sporting goods chain from its birth in Lille in 1976 to its present day breadth of over 300 outlets in France and more than 100 more world wide.  When Peugeot stopped manufacturing bikes in 1986, Decathlon began producing its own line of bikes in 1996.  He also documents the take over of Paris in 2007 by thousands of rental bikes and writes of an early rental system in La Rochelle in the '70s.

He does acknowledge that France lags behind other European countries in bicycle usage, invoking the cycling term "lanterne rouge" for bringing up the rear to describe France.  Only three per cent of trips in France are made by bike, compared to ten per cent in Belgium and Germany and twenty-seven per cent in Holland.  France is near the forefront with 5.7 bikes per one hundred inhabitants, but near the bottom with those bikes only being ridden fifty miles a year and only ten to fifteen per cent of the population cycling on a weekly basis.  In Holland and Denmark fifty per cent of their populations bicycle weekly and their yearly total is 600 miles.

But he sees signs of improvement and that the bicycle can reclaim its status as a "revolutionary" pursuit.  Rather than being a symbol for backwardness, as implied by "Jour de FĂȘte," it can represent progress as the enlightened give up or reduce their auto usage in favor of this noblest of vehicles.