Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eddie B. and a Pretender

There has been a steady trickle of racing how-to-books over the years, but none compare to Eddie Borysewicz's classic "Bicycle Road Racing" published in 1985, a year after he coached the American cycling team to nine medals at the Los Angeles Olympics, the most American cyclists have ever won. Some of its material is dated, such as recommending horse meat and vitamin B-12 injections, but no other book is as thorough or informative or provides such a solid program for becoming a successful racer or is peppered with such colorful assertions ("Each morning say hello to the bike.").

Borysewicz was a prominent racer and coach in Poland during the '60s and '70s before immigrating to the United States in 1976 at the age of 37.  A year later he was appointed the first coach of the US Cycling Federation and became known as Eddie B.  In short order American junior riders began winning international competitions. Suddenly American riders had to be taken seriously.

"Wheelman," the recent book on the downfall of Lance Armstrong, acknowledges the significance of Eddie B., devoting several pages to him.  And the latest how-to-book, "Reading the Race," by race announcer Jamie Smith, mentions him a couple of times as well.  Smith's book is another in a long line of pale imitations of Eddie B's tome, barely scratching the surface of what it takes to succeed as a racer. It gives the advice of bunny-hopping over obstacles but doesn't bother to explain how to do it, as Eddie B. does.  As with his first book, the somewhat clever and witty "The Misunderstood World of the Bike Racer," Smith seems more inclined to levity than going much beyond the obvious that anyone who has raced a couple of times has picked up.  It may be a pleasant book to read, but don't expect to learn much if you know anything.

There is no better example of the contrast in tone and approach of Smith's and Borysewicz's books than their mentions of all the bones in the human body.  Smith references them with a light-hearted swipe, writing, "Most of us have to return to the real world on Monday morning with all 206 bones in tact," while Eddie B. authenticates his credentials commenting that he had to learn the name for every one of those bones in Latin and Polish while earning a master's degree in physical education.  Someone who has studied physiology to that extent is someone to listen to.

American racers are divided into categories from five for novices to one, just below the Pro Elite riders who are the best in the world.  If race training books were similarly rated, Eddie B's would be there at the top, while Smith's would be closer to the beginner category.  That is not to say it is without merit. It is a worthwhile introductory manual that goes down easy, but it is just another of many.

I can't say I've read them all.  It has been a long time since I have raced and I have no need of more than an intermittent dose of racing technique and strategy.  I still give such books a glance when they turn up, hoping to gain some additional insight into the sport or to pick up some conditioning tips that might help me in my long-distance touring.  I was enticed to give Smith's book a full read not only for these reasons, but also because the book's cover implied that it had been co-authored by Chris Horner, a master tactician.  I knew he would have interesting insights to offer.

Unfortunately, Horner's contributions don't amount to anything more than twenty-five anecdotal asides of a few paragraphs each interspersed amongst Smith's text.  At times readers have to wait twenty pages or more for a dollop of Horner on subjects such as "how tactics have changed" or "echelons" or "riding in the rain" or "bridging the gap" or "deals made with rivals."

Some of his tips are only applicable to those riding in the pro peloton, though they at least give a glimpse into what its like to ride with the big boys.  In his capsule "Tour de France Survival" he writes of struggling on a stage in the 2006 Tour.  He feigns an injury just before a climb so he can latch on to the medic's car and get a free ride while the doctor tends to him. He manages to prolong the session long enough to get towed almost to the top.  That's considered craftiness, not cheating.  If he'd held on to his team car, as riders sometimes try to get away with, he would have been kicked out of the race.

Eddie B. would have needed a baseball consultant to decode portions of Smith's book, as it is liberally sprinkled with baseball metaphors.  Eddie B.'s unsurprisingly has not a one. Smith compares being in a paceline to playing center field and being in a breakaway to being on second base, in scoring position. He also makes mentions of choking up on the bat, third base coaches waving runners home and Fenway Park.  Eddie B. delivers his message straight, not even resorting to chess metaphors, unlike Smith, who claims racing is a rolling chess game.  When Eddie B. mentions someone waving his arm, it is a racer signaling his team car that he has a flat tire--left hand up means a front wheel, right hand means rear.

Eddie B. is too "crazy for cycling," one of his favorite terms, to allow time for anything else.  It is one of the three essential qualities one must have to succeed in racing.  The others are a "very fast recovery" and "a desire to work extremely hard."  Note the words "very" and "extremely."   Eddie B. says it is not possible to be too "crazy for cycling. " A rider will only reach his potential when he is "crazy for cycling" one hundred per cent of the time.

One area that present training methods have diverged in the nearly thirty years since Eddie B.'s book is on the subject of eating.  Eddie B. preached that one must eat heartily, "like a farmer."  Another time he says one must eat like four regular people.  Present-day riders starve themselves to get as thin as possible to increase their power to weight ratio.  Both generations would agree though on the quality of food one ingests.  Eddie B. warned that racers can't skimp on their food budget, that they must eat better meat than hamburger. He was of the thought that meat was best eaten raw, though he acknowledged that might be difficult and that he wouldn't fault anyone for cooking their meat, just as long as they didn't cook it too much.

Eddie crams in so much advice on so many subjects that other books don't touch, it seems that his book must be ten times as thick as any other book.  Its not, he just doesn't waste words on trivialities.  He advises that one must see a dentist twice a year.  "Must" is italicized.  He also thinks it essential that serious racers join a health club for training that one can't do on a bike.  Other essentials are taking one's pulse when one awakes and no car rides around town.  All local transportation must be by bike.  He demands, "You live with the bike, you are married to the bike. I'm sorry for you if you don't think this is necessary.  Believe me, it is what it takes to be a top rider."

On and on it goes.  It may be the ultimate cycling textbook, but it doesn't read like a textbook.  One can clearly detect his strong Polish accent, such as when he expresses his love for America and  freedom, though he thinks too much freedom can be a bad thing.  He's certainly not adverse to limiting the freedom of his riders.  He makes demands on them even during their off-season.  He says its okay to "enjoy some parties, but stay away from beer, wine and other alcohol."

Eddie B. would not approve of the coffee addiction of many of today's riders.  Caffeine should be saved for crucial moments in a race.  He recommends a shot of espresso.  "It will open your eyes," he writes, "and give you a good heart reaction, especially if you follow a good athlete's diet and do not have coffee regularly."  For those who don't have a taste for coffee, a Coke will do, even though it doesn't have as much caffeine.  But he advises shaking the Coke before putting it in a water bottle to rid it of its bubbles so one can avoid burping.

He is matter-of-fact about injecting vitamins during stage races, as shots can be absorbed much faster than pills.  But he knows injections can be dangerous and advises against doing it one's self. He says nothing though about blood-doping, which he oversaw at the 1984 Olympics, earning him a suspension.  He was among the first to introduce it to cycling.  He was also on the cutting edge of radio transmissions during races.  He was the first to do it at the 1983 Junior World Championships.   The powers that be have been trying to ban the practice, as they have recently accomplished with needles.

He has specific advice for coaches as well.  One no-no is discussing the day's race and criticizing one's riders at dinner, as it will upset their digestion.  Coaches should check on their riders in their rooms before they go to sleep to make sure they've had their massage and vitamin injection.  And a coach must have good judgement to divide prizes fairly among the riders.  He also says at times one must make illegal feeds during races.  Its a good risk, as he's gotten away with it ninety per cent of the time.  Even if caught, the penalty is a small price to pay for the well-being of one's rider.

One might think that Eddie B.'s book would be a hard-to-find relic with only a few still around, opening up a market for all these other books, but that's not the case at all.  In 2005 Velo Press republished the book twenty years after it came out.  It is readily available at Amazon.  Read it and enjoy.  It is loaded with photos with hardly a helmet to be seen.  Eddie B. was old school when it came to them as well.  He didn't think they were necessary if one knew how to fall correctly.  He acknowledged that helmets could give some riders a little extra confidence and then added, "perhaps some day they will wear shoulder pads too."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cavendish Autobiography Number Two

When Mark Cavendish wrote his first autobiography, "Boy Racer," four years ago at the age of twenty-five, it was not premature at all.  He'd been cycling's dominant sprinter for two years, winning four and six stages in the past two Tours de France. His ten stage wins were the most ever by an English rider. Not only did his future promise many more wins, but also more books.

Since then he's won fifteen more stages of The Tour, moving up to third on the all-time list, behind only Eddie Merckx and Bernard Hinault.  He's also won the World Championship and become a father and had quite a few more of his trademark crying fits, providing him with more than enough material for a second installment of his life story, "At Speed, My Life in the Fast Lane."

He's always been one of the most colorful personalities in the sport, and his personality shines brightly in his writing. Both his books are laden with profanity and punctuated by bursts of tears.  He is so prone to tears, a friend points out to him that at some point he has cried in every Tour de France he has ridden. The 2010 Tour was the first of four this book covers.  Cavendish got off to a slow start.  His first win didn't come until the fifth stage.  When he narrowly lost the fourth stage to Alessandro Petacchi, he buried his head under a towel and wept. He "blubbers" to a team press officer, "What's fucking happened."

A day later he shed tears of joy, when he finally wins the first of the five stages he would win that year.  He cried at the finish line and then on the podium the tears came in an "uncontrollable flood"  when The Tour Anthem is struck up.  The book includes a photo of those tears with a caption of "Blood, sweat and tears," and "undoubtedly one of my most emotional victories."

He is so cognizant of crying, that he surprises himself when he doesn't cry on the podium after winning the World Championship Road Race in 2011 in Copenhagen as the English national anthem is played. On another occasion he imagines tears when none are there, thinking he sees tears welling in Lance Armstrong's eyes during his Oprah confession, as he watched from a hotel room in Argentina where he was racing. He may have been blinded by tears of his own.  Lance had been a friend and someone he greatly admired.  He doesn't condemn Armstrong.  He's no harsher than saying he takes "a dim view of at least some of what he was alleged to have done."  But at the time he wrote his book, he hadn't spoken to him in a year.

Tears figure so prominently in his psyche that he wrote he wanted to cry after a fan threw urine on him during the first time trial in the 2013 Tour, a day after he was involved in a crash that some blamed him for, knocking down one of Krippel's teammates in the sprint that resulted in another Krippel win.  The Sky team psychiatrist, who Cavendish didn't particularly care for, nearly reduced him to tears when he gave him an unwelcome diagnosis.  And as if tears don't get mentioned often enough, twice he refers to wounds and cuts as "weeping."  

This book is no less frank and provocative than his first.  He criticizes teammates and opponents and his manager and a team doctor and his factotum.  And he doesn't spare himself.  He was less than considerate to his super-model wife during her pregnancy.  He admits that ex-teammate and arch rival Andre Griepel is "basically a nice bloke" and that he isn't.  The book isn't quite as heavy with Englishisms as was the first, but he is clearly writing for his home audience using such metaphors as "like Lionel Messi on a dribble."  But the home-grown expressions (prat, scalawag, wonky, punter, piss-take, knackered...) only add to the book's charm and are mostly self-explanatory.

For those who might think his five-year reign as King of the Sprinters came to an end at this year's Tour,  he offers an explanation for his sub-par performance, only winning two stages and losing on the Champs Élysées for the first time in five years.  He said he arrived at The Tour with an infection and was weakened by a dose of antibiotics.  On the second stage in Corsica he could barely generate 300 watts of power, something he could ordinarily do without breaking a sweat.  And then late in The Tour he discovered he had been riding with mismatched crank arms,  one a 172 and the other a 172.5.  His first book, too, mentions a mechanical mishap with someone putting a wrong wheel on his bike for one stage, though it didn't prevent him from winning that stage.

He says his year on the English Sky team wasn't much fun, even though it included being part of the team that helped Bradley Wiggins become the first English rider to win The Tour de France.  He wasn't happy at all about the minimal support given him during The Race, enabling him to win only three stages, when he had been accustomed to winning five, and not allowing him to contend for the Green Jersey.  Team director Sean Yates so upset him after a crash on an early stage in that 2012 Tour, not letting him draft the team car, or sending back a teammate to help him regain the peloton, or even giving him a push, he didn't speak to him again.  He called him, "Cold, uninspiring and miserly in praise."  It was then he knew he'd leave Sky.

The book also covers his final season with the HTC-Columbia team before he moved to Sky and his friction with team owner Bob Stapleton.  He is unmincing in his lack of respect for him.

Weight is an occasional issue.  A nutritionist was sent to live and cook with him before the 2012 Olympics to get him to optimum weight.  He usually ends The Tour de France at his lightest, 152 pounds, but can balloon up to 167 pounds during the off-season.  If he has the motivation of early-season racing in January, it helps him keep his weight down during the holidays.

The only supplements he admits to taking are multivitamin and beta-alanine tablets.  The recently mandated no-needle policy has made recovery more difficult.  Intravenous drips during three-week tours made a noticeable difference.  He doesn't comment on the drug-testing other than to mention that it took him over an hour to provide the requisite 90 milliliters of urine after his third-place finish on the Champs Élysées this year.  He gave an initial 75 milliliters, but that wasn't enough.

Along with only winning two stages at this year's Tour, his fewest since his first in 2007 when he won none, the price of the book may be a further indication that he has peaked out.  "Boy Racer" was priced at $21.95.  "At Speed" has a price of $18.95 on its jacket.  In all likelihood there will be at least one more installment in his series of autobiographies.  Wouldn't it be nice if the same could be said for Armstrong, who also released two autobiographies in the midst of his career.  His first fully honest book could be the highest selling cycling book ever.

One last thing that both Cavendish books share: misinformation about the Tourmalet.  Book number one stated it was the first climb in the Pyrenees ever climbed by The Tour in 1910.  It was in fact the third, preceded by the Peyresourde and the Aspin.  Book number two states it was on the Tourmalet in that 1910 Tour that Octavio Lapize called The Tour organizers "assassins" for sending them over these mountains.  It was actually on the Aubisque, the final of the day's four climbs. Maybe his next book can get something wrong about Eugene Christophe breaking his fork on the Tourmalet in the 1913 Tour as so many books do.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"A Tour of the Heart"

I have been anticipating the publication of a "A Tour of the Heart," a travel/memoir about bicycling in France, for years, as its author Maribeth Clemente is one of my many Telluride friends.  I've known for some time that she was working on a book about a pair of biking sojourns in France in 2000 and 2001 with her boyfriend in between her other writing and working as a ski instructor and also hosting a bi-weekly travel show on Telluride's community radio station, which I have been a guest on.  It would be her fourth book about France.  The others had all been buying guides.   

Not only was I looking forward to what she would have to say about bicycling, but also her insights into the French.  She knows their ways well, having resided amongst them for eleven years, some of them married to a Frenchman. I met Maribeth over ten years ago before I began my annual summer tours in France attending the Cannes Film Festival and following The Tour de France.  Her boy friend Pete was the first person I met who had biked up Mont Ventoux during their first trip, immediately winning my respect.

Maribeth wasn't much of a cyclist when she met Pete, who was working in a bike shop in the town in New York where she was living after leaving France. They weren't a perfect match, as he was somewhat of a jock, while she was "often impossibly feminine," but their "visions of the world coincided more often than they collided."

They were enough of a couple to go to France for some bicycling, though not as much as Pete, an occasional amateur racer,  would have liked.  They rent a car and drive around the country for six weeks with a pair of bicycles, stopping here and there for day rides of not much more than twenty-five miles, often accompanied by a local guide that Maribeth arranged with her connections.  Pete becomes increasingly frustrated over how few miles they are biking and the speed at which they are riding.  He calls her "Pokey," a name Maribeth did not care for at all.  When that fails to prod her into riding any faster, he declares the imposition of a ten mile per hour minimum on their speed.  That truly infuriates Maribeth, especially since she thought she had been improving enough to satisfy Pete.  She responds with an emphatic "No way."

Rather than a book about bicycling, it is more a book about bickering.  One reviewer suggested that a better subtitle for the book than "A seductive bicycle tour through France," would have been "Eat, Bicker, and Bike." They argue about everything, even how to do laundry.  Maribeth is reduced to tears over their frequent inability to understand one another.  She becomes so infuriated with Pete she tells him, "You're going to therapy as soon as we return home."   Whether he does, she does not say, but they agree to return the following summer for some more biking.  Pete cancels at the last minute. Maribeth goes on her own and has the time of her life, happy to have "no one there to yell at me to go faster, to change gears, to pedal nice round circles, or to tell me how to wipe my nose."

She intersects with the Tour de France and ends up at the same hotel with the US Postal Service Team one night.  She is thrilled to meet Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, and is disappointed that Pete isn't along to share in the experience.  As proud as she is to be managing on her own, she misses Pete and arranges a flight for him so he can join her for The Tour's arrival in Paris. They still have their moments of friction.  He is upset that she can't adequately translate the post-Tour interviews they are watching on television in their hotel room. Maribeth is relieved he manages to chill before they have another a blow-up.

In all her years living in France she had never seen The Tour, as her sophisticated French husband had no interest in it, thinking it beneath him.  He was from a noble family and considered bicycle racing a sport for the masses.  Tennis was his sport.

But Maribeth is instantly captivated by the electricity and the energy of The Tour.  She becomes an enthusiastic devotee.  After watching the finish on the Champs Elysees with Pete she gushes, "I still can't believe I missed this all the years I lived in France."  Samuel Abt, who covered The Tour for the "New York Times" for over twenty-five years had a similar conversion.  He lived in Paris for six years while working for "The Times" before making the effort to give The Tour a look. He too was immediately won over and expressed great regret that he had neglected it all those years, even once choosing to go mushroom hunting rather than accompanying his girl friend who did go watch it, not realizing the magnitude and power of the event.

Maribeth acknowledges the transformative power of the bicycle.  It gave her a boost of self-esteem.  She no longer felt dependent on her wardrobe to make her feel good about herself.  She  attends a Paris fashion show in less than appropriate attire when her baggage on her flight over is delayed, something she wouldn't have dreamed of doing pre-bicycle.

The bicycle though didn't fully break her from her cocoon of self-concern.  Riding with a group of French cyclists on her first trip with Pete she learns that cemeteries are a good source of water.  But she admits when she is on her own a year later, she wasn't quite thirsty enough to bring herself to partake of water from a cemetery.

Even though this is more a book about male/female relations than bicycling, it does manage to include some racing lore.  She and Pete pass a plaque on the Aubisque in the Pyrenees where 1951 Tour winner Hugo Koblet suffered a legendary fall knocking him out of the1953 Tour, though she gets the year wrong.  She mentions Laurent Jalabert winning the Bastille Day stage when she is there on her second cycling trip during the 2001 Tour, bringing great joy to all of France.  Earlier she gives him the first name of "Alain."  She also mistakenly refers to PMU as France's lottery, when it is in fact a parimutuel horse racing entity that sponsors The Tour's points competition.

But these small foibles, which Maribeth said no one had pointed out to her, are more than compensated by her insight into the French ways, something she is truly an expert on.  She gives advice on how to gain sympathy from the French when you need something from them--don't protest, make them feel sorry for you.  She explains that noon is the sacred hour in France when all civilized folk rush to the table.  Five to seven is considered the most opportune time of day for making love.  She warns not to ask a French woman for a recipe, as they are very possessive of them.  One mystery she can't explain is how French woman remain thin.  She has also not figured out how they manage to make men put down their remotes and pay attention.

Any reader would have grave doubts of Maribeth and Pete enduring each other for long.  It is almost a surprise that they moved out to Telluride together, but few would be surprised that their partnership did not endure.