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."

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