Friday, October 23, 2015

"Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy" by Tim Moore

Tim Moore regards himself as a travel-writing humorist.  Each of the five blurbs he selected to put on the back cover of his latest book ("Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy") emphasizes how funny it is, one even describing it as "laugh-out-loud."  It is debatable whether his endeavor to cycle the 2,000 miles of that 1914 race on a one-speed bike from that era with wooden rims wearing garb of the time is comical or ridiculous.  What isn't debatable is that it was a struggle, not only for him but for those who accomplished it, as only eight of the eighty-one starters finished the race, the highest attrition rate of any of the trio of three-week Grand Tours held in France, Spain and Italy over the past century.

Reliving this race was a great idea for a book and for an escapade, such as Moore is known for.  He wrote a similar book about The Tour de France, "French Revolutions," in which he rode the route of the 2000 Tour.  He was a novice cyclist at the time who didn't bother to train for the effort to make his struggles all the more emphatic and laughable.  He walked up most of the mountain passes.  The book just marginally captured the flavor of The Race, as he rode the route a month before the racers did without the roads thronged with fans or the towns decorated with bicycles and banners and the newspapers full of articles on every aspect of The Race.   The response of the French public to The Tour is as much a part of The Race as is the route and the racers.  

It was a book for neophytes, not aficionados, and the same can be said of "Gironimo!"  Too bad the other cycle-writing Moore, Richard, who wrote the brilliant "Slaying the Badger," didn't write this book.  Richard has a deep knowledge and love for the sport and would have made this a much more informed commentary on the lore of the sport and its participants.  His several books on cycling are all packed with telling detail that this book lacks.  Tim, the other Moore, did plenty of research, including regular referrals to an Italian book from 1972 about the 1914 Giro, but he is more concerned about mirth and his efforts, than truly penetrating to the essence of the Giro and what the experience was actually like for those who competed in it.  

There is no denying that he has a much deeper understanding and interest in bicycle racing than when he undertook his Tour de France ride.  For one, he knew enough to train for this ride.  It consisted mostly of riding a stationary bike while he watched the broadcast of various races. The commentary from those broadcasts was deeply embedded in his subconscious.  He frequently hears the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen as he rides along, and confesses he doesn't think he could have finished the ride without them.  He is inspired to keep battling a vicious wind as he imagines Sherwen describing his efforts: "Moore's got the race-face on and he's pumping those two big pistons he calls legs." 

He finds encouragement too from the wisdom of Paul de Vive, an early-day French cycling enthusiast who was the first to advocate bicycle touring.  He agrees with de Vive that cycling is "a wonderful tonic," but adds that, "There is no point in denying that sometimes its shit." "The shit" is what he prefers to dwell upon, not only in this book, but in his previous one. 

His research is impeccable enough that I only caught one minor factual error.  He wrote that Eugene Christophe broke his fork in the Pyrenees in 1912.  It was actually 1913.  But he doesn't make the error that many books do of the time penalty he was assessed for accepting the assistance of a young boy to operate a bellows as he repairs it. He plays it safe by writing he was penalized rather than giving the exact amount--ten minutes reduced to three.

Moore spent thirty-two days riding the eight stages of this Giro.  They averaged 250 miles each.  It took him five days to ride the first stage in which 37 of the 81 starters dropped out.  By the end he was determined to ride the final stage in three days.  His pain and suffering is the main thrust of his story.  He walks up many a climb, though not if there are others around.  He's not sure if he wants to give a friendly driver who encouraged him on one steep climb to keep pedaling "a tearful hug" when he meets him at the summit or to "punch his lights out" for prolonging his suffering.  Tears figure in at another summit during a few day stretch when he was joined by a much stronger friend on a contemporary bike.  His friend reaches the summit well before he does.  When Moore joins him, he douses himself with water from a spring, hoping his friend can't distinguish it from his "tears of relief."  When he weeps on another hill he explains that "riding a bike up a big hill makes heroes of us all."

Tears receive a frequent mention, not only his own, but those of others.  The great Italian cyclist, Costante Girardengo, the first to be anointed "campionissimo" ( champion of champions), competed in the race as a 21-year old.  He won the third stage, but was so depleted by the effort that he abandoned the race twenty-two miles into the fifth stage, "sobbing apologies for letting everyone down."  Moore goes back to the first Tour de France in 1903 to add emphasis to what a horrific ordeal bicycle racing can be.  He quotes its winner, Maurice Gann, as lamenting that he "cried all the way from Lyon to Marseille" on its second of six stages.  The winner of the 1914 Giro, Alfonso Calzolari, cries as well, though in a different manner. As an 85-year old recounting the race to the author of the book Moore uses as his chief source, he says that he "cried like a baby" over accusations that he cheated.

Moore chooses to ride a dinosaur of a bike so he can suffer as the racers suffered and refers to the ordeal of the 1914 Giro as a "solar fireball of suffering."  He strains his literary muscles to such an extent when describing his suffering that it must have wearied them to the point of exhaustion bordering on pain and suffering.  He endures "slow-roasted suffering."  His legs were "blasted in shiny pain."  On another occasion they "glowed with pain." He is distracted by "blinding pulses of neat pain."  He seeks "majorly suffering" such as Sean Kelly describes when he comments on races.  This was the first Giro since the inaugural race in 1909, six years after the first Tour de France, to be decided by time rather than points.  Moore calls that "the sour cherry on top of the pain-cake," as a rider couldn't build up a cushion from points and take it easy on a stage.  They had to ride every stage hard.

By stage five he's able to put his mind on "auto-pilot oblivion," enabling him to go "whole hours without asking aloud whose stupid bloody idea this was."  The book is packed with British lingo.  The b-words run rampant--bloody, blokes, bollack, bin, bitters, bodge, buggery, boot, buttocks.  His favorite b-word though is the French bidon for water bottle.  He mounts his handlebars with a pair of vintage metal bidons, and there is a photo to show them.  The book is scattered with photos of the author and his bike and his gear, including a photo of his laundry in a hotel sink.

He makes mention of his Tour de France ride from time to time.  He sees many more "proper road cyclists" in Italy than he did in France, in fact more in one hour on the outskirts of Turin than in his entire circuit of France.  The Italians are also more lively.  Many react with great glee at his ancient bike and his get-up, complete with goggles.  He regularly encounters prostitutes along the road, a subject that didn't come up in his previous book.  Two on a sofa propose a mènage a trois. In Rome "tart belt" a completely naked women beckons him from the shadows.  

He learned from his French ride that a definite article isn't something one wants to see attached to a geographical obstacle, such as Le Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez.  The Italians refer to their most intimidating mountains with similar respect, which he regarded as a warning.  Such observations do show he has a sharp and attentive eye, lending a good amount of merit to this book. My tastes would have been much better served though if Moore had placed more focus on informing than tickling and had concentrated more on racing than masquerading as a racer.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Headwinds Across Illinois

Gusting winds were blowing me all over the road and sometimes off it for 160 miles on my home stretch run across Illinois from the Mississippi River to Chicago.  My water bottles weren't transparent, so I couldn't claim to have white caps in them, as did "Des Moines Register" columnist John Karras, co-founder of RAGBRAI, on one of his rides across Iowa, but I wouldn't have doubted if there were. If someone had stopped to offer me a ride, as happened in Nebraska in much milder conditions, I might have accepted, not only to be spared the danger and the strain of the conditions, but also because I had ridden this highway a couple times before.

A grizzled old-timer in a beat-up pickup truck did stop with an offer--not of a ride but rather of a five dollar bill.  It was a few miles past Mendota at about my halfway point across the state.  "I spent a couple years on the road myself," he said.  "I know what its like out there.  Here take this.  There's a McDonald's a couple miles up the road.  Have yourself a cup of coffee and something to eat. You're lucky to be passing through, as things aren't so good here.  Two of our three factories are closed up.  Lots of people are out of work and a good many of those who aren't have to drive a long ways to their jobs in other towns.  I'm glad to be retired." 

He wasn't the only kindly soul who wasn't particularly well-off who thought I might be a victim of these hard times and short on funds. The day before outside of Davenport I stopped to ask a bedraggled older fellow, who from a distance appeared to be a touring cyclist, for a cycling-friendly bridge over the Mississippi.  The bags adorning his bike were actually filled with aluminum cans and he was stopped along the road gathering more.   He said he lived in a tent in the nearby woods. After he gave me directions to the Centennial Bridge, I asked him if there was a grocery store up ahead.  "Do you need some money?" he asked.  "I could give you some."  

I felt as if I should have been the one doing the offering.  I'd pick up a pair of vise grips a few miles back.  "Could you use this?," I asked.

"That's in pretty good condition," he said.  "How much do you want for it?"

"No, no, take it," I said.  "I was just rescuing it from the road and looking for someone to give it to."  Then I pulled out a couple of bungee cords and offered him those too.  "No thanks," he said. "I find plenty of those myself."  

It was late in the day.  He advised me not to try to bushwhack in downtown Davenport as there were some unsavory characters there.  He is caught by dark on occasion in the city and has to be careful where he sleeps.   "I sleep sitting up so I can make a quick eacape," he said.  "There are punks who like to come along and give you a boot."  

I was sorry I was pressed for time, otherwise I would have asked if I could share his campsite in the woods. I knew he could keep me up late with his tales.  Though he might not have been monetarily rich, I could tell he'd led a life rich in experience.  He had not an iota of resentment or despair.  He was a survivor who was doing just fine.

I had to ride on a narrow sidewalk across the bridge and could only take quick glances at the river below as I tried to hold my line in the strong wind. I had visited the Carnegie in Moline a couple years ago, so I could head right out of town.  I crossed the Rock River before its confluence with the Mississippi and passed through the town of Milan.  A car dealership had a banner out front that might have been inspired by Huck Finn.

A llittle further, as dark fell, I camped along the Quad City International Airport, my first non-cornfield campsite in days.  The wind ruffled my tent all night. I had to wear an extra layer to stay warm in my sleeping bag.   In the morning several formations of geese passd overhead on their way south.  There wasn't a Carnegie Library along the route that I hadn't visited.  My stops were minimal.  I just grinded away into the strong wind between seven and eleven miles per hour depending on what the wind and terrrain allowed.  With 1,500 miles in my legs from Telluride, they were strong enough to put in close to eight hours of effort in the less than twelve hours of light at my disposal.  There was no relaxing or gliding in these conditions.  

Struggle though it was, it was satisfying to be out in these less than optimal conditions and persevering, watching the farmers in their huge combines harvesting their corn and appreciating a few early Halloween decorations.  One farmhouse just east of Walnut was populated by an army of nearly a hundred ghoulish characters, some hanging from trees.  One guarded the mail box.

Another supervised the sale of road kill.

The sun was setting.  I didn't want to camp too near this band of characters.  A few miles down the road I found a high and thick field of unharvested corn that provided enough of a windbreak that I thought the wind might have calmed down during the night.  But when I emerged from my tent I could see the nearby wind-turbines were still spinning and pointing in the wrong direction. On I pushed.  I had 90 miles to Janina's. I really wanted to make it this day even if I had I to push on into the dark. I knew once I got to the urban sprawl the wind would be somewhat blunted.  

I was within twenty miles when the last of the sun's light was gone.  I had turned on to 75th Street from highway 34.  It had a nice wide shoulder.  I'd never come in this way before and didn't know if the shoulder would hold up all the way to my turn on to Plainfield.  Before I could find out the air turned misty and my glasses became dewy.  My limited visibility became even more limited.  I survived for six miles riding with great caution.  I wasn't tired, but this was becoming a bit too stressful and perilous.  I had passed up several forests already, wondering if it was a mistake.  When I came to another, better judgement prevailed and I turned in.  At the speed I was going it would be at least two more hours of riding in the dark, sweating out each revolution of the pedals.  Rather than feeling defeated, I felt happy to have one last night in my tent.  It made my arrival at Janina's the next morning all the more joyous.  Though I was reveling in the completion of another great journey, I was already looking forward to being back on the road next month for a ride to Fort Benning in Georgia once again for the vigil honoring the six Jesuits priests and their housekeeper and her daughter murdered in El Salvador twenty-six years ago.

Friday, October 2, 2015

West Liberty, Iowa

When I saw a set of bike sculptures in front of the Carnegie Library in West Liberty, I thought maybe they had been put up by someone anticipating my arrival. It wasn't likely, as the last two Carnegies on my route were no longer libraries, so no one within the last one hundred miles could have alerted West Liberty to me and my quest, as happened in Indiana last spring.

My first question for the librarian, rather than "Do I need a password for your WIFI?," was, "What's the significance of the bike sculptures out front?"  Several of the librarians had ridden RAGBRAI this past July as a fund raiser for the library and the sculptures brought attention to their endeavor.  They raised over $5000 from pledges and also the sale of T-shirts. There was one on display on the circulation desk along with a photo of the four librarians and a city councilman who participated in the ride.

I figured the library would have at least a couple of the several books written about RAGBRAI.  None were on display, so I asked where the 700 section was.  "We no longer use the Dewey Decimal System," I was told.  "We file things by subject.  I'll show you where our bike books are."

Not all were grouped together, as personal accounts were in the biography section.  There were two about people who had ridden coast-to-coast, one of which I had read, but curiously none on RAGBRAI, especially since the librarian I  was talking to had ridden RAGBRAI five times and was the inspiration for the others to do it. She had also just read the recently published "Gironimo!" on the 1914 Giro d'Italia that I am eager to read.  There was enough local bike interest for the library's copy to be checked out.  She was aware of my friend Greg Borzo's 2013 book laden with photos on the history of RAGBRAI, but hadn't acquired it.  She checked the holdings of other Iowa libraries and could find only one that had a copy of it.  

She wasn't all that surprised, as she explained that RAGBRAI isn't as popular within the state as out-of-staters might think, as many Iowans are turned off by some of the rowdiness associated with it.  There are those who ride it once and say they'll never do it again.  I asked if she knew my friend Kathy, who has ridden it many times with a schnauzer.  "Of course, everybody knows her," she said.  "She's so popular that she charges people to take her photo with her dog and gives the money to a charity, an animal shelter."

I hadn't noticed Carnegie's portrait and asked if they had one.  It was high above the elevator facing the library's new entrance.  The library had been expanded in 2001, extending it off to the left without it appearing to be an addition.

To the right of the original entrance there was a cabinet with books for trade.  

It was a replica of such cabinets known as "Little Free Lbraries" offered by  They sell kits ranging from $150 to $1000. Janina has several neighbors out in LaGrange with such contraptions in front of their homes.  This was built by a local craftsman.  He had made six of them, all of different designs.  They were scattered around town in parks and other public places.  The library stocks them with discards and donated books.  The librarian acknowledged that not everyone trades a book for a book as is encouraged, so sometimes their stocks begin to wane, but she was just happy that people were availing themselves of the books.  They used to have extra "Oprah" books to spread around, as for a couple year period early in her program they would receive a monthly batch of twelve hard-back copies of her latest selection.  She also had strong words of commendation for Bill Gates.  He had made it possible for her libary and countless others to join the Internet age.  Without his generosity they would not have been able to afford computers.  She felt almost as much goodwill towards him as she did for Carnegie.

Our conversation went on for so long talking of books and bikes, my legs began to tire and I had to apologize that I needed to sit. I had been pushing into a strong head wind the past three days, partially thanks to hurricane Joaquim brewing in the Caribbean, blasting a cold wind out of the east.  I had wanted to make it back to Chicago by the end of the month to help my roommate clear out of our apartment, as our landlord had sold our building to a developer and we were being evicted.  I had moved out most of my stuff before I left for Telluride, but had left a few minor items behind, mostly posters and pictures.  Debbie had gained permission from the new landlord to leave such things in the basement through the weekend as long as everything was out of our apartment.  I was sorry the winds were preventing me from helping her complete her move.

I had extended my mileage a bit by swinging up to the college town and state capital, Iowa City, for its Carnegie.  It had been a dandy, but had been converted into five apartments catering to students. It had lost its luster and wasn't particularly well-maintained.  The grounds around it were strewn with cigarette butts.  It was on the fringe of the campus, across the street from the new large glassy library.  A large number of students were wearing Iowa sweatshirts in the chilly fifty degree temperature, that had me in tights for the first time on this trip.

I had to push directly into the northeast wind for over fifty miles from the previous Carnegie in Sigourney.  It was in the process of being converted into a residence even though it still had a canopy with "Library" on it over its entrance.  The new library on the outskirts of the town had little more character than a warehouse.  The librarian spoke with great nostalgia for what a fine place it had been to spend her days.

West Liberty would be the last of my Carnegies in Iowa, as the one in Davenport, where I would cross the Mississippi back into Illinois, had been demolished.  That left me with an even dozen in Iowa, two more than on my crossing two years ago.  That leaves me with seventy-six more to track down in the state.  There had been 108, but ten are no more.