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.  

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