Friday, November 18, 2016

"Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier"

Jon Day loved being a bicycle messenger, "every moment of it." After being on the job for a year, he began to wonder if he should make it his life's work rather than just an interlude between university courses while he tried to decide what to do with his life.  He stuck with it for another two years, finally extricating himself to become a lecturer at Kings College in London and free lance writer for the London Review of Books and others.  

He recounts his stint as a messenger, while also pondering the might and majesty of the bicycle, in "Cyclogeopraphy," a seven-part essay, published as a pocket-sized 160-page book.  He doesn't dwell much on his addiction and his dilemma of whether to give himself up to it or to do something more socially acceptable.  Instead, he mostly meditates on his privileged position of being able to roam the city on his bike and to have his thought focused on others who have placed the bicycle on an altar--H. G. Wells, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Paul Fernel, Tim Krabbe, Vittorio De Sica and others.  He even searches out Fernel for a chat when he's in London and drops in on noted author Iain Sinclair, who specializes in psychogeography and is an authority on gadding about.

He never uses the word addict, but he portrays many of its symptoms.  The job became all-consuming, so much so that he began to feel better on the bike than off it.  He doesn't quite reach the level of addiction that I did during my eighteen years of bliss as a messenger, of dreading those words from my dispatcher at the end of the day that there was no more work and to go home.  I never wanted my day of rocketing around the city delivering parcels to end, not out of greed, as I was paid by the delivery, but out of the craving to keep the endorphins surging that had me in a state of peak exhilaration.

While Day feared becoming a decrepit older messenger, I looked forward to being a fifty-year old messenger doing as many deliveries a day as my age, just as golfers who cross into their seventies anticipate the challenge of shooting their age.  And then when I reached fifty, I looked forward to turning sixty and still being at it.  Unfortunately, I fell a few years short of that second goal, as the industry dwindled to the point that I could no longer continue to come and go as I pleased.  One year when I returned from another several month absence of biking around Europe and following The Tour de France, I was told I would have to commit to being full-time and not going off for months at a time when the whim struck.

In its heyday the company I worked for my entire career employed sixty messengers and four dispatchers (known as controllers on the other side of the pond).  It was down to less than a dozen riders with just one guy dispensing orders.  I had to make a decision of whether to make the messengering my entire life, as was surely tempting, or continue to maintain my free and footloose existence.  I had been diligent about saving and investing.  I had reached the point where I was doing the work because it was fun, not because I needed to pile up more dollars, so I made the hard decision to bow out and to not take work that others needed more than I.

Not every messenger appreciates the job as much as Day and I did.  For many it is a last resort, a refuge for "the forgotten, people who have fallen through the cracks of the system."   It is akin to "running away to sea, or joining the circus."  Being on a lower rung of the societal order may be an act of rebellion for some, but it can also be a heavy burden.  It is a dangerous job, but Day's experience in London was similar to mine in Chicago--we both knew more messengers who committed suicide than who were killed on the job.

Day doesn't say in so many words that he misses the job, just that he still dreams about it.  He's not old enough, just 32, to call it the best job he ever had, as many do, including the New York Bike Snob, but it's not likely that he could say of any other job he's had, that he has loved every moment of it.  We can thank him for taking the time to write this ode, but it is hard not to feel a little sad that he couldn't remain true to his love.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Shut Up Legs," by Jens Voigt

"Shut up legs" was the motto of long-breakaway specialist Jens Voigt, so it was only natural that he made it the title of his memoirs recounting his cycling career, which came to an end in 2014 when he set the hour record.  He devotes two chapters to the achievement, one more than to his wife and six children, but doesn't mention that his record was broken multiple times within months.

So it is with this standard autobiography that doesn't scratch much beyond the surface. On the second to the last page of the book, before the acknowledgements and all that, he writes that along with his 65 victories, including three stage wins of The Tour de France and two stints in Yellow, he broke his collarbone three times, but not once does he mention them in the previous 225 pages.  

He doesn't neglect, however, his horrific crash on a descent in the 2009 Tour that left him unconscious, calling it one of his most painful memories. Along with all the grisly details, he adds that Lance Armstrong was the only cyclist, other than his teammates, to send him a message of concern while he was in the hospital.  Earlier he mentioned that Lance twice tried to recruit him to his team, but he in no way defends his doping or character, other than to say, "He's not the devil."  Fellow German Didi Senf will be glad to hear that.

Voigt is firm, though, in his condemnation of doping.  Later in his career when he became a team elder he would address his teammates at their early season camps and threaten to come to their homes and burn them down if any of them doped and put the team and his livelihood in jeopardy.

Descending was not one of Voigt's strengths.  As his career wound down his tolerance for risking his life on descents diminished.  When his speed approached forty miles per hour he was out of his comfort zone and when it reached fifty he told himself, "I don't want to be doing this anymore."  Still he clung on much later than most riders, until he was 42, riding in 17 Tours de France, the most of anybody along with George Hincapie and Stuart O'Grady.  When he was 41 he extended his career one more year knowing he could still "dish out the pain" and felt the "need to suffer more before I can be happy with the decision to stop."  He added, "My body promised me that it could keep it together for one more year as long as I promised to release it from all the stress, suffering and responsibility at the end of the year."  

He also knew age was catching up to him when he began falling asleep in the team bus after a race.  That cut into his reading time, one of his favorite pursuits, so much so that  at one time he thought he'd like to open a bookstore.  Instead, he's stuck to cycling, working as a team advisor and TV commentator.  One of the best things about retirement is that when he travels now he doesn't have to stay in his hotel room and conserve energy.  He can actually go sightseeing.

Unlike some cycling biographies, he doesn't wax on about his love of being on the bike, and going off on long rides simply for the joy of it, such as Chris Froome and Sean Yates do in their books.  Training became a chore.  He was glad to leave all the painful efforts behind.  There was no chance of his making a comeback.  "I simply don't want to hurt or suffer anymore," he wrote.  He does claim though that that was his strength, and that he had a pain threshold ten to twenty per cent higher than most others.  He doesn't claim to eat pain for breakfast, as some cyclists do, but it is a steady part of his diet and frequent theme of his book, as is the case of most cycling biographies.

Despite many significant wins, including the Peace Race and the Tour of Germany and the Critérium International five times along with his Tour de France successes, not once was he brought to tears by a win.  As a youth growing up in East Germany, his father told him, "Boys don't cry."  He asserts early on that only one thing brings his to tears, the birth of his children.  He doe cite one instance of emotional, triumphal tears, those of Bobby Julich's family as they gaze up at Julich and Voigt on the podium at Paris-Nice. Julich took the win thanks to the efforts of Voigt leading him up the final climb, when he thought he could have left him behind and won the race himself.  But Julich was the team leader in this race and had sacrificed himself for Voigt in other races, so he was happy to do it for him in this one.

His upbringing in East Germany, where life was centered on the common good and the collective, self-sacrifice was engrained in him, which inspired him throughout his career as a cyclist.  When he was fourteen he left his family to attend a sports school.  He missed home, but it laid the foundation for what he was to become, including learning "how to suffer."  He didn't realize the deprivations of his life on the other side of the Iron Curtain until The Wall came down. He was astounded by the abundance of food, but he was most shocked when he began reading history books and discovered how he had been lied to growing up.  He holds no grudges though, nor does his home town of Dassow, where in 2001 a street was named after him.