Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"The Yellow Jersey Club," by Edward Pickering

When Edward Pickering, former editor of the defunct "Cyclesport," and present editor of "Procycling," was at a rare gathering of all the living winners of The Tour de France before the centennial 2003 Tour the idea came to him to write a book about this exclusive club. He recognized an aura of uniqueness among these men and wished to find what it was that made them so exemplary.  At last, nearly fifteen years later he has written that book.

His initial plan was to profile each of them, delving into their psyches, seeking that magic ingredient that made them the winners they were.  When he finally got around to writing the book, he narrowed his focus to the twenty-one winners dead and alive, (including Lance Armstrong), since the Merckx era, beginning with Bernard Thevenet in 1975.  Twenty-one was a handy number, as it is the number of stages in the modern Tour.  It allowed him to eliminate Eddie Merckx, who could have taken up half his book, and such elders as Roger Walkowiak and Fredy Kubler, whose memories were fading, and have since died since the book's publication.

His stated goal, as indicated by his subtitle, of getting "inside the minds of the Tour de France winners," suggests that he would seek each of them out, preferably in their homes, and have a relaxed, wide-ranging conversation truly getting to know them, such as Richard Moore has done in his exceptional books, "Slaying the Badger" and "√Čtape."  Instead, he relies mostly on books and magazine articles and his personal memories. He only interviewed eight of his subjects specifically for this book (Thevenet, Van Impe, Zoetemelk, LeMond, Roche, Delgado, Riis and Schleck), though he had interviewed most of them over the years,

One explanation for not relying on new interviews is that two of the twenty-one are deceased--Marco Pantani and Laurent Fignon.  He includes off-handed mentions of his encounters with some of them, such as playing a round of golf with Fignon, even though it was under the stipulation that cycling would not be discussed.   He revealed that his interview with Andy Schleck was over the phone.  He doesn't say where he interviewed Greg LeMond, just that it was very lengthy and that he went on for thirty-nine minutes to his seventh question, though he doesn't say what it was. He gave him so much material, his chapter was by far the longest in the book, the only one over twenty pages and more than twice as long as several of the chapters.  

In his quest to determine what was special about the riders, he fails to discern any common trait, other than perhaps good fortune, as can be especially applied to Schleck and Oscar Pereiro, who both gained admittance to The Yellow Jersey Club when the actual winner of The Race they won was disqualified (Alberto Contador in Schleck's case and  Floyd Landis for Pereiro).  He hypothesizes that if Joop Zoetemelk had had better fortune he would have won more than one Tour, as he finished second six times, more than anyone.  

He speculates LeMond might have won six Tours if he hadn't been shot by his brother-in-law or been held back in 1985 in deference to his teammate Bernard Hinault. He suggests, too, that he might not have won any, as his three wins were all highly contested and much in doubt.  In his 1989 eight-second win over Fignon, one of the rare Tours decided on the last stage, he and Fignon battled so hard there were nine stages where one or the other finished in a different group, gaining or losing time, unlike present times where those battling for the GC generally stick to one another.  But the 1987 Tour was even more hotly contested with the first and second placed riders, Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado, putting time into the other fifteen times.

The book is laced with such revealing insights that only someone with Pickering's fanaticism would be attuned to. He observes that during Indurain's string of five Tour wins, there was a different runner-up each time in contrast to the era of Lance with Jan Ullrich his chief rival finishing second three times.  Ullrich had two other second places, behind Riis and Pantani.  He also points out that Delgado had more top ten finishes in Grand Tours than anyone with eighteen, ahead of Merckx and Sastre, who had fifteen.  Delgado was on the 1989 Tour podium with LeMond and Fignon,  the only one in history that included the winners of the three Grand Tours that year--The Tour winner (LeMond), Giro winner (Fignon) and Vuelta winner (Delgado).

Pickering doesn't much play psychologist to understand what makes The Tour winners tick, but rather concentrates on recounting their Tour victories, something he could do in his sleep.  It's always enjoyable to relive these yearly seminal events, but Pickering doesn't cover much new ground.  He just packages it in a different manner.  The book has no index or even a bibliography, though he references over thirty books, mostly sugar-coated autobiographies including Armstrong's second, but also a Julian Barnes collection of essays and a Hinault book on racing technique and training.

He also studies YouTube footage and various photos to gain an understanding of the riders.  He comments that Van Impe was one of the few riders to look good in the polka-dot jersey and that  Indurain at 22 in a "Winning" magazine photo was indistinguishable from photos of him years later when he began winning The Tour.  Indurain was such a stoic he could easily camouflage his suffering in a race.  Suffering is a common thread in his profiles.  According to George Hincapie, Cadel Evans could suffer more than any other rider.  Schleck's teammate Karsten Kroon said much the same of him, that "He could hurt himself so bad that you cannot imagine."  "L'Equipe" appraised Pantani as a man "forged in suffering."

Pickering summed up Pantani as a man who made others happy, though he wasn't.  LeMond was such a happy winner, as personified in the 1989 podium photo,  Pickering wished he had won more often.  LeMond was as exultant as one could be, while Fignon was wet-eyed and in the depths of despair.  That was one of seven cases of tears or near tears that Pickering cites.  He observed that Evans, in contrast to the typical laid-back Australia, often seemed on the verge of tears.  When he finally won The Tour he avoided the distinction of being the only rider in history to twice finish within a minute of winning it without ever having accomplished it.

Two of the cases of tears go back to when Riis and Delgado were youths.  Riis' father coached him and was so demanding he'd reduce him to tears.  Delgado's sister says that her brother was so small and timid as a boy he was teased and driven to tears.  Tyler Hamilton wrote in his book that Armstrong beat up some driver who had shouted at them on a training ride, hurting him so bad that he cried. Pickering also mentions Virenque's sobs of denial of drug taking after his Festina team was evicted from the 1998 Tour.  

Hinault was known as the toughest of the tough, not one prone to tears, but Pickering suggests that he may have been in tears in the 1979 Tour when, as defending champion, he suffered a puncture with ten kilometers to go on the ninth stage through the cobbles of northern France and entered the Roubaix velodrome 3:45 behind the stage winner and 3:26 behind Zoetemelk, putting him two minutes behind Zoetemelk in the overall.   But he overcame his bad luck and went on to win his second of five Tours.

Besides the questionable impugning of Hinault with tears, Pickering also offers an alternate version of Merckx being punched in the kidneys on the Puy de Dome in the 1975 Tour he lost to Thevenet.  It is generally regarded as an intentional act.  Pickering says it might have been accidental, though Merckx was incensed enough to turn around from the finish and find the perpetrator, who was arrested and fined for the act.

There are occasional reports in recent years of racers being spat upon and having urine tossed on them, but not being hit.  Another difference is the penalty for drug taking.  Zoetemelk was merely penalized ten minutes in the 1979 Tour for testing positive on the last stage.  He still finished second in the overall, but by thirteen rather than three minutes, behind Hinault.  Now he would be suspended for a year or two.

Riders had a greater reverence for those who came before them.  Thevenet said that when he met Louisson Bobet, his childhood hero and three-time winner of The Tour, before the Bastille Day stage in the 1975 Tour, "It was like meeting God."  Bradley Wiggins idolized Indurain when he was growing up, but he would never call him God. The godliness of the greats hadn't totally worn off a generation after Thevenet, as Paul Kimmage described Hinault as having "a sort of godlike aura."

Pickering manages to insert many meaningful insights that make this book well worth reading.  He doesn't plumb the psyches of the riders he is profiling, as Philippe Brunel does in his classic "An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France (Masters and Slaves of the Road)," as it is more reportorial than analytical, but he does manage to find the crux of each rider. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

My Worst Nightmare

Since so few people fly with bicycles, I am always concerned when returning home with my bike that the staff at the check-in counter might find some reason not to accept my bike and I'll have to leave it behind.  I try to take a ride out to the airport a day or two before my flight to alert the check-in staff to my bike and find out what their requirements might be.  I went out to Madagascar's airport three days before my departure.  Unfortunately, it happened to be one of the two days each week that the airline I was flying, Turkish Air, did not fly into Madagascar.

I wasn't concerned enough to try again, as I knew the Turkish Air website clearly spelled out its bike policy.  Unfortunately, it wasn't so detailed as to specify that the Madagascar airport did not accept credit cards to pay the $128 bike fee--cash only.  That would not have been a problem if the ATMs of Madagascar  weren't so erratic dispensing cash.  The two at the airport had rejected my various cards upon my arrival and they were no more obliging at my departure.  

That did not cause me an immediate panic, as I was certain Turkish Air would find some way to accommodate me.  I have always been blessed with good fortune when it comes to my bike, so I looked upon this as another opportunity for goodwill.  I was confident this would have a happy ending.  I had saved the receipt for the bike fee from my flight to Madasgascar, which showed the credit card I had used to pay for it.  I hoped it would be a simple matter of the staff at the airport calling or texting my credit card number to an office where they could process my card, not much different than my on-line purchase of my ticket. 

The woman in charge at the desk did not have the authority to do such a thing.  She needed to check with her manager, who happened to be flying in on the flight from Istanbul that I would be departing on.  It was a quick turn-around of less than an hour, but ample time for him to resolve this issue.  He was returning from a training seminar.  Evidently it did not include customer service, as he was unwilling to do this or to take any initiative to solve my crisis, or even to see me, simply dictating his commands to his underling.

The $128 fee was for two flights, $64 to Istanbul and than $64 to Chicago.  I had $70 cash.  I asked if I could pay for the first flight and then the second in Istanbul.  He was unwilling to do that either. Now I was beginning to feel a panic at his obstinance as the clock ticked away. I've had my heart plunge may a time over some seeming bike catastrophe and have always remained calm and had the issue resolved.  I had remained calm for the two hours I had stood to the side of the check-in counter waiting for the manager to arrive or possibly for his assistant to suddenly come up with a solution to this problem.  

During my month in Madagascar I'd had numerous occasions where the Malagasy had been most considerate and helpful when I was in somewhat desperate circumstances.  I had several instances during the cyclone.  I was confident this personal cyclone would bring out that side of the Malagasy as well.  But these people either did not recognize how important a bike could be or they were so fearful of departing from strict corporate policy, that they stubbornly refused to find a way to accept my bike without the full amount of cold cash in their paws.  When it came down to less than thirty minutes to departure, I did start feeling panic. I was in a great dilemma of whether to delay my departure until the next day and get the funds for the bike or to leave it behind, reconciling myself that it was time to replace it.

I didn't believe it possible that the gods would allow me to be parted from my beloved bike that had taken me all over the world the past thirteen years.  It would be like losing a limb.  I've had bikes stolen, but the agony of this was causing me much worse pain.  I asked the woman I was dealing with how much it would cost if I delayed my flight.  She couldn't immediately tell me.  It would depend on my ticket.  It might be unrefundable, which could well have been the case since I had bought it from CheapAir at a considerable discount.  I had already been told that the Turkish Air ticket office in the city did not accept credit cards, so I might have to come up with fifteen hundred dollars or more in cash for a new ticket.  That would be less than what it would cost to replace my bike, but a daunting task.  

The woman at the counter asked if there was someone who could bring me the 407,000 Ariary fee for the bike.  I should have called Juerg, my Swiss Warmshowers host, long ago, but I didn't believe Turkish Air would be so obstinate and customer-unfriendly.  Now it had come to that.   The assistant manager allowed me to use her cell phone.  Juerg said he would dash right over on his bike.  He was ten miles away, not likely to make it in time, but I hoped the woman, who had heard our conversation, would trust that he would arrive with the money and release my bike.  She had to check with her boss.  He refused.  These people were utterly heartless and uncompromising and unwilling to save my day.  I began moaning and doubling over as if I were suffering cardiac failure, not sure if I were faking it or if it were real, hoping that might save the day, just as Bettina Selby resorted to tears at border crossings to get a visa.   But my act didn't soften the resolve of my adversary.

At least with Juerg coming to the airport, he could rescue my bike if it didn't make the flight and either hold on to it until I could return for it or find a reasonable way to send it.  With luck Turkish Air would put it on the next day's flight as delayed luggage, such as when luggage misses a connecting flight, though they would not  make any such promises. None were even willing to make an offer of holding on to it until I could return for it or get them the funds to send it.  If not for Juerg the bike would have been lost to one of these scoundrels, as they may have secretly been wishing.  

I did not feel any sense of relief when I boarded the flight.  I was still devastated by the trauma I had been subjected to and the heartlessness of these people.  My travels generally bring out the good in people.  I was leaving Madagascar with an extremely sour taste, not the way to end one's travels.

When our flight departed twenty minutes late, I held out hope that it might have been to accommodate my bike, but no one came to my seat with a claim number for my bike or the good news that it was aboard.  It was a long eleven hours to Istanbul, where I immediately went to a customer service desk.   They had no indication of an extra bag attached to me.  Next I sought wifi to see if there was word from Juerg.  Yes, he had the bike and would try to send it Turkish Air cargo the next day.  That was good news, even without knowing the cost.  But without a bike, it meant I would have to take a taxi home from O'Hare rather than riding my bike, the final indignity.  Janina couldn't pick me up as she would be teaching her Women in Art class.

Juerg was able to get my bike on the Turkish Air flight a day later, partially thanks to his UNICEF connections, but at about three times the cost of what it would have cost as personal luggage.  I will forever be indebted to his heroic efforts.  

And there was an additional $75 fee from the cargo company at O'Hare when I picked it up.  I was the lone civilian among a long line of truckers picking up much larger loads.  It was wonderful to be reunited with my bike, but I have yet to recover from the ordeal.  As one friend commented, "The experience must have taken ten years off your life."

I have waited three weeks to write of this nightmare, hoping there would be a happy appendum of Turkish Air refunding me the difference in cost of cargo and commercial, but surprise, surprise, they refused.  Will I ever fly Turkish Air again?  Probably, but I'll be certain to have $150 or more in reserve for my flight home.