Sunday, January 21, 2018

"The Hardmen, Legends and Lessons from the Cycling Gods," by Velominati

The Velominati is a high order of Cyclists devoted to racing.  They have published two books, bibles of a sort, that elaborate upon the ninety-five commandments they live by and that they wish all Cyclists embraced. Their first book in 2014 was titled "The Rules, The Way of the Cycling Disciple."  It should be no surprise that among their commandments is "It's all about the bike," and it's companion, "Family does not come first, the bike does."

Their second book, three years later, "The Hardmen, Legends and Lessons from the Cycling Gods," provides thirty-eight parables that further illuminate The Rules.  Most of the stories dwell upon the foremost of the Rules--"Harden the fuck up," as in be tough, no whimpering allowed.  They advocate riding hard and suffering with dignity and pride regardless of the conditions--rain, cold, hot, wind, cobbles, steep climbs.  Relishing the suffering is what defines a Hardman, what all Cyclists should aspire to--male and female alike.  Seven of the parables feature women--Nicole Cooke, Marianne Vos, Rebecca Twigg, Annie Londonderry, Megan Fisher, Lizzie Deignan and Beryl "BB" Burton.  

Eddie Merckx is featured in two of them. No one is held in higher esteem.  He is alternately referred to as The Prophet, Our Lord or simply God. He is said to have a "limitless capacity to suffer."  No one looks better suffering than Merckx.  The first chapter of the book is devoted to Merckx's hour record in 1972 when he had to be carried off his bike.  He said the effort took a year off his career and that he would never attempt it again.  The second Merckx Hardman tale is about him riding one hundred kilometers in the rain and snow from his home in Brussels the day before the start of Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1971 as penance for not winning Flèche-Wallone earlier in the week.  He won the race by five minutes.  The caption on the photo of him riding in the rain during the race reads, "Hey, weather.  Go fuck your self."

The books applaud toughness and emphasize the extreme, unrelenting effort that Cyclists should maintain--Rule #90 is "Never get out of the big ring," #93 is "Descents are not for recovery."  The Pain Cave is a friend.  Pain should be sought, not avoided.  It is one of the joys of cycling.  It liberates one and makes one a more complete person.  Throughout the book Cycling and Cyclisf are accorded the honor of being capitalized.  Pain and Suffering are held in such reverence it is a great oversight that they are not capitalized as well.  At least Pain Cave is. Big Ring is another that merits capitalization.

They know enough to capitalize L'Alpe d'Huez the five times it is referenced. They are purists through and through and though they are largely English and American, they defer to the French in many ways, including the French version of this most iconic of climbs.  They use French terms as frequently as they can--parcours, rouleur, grimpeur, domestique--out of respect and also to "further mystify our sport to those not familiar with it."  Stephen Roche is quoted in French in his Hardman episode when he pushed himself to collapse after completing the the climb to La Plagne in the Pyrenees in the 1987 Tour that he won.  He was hauled off in an ambulance.  When a doctor asked him how he was, he replied, "Everything's okay, mais pas de femme ce soir." (But no woman for me tonight).  

Lance Armstrong is mentioned even more than Merckx, but he does not merit a chapter, as he's only brought up with disdain, other than applauding his pronouncement "Pain is temporary; quitting lasts forever," but with the amendment--"even assholes can be insightful." Rather than applying the adjective "disgraced" to him as is more common, they prefer stronger pejoratives, as is their style, also describing him as a "pathological liar" and a "dickhead."  At times he's just snidely referred to as a "certain brash Texan."  His Tour dominance winning it seven straight times was compared to that of Merckx "minus the dickish behaviour."

Both books are peppered with the f-word--18 times in the first, 33 in the second--for emphasis and color.  To become an accomplished Cyclisf is simple--"Just ride the bike.  A four-year old can do it, for fuck's sake.  Like anything, getting good at it requires major commitment."

For those who may have missed their first book, they list all ninety-five rules at the back of this book, with a brief description of each.  They are followed by a glossary.  Many of the terms are earlier footnoted, but it is a pleasure to be reminded of them.  One of them is "Five and Nine," shorthand for two of the most important Rules--"Harden the Fuck Up" and "If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you're a badass. Period."

The pleasure of suffering is a constant refrain.  After an arduous climb a Velominatus should reply, "I suffered like I've never suffered before.  It was fantastic."

Cycling is a religious experience.  Among its sacred relics are a complete set of Campagnolo tools and a Silca pump and a Merckx wool Molteni jersey.

Curiously there was not a single reference to tears in "The Rules."  Their follow-up makes up for it with a wide range of tear references, understanding they are an integral part of the sport, not only as an expression of pride of accomplishment (Eros Poli winning the Ventoux stage of the 1994 Tour)but also as an expression of enduring under extreme conditions (Andy Hampsten in the snow on the Gavia in the 1988 Giro).  No tears is also a badge of honor, such as Bernard Hinault not crying when he crashed seven times on the way to winning the 1981 Paris Roubaix.  That was to be expected as, "He never cried," the Velominati assert.  The same might be said of Andrei Tchmil.  He was discovered in Russia after undergoing evaluation by "men with clipboards collecting data on cunning, intimidation, lack of empathy and inability to cry."  The defeated are often brought to tears.  The Velominati maintain that Roger De Vlaeminck enhanced his legendary sideburns with "the odd tear collected from his vanquished foes." They point out ocular slime dribbling from Jens Voigt, a rare substance that occurs when one wants to cry from pain, but there isn't any water left in the system for actual "tears."

These books penetrate to a depth that few books on cycling manage.  They are much more than manuals.  Just as there are those who live for the bike, these are books to live by.

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Descent, My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End,"Thomas Dekker

The title of Dutch cyclist Thomas Dekker's memoir, "Descent, My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End," is no exaggeration. Dekker was a huge talent.  When just twenty, he won a stage of the 2005 Critérium International when he got in a break with big-name pros Jens Voigt, Bobby Julich and Ivan Basso and outsprinted them all.  A year later he won the one-week stage race Tirreno-Adriarico across Italy and the equally prestigious Tour of Romandie a year later.  He was on a path to be the greatest Dutch cyclist ever and the first to win The Tour de France since Joop Zoetemelk in 1980.

But by the time he rode his first and only Tour de France in 2007 he became swallowed up by the drug culture of the sport and all the temptations that he could afford on his hefty salary, in particular women, and never realized his potential.  His book is as frank about his womanizing--visiting brothels and inviting prostitutes to his hotel room the night before races--as it is about his use of performance enhancing drugs. His cocky, flamboyant, undisciplined behaviour led to his dismissal from the Dutch super team Rabobank in 2008 even though he had a year left on his contract.  He fully understood, as he called himself a "23-year old thug used to getting my own way."  

His career fully derailed less than a year later when a urine sample he had given eighteen months before tested positive for EPO using a new test.  He had to serve a two-year ban.  When he returned, he was lucky to find a team that would employ him.  After earning more than a million dollars a year, he accepted the minimum of $45,000 to ride for the American Garmin team.  The pay didn't matter he said, as he was just happy to be able to return to his profession. But he still lacked that single-minded commitment necessary to excel at the sport.  During the team's pre-season training camp in Boulder, when he was just getting to know his teammates, a stripper who had given him a lapdance just hours before texted him at three in the morning to come over for a visit.  He didn't realize she was an hour away, but didn't ask the cab driver to turn back.  

He barely made it back to the team hotel for a mandatory seven a.m. meeting.  He was too wiped out to attend.  When the team director came knocking on his door at 7:15 he confessed all, but wasn't sent packing. In his three seasons with Garmin he never regained his greatness and was released after the 2014 season when the team combined with Cannondale, a fate similar to that of Phil Gaimon, as recounted in his recent book "Draft Animalls."  Even though they rode together for a year and Gaimon mentions Dekker several times in his book, there is no mention of Gaimon in this one.  After his release from Garmin, Dekker made an attempt on the Hour Record, hoping it would earn a spot on another team.  He fell 889 feet of beating Rohan Dennis' recently set record, and thus ended his career at thirty.  

Instead of being able to write a memoir of "euphoric tales of victory and sporting glory," as he had hoped when he began his career, his memoir became a story of a "descent into dope and disillusionment."   Unlike Gaimon, who brags about not enlisting a ghostwriter, he is assisted by a prominent Dutch sportswriter, who makes this a much more focused and polished read without any distracting petty gripes in its snappy 212 pages.  

There is no speculation about who may or may not be using drugs, Dekker tells what he knows, unhesitant to name names except for one teammate, who learns at the same time as he does that their blood-doping doctor,  the Spaniard Eufemiano Fuentes, has been busted in the Operacion Puerto raid.  They are both devastated, wondering how they are going to be able to ride at the level they had been at without his blood transfusions.  Dekker wrote, "I won't mention his name.  I suppose it's up to him to come clean." Fuentes had three bags of Dekker's blood, which he was storing for a fee of $10,000 per bag.  

Without the advantage of the undetectable blood transfusions, whose benefits Dekker calls "enormous in a grand tour," he resorts to a version of EPO that was undetectable at the time.  He easily buys it at a pharmacy in Germany, feeling as sheepish the first time he asks for it as when he first bought condoms.

Dekker opens the book as he undergoes his first blood withdrawal by Fuentes in a hotel room in Spain, which he described as a "thousand shades of dark."  The book then returns to his youth and his first racing bike, a birthday present when he was eleven.  It was so beautiful he could have wept.  The book then follows a chronological time line, shying away from none of its sordid details, including attempts to inject himself with blood and spraying it all over, shocking a teammate who was unaware of what he had been doing in the bathroom.  His parents are in on his decision to dope when his agent recommends it after his first season as a pro as a twenty-one year old.  His agent received ten per cent of his earnings, so it was in his interest to have Dekker resort to any means necessary that he could get away with to increase his earnings. He needed no convincing.  If his parents had discouraged him from doing it he "would have laughed in their faces,".  His father was left speechless by the discussion.  His mother said, "I only hope this turns out okay."

In his first season as a pro before he makes the decision to become a committed doper, Dekker asks his older teammates, including Erik Dekker, about doping, and can't find anyone to speak frankly about the issue, his one great lament. He wrote, "I would have killed for a big name in my own team with the backbone to look me in the eye and tell me to keep my fucking paws off the dope."  But he blames no one but himself for his wayward path, writing,  "All kinds of people have played a part in my doping history, but ultimately there can be no doubt about the main culprit: It was me, no one else."

He doesn't hold back criticizing himself, calling himself "a spoiled brat with delusions of grandeur." After he began doping he confessed, "every decision I made was wrong,"  and admits, "I gave into every temptation that crossed my path."  On a trip to the Bahamas with his girl friend and another couple when he was still lush with money, they ended up at a club well out of their league and were presented with a bill for $25,000.  He barely flinched.  He had money enough to squander.  He was generous in many ways, buying his sister a car when she turned eighteen. 

His career could be defined as well by the many tears he shed, from those of joy after finishing second in the Under 23 World Championships to those of devastation, standing in the shower after three hard mountain stages of the Giro, knowing he's got to dope to be able to avoid such extreme suffering.  But when he wins Tirreno-Adriatico a year later with the assist of blood doping he cries in his hotel room, partially out of elation but also from stress and having "a secret" he can "never divulge."  But there are no tears when he receives the phone call that he has tested positive.  He accepts his fate and doesn't want "to be like Bernard Kohl, sobbing into a microphone as he tells his sorry tale."

He does cry on the team bus during the 2007 Tour de France after being forced to continue The Race when he and his teammates all wanted to abandon after their team leader Michael Rasmussen was sent home by the team when he was in the Yellow Jersey and on the verge of winning The Tour when it was revealed he had lied about his whereabouts to the drug enforcers, claiming to be in Mexico training, when he was actually in Italy.  Dekker doesn't begrudge Rasmussen, knowing they all indulge in illicit activities to enhance their performance, but he is extremely frustrated to go from the thrill of being on the Tour winning team to having it all taken away.  When Rasmussen came into his hotel room to tell him about his dismissal, he could tell that he had been crying, and it is sympathy, not rage, that he feels.

His final dose of tears comes when he fails in his Hour Attempt, from the pain of the effort, but also from "the frustration of the past couple of years."  He had a glimmer of hope of landing on a new Dutch team, but when that fell through he had to give up the sport.  His tale still ends happily, as he went to live with a wealthy woman in LA who deals in art and produces films and is twenty years his senior, who he met at the Tour of Utah.  Gaimon in his book called her a billionaire.

Though the book is a strong indictment of the doping in the sport, much of it team facilitated, he claims it isn't as bad as it was.  It is still "far from clean," he summarizes, as it remains  "riddled with shady agents, untrustworthy team managers, dishonest doctors, and riders with a talent for fooling themselves and everybody around them."  In other words, the ever-present dark side of human nature.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold," Tim Moore

Though three of British travel writer Tim Moore's ten books have been cycling adventures, he is by no means a cyclist.  He confesses that before he set out on his latest cycling escapade following the route of the Iron Curtain for over five thousand miles from Norway to the Black Sea that he'd "barely turned a pedal in a year." His ineptitude is part of this humorist's shtick.

When he rode The Tour de France route in his first cycling book "French Revolutions" published in 2002, he said he trained just 119 miles and had no qualms about getting off and pushing his bike up the mountains.  He knew better to train a bit before he duplicated the 1914 Giro d'Italia route in the book "Gironimo!" by riding a stationary bike.  Neither of those rides transformed him into a passionate need-to-ride cyclist, but neither did all the suffering they inflicted cure him of ever wanting to ride a bike again.  Though it took him more than ten years to take a long ride again after his Tour de France ordeal, he took on the Iron Curtain ride just a couple years after doing the  Giro.

He didn't make it easy on himself by setting out in mid-March north of the Arctic Circle with snow still covering the road and temperatures well below freezing.  It was weeks before he saw grass, tarmac or water that wasn't coming out of a tap.  There were long stretches between dots of civilization, and since he wasn't traveling with a tent he had to push on longer than he might have wished to find lodging.  He had to plead at times for food and a place to stay.  Not all the lodgings were open.  Never was a cyclist so happy to hear a dog bark, he wrote, when one announced that a shabby farmhouse was inhabitated.  His first thousand miles along the Finland/Russia border were the hardest days of his life.  His calls home to his wife were "routinely blighted by blubberings of self-pity."

Just as he did when he rode the 1914 Giro on a bike of the era, he added to the ardor of this trip by his choice of bikes--an East German two-speed bike of the Cold War era with 20-inch wheels.  He  refers to it as a "shopping bike," as it was hardly meant for such a demanding ride.  At least the small size of the bike gave him the luxury of not having to fall so far when he wiped out.  It also gave him the opportunity to visit the factory along the way that manufactured them.  He's ever mindful of adapting his ride for material he can write about.  His wintry start gave him the title for his book, "The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold."  He doesn't explain which came first, the idea for the title or the idea to attempt to ride in such impossible conditions.  It is a rare title that is longer than its subtitle, "Adventures riding the Iron Curtain."

His word play and exuberant prose is one of the pleasures of the book.  He is well-attuned to cinema culture dropping in references to "Borat" and "Forest Gump", "Spinal Tap" and "Ben Hur" and on and on.  When he reaches alpine scenery he refers to it as "Julie Andrews ready mountain pastures."  He calls the "we'll be back" mentality of some Russians scientists to an installation they built in Latvia as "Arnie-speak."

The book is as much a history lesson as a travel book.  He regularly references a driving trip he and his wife took in 1990 to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and what it was like then compared to now. He refers to the Lonely Planet guidebook they used as a "hand-holder," a most apt term for those who overly rely on guidebooks, as they had to in those rough times.  Several times on that trip they unleashed tears of relief and joy after crossing from a country that didn't have much food to one that did.  There are times on this trip too when he is concerned about finding food, but is relieved that it always works out, even in the seemingly most desperate circumstances, "perhaps because of the many great deeds and acts of kindness I have carried out in this life and its predecessors."

Twice on this trip he is joined by his wife and son.  The first as he transitions from the cold to milder temperatures so they can take his many layers of winter gear home.  His son rode with him for two days of fifty miles each, but was too done in to ride further.  After their second visit their departure is marked by tears as he continues on alone to the finish of his journey that he never fully embraces.  If it had won him over, he wouldn't have wanted it to end.

As just an occssional, haphazard cyclist he perceives his trip as an "inherently foolish" endeavor and thinks that everyone he encounters looks at him with a "gaze of curious disparagement,"  imbuing them with his self perception.  A more established cyclist, proud of his undertaking, knowing he is accomplishing something of significance, would interpret those looks as gazes of respect and envy, conveying the wish that they had the will and determination to break from their humdrum existence and do something similar.  Though this book may not speak to those with a spirit of conquest, and doesn't dwell much on the joy of being a fully independent touring cyclist, fashioning campsites wherever one might be, ending each day triumphal and eager for the next, it is an entertainingly written book of travel that anyone could appreciate.

Moore laces his book with many historical oddities, some that beg credulity.  He asserts that the Romanian Cold War leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who was just 5'3" tall, refused to employ anyone who was taller than him.  He is surprised by the high rate of smoking in Germany and blames it as a protest against Hitler, who was strongly anti-smoking.  Moore claims Hitler made the connection between smoking and lung cancer fifteen years before anyone else.  He banned smoking in cinemas and discouraged it in the workplace and invented nicotine gum.  He also quotes Hitler as liking to point out that he and Mussolini and Franco were all non-smokers, in contrast to his adversaries--Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.

Moore may not abide in the cult of those who live for the bike, but he can at least be commended for providing those who do with a slight embrace of their passion. This book ought to inspire a few to undertake this ride.  We can thank him for at least bringing attention to it.  He may portray his rides as something to be endured rather than enjoyed, but those of the bike cult know better.  May his next travel companion be a bike as well.  He's got a few years left in him.  He turned "forty-eleven," as he phrased it, on this trip.