Monday, January 29, 2018

Tambacounda, Senegal


I had my much longed for campsite last night when a baobab presented itself near dark as I was looking for a place to disappear to.  It wasn't too distant from the road, but it's hulk and low-lying brush was all the camouflage I needed.  And no surprise, I had the best sleep of these travels, accompanied by the first dreams I have been cognizant of in a while.  None were of significance, I don't think, but I will see how prophetic they might be. If I have another chance at a baobab sleep, I will be fully attentive to what it injects into my subconscious.


My guardian for the night also had a therapeutic effect on my leg cramps. The night before I was besieged by a series of cramps such as I have never experienced before in both legs and in multiple places--ankles, calves and thighs, sometimes two at the same time.  Some were genuinely excruciating going on for minutes.  I am prone to them on the first couple days of a tour, but those didn't come until day three despite my efforts to drink and drink and drink.   It was a relief to be cramp-free under the baobab.  I had a near full moon to stare up at my multi-limbed companion. Glancing at its thick rugged bark/hide I imagied I was sidled up against a pachyderm, it's counterpart in the animal kingdom.  No sunrise has been more magnifcent than with my baobab for the night stretching out his arms to greet it.

The baobabs remain the highlight of my ride across the flat, arid interior of Senegal.  They don't come any more frequently than do the small towns and villages, making them all the more special.  The way is dotted every ten miles or so with small villages of walled compounds of mud huts with thatched roofs and small towns of bareboned concrete homes and businesses.  I know I'm coming to a town when the litter along the road thickens to a virtual carpet.


The litter isn't so bad out of the towns, but approaching them and through them it is a genuine eyesore, just as it was in Dakar. 


The most striking litter out along the road is the carcasses of cars and trucks.


But I have the baobabs to sustain me.


I am still figuring out my diet.  I can't count on grocery stores, as they are nothing more than a few shelves of little suitable for my purposes in a town's one room general store with everything behind the counter.  I thought I was in luck when I came upon a couple of French grocery chain stores in Dakar.  They were both stocked with the identical items one would see in France, even the yogurt, but at outrageously inflated prices.  A yogurt drink that sustains me in France cost ten dollars.  A bottle of mint syrup had a price tag of twenty-five dollars.  A can of casaulette was priced at fifteen dollars.  In France I was accustomed to not paying more than a dollar for any of them.  It is a testament to the French love for their food that they are willing to pay such prices.  But I have to admit, after a few days of food deprivation, those prices didn't seem so unreasonable.  Plenty of people do indulge to have such large stores precisely emulating their counterparts back in France. 

I went in to both looking for couscous, but they can be purchased so moderately elsewhere that couscous weren't stocked.  I was able to buy a kilo bag from a small town store that the proprietor had to stand on a chair to reach high above him.  That has been my dinner so far with hard boiled eggs and once with a tin of tuna.  When I slowly bike through the small towns I scan the tables of the women along the road looking for eggs and fritters and other enticing food.  More often than not the eggs haven't been cooked.  It is so rare to come upon cooked eggs I will grab four of them no matter the time of day.

I am also looking for covered pots that could have some sort of stew.  There have been no noodles as in Madagascar or rice as elsewhere.  Mostly it's been some bean concoction.  I am happy with that.  I hand over my tupperware bowl and 500 francs.  On occasion the woman will give my bowl a rinse, which I would prefer her not to, but they can be very quick about it.  I'll sit and eat some and then head down the road.  One woman asked if I'd like bread with it, a baguette of a sort. I gladly accepted it, thinking that would top off my 500 francs.  I was surprised when she handed me 100 francs change,  filling me up for seventy-five cents.

After I walked to my bike with more than half a bowl left she chased after me in a highly agitated state. If she hadn't given me change I would have thought she wanted more money.  She was close to livid as she jabbered away in a French I couldn't decipher.  A couple of men came over to see what the commotion was all about.  I had no idea what offense I might have committed. I kept saying, "Je me comprehend pas," hoping some English speaker might materialize.  Neither of the men interceded, but neither looked very friendly.  I couldn't imagine what trouble I was in.  At last I opened up the Tupperware bowl to show that I hadn't pilfered a spoon or any other food, but that wasn't the issue.  She pointed at her stomach and with the word "midi" (noon), I finally understood that she was warning me I had to eat the food by noon, otherwise it would go bad in the heat and I'd get sick.  With that we could smile and everyone was happy.

As I have penetrated deeper into the country and the traffic has diminished to a trickle, the gas stations that had been mini-oases for me offering cold bottled water, sometimes with an ice cube frozen in it, and chocolate or banana milk, are less frequent and not always stocked with drink.  Then it can be a challenge finding a store with water.  The price had been 350 francs for a liter-and-a-half, but has risen to 500 francs in the hinterlands.  I've been buying three bottles a day, a little more than a gallon.  My water purifier turned testy the day I left Dakar, so I have been saving it for emergencies. I'd probably be foregoing it anyway for the pleasure of cold water.  When I handed a small shop owner a 500 franc coin for a bottle, thinking I might possibly receive change, he pointed at the other coins in my hand, preferring five 100 franc coins, as it is better for him for making change and also he said to lighten my load.  

It's a good thing I don't need to check the Internet every day, as its not a fact of life in these parts.  In the 300 miles I have cycled these past four days from Dakar I have seen only two signs advertising WIFI until I came to this last large city before Mali with billboards for several hotels listing it among their amenities.  I spent nearly an hour in the previous decent-sized city of Kaffrine two days ago hunting WIFI.  I stopped at a pharmacy and a camera shop and a telephone shop and a couple of hotels without any success.  They all said I could find WIFI just down the road.  When I asked average citizens, the majority were utterly baffled, having no idea what I was inquiring about.  After I had passed through the town, a young man at a gas station told me to go back to the gas station at the roundabout in the center of the town and ask there.  That did no good.  I tried the police station and they sent me to a hotel back near the gas station on the outskirts of town.  It's sign didn't mention WIFI, but they did have it and a better signal than any I found in Dakar. 

I'm now just one hundred miles from Mali.  I'm hoping the street food there will be more abundant and varied, or that there might be restaurants.  Even in Dakar, restaurants weren't so common.  At least I don't have to worry about changing money as it, along with six other countries, all use the same currency as Senegal.
















Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kaffrine, Senegal


I was so focused on the road and attentive to the traffic on my ride into Dakar from the airport I didn't even notice that there were baobabs here and there along the way, some lone sentinels and others in clusters.  It is a wonder that not a one of these towering divinities attracted my attention, either their grand presence or the power emanating from them.  If Janina had been along she would have excitedly been pointing them out.  She is always amazing me by the items she spots that I miss as we are bicycling along. She has the artist's eye sensitive to her surroundings, while I tend to concentrate on the task at hand.


Noticing the baobabs made the long thirty-nine ride out of Dakar on the road I had come in on two days previously a little less painful.  Not only was I perplexed by having overlooked the baobobs on the ride in, I was further perplexed that the airport had been situated so far out of the city.  There had been plenty of open space half the distance that could have accommodated the complex.  There had no doubt been some favoritism to cronies or big payoffs to have put it so far away.  With no public transportation, the taxi lobby must have been thrilled by the huge fares they could charge.  At least there was a tollway for them to zip into the city.

I continued sixteen miles past the airport continuing south just inland from the Atlantic, which was beyond site,  before I turned inland out of a headwind for my nine hundred mile trek east to Bamako, the capital of Mali.  The traffic only diminished slightly.  The road remained two lanes wide, but with a less smooth shoulder that dropped down from the highway, making the riding a little more out than it had been. Long, overloaded trucks forced me off the road every so often when there was oncoming traffic and not room enough to give me some extra space.  For the first time ever I was wishing I had a mirror, though at least the trucks generally gave me a friendly warning.

This continued for over fifty miles until the road intersected with the city of Koalack and the road south to Gambia.  The traffic thinned considerably with the majority of the truckers heading south rather than east to Mali.  The cycling at last turned peaceable.  The baobabs have continued to make an appearance here and there, mostly as individuals though.


Each merits a pause and a photo for further homage.  They all have distinct characteristics.  If I were seeking answers,mthat is the tree I would sit under.  If the Mahatma had sat under a baobab , his teachings would have been convincing and embracing enough to have won over all.


I was hoping I could camp under one, but they weren't frequent enough for there to be one when it was time to camp.  My first night I opted for an auberge when one turned up in a small dirt road town half an hour before dark when I wasn't confident enough to find a secluded spot down the road.  The habitations hadn't been far apart and in the gaps the vegetation was just scattered trees and not many bushes.  I was eager to camp, and would have relied on the cover of dark if need be, but was happy with the security of an inn.  I stopped at the town's city when I noticed the door open to enquire if there was a hotel in the town, hoping that if there wasn't they might let me pitch my tent in their walled-in compound as happened to me in th Philippines. 

But surprisingly the town had an inn, though it didn't look like it got much business.  It wasn't even identified as an auberge, rather a welcome center.  The best part of the place was the baobab tree on its sign.  


There were two small buildings with four or five rooms in each.  Based on the lack of tracks in the sandy dirt leading to them, it didn't look like they had been used in a while. There were no sheets on the bed nor running water in the bathroom, just a five gallon jug for bathing and flushing the toilet.  Is had plenty of experience with such accommodations, so didn't flinch.  Once in Kenya when I was showed what I was in for the proprietor was surprised I accepted.  He said no Lenyan who had been to America would accept such primitive accommodations.  

When I turned in, I could feel mosquitoes nibbling on my legs, so I got to sleep in my tent after all.  I would have set it up outside to begin with in the walled in compound, but the proprietor had been insistent about no camping when I asked if I could use my tent.  It was late enough I was tempted to anyway, but opted for the concrete floor.  It wasn't the best night of sleep, what with the hard floor and the temperature never dropping below 80 in my cell.

It wasn't much warmer during the day.  It has been hot, but not sweltering, largely thanks to a browm haze from the stirred up dirt and sand that blunts the sun.  My legs and arms are just s slight pink from what sun does penetrate.  No need for sun block.  

The next cold drink down the road though brings great joy and satisfaction.  Not many of the small towns have cafes or even small stores offering cold drinks.  I've been relying on gas stations.  Most advertise a boutique with snacks and drinks.  The gas stations also are kid free.  If I stop at a village store and sit and drink little kids gather around me asking for candy.  My friend DL, who has been teaching at a university in Liberia the past five years and is on my itinerary, recommended I carry a bag of candy for such situations.  I can't bring myself to encourage such behaviour.  Whoever started this practice should be banned from traveling and enshrined in the Traveler's Hall of Shame.  The candy refrain is relentless.  Kids come running as I bike by.

At gas stations I am generally approached by those working at them, who couldn't be nicer.  A mechanic said he grew up loving America due to hip-hop and rap.  It was his dream to visit America. But he doubted he ever would.  I said I had slashed dreamed of visiting Senegal, and since he was much younger than me, he still had plenty of time.  That made him smile. He, like everyone, is astounded I'm biking to Mali.  It is beyond their comprehension.  No one conceives of the bicycle having such a use.  "You could take a bus," they say.  I tell them that the bus goes too fast and can't appreciate the countryside, especially the baobabs.  

As my second day on the road drew to a close I had the dilemma of pushing on to just before dark to reach a large city and have another night in a hotel or to camp in the slightly more unsettled countryside.  A shower and wifi would be nice, but I didn't want another night confined to a sweltering room.  When I came to a gas station an hour before dark that had an outdoor faucet that I could duck my head under and wipe off a layer of scum, I took that as a sign from the Gods that I ought to camp.  It was the first such faucet I had come upon. Most gas stations didn't even have running water in their toilets, just a bucket of water for the toilet.  So that faucet was a true gift.  

I waited until I reached 80 miles for the day to start looking for a place to camp, though I passed up some possible sites.  The closed to dark I for anyway, the better,  I still noticed shepherds with goats and others leaving the brush, walking home.  One never knows who might still be in the fields up to dark.  Just after 80 miles a high row of bushes appeared along the road.  I got behind them when there was a lull in the traffic and pushed a little further beyond the road behind some more bushes.  There was no baobab in the vicinity, but I was perfectly content.  





Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dakar, Senegal


I was growing concerned as I bicycled into Dakar from the airport when the only food people standing along the road were offering to the steady slow-moving stream of traffic was oranges stuffed in thin plastic tubes one on top of the other.  They looked bright and cheerful marketed in such a way, but I wanted more variety and substance to the roadside food that would be fueling me in the coming weeks as I pedaled from Senegal to Mali and beyond.  Where were the hard boiled eggs and bananas and fried tasty morsels that I expected to dominate my diet?  

The occssional actual food stands also featured oranges along with various melons. Not a banana was to be seen.  Was this going to be another tour in the tropics, like Cuba, where I wouldn't find a banana to put on my peanut butter sandwiches?  There were bananas in Cuba, but not for sale, as the food-starved locals had none to spare.  The hearty Sengeleae didn't look as if they were experiencing a food shortage.

At last, after twenty miles, I came upon a stand with bananas neatly arranged in piles of four.  It was  200 francs for a bunch with 536 francs equaling a dollar.  Also at the table were four-packs of coconut dough balls at half the price of the bananas.  I was delgihted to make a pack of each my first expenditure in Senegal.  I wasn't so delighted though to have biked twenty miles and be only half way to the sprawling port city of Dakar and its three million inhabitants.  I had been under the impression that it would only be a twenty mile ride.  Compounding my displeasure was that I would have to turn around and bike these forty dreary, traffic-congested miles again when I headed out of town to Mali after getting a visa and a yellow fever inoculation and a place to stash the box I had brought my bike in for our return.

For the first ten miles the terrain was flat and arid with scruffy withered brown vegetation waist high that I might have been able to camp in had I not arrived well after dark. It wasn't scenic, but at least it wasn't as desolate and forbidding as the desert in Mauritania to the north where my Turkish Air flight had stopped en route to Dakar.  I hadn't realized we were in Mauritania and disembarked from the plane.  It wasn't an uncommon mistake, as there was an official checking tickets in the terminal and I was saved. 

On my way into Dakar I passed through several uninviting small towns.  Litter lined the road, some in large decaying piles with a fetid odor.  It wasn't very appealing, and it didn't improve as I neared the city and it all thickened into a typical brew of African controlled chaos.  By Western standards it was squalor in all its permutations. West Africa is considered the poorest region of Africa, but it didn't appear much different from what I had experienced on my previous four bike forays about Africa. 

Two-wheeled traffic was mostly motorized, but no one seemed to object to my presence.  The truckers gave me soft toots of warning, not harsh blasts of get-out-of-my-way impatience, reflecting my early impression of the Sengelese at the airport.  So far people had a welcoming, rather than a predatory, nature. The cab drivers at the airport even let me be. Another positive sign were the occssional sellers of plants along the road, indicating an appreciation for some greenery in people's private spaces even if there was little to be seen in public.  


The air was thick was dust and fumes, not unlike China, where I didn't have to worry about putting on sun block with the air so congested with particulates.  There couldn't be any emissions check on vehicles here with many spewing black exhaust.

When the road became blocked by a fender-bender, there was no cacophony of horn-tooting as a long line of vehicles backed up in both directions. I and the motorcyclist brigade were able to get around and have the road to ourselves for a while.  The going was slow, but I had no concerns of being in a race with the sun before it made its descent, as I had gotten started right at dawn after sleeping on the floor of the airport.  My flight arrived at nine p.m.  Fortunately there were flights arriving and departing through the night and others sprawled on the floor.  I had slept the night before in the Istanbul airport during a twenty-hour layover on my lenghty roundabout Turksh Air bargain ticket.  There were seats one could lay on there, but I got a better sleep in Dakar laying flat on my folded bike box.  I was fatigued enough that not even the horror of having both my debit cards rejected by the airport ATM machines kept me awake.  I still had scars of a similar experience in Madagascar last year that caused me to have to leave my bike behind, though rescued by my Warm Showers host.

Before going to the airport bank after my sleep to change some dollars I brought, I gave the ATMs another try.  The first one again spat out my card, but with the second I hit the jack pot.  What a relief!  I needed a bunch of the CFA francs, the currency of eight countries, as the Mali visa would cost a huge hunk of them.  I had no difficulties finding the downtown hotel on tree-lined Pompidou Avenue that Lonely Planet referred to as backpacker central. 


I was eager for first-hand reports from the overland set, but I was the only traveler present, as it was now largely a rooming house for locals.  As in Madasgascar there had hardly been a white face to be seen since leaving the airport.  The hotel was overseen by a sunny seventy-year old who had sailed the world working as a merchant seamen.  He said he would gladly store my bike box, relieving me of having to search out the friend of a friend who had spent a year in Dakar eight years ago working for an NGO.  He lived quite a distance away, so I was happy not to have to carry the box further than I already had.  And if the box went missing during my six-week absence, I learned of a first-rate Lebanese-run bike store just a mile from my hotel from an ardent cyclist from Liberia that would no doubt have boxes to spare.

With one big concern taken care of, I headed off to the Mali embassy.  It was after two and I feared it might not have afternoon hours, as is often the case.  It was a pleasant four-mile ride stripped of all my gear on a four-lane highway along the rocky coastline to the embassy.  It was open and there was no wait to be processed.  Rather than having to leave my passport and return for it the next day, I had my visa within ten minutes, 65,000 francs lighter.

My NGO friend recommended the Institute Pastuer for my yellow fever shot.  It was another four miles on the north side of the city.  They didn't give them there, but rather at a hospital affiliated with the Institute at the southern tip of the city where it juts out into the Atlantic.  I didn't object to having gone to the wrong place as it allowed me to explore the city.  After being shuffled from one building to another, I found the vaccination center.  It only gave them from two to four and it was after five.  

That meant an extra day in Dakar allowing me to fulfill some of my sightseeing chores that I had planned to address at the end of the trip.  The first the next morning was to a giant statue on one of two hills in the city along the coast four miles beyond the Mali embassy that had become an emblem of the city.  The twin hills are known as the breasts of Dakar with a lighthouse on the other.


The statue dedicated to the African Renaissance was erected in 2010.  The opening ceremony attracted the heads of nineteen African nations.  The city spread out below was barely discernible through a thick haze of pollution.  A walkway along stretches of the coastal road was bikeable, though no one other than an occasional walker was taking  advantage of it.  There were several clusters of weight lifting equipment along the way that only a handful of guys were using and one playground with nobody enjoying.  Only seagulls were on the lone tiny beach.

All the bustle was in the city on its streets and in the market.  As I walked through the narrow byways of the market I was ignored by all except one older man dressed in a shiny blue traditional wardrobe.  He asked if he could buy my bike.  He had driven a taxi for years in Manhattan and could now live in relative luxury in his home town.  He turned from hustler to affable gent when he learned I couldn't give up my bike as it would transport me to Mali. 

I was the first in line for my shot.  As I waited I was joined by a dozen others, but not a traveler among them.  It was quick and painless, and the price too, just $12.  If I had gotten it in Chicago it would have been $250.  

I spent the rest of the afternoon out on Gorée Island teamed-minutes away by ferry.  This World Heritage site was a significant center to the slave trade.  I left my bike behind as there are no roads on the tiny island, just narrow walkways.  It's premier attraction is one remaining house where slaves were quartered before being sent across the ocean passing through the "Door of No Return."


But for me the highlight of the island was the unexpected presence of baobab trees.  They weren't as breathtakingly majestic as those of Madagascar, but they still exuded an otherworldly charm.  There were a few scattered around the island along with a mini-avenue of them on the climb up to the former fort.


The climb was lined on both sides with art by local artists, many of whom had been inspired by the baobobs. 


There was a wide variety of sculptures as well.  Janina would have been mightily impressed by all the creativity.  It felt like a safe haven being in an enclave of artists.


It took me ninety minutes at a very slow amble to make a circuit of the island. This small taste of escaping the urban mayhem of Dakar had me eager to commence my ride to Mali the next morning, where a couple of friends, one a local and the other an African American who I've worked with for years at Telluride, await me in the capital of Bamako, 900 miles away.  I'll shooting for a daybreak start, hoping the traffic won't be so thick leaving the city as it had been entering it.





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.