Wednesday, December 26, 2018

“My World,” Peter Sagan

As energetic and fun-loving as Peter Sagan is and with a creed of “Live every day,” it is a wonder he would take the time to sit down and write a memoir in the prime of his career at the age of 28. He, of course, didn’t.  Though Sagan may masquerade as the author of the book, there is no disguising that is was written by another and that person is British cycling journalist John Deering, who also ghost wrote Sean Yate’s superlative memoir “Its All About the Bike.” Deering tries to write it in Sagan’s voice, and he largely succeeds, but it is interjected with Englishisms hardly a part of Sagan’s Slovakian vernacular, including the four b’s—bloke, bloody, bollocks and bugger. 

The book breezes along as if it’s one long conversation with asides such as, “Motorycles.  Don’t get me started.  I’m in a good mood.  Maybe I’ll come back to them when I’m in a foul one.”  He was talking about the Ventoux stage of the 2016 Tour de France when thick crowds forced a motorcycle to halt causing Chis Froome to crash and sprint the final meters to the finish without his bike. But Sagan fails to return to the subject of motorcycles..  Another time he says, “Somebody told me the other day that Belgium produces so much manure that it is the only country in the world that has to export it.  Is that true?  Hell, I don’t know.  I’m a cyclist, not an agro-economist.”  A quick google search would reveal it is not the only country to export manure, but the editors of the book let it stand, just as they do his comment that while in Brazil for the 2016 Olympics he watched the sun set on the Atlantic, the ocean it actually rises from there.

Though the book has the tone of being quickly dashed off without too much reflection or perspective, it does recount with some detail his biggest wins—the three consecutive World Championships from 2015 to 2017  (a feat no one else has accomplished), his Flanders and Paris-Roubaix wins and a few of his Tour stages victories. He resorts to YouTube on occasion to refresh his memory. 

He also goes into depth on the fourth stage of the 2017 Tour when he elbowed Mark Cavendish in the sprint causing him to crash and break his shoulder, for which he was banned from The Race, despite being its star attraction. He cites the discovery of a camera angle shot from behind them that shows Cavendish coming up from behind and hitting his right forearm with his left hand brake lever causing his elbow to jut out and knock Cavendish down, vindicating him.  Unfortunately it didn’t emerge until much later.  While The Race continued without him, Sagan quickly arranged the rental of Aristotle Onassis’ premier cruise ship, , “the most perfect floating palace” he called it, for a week and partied with 28 of his best friends.  He doesn’t go into much detail on his week at sea other than that he took a tumble and knocked out some teeth.

He was distraught that so much was made of the incident and the accusations that he purposely elbowed Cavendish, who he respects and considers a friend.  In a rare instance of profanity, he says, “For fucks sake, let it go.  It’s racing.”  He harbors no grudges and hardly has a critical word for anyone throughout the book other than Bobby Julich, who was his coach when he was riding for Bjarne Riis and Oleg Tinkov.  He blames Julich for over training him and being excessively meddlesome, undermining his success,  accusing him of “destroying” him with his “persistent interventions,” even wanting to know the color of his shit.  It was a relief when he spent a few days with his director Riis at his home in Switzerland and didn’t have to speak to Julich every two minutes. Team owner Tinkov and Sagan didn’t always get along, but Sagan appreciated his flamboyant personality, especially in contrast to the ultra serious Riis, who considered laugher an unnecessary expenditure of energy. Sagan is very sorry that Tinkov has left the sport and hopes he will return.

Sagan remains so positive and upbeat through the book he makes little mention of the pain and suffering that is a common theme of most cycling memoirs—how riders deal with the extreme effort required of them and how they come to savor the daily dose of suffering they must endure, whether training or racing.  He just makes an off-handed reference here and there.  As he neared the finish at his first World Chamionship win in Richmond, Virginia he admits his “calves were screaming at me with all the accumulated pain of 260 kilometers,” but leaves it at that.  Before his Flanders win, when he drops Michal Kwiatkowski he “senses he is going through the pain I had suffered three years previously.”  He accepts it as part of the sport and doesn’t go on and on attempting to wax poetic as so many do.

Since he was a dominant rider from his introduction to the sport, he doesn’t overly exalt in his triumphs. His favorite recurring expression throughout the book is that there are a hundred stories in every race and his is just one of them.  There is not a single mention of tears brought on by a great victory nor tears from a devastating loss.  His only acknowledgement of tears is hypothetical, saying the reaction of his Tinkov teammates to the mid-season firing of Riis by Tinkov was a cross of old women wailing, wringing their hands at a funeral and kids frolicking in a play ground.  

He gives glimpses of his fun-loving nature saying “something you may not know about me is that I have a thing for fire extinguishers.”  After his wedding when he moved into his freshly built house he celebrated by spraying it with a fire extinguisher.  It took a gang of professional cleaners three visits to rid the house of the mess.  He mentions another time in a hotel lobby when he was having a disagreement with someone it suddenly came to a halt when he made a move for an extinguisher.

Another of his favorite pastimes is when dining out with his cronies having everyone guess what the bill will be with the person furthest off having to pay it.  He’s always happy when his older brother Juray, who is a teammate, is part of the crowd, as he’s not very adept at the game.  He’s older by a year and when they were growing up he was the racing fanatic, wanting to watch it on television, while Peter wanted to romp about on his bike.  He’s a strong enough cyclist to have won the Slovakian national championship, as has Peter.

The book is dedicated to his son Marlon, but he is not included in the sixteen pages of glossy photos, nor is his wife nor their flamboyant semi-royal wedding nor their celebrated “Grease” routine, both of which are available on YouTube.  Before their marriage two months after becoming world champion he credits her with giving him reserves of strength he didn’t know he had.  She shared his exuberance for life and was an ambitious business woman.  But after their wedding she receives just two brief mentions, one of merely that it was nice to have a mid-season break with her and to be able to put his “feet up” (a cycling term for rest) at their home in Monaco.  But there is no mention of their divorce, which was announced at The Tour last year, as the book was in its final edit, with her being pretty much edited out of the book.

Nor is there mention of his pinching the derrière of a podium girl at the 2013 Tour of Flanders while she is kissing the winner Fabian Cancellera, another incident that brought him much unwanted attention.  He could have easily used it as an example of his joie de vivre and playful nature and that he meant no harm and was just playing to the crowd, as it was in plain view of everyone.  It too is there on YouTube.  But he chooses to ignore it.

Sagan is establishing himself as one of the all-time greats of cycling.  He shares the record with Eric Zabel of six wins of The Tour’s Green Jersey.  He’d already have his seventh if he hadn’t been so unceremoniously kicked out of  the 2017 Tour.  No one doubts he will claim the record for himself and will most likely pad it to an insurmountable total.  He could continue to be a dominant force for years.  There will be many more biographies of him in the years to come. This early “autobiography” will be a minor footnote, but for now it provides a glimpse into the man.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

“The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling and a Legendary Tour de France,” by Daniel de Vise

One might be fooled into thinking that “The Comeback” is going to be an in depth, no-holds-barred biography of Greg LeMond, full of remarkable detail and fresh revelations, when within the first few pages he tells of LeMond as a thirteen-year old being felated by his older neighbor Ron, who his parents had entrusted him to on a ski outing.  His molestation originally came to light over ten years ago when Floyd Landis was defending himself against having doped in the 2006 Tour de France.  LeMond urged Landis to tell all, and revealed to him this secret he had kept for decades, and how it had weighed upon him.  “Free yourself,” LeMond told him.  Landis had so little respect for LeMond that one of his henchmen called LeMond and threatened to tell the world of his molestation if he didn’t back off from saying he was convinced that Landis had doped as he said of Armstrong.  

De Vise expands on the molestation story, saying that it lasted less than a year and consisted of  Ron slipping into bed with LeMond three or four times until LeMond’s mother banned him from their home for being an unsavory character.  Years later LeMond hired an investigator to track down Ron, but he fled to Italy when he learned LeMond was seeking him.  De Vise doesn’t say what motivated LeMond to do this or what action he intended to take if he found him or how this episode impacted him. 

It is a salacious incident he unnecessarily gives prominence, while neglecting perhaps the most significant aspect of the story, as he fails to mention that Ron lingered so deeply with him that when he was standing on the podium on the Champs Élysées after winning the 1986 Tour de France, becoming the first American to do so, he was wondering if Ron were watching, as Richard Moore revealed in his superlative book “Slaying  the Badger” on the 1986 Tour, which De Vise references from time to time.  

DeVise centers his book around the 1989 Tour, LeMond’s great comeback from a hunting accident in 1987 when he was shot by his brother-in-law and nearly died.  LeMond won the ‘89 Tour in most dramatic fashion by eight seconds, overcoming a 50-second deficit on the final stage time trial from Versailles to the Champs Élysées.  Many consider it the most exciting Tour ever.

DeVise is a first-rare writer, having won a Pulitzer and written other books, but he doesn’t have the depth of cycling knowledge of Moore, a former Scottish racer who competed in the Commonwealth Games before becoming a cycling journalist, to write a comparable book.  He makes a fine journalistic effort, spending hours interviewing LeMond and his wife, as well as LeMond’s father and all the principals of the story other than Landis and Armstrong, who declined his interview requests.  But without a deep-rooted cycling consciousness he doesn’t go beyond the essentials of the story.  

He wishes to convey the intimacy he had with Greg and Kathy by referring to them simply by their first names through the book, something he also does with Laurent Fignon, though he wasn’t available to be interviewed having died in 2010 at the age of fifty.  Fignon is a central character of the book as well, so much so the title of the book could have been “Comebacks,” as Fignon likewise was making a comeback in the ‘89 Tour, going for his third win.  Bernard Hinault is a nemesis of both of them through the ‘80s, but is only referred to by his last name.  

DeVise brought some knowledge of the sport to the book, as his father, an immigrant from bicycling-mad Belgium, was a devotee of the sport, enough so that he bicycled across the US as an eleven-year old with his father and younger brother and did a little racing himself.  DeVise admits he has never been more than a recreational cyclist, but he grew up watching his father race at the Northbrook velodrome, a suburb of Chicago, and watched what he could of LeMond’s exploits in The Tour de France beginning in 1983 with his father until he left Chicago in 1990 to pursue a career in journalism.  Away from his father he lost interest in cycling.  Armstrong rekindled his interest with his win in 1999, but DeVise soured on his dominance.  He conveys a strong prejudice against Armstrong in his book, regularly denigrating him, justifying his premise that LeMond is the “True King of American Cycling.”

If not for the hunting accident, LeMond would most certainly have accumulated more than three Tour wins and been one of the all-time greats of the sport along with five-time Tour winners Eddie Merckx and Jacques Anquetil.  LeMond was further derailed with advent of  EPO in the early ‘90s taking over the sport and preventing him from keeping up.  LeMond claims ignorance of the new drug.  Fignon, too, was oblivious to this new magic potion and was befuddled that he could no longer compete.  The decade of the LeMond-Fignon rivalry, two prodigies of the bike,  produced many epic battles that DeVise fully recognized would make for a fine book.  He doesn’t fail in that, despite his superficial knowledge of fhe sport. At least he doesn’t masquerade as something he isn’t,  acknowledging that though he grew up with a father who was versed in all aspects of the sport. he wouldn’t be able to put a spoke wrench to use, an operation not much more complicated than repairing a flat tire.

He vindicates LeMond for being a near lone voice early-on questioning Armstrong’s success.  It took an extreme toll on him, almost costing him his marriage. He had a two-year bout of depression, overeating and drinking, culminating with running off to Arizona from his home in Minnesota with a woman.  He paints LeMond as a sympathetic, if not admirable, figure throughout, though he does say he was cursed with the “attention span of a gnat.” 

He concludes the book with LeMond questioning the success of Team Sky, as he once questioned the success of Armstrong. He doesn’t accuse Sky of having found a new wonder drug,  but rather the dubious supposition that they must have motors in their bikes to be able to maintain the effort they do.  He said he had evidence that their bikes all weigh 800 grams more than all other bikes, implying they must have motors.  Richard Moore,  or any other self-respecting cycle  journalist, would not give such an accusation any credence.  

Those with knowledge of the sport know that motors exist, but know that no team or rider would dare risk such an innovation, knowing that they couldn’t get away with it for very long and that it would be the ultimate desecration of their career, much worse than taking an illegal accelerant.  It casts a pall upon whatever esteem DeVise might have built up for LeMond.  It is as questionable a way to end the book as raising the issue of LeMond being molested as a youth was to begin the book. It was as if he didn’t trust in the magnitude of the story and the quality of his writing to gain a readership, resorting to injecting some controversy to bring attention to the book, a totally unnecessary tactic.  LeMond deserves better.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

“How the Race Was Won,” Peter Cossins

Bike racing is “chess at 150 beats per minute” is a central thesis of Peter Cossins’ book “How the Race Was Won,” attempting to elevate the sport to a battle of brains as much as legs.  The chess comparisons run rampant with the final line of the book “like chess—at 400 watts.”  He elicits agreement from two of the principal voices in his book, Matt White, who orchestrates the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team, and Nicolas Portal, a former French rider who is one of the generals of Team Sky, though neither show any evidence of knowing anything about chess other than that it is a cerebral game where one must think ahead, an esteem they are happy to confer upon their sport.  Neither of them though, nor Cossins, make comparisons to specific pieces or gambits, not even referring to a team leader as a King who must be protected, or discussing versatile riders who can execute extraordinary feats, such as a Knight maneuvering around others.

As an examination of race strategy, the book argues there is much more to the sport than simply riding hard.  There is no disputing that, but to compare it to the intricate game of chess, where every game came permutate tens of thousands of ways, forcing one to continually strain his brain, is a fanciful, unjustified metaphor that ought to outrage any aficionado of the game.

Teejay Van Garderen, another prominent voice in the book, prefers to compare bicycling racing to boxing.  Rarely is there fisticuffs, just elbows thrown from time to time, but the crux of the sport is trying to knock out (drop) one’s adversaries, pounding and pounding on the pedals, wearing out those one is riding against, trying to make them give up, to succumb to the pummeling, forcing them to essentially quit, falling off the pace.

Joe Dombrowski, another American Cossins prevails upon to explain the sport, further undermines his premise that bicycle racing is a cerebral endeavor.  He says, “A lot of great bike riders are kinda stupid.  You know, having nothing going on up there, just primal instinct.”  When Cossins asks Van Garderen if he agreed, he laughed and said, “I think some of the best cyclists in the peloton aren’t very intelligent and I reckon that’s often to their advantage.” 

Cossins is far from the first to compare bicycle racing to chess.  It is an all too common analogy. As a lifelong fan of cycling who has been reporting on it going back to the 1994 Tour of Flanders and the author of several other books on the sport, he ought to know better than to resort to this tired, cliched comparison.  Despite his expertise, he admits to being “often clueless as to precisely how a rider has won a race.”  This book was an exercise of talking to the principals of the sport to find some answers.  

Some of those he consults give tiny clues, such as Thomas De Gendt, a Belgian breakaway artist who this fall gained great notoriety by biking cycle-tourist-style 600 miles back to Belgium after the Tour of Lombardie with his teammate Tim Wellens.  He reveals that one way to extend one’s lead in a breakaway is going extra hard through a feed zone, knowing that when the peloton passes through it will be slowing to pick up their musettes. Peter Van Petegem says one needs to be a “nasty bastard” throwing elbows and shoulders to maintain one’s position, especially in the Classics, to come out victorious.  Cossins takes from Laurent Fignon’s book that one must never grip the handlebars hard on the cobbles.  These are all tricks, not chess-like strategy, just as a Canadian national champion once told me that he always pushed a little harder with his left pedal because it was the side his heart was on, figuring there must be more blood on that side of his body.

A racing friend who knew I was reading this book, whose subtitle is “Cycling’s top minds reveal the road to victory,” said that as far as he was concerned the largest single factor to one’s success is the “size of his balls.”  Cossins doesn’t say that, but he does dwell considerably on one’s ability to suffer, which could be related to machismo. David Millar says it is better to dish out the suffering, setting the pace, than to have it dictated, being in arrears trying to keep up and wondering how much longer one can take it.  Van Garderen recommends that one try to pass the pain one is feeling on to others, to “make them suffer more than you are.”  Bradley Wiggins simply advises, “Just try and soak up the pain, not show it.”  There’s no secret to success here, just ploys to endure, getting into “the mind set of suffering,” as Van Garderen phrases it.

The stronger rider doesn’t always win, even in time trials, where there is a modicum of strategy—how to pace one’s self and knowing the course.  It is possible to outwit one’s rivals, or bluff that one is suffering more than one is or bluff that one is stronger than one happens to be.  Racing can be compared to poker, not only bluffing, but taking outrageous, unjustified risks.  Portal much prefers the calculated, chess approach.  

White credits Johan Bruyneel and the Postal Team, which he rode for with Lance Armstrong, for pioneering recon, making more than a token effort to scout a race route.  “They caught a lot of teams out,” White said, knowing when to attack.  

Try as he might, Cossins doesn’t unearth any great secrets, as it’s unlikely that riders or directors would reveal ploys known only to themselves that make them successful.  The temptation might be to divulge bogus advice, to lead others astray, such as Sky claiming that riding on the front in a single line instead of being in the pack keeps riders cooler, “preventing the body’s core temperature rising to a level that would produce an added drain on physical resources.”  It would seem that the added effort, not being fully entombed out of the wind, might increase the body’s core temperature.  Sky has long trumpeted “marginal gains” as their key to success, which Cossins scoffs at as a “smokescreen.”

The greatest secret to successs would seem to be training methods and nutrition.  Geraint Thomas has said one of the keys to his winning The Tour was having two training camps at altitude, rather than the usual one. Sky has invested two such camps in Froome in years past, but none this year as he recovered from riding the Giro.  If one is asking “How the race was won” as regards his Tour de France, the answer could well have been on Tenerife. Yet Cossins doesn’t comment at all on training or nutrition.  

Though the book may not be as thorough or as well-conceived as it could have been, it is still a worthwhile contribution to understanding the sport, rich in  tidbits that give insight into life in the peloton.  White revealed that he once listened to music on his headphones to help him survive an hour-long climb in the Giro.  Dirk Demol, a director for Trek, won Paris-Roubaix in 1988, a rare year when it didn’t finish on the velodrome, but rather in front of the headquarters of the race sponsor La Redoubte.  Phil Anderson, riding for Motorola, was the first rider to be equipped with a two-way radio, implanted in his helmet.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

“Higher Calling,” Max Leonard

“Higher Calling” might be the ultimate title for the memoirs of someone who has made the bicycle his life, but Max Leonard has appropriated it for a book on the allure mountains have for cyclists, mainly of the racing variety.  It proves to be a worthy premise for probing the psyche of cyclists while recounting many noteworthy events from racing lore.

Leonard approaches his subject with the tenacity and thoroughness of an investigative reporter, not simply relying on old newspapers and books, but going to the scene of many of the events he recounts, seeking a story behind the story.  He makes multiple visits to the Col de la Bonette, the highest road of The Tour de France at 9,193 feet, gaining a true intimacy of the climb, hanging out with the crew that is clearing the winter snow covering it and returning along with the Giro d’Italia on May 28, 2016.

He gets a wave from Joe Dombrowski, an American climbing specialist riding for the Cannondale-Garmin team at the time, who is part of a six-man break.  He has become a friend and is a recurring theme in the book, as Leonard seeks understanding of the climbing mentality.  One of their get-togethers is an afternoon at the French National Sports Museum in Nice.  Among its collection of bikes is one alleged to have belonged to Eddie Merckx.  As they speculate as to its authenticity, Dombrowski takes a photo of it and sends it on the spot to Eddie’s son Axel, who was Dombrowksi’s director for two years before he graduated to Team Sky, asking if he can verify it.  Such is the personalized detail of this most readable narrative, full of fascinating tales as was the previous book by this British author, “Lanterne Rouge,” about the last place finisher in each year’s Tour.

He recounts the legendary story of Alphonse Steinès, assistant to Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange, visiting the Col de Tourmalet in the Pyrenees to see if it would be suitable for the 1910 Tour.  Steinès encountered snow and barely survived getting over the pass in the dark of night, but informs Desgrange that it would be perfectly fine for The Tour’s first incursion into the high mountains, a year before the Alps were attempted.  Leonard goes beyond the dramatics of the story, detailing Steinès’ career working for the car manufacturer Martini testing hydraulic brakes on the cols of the Alps.  Steinès may be a minor footnote in Tour lore, but the bicycle manufacturer  Fiftyone just named its latest bike for Steinès.  It sells for $16,700 and was profiled in the October issue of Procycling.

One of the great services Leonard accomplishes in this book is getting to the bottom of the fable that the great French climber Rene Vietto cut off his toe during the 1947 Tour and that it ended up in a bar in Marseille.   He manages to track down the toe and even includes a photo of it in a jar of formaldehyde, label and all.  It once was in a bar, the Chez Siciliano of a military friend of Vietto’s, but now resides in the kitchen cabinet of a former bicycle shop owner who has a vast collection of Vietto memorabilia in his home.  Leonard compares it to a rarely glimpsed medieval relic of the saints, a bonafide link to the “Golden Age” of cycling.

Leonard establishes that Vietto’s small toe was amputated following The Tour, not during it, as some histories report.  Vietto injured the toe in Paris-Roubaix several months before The Tour.  It never fully healed and became septic to the bone.  Vietto received a shot of penicillin on a rest day during The Tour to cope with the pain.  Cutting it off would have been too severe of a medical procedure in the middle of a race.

Vietto is better known for a photo of him sitting on a ledge in tears during the 1934 Tour, his first as a 20-year old, when he gave up his wheel to his team leader Antonin Magne, who’d won the 1931 Tour and would win again in 1934.  Vietto was a climbing sensation, going on to win the Mountains competition that year and was a threat to win The Tour, though he was a domestique.  The photo is a potent symbol of the commitment and sacrifice that define the sport.  In his research, Leonard tracks down Vietto’s son, Jean, a truck driver, who says that his father never regretted his choice of giving up his wheel, and that the photo truly immortalized him.

Leonard also spends time with the the grandson of George Mallory, the Englishman who may have summitted Everest in 1924, twenty-eight years before Sir Edmund Hilary, but died near the summit.  His grandson George  invented the concept of Everesting, riding up a hill, any hill, time after time in a single session until one accumulates the vertical feet of Everest—29,028.  He first accomplished it in 1994 on a 3,300 foot peak in Australia near Melbourne.  Making the climb would be a feat for many.  Doing it eight times in a single go epitomizes the allure and challenge of climbing and the suffering cyclists willingly inflict upon themselves to accomplish something out of the ordinary—whether to claim some sort of bragging rights or for simple personal satisfaction. 

This leads into a commentary on Strava, the Swedish word for “strive,” a widely popular program that archives the times of cyclists on climbs all over the world.  Thousands of cyclists have enrolled enabling them to compare their times to everyone else’s and compete to have the best time on any climb.  Retired racer Phil Gaimon is on a mission to accumulate as many bests as he can.  The program was created in 2009 by two guys on Harvard’s rowing team, one of whom was Swedish.

The breadth of his research includes Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” and Don DeLillo’s second book “End Zone” a novel about football, though he identifies it as “End Game.”  That is just one of a small handful of faux pas. He refers to Pau as a “hilltop town.”  This frequent Tour Ville Étape is a large city near the Pyrenees.  It sprawls out on a small rise above a river, but would never be mistaken for a hilltop town. He refers to Hollywood Westerns as Far West movies.  But his cycling knowledge is most astute and far-ranging, which is the essence of this superb book.  Just as after “Lanterne Rouge,” I eagerly await his next.