Saturday, April 27, 2019

“Riis, Stages of Light and Darkness,” by Bjarne Riis

For a stoic Dane who adamantly didn’t wish to make a spectacle of himself with tears when he finally made his public confession to taking drugs, as had Richard Virenque and Erik Zabel and many others, Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour de France, cites many instances of having been brought to tears in his memoir “Riis, Stages of Light and Darkness,” published in Danish in 2010 and then two years later in English.   He does manage to hold off the tears in his televised confessional press conference in May of 2007, six years before Lance Armstrong caved in with Oprah, but he does admit to tears before going on stage when his wife wishes him well and almost succumbing to them when asked how it felt to tell those close to him that he had been doping after denying it for years.

He had hoped finally admitting to his drug-taking would give him some peace, but it continued to weigh on him.  His team press officer, Brian Nygaard, was a close friend and could sense he didn’t feel fully unburdened even months later.  When he expressed concern for his well-being Riis wrote, “I couldn’t hold back my feelings, or the tears any more. ‘It has been hard,’ was all I was able to say before I started crying.”  He cried when he told his team at the start of The Tour de France in London six weeks after his confession that he thought it best that he not accompany them during the upcoming three weeks of racing even though he was the man in charge, as he didn’t want to be a distraction with the press continuing to make an issue of his drug-taking and the prevalence of drugs in the sport.

Tears accentuate many of the key moments of his life.  His parents divorced when he was young.  Riis split his time living with his father and grandmother, rarely seeing his mother, who had gone to live on a commune.  When his father would spend time with a girl friend, tears would stream down Riis’ face when he’d have to say goodbye to his father.  His father was an amateur racer. Riis earned a new bike from him when he won his first race as an eight year old.  He brought his father to tears when he won The Tour de France, and his wife too. Riis speaks of tears at the finish of the 1989 Tour when he rode as a domestique for Laurent Fignon, who lost to Greg LeMond by eight seconds after starting the final stage, a time trial from Versailles to Paris, with a seemingly insurmountable advantage of fifty seconds.  Fignon’s devastating loss had Fignon in tears and many of his teammates, but not Riis.

Though he remained immune to tears then and succeeded in suppressing them during his drug confession, he lost the battle when his father died.  His father’s death affected him so strongly he didn’t feel as if he could compose himself to give a eulogy.   His long-time physiotherapist could tell what a state he was in and offered to give him a treatment.  As he prodded his body, Riis let out all his pent-up emotions and sobbed for fifteen minutes.  His fifteen-year old son was in the room.  Riis could see he was in a state of shock never having  seen his seemingly stoical father in such a state. But it opened the door to them to express their feelings with one another.

It wasn’t the first time his son had seen him cry, as there were tears when he and his wife told their two sons they were getting divorced a year after he won The Tour de France.  Riis had fallen in love with a Danish handball champion he met at the 1996 Olympics.  They had tried to avoid each other after establishing a friendship at those Atlanta Games that never went behind a kiss, but their connection was too deep and genuine to keep them apart.  When they reconnected several months later, she as a fellow elite athlete could fully commiserate with Riis’ struggles to maintain his Tour-winning form.  The year after his win he dropped to seventh, as his young teammate Jan Ullrich won The Race.  He was eleventh the following year in the Festina-marred edition.  An elbow-injury forced him to miss the 1999 Tour and led to his retirement.

There are tears sprinkled though the ten plus years the book covers of Riis’ career as the owner and director of a team.  Two more were drug-related.  Both he and Iván Bssso are tearful when Riis has to dismiss him from his team before the start of the 2006 Tour when Basso was linked to the Puerto blood-doping revelations. The wife of Bo Hamburger, another of his riders, is brought to tears when he tested positive for EPO and was suspended.  There were tears of happiness all around for his rider Nicki Sørensen when he won a stage in the 2009 Tour.

Unfortunately the book was written before Peter Sagan joined his team and Oleg Tinkov became the owner, two dynamic personalities who would have further enlivened the book.  As it is, it was plenty rich in material.  When he entered the pro peloton in 1986 he gave no promise that his career would warrant a book.  He was fortunate to land a position on a small Luxembourg team.  Despite no wins in three years Fignon recognized in him the qualities of a strong domestique and recruited him to his System U team in 1989.  He later praised Riis as “the most loyal rider I’ve ever come across.  He’s never tried to ‘steal’ anything from anyone, and never tried to trick anyone.  Guys like Bjarne are hard to find in this game.”

Riis finished 95th in his first Tour in 1989, which he comsidered “not bad.”  He used the same words to describe his 107th place in 1991 after not finishing in 1990.  He began taking EPO in 1993 and saw its immediate effect finishing fifth.  Until then he’d relied on cortisone and caffeine, which also elevated his performance, but not to the extent of EPO.  His wife was aware of his drug-taking and was accustomed to seeing him give himself injections, but she was leery about EPO and thought that was going too far.  At that point Riis limited what he let her know.

Besides the drugs Riis had another secret weapon, an herbal green tea that he would swig before the finish of a race, giving him a quick energy boost like taking a caffeine tablet.  Occasionally he would open a teabag and swallow its contents. Once the particles went flying in the wind.  George Hincapie noticed and blurted, “What the hell was that Bjarne?  Gun powder?”

Another of his ploys was outftiing a bike with a large chain ring that was smaller than normal in the 1996 Tour when he ended Miguel Indurain’s five-year reign. He switched to the bike just before the climactic Huatacom climb so he could trick his adversaries into thinking he was much stronger than them being able to ride in his large chain ring when they were all in their small ring.  “I could see it in their eyes,” he wrote. “Each time I attacked, it was in the big ring, while they struggled in their small chainrings.  It was that “secret gear” that did it for them.”

He rode the last seven kilometers on his own, winning the stage while wearing the Yellow Jersey that had he assumed seven stages earlier in the Alps.  He extended his lead over his 22-year old teammate Ullrich and pretty much secured the win.  He described the last few kilometers as being “painful. Very painful.”  But as a true cyclist is “let the pain be my friend.”  Riis traced his relationship to pain on the bike all the way back to his first race as an eight-year old. He said he could ignore the pain in his legs then simply by thinking about the new bike that was awaiting him if he could beat the five others he was competing against in a time trial.  He started last and overtook all of them.  Bradley Wiggins recently commented on his podcast that pain is okay, but not suffering.

I’ve been hoping this book would turn up at a library that I’ve dropped in on ever since it came out, but could wait no longer when I noticed the ebook available for $4 on Amazon.  It was well worth the wait, though he made no mention of Christian Vande Velde who rode for him for three years from 2005-2007 before joining the inaugural Garmin team. The translation by Ellis Bacon, a noted English cycling journalist, flows effortlessly other than a few jarring Englishisms here and there—bloody and sod-all and rubbish.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Eastern Tennessee

Tennessee was the beneficiary of twenty Carnegie Libraries.  Fifteen of them still stand.  Four of them lay along a fifty-mile stretch in the far east of the state in a valley of a sort just west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Amidst this stretch of Carnegies is the birth place of Davey Crockett on the outskirts of Limestone, also the new home of artist friends from Chicago, Michael and Wendy, who moved there a year ago seeking warmer climes and cheaper property values than Chicago and also within range of the Appalachia Trail, which Wendy had hiked from start to finish a few years ago.  It continues to beckon her and inspire her painting.

They found a luxurious home built into a hillside on a quiet rural road of pastures and forests and small churches. Ever since their move Janina and I have been eager to visit their new idyll.  We had contemplated joining them for Christmas, as we have done over the years, but opted to delay until more amenable weather for outdoor activities.  It would have made a nice 1,300-mile bike ride there and back, but we didn’t have the time for such a luxury, so made a drive of it.  

We were able to go via Shelbyville, outside of Indianapolis, where Michael had recently erected a towering sculpture that has been receiving accolades world wide.  It stands in front of the town’s visitor center along the Big Blue River and represents the wind and rain that characterize the region.  We could see the swirling metal tubes representing thunderheads atop the edifice from half a mile away as we approached.  It was magnificent even in the overcast afternoon gloom, and positively spectacular when illuminated after dark.  

We had helped load more than a dozen of Michael’s smaller sculptures, including a cooker and a couple of fountains, that had dotted their yard in Berwyn for their move to Tennessee and were curious to see them in their new habitat.  The sculptures hadn’t been fully arranged, as their property is still taking shape as they finish building a studio and plug away at other projects, including restoring the original farmhouse that they plan to convert to a retreat for artists.  

Before searching out the area’s Carnegies we devoted Day One of our visit to a rigorous five-hour hike up a rugged steep trail ten miles from their home that brought us to within a few miles of the Appalachia Trail.  We didn’t encounter another soul, allowing Wendy’s dog Max to scamper along without leash.  As we approached the summit we noticed an article of clothing beside a boulder. It was Max’s sweater that Wendy had removed to sit on when they last hiked the trail three weeks ago.  She hadn’t realized she left it behind.

Janina and I would have stopped at the Carnegie in Johnson City, twenty-five miles north of their home, before we arrived, but we missed a turn and didn’t care to double back.  I was happy to make a bike ride of it, and luckily I did, as we would have been needlessly delayed trying to find it. I had to ask half a dozen people where it was, including two people at the city hall, before I found someone who knew.  

It was a mystery to most, as the Carnegie Library hadn’t been the town library, but rather the library on the grounds of a large complex for disabled veterans.  It wasn’t until I dropped in on Johnson City’s library that an older librarian, summoned by a younger, did I find someone who knew of the Carnegie, though she had to resort to the internet to find its precise location.  As always, my search allowed me to explore the environs, stopping in at an art gallery of work by veterans and also at the town’s original library that bore a resemblance to a Carnegie.  It now served meals to the needy. I was there at lunchtime and was invited to join them when I ducked my head in to see if this could possibly have been the Carnegie even though it bore the name of a judge with a plaque out front honoring him, not Carnegie.

There was no mistaking the Carnegie a couple miles away, not only by its pillars and stately elegance, but also with “Carnegie Library” chiseled into its facade.  It was now a lecture hall and was in use when I slipped in to give it a peek.  

The other three Carnegies were to the south of Wendy and Michael, another fifty-mile circuit that I did the next day.  The riding was fabulous on the lightly travelled hilly roads.  I could positively romp along with my bike free of panniers and some 3,000 miles on my legs from my recent ride around California and Arizona.

It was another circuitous effort to find the first of this set of three Carnegies.  It was on the campus of Washington College in an isolated outlying area of Limestone.  There was no direct route to it through the hilly terrain.  When I found the small campus of just a handful of buildings early in the morning there was no evidence of anyone being there other than a lone parked car that could well have been abandoned.  It looked as if the school had closed down.  It wasn’t until later that I learned it had become an evening school for adult education.  There was an empty lot at the location Wikipedia gave as the address of the Carnegie.  It was actually up a hill and camouflaged by two wings added in the 1920s converting it into an administrative and classroom building.  

It was built from a grant given to two college libraries in the area, the other Tusculum College in Tusculum.  The latter was a still breathing, fully-functioning college and so was the library, which had had a large expansion to it in 2004.  

A few miles down the road the larger city of Greeneville complete with a Walmart and a recently opened Aldis had outgrown its Carnegie over forty years ago.  The local newspaper had taken possession of it and used it for storage.  One of the librarians at the new library had been a member of the Girl Scout troop that helped transport the books from the old library to the new, half a mile away.  She was very happy to share her memories of that experience and her youth in the Carnegie. She felt lucky to have become a librarian in the town she grew up in.  I often meet librarians who grew up in the town where they serve and have had a long-time intimate relationship with their library.  There is no holding back their fond recollections.

I had visited ten of the other Carnegies in Tennessee on my two rides through the state to the School of the Americas Vigil.  The only one I have yet to get to is in Jackson in the far west of the state.  If we didn’t have to be back to Chicago in time for a class Janina has been taking at the University of Chicago on Moby Dick, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, we might have included it on our drive back.  Fortunately not, as I do prefer to arrive at a Carnegie after a long bike ride.  It’s not far from the Mississippi where a few other Carnegies on the other side of the river await me.  Jackson will exert some pull, as it will allow me to complete my fourth state in this Carnegie Derby to go along with Illinois, Indiana and Colorado.

On my return circuit to Michael and Wendy’s I met up with Janina and Wendy at Davey Crockett’s birth place, a state park along the Nolichucky River.  It’s campground was nearly half-filled with RVs.  The cabin of his birth in 1786 had been replaced by a replica.  The small visitor center had a map showing the several places Crockett had lived in Tennessee before his death in 1836 at the Alamo.  He served in Congress after he had moved to the far west of the state.  When he lost his seat in 1835 after voting against the Indian Relocation Act pushed through by Andrew Jackson, he ventured to Texas and joined up with those living in the territory seeking independence from Mexico.  He was a well-known, virtual folk hero even then, but his martyrdom at the Alamo truly elevated him to a larger than life figure.  There have been more than twenty films about his life, including four silent films while he was still alive and another with John Wayne playing him.

He is neck-to-neck with Daniel Boone as the most glorified frontiersman. Boone was a Kentuckian who died in 1820.  Though they were both painted by the renowned portraitist Chester Harding, they never met.  A plaque near his birthplace stated that Crockett was two or three inches taller than the 5’8” Boone, as if that settled the issue of who was pre-eminent.

We could have spent days hanging out with Wendy and Michael and further exploring the region.  We’d especially like to join them when they set up Michael’s portable cooker on the Appalachia Trail and offer barbecued chicken and more for all the hikers.  It’d be fun, too, to spend a couple of Sundays dropping in on the multitude of small churches that abound in the area to hear their  preachers and size up their congregations.  Wendy caused a stir when she suggested to the church she chose to join that they put up a sign saying “Welcome to All” with a rainbow on it.

We were afforded a glimpse into the local culture when we dined at a restaurant that had a Wednesday senior catfish special of $6.99.  The place was packed.  We were so absorbed in our meal we hardly had time to study the many wall hangings and our fellow diners, though Janina had the sense they were all staring at us.  We biked the six miles to the restaurant and had nothing but pleasant reactions with what little traffic there was.  Wendy is already making a name for herself, being the lone member of her church who bikes to the services.  She and Michael will soon be integral members of their community. Janina and I will try to make an annual visit.