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.




Friday, December 22, 2017

"Tour de France 100, The Definitive History of the World's Greatest Race," Peter Cossins, Isabel Best, Chris Sidwells, Clare Griffith

In my library search for Peter Cossins' recent book on the first Tour de France, I discovered he had collaborated on a history of The Tour de France four years before to coincide with the 100th edition of The Race--"Tour de France 100, The definitive history of the world's greatest race."  I never tire of reading such books, happy to relive its many almost Biblical legends with the hope of new interpretations and new discoveries.   It has been a while since I had happened upon a history of The Tour, so I was delighted to find this book, especially one with the word "definitive" in its title.

Published in the UK by Casseel Illustrated, this coffee-table book is rich with photos and maps, including the routes of the first one hundred races as well as the one to come in 2013.  It is prefaced by forewords written by former winners Bernard Hinault and Stephen Roche, each lavishing praise on The Race, but not commentating at all on the fervor and devotion of the fans who line the route and mount decorations and signs all along the way that truly reflect its place in French culture. It's that phenomenal devotion that has drawn me to France the past thirteen summers to ride the route. Their superlatives do though affirm the book's title labeling it not simply the greatest bicycle race, but rather the "world's greatest race" of any kind.  

Their commentaries are followed by a brief twenty-two page history of The Race featuring some of its highlights and most prominent personalities.  The next two hundred pages are the heart of the book--one hundred two-page spreads on the "one hundred greatest stages" of The Tour.  They were very English-speaking-centric--its first excursion to the UK in 1974, the first Brit in Yellow (Simpson in 1962), the first Irish stage win in 1963 (Seamus Elliot), the first North American to don Yellow (Canadien Alex Steida in 1986).  Three of the stages were from the 1986 Tour, the first won by a North American--Greg LeMond.  Twenty-two other years merited more than one stage, but 1986 was the only year with three stages in this very arbitrary list of the one hundred greatest.  Twenty-three of The Races had no stage noteworthy enough to be included.

The descriptions of the stages amounted to just a few paragraphs, an initial brief description of the stage spread across the top of the two-page spread. A map of the stage filled the bottom two-thirds of the spread interlaid with four numbered paragraphs accompanied by a related small photograph that gave a little more detail on what qualified it as one of the greatest stages.  There was also a highlighted quote or two and a brief capsule of some set of statistics such as Prologue winners or legendary Pyrennean passes.  

The graphics were as integral to the book as its copy, thus explaining why four people were credited as its authors.  There were no bios given of them.  The two male members had written other books on cycling.  Chris Sidwells had written his own book on the history of The Tour released shortly before this called "A Race for Madmen."  It was riddled with errors, as if rushed into print to be the first book to hit the shelves for this centenary edition of The Tour.

This book was no less error-free.  Rather than the "definitive" book on The Tour, it may well be the most error-plagued book on The Tour.   The factual mistakes litter the entire book, from the earliest Tours to more recent Tours that I have personal knowledge of.  It states that Hinault attacked LeMond on the climb up L'Alpe d'Huez in 1986.  That's not true at all.  They rode up it together well ahead of all else.  There are even photos of LeMond with his hand on Hinault's back, as if giving him an assist.  They crossed the line all smiles beside one another, Hinault just ahead.

It is also gives misinformation on Michael Rasmussen leaving the 2007 Tour when in Yellow.  It states his team withdrew him for missed drug tests, when it was because he had falsified his whereabouts documents, claiming to be in Mexico training when he was actually in Italy, to avoid the drug testers who weren't likely to come after him if he were in Meixco.  It states Armstrong returned to The Tour in 2009 after a four-year absence, when he had only missed three Tours.  The book includes George Hincapie in a list of North Americans who wore the Yellow Jersey.  He did win a stage and once was virtual Yellow on the road until the Garmin team chased down the break he was in, but he never laid claim to the jersey, one of the biggest regrets of his career.  

Another faulty chart that is a list of debutants who won The Tour.  It failed to included Eddie Merckx, who won the 1969 Tour in his first attempt and in most dramatic fashion.  His stage 17 win in the Pyrenees by eight minutes riding the final 140 kilometers on his own may be the greatest exploit in Tour history and is one of those recounted in the book.  Merckx was in Yellow at the time, hardly needing to make such an audacious gesture.  At the end of the stage he pronounced, "I am happy to have achieved something that will be remembered, I think."  Nothing defined the Cannibal more than this.  So what if the book overlooked the fact it was in his first Tour.  It was wonderful to read about it again.

The book doesn't list the longest breakaways in Tour history, but falsely mentions that Thierry Marie's 234-kilometer break in 1991 was the second longest ever.  Eugene Christophe had one of 315 kilometers in 1912 and Albert Bourton rode on his own for 253 kilometers in 1947. And there could be more.

The book also bungles some of the most seminal moments in Tour history.  It states Federico Bahmontes ate an ice cream cone on the summit of the Galibier in the 1954 Tour.  This storied event by the great climber, who didn't like to descend, took place at the summit of Romeyere.  An event that did take place on the Galibier was the first fatality of a Tour rider due to a crash--Franciso Cepeda in1935.  The book, however, falsely places the crash way down on the flats "near Vizelle towards the end of the stage."

Histories often bungle the story of the legendary incident of Eugene Christophe breaking his fork on the Tourmalet in the 1913 Tour.  It happened shortly after he began the descent.  He had to carry his bike over ten kilometers until he reached a blacksmith shop in the small town of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan where he repaired his fork.  This book blames the break on a collision with a car.  That story has been fully discredited, made up after the fact to shift the onus from Puegeot, the manufacturer of the bike and sponsor of Christophe.  

Riders at the time could not receive any assistance when repairing their bike.  Christophe was famously penalized ten minutes for letting a young boy operate a bellows during his repair.  This book, as well as Cossins' book on the first Tour, neglect to mention it was reduced to three minutes.  The penalty was of no significance, as Christophe lost over three hours due to the repair. The book also makes the unsubstantiated claim that the penalty was levied by Tour director Henri Desgrange, who was generally in Paris supervising the newspaper that sponsored The Race and not on the scene.  Since the book is so filled with mistakes, whatever it asserts must be questioned.

It doesn't even always agree with its self.  In one place it states sixty riders started the first Tour in 1903 and in another gives a figure of 59.  Cossins must not have given the book much of an edit as the subtitle of his book on the first Tour is "60 cyclists and 19 days of daring on the road to Paris."  The book gets the facts wrong on the second Tour as well, stating it was five months after it finished that the first four finishers were disqualified for cheating, when it was actually four months.  Another minor mistake is giving Odile Defraye the age of 20 when he won the 1912 Tour and also referring to it as his first Tour.  He was 24 at the time and he had previously ridden the 1909 Tour.

The book may have been rushed to print before a proper authority could fact-check it, but there was at least a minimum of typos.  The only one I noticed was giving the year as 1997 when Freddie Maertens won an astounding thirteen stages while romping to victory in the 1977 Vuelta.

The authors do not explain how Paris could be a finish town 135 times, when there had only been 100 Tours.  Scanning the maps of all the Tours does not show it being used multiple times in a Tour.  The first nineteen Tours all started and ended in Paris.  In 1926 it started in Evian and ended in Paris.  The next eighteen editions returned to the Paris-Paris format, but starting in 1951 every start took place elsewhere until the 2003 Tour celebrating its one hundred year anniversary, repeating its start in the Paris suburb of Montgeron and including all six Ville Ètapes from that initial Tour.  So even if that 135 figure was meant to mean Ville Ètape, including both finishes and starts, the figure comes to 138.

The Tour is so rich in astounding exploits and lore, interlaced with French history, culture and geography, it is endlessly fascinating. Even books that get so much wrong, even labeling themselves as "definitive," are still a pleasure.   Keep 'em coming.  


Monday, December 11, 2017

"The First Tour de France," Peter Cossins

Peter Cossins justifiably argues that the inaugural Tour de France in 1903 was one of the greatest sporting events in history in his latest book on bicycle racing, "The First Tour de France, Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days on the Road to Paris."

Despite months of promotion, not many people came out for its departure just outside of Paris.  Among the spectators was an amateur racer apprenticing as a locksmith who went on to become one of the most storied racers of The Tour never to have won it--Eugene Christophe.  He noted in his diary that there were so few in attendance that it looked like an amateur race.  But by the second stage all the media attention on what a handful of cyclists were attempting attracted huge crowds along the race route. For the rest of the way they rode through corridors of fans through every town and village, even at night. 

The national frenzy The Race generated far exceeded the expectations of all, creating an instant phenomenon that continues to this day.  The race was inaugurated by the daily sports newspaper "L'Auto" in its circulation battle with the more-established "Le Vélo."  The year before "L'Auto" had sponsored a one-day race from Marseilles to Paris, longer than the older Bordeaux to Paris race, but shorter than the more prominent Paris-Brest-Paris race, the only one of the three that is still contested, though not as an annual event.  The success of the Marseilles race inspired "L'Auto" to top it.  There is a plaque at the restaurant in Paris where the idea for The Tour was conceived.

Unlike all previous races, this Tour de France was broken up into stages--just six for the first edition that covered 1,509 miles without venturing into the Alps or Pyrenees. The high mountains wouldn't be added until 1910, first the Pyrenees and then a year later the Alps. With all but one stage over 230 miles, the riders started in the afternoon or even later and rode through the night, arriving the afternoon of the next day.  For all but one, the riders had two or more days between stages, allowing them time to rest and recover.  Only after the shortest fourth stage of 167 miles from Tourlouse to Bordeaux did the racers have to set out right away on the next stage, as the organizers didn't want them sitting idle on the country's great national holiday July 14.

Cossins' highly detailed account of each stage relies on newspaper coverage of the time, not only that of "L'Auto" and "Le Vélo," but other newspapers as well.  He even quotes the "New York Herald," showing how it had drawn attention on the other side of the Atlantic.  It captured such national interest in France, it was front page news.  Such a huge throng was expected to greet the racers at the finish in Paris, the organizers delayed the start of the final stage in Nantes, 293 miles away, by an hour, knowing a strong tailwind would make them arrive earlier than anticipated.  

One of the pleasures of the book is the frequent doses of the flowery prose of "L'Auto's" editor and director of the race Henri Desgrange and his assistant Géo Lefèvre, who is credited with coming up with the idea for the race.  Desgrange exalted the riders as heroic figures who were doing the impossible.  He elevated the race beyond a sporting event to an opportunity to enhance the image of  France and to prove the capacity of man to exceed his limitations. Desgrange feared France was stagnating, if not becoming moribund.  He hoped the deeds of the racers would inspire the masses to revitalize themselves. Before the riders set out, he wrote in his typical hyperbolic style, "They will encounter the useless, the inactive and the lazy, on whom a gigantic battle is going to be declared to rouse them from their torpor, a battle during which they will become ashamed of allowing their muscles to atrophy and be embarrassed at having such a large paunch."  

By the time the race concluded, he couldn't have been prouder.  His circulation had skyrocketed and the event was lauded all round.  He had been a racer himself and was the first to set the hour record, but this stood out as his greatest achievement.  "I've had plenty of sporting dreams in my life," he wrote, "but I never imagined this could turn out to be reality.  To send these men out across the whole of France, to remember through their feats the joyous feelings that the bike can and must provide, to awaken hundreds of kilometers of the country what was in an inactive physical slumber, to show those who have become numbed, indifferent or fearful that cycle sport is still thriving, that it is still capable of astonishing us, of sparking the desire for emulation, energy and passion is what the Tour de France needed to do, and that is what it has essentially achieved."

Cossins was a lucky man plowing through edition after edition of "L'Auto" entertained by such lyricism and pomposity.  One of the biggest challenges of writing the book had to be deciding what lofty prose to include.  There had to be enough to warrant a book of the zesty writing of Desgrange alone. There is a near bottomless reservoir, as Desgrange oversaw the race for more than thirty years up to 1936.  Not only was he a man of strong opinions, he was also a tyrannical taskmaster, a DeGaullian figure before there was a DeGaulle.  

Desgrange spent most of the race in Paris.  Lefèvre was the man on the scene following the race mostly by train, but also by bike and occasionally by car.  The roads were so abominable, only one reporter is known to have stuck to a car the entire race.

The favorite, Maurice Garin, led from start to finish, ending the race a national hero. At the victory celebration in Paris, many in the crowd were in tears. Garin acknowledged tears of his own on at least one stage, the going was so difficult.  And then he no doubt cried again a year later when he won the race a second time but was stripped of the title for cheating, taking a train, as did the top four finishers.

There was suspicion of cheating in the first edition as well, even of Garin attacking a fellow rider. Race officials rarely had access to reliable motor vehicles to monitor the competitors.  They were on their honor to play fair, "which of course they seldom did," according to Cossins.  There were innumerable tales of riders being knocked from their bikes by other racers or fans.  Tacks were sprinkled on the road by riders and fans.  Of the sixty who started, only twenty-one finished.  The field was thinned down to thirty-seven after the first stage.  

One of the bonuses of the book was the mention of several obscure cycling plaques and monuments around the country further emphasizing The Tour's elevated stature in the eyes of the French.  They were in addition to the well-known monument to Desgrange on the Galibier and the plaque on the Cafe de Madrid in Paris where Lefévre proposed the idea of The Tour to Desgrange, that Cossins also mentions.  The second placed finisher, Lucien Pothier, has a square named for him in Cuy. A monument to the eleventh placed finisher, Jean Dargassies, stands in the town of Grisolles, where he worked as a blacksmith.  And there is a plaque to Theodore Joyeux in Tonneius honoring his ride around France in 1895, the first known such tour.  It includes a tribute from Desgrange.  They will all be on my itinerary for my ride around France next summer.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"Draft Animals," by Phil Gaimon

Those who appreciate unrestrained frankness on the world of cycling, unbound by what may or may not be supported by fact, will find great pleasure in Phil Gaimon's third book on his life as a pro cyclist, "Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)."  The recently published book about his final three years as a pro cyclist has already stirred attention on both sides of the Atlantic for Gaimon putting into print the old, much-discussed rumor that Fabian Cancellera had a motor in his bike in 2010 when he seemingly effortlessly rode away from everyone in the Tour of Flanders.

He offers up no additional proof other than that he heard that Cancellera had his own mechanic and that his bike was kept separate.  That is enough for him to conclude, "That fucker probably did have a motor."  He doesn't slip this in until page 120 of the 352-page book, but it sets the locker room tone of the many unsubstantiated accusations and flimsy grievances that fill the book that is broken up into 59 chapters, some as short as two pages.  Rather than the word "allegedly" he hopes to keep the lawyers at bay here and elsewhere with the word "probably."

Prior to mentioning Cancellera's "motor" he wrote he was "pretty sure" the Operation Puerto blood bags labeled "Luigi" belonged to Cancellera. That is another rumor that has been floating around for years that is too juicy for him to ignore even though later on in a footnote he says that Thomas Dekker, his former teammate on Garmin and confessed doper, who Gaimon likes, told him that he was "Luigi."  

He also uses "probably" to surmise that Lance Armstrong's coach Chris Carmichael "made his name on the wrong side of the rules," just throwing that in as an aside as if it is a personal grudge.  The book oozes with gossipy innuendos about those who displeased him, including his girl friend  who left dirty dishes in the sink and her clothes all over the floor.  He drops in the mention of a woman friend who tells him that Armstrong connected with her on Twitter and then drove more than two hours to have sex with her.  

He has it in for fan-favorites Chris Horner and Jens Voigt, disbelieving that they were clean considering the era they rode in and the teams they rode on and the results they produced. He finds Voigt particularly irritating.  He says that the two riders he would most dread being in a battle with on a climb are Nairo Quintana, because he is the best, and Voigt, because he would talk his ear off.  He repeats the rumor that Horner was "Rider 15" in USADA's case against Armstrong.  Gaimon was thrilled to beat Horner at the 2016 Redlands Tour in California, the second time he'd won it, as Horner entered the race cocky, actually calling it The Chris Horner Classic having won it four times.  Gaimon wrote, "As much as I hated him, I appreciated that Chris was riding so badly this year, because it meant he was clean."  

He quotes Horner as saying he would have won the Tour of Utah if the UCI had let him use his asthma inhaler.  Asthma TUEs (the very hazy Therapeutic Use Exemptions) are one of the great hypocrisies of the sport.  Nearly a third of World Tour racers have prescriptions for asthma inhalers, what he refers to as "a semi-legal performance enhancer." In his book "Pro Cycling on Ten Dollars a Day" he told that when he signed to ride for the Jelly Belly team the team doctor encouraged him to complain of asthma symptoms so he could qualify for an inhaler. This issue should receive as much clamor as Cancellera having a motor.  Caffeine suppositories also fall in the gray area.  He quotes a teammate as saying a team he had previously ridden for matter-of-factory used them for time trials and had no second thoughts about the matter.

One rumor that Gaimon refuses to endorse is that his teammate Ryder Hesjedal had a motor in his bike at the 2014 Vuelta.  When Hesjedal crashed and his rear wheel continued to spin like mad, many thought that was incriminating evidence.  Gaimon wrote that even though he didn't really like Hesjedal he wouldn't accuse him of having a motor, especially since he'd had such a lousy year not winning a race.  It's not the only potshot he takes at him.  At an early season training camp when Gaimon had a better time on a climb than Hesjedal, the former Giro winner refused to acknowledge that Gaimon was stronger than him on this day, giving the lame excuse that his water bottles were heavier than Gaimon's.  He also revealed that Hesjedal, as well as Dekker, both former dopers, liked to use chewing tobacco, a stimulant of a sort and remnant of the doping era.  Others too indulge, another of the many insider tidbits he reveals that one doesn't come across in cycling publications.

Gaimon also mentions the not widely known fact that Hesjedal received a one million dollar bonus from Garmin for winning the Giro in 2012 without saying if he shared any of it with his teammates. He's very open about money matters.  He earned the minimum of $50,000 his first year with Garmin-Sharp in 2014. When the team combined with Cannondale the next year there was no place on the team for Gaimon, so he returned to a US domestic team.  He rode well enough to be invited back to Garmin at a salary of $70,000, though when the contract arrived in the mail it was only for $65,000.  He was infuriated, saying he'd never forgive the team director Jonathan Vaughters for this outrage. He had no choice but to accept it.  He didn't get to race much that final year, increasing his fury with Vaughters.  

He lashes into Vaughters calling him an "evil hypocrite" and doubted that he had any "real friends."  He accuses him of staying in $800 a night hotels while nickel and diming his riders.   He doesn't trust anything Vaughters says, even that he doesn't drink coffee when he declines an invitation from Gaimon to meet for a cup.  He said a popular t-shirt among those who have ridden for him reads "Friends don't let friends ride for Garmin."  All this is highly inflammatory, sullying the general high regard accorded Vaughters, who pals around with former Secretary of State and presidential candidate John Kerry. It will stun many of those who ponied up a few dollars to support Vaughters a few months ago when his team lost a prime sponsor and looked as if it was going to be dissolved. The fan support of over a half million dollars was quite remarkable, and helped encourage a new sponsor to come forth with millions to save the team.

Another t-shirt Gaimon liked was one worn by his teammate Lachlan Morton that had a likeness of Armstrong's face and the words "So Dope," implying it pays off.  Gaimon once sold t-shirts, including one that read "Liveclean," that he had to discontinue when confronted by Armstrong's lawyers. Morton was a free-spirit who Gaimon said was "screwed" by Vaughters.  He left racing for a year, but Gaimon said Morton came from wealth so he didn't need to scrape to get by as he did when he left the World Tour.  

Another who had rich parents was Caleb Fairly, who Gaimon reveals was only on the Garmin team because his parents were pseudo-sponsors contributing a hefty sum to it, more than covering his salary. When Gaimon was seeking a team to ride for in 2015, he tried to recruit sponsors to contribute to his salary so a team could afford him, not an uncommon practice.  Another of his juicy insider tidbits that may or not have violated a personal relationship is that his friend Dekker had no monetary concerns, as he had a billionaire girl friend he lived with in LA.  Gaimon goes further with the revelation that one wouldn't find in the cycling press that Dekker has a gargantuan foreskin.

Gaimon tosses a few petty barbs at Dave Ziebriskie, an older teammate he didn't know very well.  He says he wasn't friendly the first time they met.  After he bought his car in Girona he discovered ketchup packets from McDonald's and Burger King in the glove compartment.  Zabriskie claimed to be the first vegan to ride The Tour de France. Those packets could have been left by anyone, but Gaimon wishes to imply that Zabriskie may be a meat-eater and patronizer of American fast food franchises in Spain.  He can understand though why the homesick can descend to going to McDonald's, as he has done it himself.    Gaimon gives credit to Zabriskie for pointing out one could see up women's dresses at the Barcelona airport when they walked by a reflective marble surface.

Andrew Talansky takes a hit for sending him back to the team car in a race for his favorite energy bar, refusing the extra that Gaimon had.  Taylor Phinney is taken to task for offering money to riders, but not him, to help him win the national championship race where he suffered a near career-ending crash. Gaimon also accuses him of being at fault in the crash for not knowing the course as well as he did.  He refers to Rohan Dennis as a "kind of a jerk" and is suspicious of how he managed to lose ten pounds and become a standout--"he either had a good nutritionist or a doctor with cortisone."  Regarding Bradley Wiggins he writes "marginal gains my ass," believing his Tour win tainted.  He vilifies the Schleck brothers as well, saying they somehow managed to slide under the radar when the dopers confessed, and have had no significant results in the post-EPO era.  He refers to Frank as a "washed-up doper."

He does have kind words for Dan Martin.  He acknowledges that he is a Real Talent, and one of the few riders who are genuinely better than him, but only because of genetics.  He uses a baseball analogy to explain his greatness, saying he was born on third base, but unlike many who are born lucky, he doesn't pretend he got to third by hitting a triple. Martin is humble about his good fortune.  Gaimon's genetics aren't so bad either.  Vaughters made him take a lab test before he would sign him. The person administering it told him his twenty-minute power-to-weight ratio was "probably" among the top fifty in the world.

Gaimon also has praise for Tom Danielson, even though he wanted to despise him for being a doper.  It was Danielson who recommended Gaimon to Vaughters after not being able to drop him on a long strenuous climb.  He invited him to train with him.  He was such a nice guy he took his clothes out of the drier and left them folded on his bed, even his underwear.  Danielson gave up his own aspirations to contend for the season-opening Tour of San Luis in Artentina in 2014 to serve Gaimon when Gaimon surprised everyone and won the first stage after getting in an early breakaway.  It was Gaimon's first race with Garmin and a storybook start.    He ended up finishing second overall to Quintana, still a great accomplishment.  

At the end of one mountain stage, where Danielson was instrumental in helping him preserve his standing, they collapsed into each other's arms in tears.  Later he tells of Danielson jumping off the podium to give him a big hug "with a tear in his eye" for his help to take the lead at the Tour of Utah.  Much as he likes Danielson, he quotes two of Danielson's teammates who were with him when he was dirty as saying, "Even the Spaniards thought Tom was 'abusing the medicine.'"

Gaimon cites other examples of the great gratification riders get from sacrificing for another.  At the Tour of Colorado, shortly after Gaimon had buried himself to help Alex Howes, Gaimon is rewarded with a hug and a kiss and a chorus of "thank yous" as Howe gushes tears.  Gaimon said he was crying too and is crying once again as he writes of it.  That is much more the essence of the sport than all the pettiness he inserts.  The editor of VeloNews, Fred Dreier, who knows Gaimon well and has worked with him, said he was glad he wasn't asked to edit the book.  It would have been a nightmare because as a responsible journalist he would have had to cut out an awful lot that Gaimon felt the need to include.  He no doubt would have rephrased Gaimon's description of the books by Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie as "ghost-written piece-of-shit" books, and his description of David Millar's book as a "flimsy effort to justify his doping."  He'd probably question if he truly thought it funny to comment,"fuck broccoli, or at least cover it in cheese"?  He surely would have deleted his irrelevant comments calling Dennis a jerk,  Zabriskie unfriendly, that he didn't really like Hesjedal and on and on.

He is too good of a writer to insert such juvenile asides.  He does score occasionally in his efforts to crack wise or contrive a colorful metaphor.  He deserves commendation for his comparison of tissues in a hospital waiting room to hay bales on race courses. His father is terminally ill from cancer.  When Gaimon visits him in the hospital, he's as relieved at the site of tissues as he is for the hay bales that cover dangerous objects when he's racing.  "Those fuckers know we're going to cry here," he writes.

He scores points too for referring to Henry David Thoreau as his favorite "poet/philosopher," but then loses a few for never quoting him.




Monday, November 6, 2017

The Home Stretch


The fold of my Indiana map happened to cut across Mount Vernon on the index portion of the map, so I didn't notice there were two Mount Vernons in the state.  It was my misfortune that the Mount Vernon I circled on the map wasn't the one with a Carnegie.  It was so small, it adjoined the equally small town of Somerset and even their combined populations wasn't large enough to warrant a library.  The Mount Vernon with a Carnegie was all the way at the bottom of the state, over two hundred and fifty miles away, so it would have to wait for another Carnegie crusade.

Even though the faux Mount Vernon took me twenty miles out of my way, it led to a truly idyllic campsite in a forest overlooking the damned Mississinewa River.  And it also led to some county roads that I had all to myself, though I wasn't particularly happy when one turned into gravel for several miles.  Gravel has become a fad for some, but not for me, though I accepted it as preparation for the unpaved roads I'll be riding in Africa this winter when I visit an old messenger friend who is presently teaching African history at a college in Liberia.

It was another heavily overcast day, but at least the wind was minimal.  My county road riding ended at the town of Walton and its Carnegie on Highway 35 that cut right through the middle of the small town, thus carrying the name of Main Street.  It had a recent addition to its side, which became the new entrance, with the old entrance barricaded.


Heading north up 35 I passed two Carnegies that I had visited in 2012 when I took a ride to the Marion library, as it was the only library in the Midwest with Samuel Abt's book "A Season in Turmoil" about the 1994 bicycle racing season, Greg LeMond's last and the the year Lance Armstrong wore the rainbow jersey of the World Champion.  I was on a Samuel Abt quest at the time, searching out his eleven books, which I completed there at Marion.  That was early in my Carnegie quest when they were secondary to other reasons for my rides.   Still, I made a point of searching out the Carnegie shrines.  The one in Royal Center was unique back then, as entrenched in its roots as any, having no WIFI.  It wasn't open this Saturday afternoon, so I can't report if it has joined the Internet age.



The Carnegie in Winemac had closed at four, before I reached it, but three teen-aged boys were sitting under the porch of its addition out of the rain all using the WIFI.  I overheard one say, "My mother and I are both on parole for that shoplifting we got caught at."  



The rain that had them under cover was just a light drizzle, but after an hour in it I was dripping wet and my tights were saturated.  There was no hope of any sun penetrating the day-long murk.  Camping wouldn't be much fun this night.  When I saw a motel on the outskirts of Winemac I thought it might be a mirage, too good to be true.  I ducked into a Dollar Store for some beans and chocolate milk.  An older guy asked where I was headed.  I told him Chicago, but thought I'd spend the night at the town motel.  He gave me the surprise news that there was another motel fourteen miles up the road in Knox.  There was a state forest along this stretch that attracted visitors, explaining the presence of motels.  I was delighted to be able to get fourteen miles closer to Chicago.  I was hoping to make it home the next day, and if I stopped in Winemac I'd be over a hundred miles away, which I'd managed only once on this ride.

A couple miles before Knox I saw a motel, but there was no sign for it nor an office.  A woman was exiting the unit at one end, which I presumed was the office.  She said this was no longer a motel, that the units just rented by the month.  My heart sank, but then she added, "What you're looking for is further up the road.  You'll see an expensive chain motel first, but you wouldn't want to stay there.  Keep going and you'll find what you're looking for."

Knox was a multiple-traffic light town, much bigger than Winemac.  It was nearly dark when I passed the swank two story inn.  After two lights when I hadn't found the cheaper motel, I stopped at a restaurant and asked about it.  "It's past the BP gas station," the receptionist told me, "but you wouldn't want to stay there.  You're better off going back to the nicer hotel."

The parking lot of the cheap motel was packed, but there was a "vacancy" sign on the office.  The hefty, tattooed woman who answered the door told me they were all filled up.  I wasn't sure if she was telling me the truth or if she didn't want a scruffy, dripping wet cyclist sullying one of her not so luxurious units.  She told me to try the other hotel, which had had just one car out front.  I told her it was beyond my budget and asked if it was possible to pitch my tent behind the motel.  She said it'd be okay to camp in the forest behind it.  I'd grabbed a discarded newspaper from a trash can earlier in the day in case I needed it to dry my shoes. The rain had stopped so I had begun to dry a bit.  It would have been somewhat ignominious to spend my last night of this two-month ride in a motel, so I took more than a little satisfaction to be defying the elements once again.  I had been reminding myself during these dreary, rainy stretches of the coda of May and Lloyd Anderson, founders of REI--"Life is better when you spend it outside."

And the next day as I rode through more rain, including several hard downpours, the words of Will Rogers, who I'd heard Keith Carradine quote, echoed through my mind--"Being on a horse is the best thing for the insides of a man," knowing that it is actually being on a bike.  The rain and the sprawl with traffic lights a regular feature slowed me enough that I was concerned about finishing off these final 86 miles before dark.  I rode without pausing for a break the final fifty miles from Crown Point through Hammond and one suburb after another to Janina's house, making it right at dark.  

I had very mixed feelings, happy to be getting home, but feeling suffocated by all the traffic and nothing but man made constructions along the road after two months of tranquil rural, small-town scenery.  After 3,600 miles my legs romped along, not needing a rest during that four-hour non-stop home stretch run. I felt as if I could continue on for another four hours or more if need be.  It had been another noteworthy ride and by far my biggest Carnegie haul ever, with sixty-eight new ones in five states to go along with a dozen or so I had previously visited.  I had also finished off two states--Colorado and Illinois.  I could exalt in riding more than twice the distance I had intended.  It is a temptation I always feel and don't often get to fulfill.  




Saturday, November 4, 2017

Gas City, Indiana


I didn't have to go hunting for a laundromat after my cold, rain-drenched night of camping to dry my gear, as the temperature sky-rocketed twenty degrees to sixty the next day and there was even a couple hour window in the afternoon of sunshine.  I draped my sleeping bag over my bike while I was in one library and used the handlebars as a clothes line for socks and other garb.  

Well before nightfall thick, grey, ominous clouds moved back in and so low in the sky rain seemed imminent again.  Even though it was nearly an hour until dark I was taking no chances of getting soaked again, so when I came upon a forest with a cable across an entry point, that was my gateway to a quiet, secluded campsite. I unhesitatingly slipped around the barrier and pushed deep into the wooded sanctuary, grateful for the luxury of a trail, not having to wend my way over and around fallen trees and prickly bushes as is the customary wild camping procedure.

The temperature remained close to sixty, so for the first time in days I didn't have to put on my wool cap and pull the hood of my sweat shirt over my head or drape my sleeping bag over my legs and add a couple more layers to my torso as I sat and read and ate. I could lean back in my campchair with nary a worry in the world.  The only sound was a golf ball-sized walnut dropping once or twice.  Indiana could well be called the Walnut State, they are so ubiquitous.  Towns recognize their prominence, frequently naming one of their main streets Walnut.  Three Carnegie Libraries in the state are on a Walnut Street.  Main Street is by far the most popular address for a Carnegie, with thirty-five.  Otherwise, only Washington Street with five, registers more times than Walnut.  Presidents are more popular than trees with Jefferson, Jackson, Madison and Van Buren, and only by coincidence, Clinton.  Maple, Poplar and Locust are the other tree-named streets with a Carnegie

The Carnegie in the large city of Muncie on Jackson Street was very presidential and almost pompous with six grand columns and the Latin inscription "bvilt anno dominin 1902" just below "This building the gift of Andrew Carnegie"  with "Law Science Prose" to one side and "Art Poetry Mvsic" to the other.



One had to go around the back to enter.  It is now a research library, primarily genealogy, and only open three days a week. The city's two branch libraries have regular hours and are in the lending business. The city's largest bike store was just down the street.  My front tire is wearing thin, but since it didn't have the heavy-duty touring tire I prefer in stock, I passed on their lighter-weight racing tires, trusting  my tire  had two hundred miles left in it, about what I have left to ride before returning home.  I had replaced the rear tire a month ago in Bloomington before the Hilly Hundred.  No flats though in over 3,000 miles.  The only mechanical has been breaking a rear derailleur cable, easily replaced on the spot.

From Muncie I headed north to a cluster of six towns with Carnegies in the heart of the Indiana Gas Boom of 1887, where the largest deposit of natural gas until then was discovered along with the first giant oil reserve in the country.  The gas was found by coal miners, who at first didn't realize what it was.  The boom didn't last much more than two decades, but the soil was so agriculturally rich, the region continued to thrive.  

The still vibrant Gas City, with a huge Walmart distribution center on one side of the city and a large Dollar Store distribution center on another, pays tribute to its heritage with streets signs mounted on top of mini-oil derricks for over a mile on its Main Street and also out front of its Carnegie on Main Street.  It had an addition to its side.  Among the messages flashed on its message board out front was "Libraries lift lives."



Marion, on the Mississinewa River, one letter longer than Mississippi, is the largest city in the area and had earned a $50,000 grant for its Carnegie, as had Muncie and Anderson. Their architect rendered a bland, uninspired design, especially compared to the spectacular beauty of the other two.  The best part of the library is the contents of the museum that now resides within it.  The new library is attached to its backside, where one enters both the library and the museum devoted to the history of the region.  
A sign on the door and a sign on the circulation desk offered locks to bicyclists, implying this was a city caught between small-town and big-town sensibilities.  "Pvblic Library" was spelled out in puny letters over the entry to the original library, while high above in much larger lettering was "Art Literatvre Mvsic" with the old style "v" rather than "u."



The Van Buren Carnegie is an unaltered basic red brick model identified with a simple, but bold "Library" on its facade.  It distinguished itself with the grave out front of a cat that had abided in it for years.



The Converse Carnegie is also in "As Was" condition, so much so that a sign out front with the wheelchair emblem on it offered a phone number to call if one needed help to use the facility.  Plaques on either side of the entry state the library was built on the site of the first house in Converse in 1847 and that the library is on the National Register of Historic Places.



Montpelier, like Gas City and Muncie, had a speedway on its outskirts.  Indiana with its world-famous speedway in Indianapolis could just as easily be known as the Speedway State as the Walnut State, rather than the Hoosier State.  The Montpelier Carnegie was another unaltered large single room library with high ceilings, solid wood tables and book shelves and circulation desk that took one back in time.



The local church had posted a notice on the bulletin board offering free bread on Thursdays from 3:30 to 5.   The town bank had the distinction of having been robbed by John Dillinger in 1933, a year before he was gunned down by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago at the age of 31.

The distinguished Hartford City Carnegie had an addition hidden from those entering its front door to its backside.  It's front had the extra ornamentation of a pair of bundles of grains and an open book in its stained glass window.  A sign on the elevator door in the addition read, "You must be 18 or have a disability to use."



It maintained a small memorial to Carnegie with his portrait over a fireplace flanked by flags.  The mantle contained two framed postcards of the library dating to its opening and several leather-bound books.  One could sit in a padded chair with a book-designed fabric and put one's legs up a matching footstool such as should be standard issue in all libraries.  It was hard to part from such comfort.  I was surprised they were unoccupied.



There are another dozen Carnegies in the northeast corner of the state awaiting me, but I'll save them for an Illinois-style completion of all the Carnegies that have eluded me along the eastern border of the state down to the Ohio River.  That will make a fine three-week ride as I just completed in Illinois.  Now is the time to end this two-month ride that began in Telluride and ended up being twice as long as I thought it would be, making it all the more glorious.