Truth and Soul

Cover of Joe Parkin's book A Dog in a HatA Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium by Joe Parkin.

The April 17, 2000 issue of VeloNews closed with a typically fervent Bob Roll screed entitled “51 Things To Do Before You Die”. Part Martin Luther’s The Ninety-Five Theses, part Roy Batty’s Tears in the Rain speech near the close of Blade Runner, part Unabomber Manifesto, Roll lays out a grandiose array of activities which collectively define the essence of soul cycling (or at least replicate Bob Roll’s life’s quest for enlightenment). There’s quite a bit of intercontinental travel involved, expensive equipment purchases, some tasks are quite physically painful, other items involve a serious investment of time, and more than a few may result in being arrested if witnessed by law enforcement personnel.

Of course, a few of the things to do before you die are quite simple to achieve. Every list needs some low-hanging fruit to motivate the masses. The easiest to check off is this one:

34. Count eight seconds. Imagine, Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by this margin in a race that is three weeks long.

Done? Well, now only have 50 Things To Do Before You Die.

And thanks to VeloPress, the 2nd easiest task to achieve on the list is only $21.95 away:

36. Learn from Joe Parkin’s life story.

I’m not sure if Roll’s list had anything to do with Parkin finally putting pen to paper to detail his 6 years of hard living/hard racing in Belgium, but it’s completely apropos that Bob Roll penned the foreword seeing as how it was Roll’s words which propelled a wide-eyed, 19-year old Parkin to venture across the pond to Flanders and metamorphize into the wraith-thin Lone Biker of the Apocalypse Roll randomly encounters along the Schelde canal bike path five years later.

And what exactly is there to learn from Joe Parkin’s life story?

The Joe Parkin Archives of Professional Cycling is rather sparse. In fact, the collective contents would hardly fill up a decent-sized messenger bag:

My souvenirs are a handful of photographs, two pieces of fan mail, one Tulip team riding jacket, and a trophy from my amateur days. The magazine articles and photographs of me can be counted on one hand. The money has long been spent.

There’s not much too to glean from the physical evidence, but Parkin’s prose fills in all the cracks . Quite simply, the man’s tough as nails and chose the absolute hardest way to break into European professional cycling: just showing up in Ghent with a bike, a duffel bag of clothes, three months worth of cash, and a phone number to call scrawled on a scrap of paper. It sounds remarkably familiar to the tale of a certain Mac Canon–in fact several key characters play a role in each tale (Allan Peiper, Johan Lammerts, Eddy Planckaert)–except Parkin chose to sign on the dotted line and remain in Belgium for 4 1/2 years of professional cycling.

It’s quite a challenge for a cyclist with talent and desire to come to grips with the reality that victory at the professional level is nigh unlikely if not out and out impossible and that careers can be made in service of others who win, and win consistently. Finding exactly where and how he could fit into a team became Parkin’s mission.

And here’s some random, fun facts I learned from Joe Parkin’s life story:

  • Flemish fans are a fickle bunch and only like winners. Joe Parkin finished just one Monument of Cycling in his career (the 1988 edition of Paris-Roubaix, 26 minutes back in 74th place and about 1 foot shy of DFL honors) and that race is also the only time he crossed the finish line of a bike race covered in beer. Said Parkin, “…we were the clown show that existed only to be heckled”.
  • What might have been. Every cyclist’s 20/20 hindsight lament. And Parkin had a couple of major letdowns. First, Parkin was feeling pretty frisky in the 1988 world pro road championships but was denied the chance at an endgame due to an untimely flat. He was Claude Criquielion’s shadow that day, and had to witness the Bauer/Criquielion/Fondriest meltdown from the sidelines instead of the other side of the fence. Second, Parkin nearly pulled off a top 15 finish in the 1991 world pro cyclocross championships. You just have to read it to believe it, but the stars nearly aligned that day until Parkin crashed spectacularly with about 10 minutes to go. And it never hurts to have Adri Van Der Poel as a teammate on your pro road team to train with and receive some insider ‘cross knowledge. It would be ten more years before another American, Marc Gullickson, did finish in the top 15.
  • The hair. Evidently, Parkin influenced some big-gun Euro pros (such as Eddy Planckaert, who had a bizarre conversation with Parkin about handguns) to embrace what Parkin called his “white trash” look. Business in the front…party in the back. But man oh man, Joe, you just have to know when to stop. At least Parkin sees the humor in it these days.
  • Ronny Van Holen. I joked about my obsession with Mr. Van Holen a while ago, and lo and behold he turns up as Parkin’s teammate for two years. And now I know the rest of the story.
  • This is outside the realm of A Dog in a Hat, but how exactly does Johan Lammerts end up on Scott-BiKyle in his last year as a professional? Just click on his name and read his palmares. Also on that team was Roger Honneger who ended up 7th in the 1991 pro ‘cross worlds in which Parkin crashed out of the top 15 with 10 minutes to go. And yet another reference from the ‘91 pro ‘cross worlds is that Parkin lined up next to the only other American in the race, Kent Johnston, who may or may not have been rocking a BiKyle rig. A small world indeed.
  • Praise from Belgian director sportifs is as rare and precious as diamonds.

I had a notion in the late ’80s that I should get my ass to Belgium and find out once and for all if I had the grit, predilection, and temperament to find my way as a professional. It never happened. Not even close. But I’m glad that brave souls such as Parkin headed to Flanders, lived like monks, and truly tested themselves in a manner beyond anything possible on this side of the Atlantic.

Bob Roll considers Parkin’s work “the most authentic ever written about making a two-wheeled living as a pro cyclist in Europe” and I’m inclined to agree. He also chimed in with “feel free to fuck off and die” if one takes umbrage with Parkin’s tale (how’s that for literary criticism!). I’m sure he’s tracking down those who gave the book a lowly 2 star rating on Amazon this very moment. But I’d venture that anyone who’s a devotee of the Bobke Strut experience is appropriately wired to truly appreciate living (or re-living) the squalid truth of late ’80s Euro pro shenanigans.

Fever Panacea

Tour Fever by J.P. Partland.

I’ve been known to attend professional baseball games from time to time. As a wee youngster, living within sight of the New York City skyline, my parents took me to Shea Stadium so I could watch Tom Seaver pitch and Dave Kingman belt towering home runs. Fast forward several decades, and a couple of times each summer I’ll attend a local AAA ball club’s immaculate downtown stadium if only to put away a few beers, admire the precision mowing patterns in the outfield grass, and watch the sun set. One of the games I attended this past summer was like no other I’d ever experienced, however, due to the Israeli couple who joined us at my wife’s invitation. These people hadn’t a clue about baseball. They knew of its existence, they knew a ball was involved, but that’s about the extent of their knowledge. So how does one go about explaining a sport to an absolute neophyte? At first thought the rules seem straightforward, but then all the oddities and quirks come up. This seemingly simple exercise becomes a protracted discussion of why your first two foul balls count as strikes, but you can’t strike out by fouling additional balls into the stands so you can hit an additional 25 foul balls out of the park and still keep swinging, or how sometimes a baserunner can be called out by stepping on the base vs. needing to be tagged. Oh, and the rudimenatary concept of “bat” and “base” needed explanations, too. And absolutely out of my mind, I dared bring up ground rule doubles, spitballs, Abner Doubleday, why the Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, etc. The things one takes for granted when the sport is around you for a lifetime.

So this brings me to J.P. Partland’s Tour Fever, which deftly explains the Tour de France to befuddled Americans much better than I can impart baseball elucidation to befuddled Israelis. If your average American was asked to name one bike race the Tour de France would be the likely answer. And if pressed to name a professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong would also be the typical response. But put that same person in front of a television of an in-progress Tour de France stage and they’d almost certainly be absolutely perplexed about the machinations taking place before their eyes. And at this point, if I ran the universe, J.P. Partland would magically appear on the scene and sell a copy of Tour Fever to this spectator whose level of professional cycling knowledge is equal to the “What’s a bat?” line of questioning I fielded from my Israeli acquaintances.

If you’re enough of a fan of professonal cycling (particularly the Tour de France) that my blog makes sense to you then you’ll likely be well-versed in every aspect of Partland’s book which explains the Tour from the ground up. It sets the stage by discussing a familiar sporting icon (Lance Armstrong) and his pivotal crash and recovery on Luz-Ardiden during his 2003 TdF triumph. From there Partland explains the history of the Tour, how exactly one goes about winning the Tour, the purpose of other competitions besides the yellow jersey, what actually makes professional cycling a team sport, the physical and mental qualities of an elite professional cyclist, the Tour route itself, race tactics, the technology of cycling, and handy tips about becoming a Tour de France spectator (through print resources, television, the Internet, or the ever ambitious in-person option). The 224 pages of Tour Fever, chock full of text, a glossary, and indices, are essentially a primer into Professional Cycling 101, and provide the building blocks to dissecting and analyzing a sport alien to our cultural sporting norms. If you grew up in a cycling-mad environment such as Belgium this knowledge would likely be absorbed just as an American soaks up baseball. Absent of such an upbringing, Tour Fever is a handy reference for making sense of an initially perplexing sporting dynamic. And while this book concentrates on the Tour de France, the principles learned here can be applied to other cycling events throughout the season. Many Americans are oblivious to the cycling calendar in months other than July, and hopefully piqued curiosity will lead spectators to embrace other races throughout the long road season.

While the aforementioned nuts and bolts of the Tour de France experience are laid out lucidly, what struck me as particularly engaging are Partland’s snippets of information regarding his introduction to the sport as well as his discussion of how exactly an American so inclined to race progresses from his first road bike to toeing the line as a Tour de France pro. I’ve begun to notice some familiar last names appearing in the Junior and Senior ranks…names like Phinney, Stetina, O’Reilly, Simes, Barczewski, Chauner…all promising cyclists whose parents were at their prime while I was learning about the sport. The remaining 99.99% of us, however, don’t have parents who’ve raced professionally (if at all) to set an example and provide tutelage from the time the training wheels come off, so we find our way to the sport via random, serendipitous paths. Partland’s fascination with Euro cycling as a teenager struck a chord with me since our gravitation to the sport followed strikingly familiar paths. While becoming bored with BMX in the 1970s, I cobbled together a barely functioning rendition of a track bike (thankfully with a coaster brake, a la Little 500 rigs) from bikes recovered from the dump, donned a TI Raleigh cap, and began to roar around my neighborhood in pursuit of speed. One day a guy on a shiny road bike, fully kitted out like a pro, happened to roll through my stomping grounds and I jumped on his wheel on my jalopy. Much to his consternation, he could not drop me as he began to turn the screws. And much to my surprise he stopped and began quizzing me about my heap. His advice…”Dude, get your parents to buy you a racing license and a real bike”.

Additionally, I think it’s particularly rare to read about how one becomes a professional cyclist, much less how one gets to compete in the Tour. Partland goes into the state of competitive cycling in this country, its challenges, and the process of progressing from amateur to pro. Based on how many times I’ve had to field questions at work, from relatives, or from random people who see me in cycling garb why I’m not racing the Tour de France it’s an aspect of our sport which deserves attention and outreach. It’s common knowledge how professional baseball/basketball/football players progress to the pinnacle of their sports, but to the lay person in the US the sport of professional cycling is truly enigmatic to the point where it’s surprising to find out that people actually make a living from competing. No matter what one thinks of Tyler Hamilton, several years ago he gave a funny interview in which he had to explain to his in-laws just how exactly he was going to support his wife. They didn’t believe riding around on a bike was a vocation, but they’d probably never ask Michael Jordan what he did to support his family while playing for the Chicago Bulls.

And once one has completed the prose portion of Tour Fever, there are the lists of professional cyclists who’ve made Tour de France history. Every North American cyclist who’s ever started the Tour (through 2005) plus every person/team gracing the final Tour podium from 1903 through 2005 are chronicled year by year. For those curious about professional cycling’s history, the names gracing the latter portion of Tour Fever are the jumping off point for attaining one’s TdF Ph.D. Begin poring through web sites, books, magazines, films, and videos to discover the many hallowed expoits of these individuals and teams who’ve made TdF history for over 100 years. Embrace your inner TdF geek. After all, one never knows if winning a fortune on Jeopardy hinges on who donned the final green jersey in the 1963 Tour. Of course that would entail lucking into a Cliff Clavin-esque category selection.

If there was one thing lacking from the prose, it’s visuals. The only photograph within the entire book is the cover shot of Lance Armstrong resplendent in yellow. Professional cycling is such a visually stunning sport and anecdotes throughout the book could have benefited from a few strategically placed images to complement the text. I’m guessing that the cost of copyright clearance for iconic TdF images may be prohibitively expensive.

And on the subject of visuals…and serendipity…and the truly small world of people who race somewhere in the vicinity of the 12K dreamer realm is this post I made back in March of this year. Yes, that’s me front and center in purple looking a bit worse for wear. And to the right, in the solid red jersey, is none other than J.P. Partland. For the sake of disclosure, I’ll admit that I knew his name and could recognize him from my days of racing in the Northeast primarily through his proliferation of hair kept in a ponytail, but I can honestly say that I’ve never spoken a word to him prior to somewhat recent email communications regarding a possible review of Tour Fever. Who would have thought that our paths would intersect once more nearly 15 years later courtesy of “the internets”. What is apparent is that J.P. Partland is a kindred spirit afflicted with a fever, fervor, and fascination of the Tour de France…and Tour Fever is an able steward for those just embarking on understanding the Tour or for the more grizzled aficionados who’ve felt the Fever wain in recent years.

A Tall Man in a Low Land

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A Tall Man in a Low Land cover“I piss on Belgium.” - Alexi Grewal

Things weren’t going too well for brash American 7-Eleven professional Alexi Grewal amidst the 1986 Three Days of De Panne. Gloom. Rain. Misery. No results. No sight of the sun since leaving the United States. Grewal’s fragile pysche cracked while the team sought pre-stage respite from the elements in a cafe, and the Het Volk reporter, there ostensibly to pen a puff piece about 7-Eleven’s first full-blown Euro season, instead was handed dynamite via Grewal’s mouth as he fled the premises in a tizzy. If only Harry Pearson penned his homage to Belgium about 10 years earlier. Armed with the insight of Pearson’s extensive travels in both Flemish and Walloon Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land may have prepared the wide-eyed 7-Eleven pros for immersion in perhaps Europe’s most maligned country.

Harry Pearson, a British sports columnist and travel writer, deftly reveals the quirks, oddities, and charm of Belgium gleemed from several months of travel through seemingly every city or village in the country. Additionally, seemlessly intertwined within Pearson’s narrative is a steady dose of Belgian history impressive in both depth and breadth. If I ever make an appearance on Jeopardy, I am confident I will kick anyone’s ass when it comes to facts about Belgium. Names, places, dates, events, artwork, architecture, beer, language; I’m armed to the teeth. Of course, to me Belgium is synonymous with professional cycling and, fortuitously, professional cycling is what first drew Pearson across the English Channel. His first-hand experience with the 1995 Ronde van Vlaanderen, particularly atop the Muur in Geraardsbergen, allows Pearson to flaunt his contemporary and historic Belgian cycling acumen. For more than 10 pages, Pearson weaves every name of Belgian cycling lore and legend (Eddy Merckx, the de Vlaeminck brothers, Freddy Maertens, Briek Schotte, Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Edwig van Hooydonck, Eddy Planckaert, Eric Vanderaerden, etc.) into his account of the Ronde occurring before his very eyes highlighted by Johan Museeuw’s solo victory following the Fabio Baldato beat-down on the Muur. The riders past and present, plus the facts of the 1995 Ronde, are hardly anything earth-shatteringly new to cycling tifosi, but Pearson’s fleshing out of the fervor, zeal, and frenetic ardor surrounding the Tour of Flanders deserves a mention.

On a more macro-level, I think Pearson gets one’s brain churning regarding the dynamic between travel, stereotype, and expectation. In particular, I think Pearson hits the nail on the head regarding certain truisms of foreign travel:

“One of the odd things about being in a foreign country is the impossibility of detecting any kind of social nuance. All the guidelines - clothes, accents, articulacy - that normally point the way are lost to us. We do not know if the person we are talking to empties septic tanks or runs the stock exchange for a living. We wander dippily around in this blissful state and when we return to our hotel in the evening and tell the receptionist how we have spent our day her face turns white, her eyes bulge and she shrieks, ‘You went there. But my God it’s soooooo dangerous over there.’ And we swell with pride and reply, ‘Oh really? It seemed quite pleasant to us.’ To our untrained eyes abroad is wonderfully classless, overseas societies homogeneous visions of the perfect future. It is the happy egalitarianism of total ignorance.” 

For some reason I was to a certain degree surprised that the gulf of the English Channel separating England from Belgium may as well have been expansive as the Atlantic Ocean separating the U.S. from Europe. But I guess I’m just a dumb American. Just as amusing as Pearson’s seemingly frequent snarkiness concerning Belgium was the degree of bewilderment expressed by Belgians that someone would actually come to their country to visit. “You’re here on holiday? Hmmm…It’s flat, crowded, and it rains all the time” was a frequent assessment of Belgium’s appeal. Perhaps everyone worldwide is afflicted by a case of the grass is always greener. Or maybe they’re just averse to being the grist for humorous anecdote after humorous anecdote. I don’t think it’s too broad a stretch to imagine Pearson being beaten senseless if his Belgian subject(s) could have read his mind. Even the Trappist monk may have kicked his ass. I’d be curious to hear the opinion of a native Belgian regarding this book. Thumbs up? Or a resounding “I piss on England.”

Paris Calling

Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More by Johnny Green.

Journalist Joyce Stillman writes, “Clash fans will remember Johnny Green as the tall guy in studious horn rims who was always bounding onto the stage to adjust The Clash’s guitars or to pull excited fans off the lead singer, Joe Strummer. A bookish punk fan with degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies, Green had been pulled into The Clash’s orbit at the comparatively mature age of 27 when they asked him to help work a spotlight at a gig; he ended up as a combination workhorse and nursemaid, hauling their equipment, brewing their tea, scoring their dope, and washing out their socks in his hotel-room sink.” Green, head roadie for The Clash from 1977-1980, may seem an unlikely character to write a first hand account of the 2004 Tour de France. But who better to chronicle a culture populated by unhealthily skinny prima-donnas, characterized by the tedium of living out of a suitcase for months on end, rife with the specter of drugs, suffused with premature death too infrequent for mere happenstance. It is the tale of The Clash; it is the tale of professional cycling.

Accompanied by his son Earl, a mysterious Euro cycling savant known simply as The Brief, and a rental VW sedan dubbed Black Magic, Green parlayed forged journalist credentials into an all-access TdF press pass and the means to pursue the essence of the grandest of the grand tours: charisma, live performance, and logistics. Fuelled daily by gallons of espresso and a frenetic fervor to bear witness to the Tour’s multiple dramas, Green largely ignores the cult of Armstrong (and the invasion of his jingoistic American posse) to chronicle the story left untouched by what he considers a lazy and dispassionate press corps. Cipollini unfortunately abandoned early denying Green a chance to witness a victory and conduct an interview, but Green quickly warmed up to Vladimir Karpets, Salvatore Commesso, and Gerolsteiner domestique Ronny Scholtz as characters largely under the radar, yet worthy of his attention. Green is certainly no staid Samuel Abt. I’m sure Green was probably the only journalist nervous about being picked up by Belgian police for an outstanding warrant (he skipped out on a drunken driving conviction stemming from clipping some Belgian road furniture with The Clash equipment van) and while in Belgium he likely was the only member of the press curious about the ASO’s battle with the legacy of Belgian serial killer Marc Dutroux. The first several stages of the 2004 Tour took place in Belgium and one of the stages passed in front of Dutroux’s home (with its basement dungeon). The ASO wanted the home leveled prior to the Tour passing by, but the organization’s bid to tidy up the route proved unsuccessful.

Possession of a press pass does not a journalist make, and Green’s attempts to interview a handful of English speaking pros went dismally. They called immediate bullshit on his inept questions and likely gave their press staff grief for setting them up with such a hack. The only interviews which went well were instances where Green was in his element, talking to rock stars and talking to roadies. Green penetrated the Armstrong security scrum on the summit of La Mongie to chat with Sheryl Crow. Crow, thinking she was talking to a reporter from the music publication Mojo, called off Armstrong’s hired goons and treated Green to a lively dialogue. Late in the Tour, Green finally corralled the “living, pumping heart of Le Tour de France”: Directeur des Sites, head roadie Jean-Louis Pages. Just as Green turned a chance 1977 encounter with The Clash on a Belfast stage into a life-defining change, Pages’ chance encounter with the Tour 20 years prior unexpectedly turned into a career opportunity worthy of Green’s envy. Le Tour doesn’t follow the route of some large rock bands which have two road crews leap-frogging from venue to venue to make setting up and breaking down a bit less time sensitive. Not so in le Tour. Whether it’s due to professional prowess or (likely) cheapness, le Tour only has one start line crew and one finish line crew who must get the infrastructure around France without a safety net.

Frank Zappa once said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.” Substituting “cycling” for “rock” isn’t too far off the mark. While I voraciously consume most everything under the Sun written about professional cycling, I’d be the first to admit there’s quite a copious amount of noise, dissonance, and chatter obscuring the path to worthy reads. This book is not dry prose devoted to the daily race narrative. What Green captures particularly well is the magic of live performances. No matter how good the television coverage, no matter how well written the journalistic narratives, nothing compares to the electricity of witnessing an event in person. Green told of how Joe Strummer knocked a television camera man off the stage because he was interfering with the audience’s view of the band: “I’m not playing for the camera, I’m playing for the fans right in front of me”. The ultimate homage for Johnny Green would be to emulate his wondrous infatuation with the living, breathing le Tour outside of the dingy confines of the press room. Most of us probably don’t have access to world-class forgers to supply faux press credentials, but the simple immersive act of spectating at a race is what Green would wish for each of his readers, even if it’s to experience the ephemeral moments such as this, chance intimate encounters unlikely to occur in other pro sports:

“I passed on a trip across town to the official celebrations. It was all over. The motor cruised slowly down a quiet small road. In the warm, clear evening, all our passion was spent, at peace finally. Ahead of me were two riders in the red of Team Saeco, dawdling on their bikes. One of ‘em was Salvatore Commesso with his dark goatee beard and devilish grin. As I pulled level, alongside, Earl climbed half outta the open passenger window, clapping his hands hard and shoutin’ ‘Chapeaux’. The cyclists bowed their heads in humble proud acknowledgement.”

Just as NBC Americanized the BBC program The Office for an American palate, I couldn’t help but commit a similar act of cultural appropriation in my reading of Green’s book. Johnny Green bears more than a passing resemblance to Lenny Clarke: comedian and irascible “Uncle Teddy” on FX’s remarkable drama Rescue Me. Green’s voice and dialogue seemed even more outlandish channeled through Clarke’s exuberant, Boston-accented ravings. And The Brief? For some reason every reference to his character conjured up a mental image of The Cheat, simply for the similar ridiculousness of their respective monikers.

Off-The-Back Grumpies

Wide-Eyed and Legless: Inside the Tour de France by Jeff Connor, 1988.

This book is long since out-of-print and has eluded me for years. Finally, through the magic of ebay, I purchased a copy from a bookseller in Australia.

Jeff Connor spent the 1987 Tour de France embedded with the British ANC-Halfords squad and pulled no punches chronicling their trial by fire in the team’s first and only Tour appearance. The book assumes the reader has virtually no knowledge of cycling since that’s what British sportswriter Jeff Connor possessed before his editors sent him to France, but the educational elements don’t seem too gratuitous. What the book deftly delivers is the internal power struggles of mixed nationality management and staff (British, Belgian, German, French), creative financing (none of the riders received payment due to the bankruptcy of the title sponsor during the Tour, echoing the future debacles of Le Groupement, Linda McCartney, Mercury/Viatel, Team Coast), and the wholly improbable cast of characters thrown to the wolves-Brits Malcolm Elliot, Graham Jones, Paul Watson, and Adrian Timmis, Aussie Shane Sutton, Czech defector Kvetoslav Palov, Frenchmen Bernard Chesneau and Guy Gallopin, and the scourge of Lance Armstrong, youthful Kiwi Steve Swart. Malcolm Elliot was the team’s star and came oh so close to winning stage 12, but the team’s fortunes were unflatteringly summed up by one of only 4 ANC riders to finish, Czech Kvetoslav Palov, “We have done nothing”.

I remember a phrase coined by some anonymous Cat 2 rider in New England regarding the feeling of getting dropped but still persevering to the finish: “off-the-back grumpies”. Every little thing would piss him off- a piece of litter, a smoking spectator polluting a small section of the course’s air, someone on the side of the road wearing a stupid hat, sharing a paceline with riders wearing ugly jerseys, in other words just about anything and everything was eligible fodder for venting the humiliation of being shelled. Off-the-back grumpies aptly sums up the collective mood of ANC-Halford’s riders, mechanics, soigneurs, and director sportif, but what a story they tell in the background of Delgado’s and Roche’s duel for Tour de France supremacy.

“That’s not writing, that’s typing” - Truman Capote

The Long Season by Bruno Schull, 2002.

Short version: Don’t bother, just grieve for the murdered trees.

Long version: Is Breakaway Books a vanity publishing house? Did Bruno Schull pay cash money for this book to see the light of day? The Long Season chronicles one man’s attempt, while living in the Bay Area, to upgrade from a Cat. 3 to a Cat. 2. Taking place in 1995 while enrolled at UC Berkeley (?), the author simultaneously gives a running chronicle of the entire Euro pro season from early Spring ’til late Fall. If this book was published soon after the 1995 season, say, 1996 (in pre-blog explosion times), then maybe it would be a wee bit more fresh or novel, but everything the author tries to describe concerning the inner world of competitive cycling is done so much better by any of the blogs I have links to on this site. Race tactics, personal heartbreak, the majesty of pedalling a bike, humorous anecdotes while travelling, humorous anecdotes from within the peloton, or simply a compelling narrative are out there for anyone with internet access. If you’re feeling really adventurous then track down Bill Innes’s accounts of his life as a Cat. 1, particularly the Euro sessions. Those are still my favorite accounts of someone in pursuit of the $12k Dream. Use the Wayback Machine or check out his more recent stuff on Life of a struggling Cat. 3 = YAWN. Even the little sex scene with his soon to be ex-girlfriend Anne = YAWN (I’m sure she was psyched that information was made public).

One glimmer of hope in Schull’s writing concerned Schull’s dealings with his parents. I felt sorry for him because he had absolutely no support, either mentally or financially, just puzzlement and criticism. I’m sure this is something all too many aspiring cyclists hear once they graduate from college, or hell, even when they graduate from high school, “When are you going to quit this stupid hobby and get on with your life”. It’s no wonder that cycling has no repect as a lifelong passion since most people’s bicycle experiences involve seeing them sold in the toy departments of uber-retail chains. Reading Schull’s interaction with his family, and later even his girlfriend, does wonders to reinforce how lucky I’ve been throught 23 years of racing having supportive parents and an enthusiastic spouse. While Schull’s personal story may have had some episodic flickers of promise, his tediously detailed accounts of Euro pro races were mind-bogglingly gratuitous. Just watch the 1995 Paris-Roubaix or Tour de France videos and spare yourself the pedestrian narration. I’m sure that’s how he did it because there’s no way in hell he grokked so much information about the races from watching them in bars like he claimed. All in all, this book probably should have been condensed into a long lifestyle article that shows up in magazines like Men’s Health, Outside, or Bicycling.

Do you know what story I’d like to hear? I wish I was a fly on the wall for RAGT’s current Tour de France escapades. I want to read one of those riders describing what it’s like hanging on for dear life, finishing in the autobus on every mountain stage, and what kind of grim conversations took place before, during, and after each stage between the riders and the management. That’s gratuitous gallows humor I’d gladly ingest. Along the lines of hapless, overwhelmed Tour teams, one book which I’ve longed to read and have yet to track down due to it being ages out of print is Jeff Connor’s Wide Eyed and Legless, a journalist’s account of travelling with the low budget English team ANC-Halfords during the 1987 Tour de France. I believe Jeff Connor actually tried to ride a Tour stage incognito in ANC-Halfords kit to get the full Tour de France experience. Now that’s some funny shit.

The Rider

Cycling. Literature. These are 2 words rarely used in the same sentence. Great minds seldom, if ever, ponder our sport. During the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway was an avid spectator of the six-day bicycle races at Paris’s Vélodrome d’Hiver. Hemingway dragged many friends along (some less than willingly), including John Dos Passos. Unfortunately, Hemingway turned out The Old Man and the Sea, not The Old Man and the Velodrome. My dream is to have a seminal cycling moment woven into the tapestry of an epic tome in the manner of Don Delillo’s superb Underworld. The opening scene, taking place in NYC’s Polo Grounds in 1951 culminating with “the shot heard around the world”, is utterly breathtaking (even though it’s, gasp, baseball). David Foster Wallace also has a predilection for weighty, dense novels such as Infinite Jest, but he’s enamored with tennis. Maybe I can convince Neal Stephenson to take a crack at cycling… Anyway, while Tim Krabbe is hardly on the plane of prose heavyweights such as Don Delillo, Krabbe’s slight novel (it’s on the cusp of being a lengthy novella) The Rider, however, is a work worthy of the literature label (although the competition in the genre of cycling literature is rather insubstantial). The plot encompasses an entire 150 km. race in the foothills of the French Alps from the point of view of a marginally accomplished amateur cyclist who came to the sport too late in life. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly enough, the protagonist is also named Tim Krabbe. Throughout the course of the race Krabbe reflects on his previous races, legendary professional cyclists and their successes and failures on the bike, superstitions, and just the random and occasionally bizarre thoughts that course through one’s brain while the body endures episodes of immense suffering. I was amused by Krabbe pondering his tanned, sweaty, beautiful wrists while in a lactic acid induced mental fog on a difficult climb.

If someone unfamiliar with the sport of cycling asked me what racing a bicycle is all about I’d hand them this book. Krabbe was an accomplished Dutch amateur cyclist and his keen insight into the physical as well as psychological facets of the sport are all too evident. Krabbe is probably most well known for writing the novel upon which the excellent film The Vanishing was based. Make sure you see the original Dutch version, not the crappy American re-make. If one pays attention to the radio frequently playing in the background noise, one can hear the play-by-play of Bernard Hinault’s and Joop Zootemelk’s epic duel in the 1980 Tour de France.

Another noteworthy aspect of Krabbe’s life, alluded to in The Rider, is his passion for chess. Before becoming a racing cyclist, Krabbe was one of the best chess players in the Netherlands. While cycling no longer seems to consume his time or thoughts to any notable extent, chess is still a central element of his life. His current project is a website called Tim Krabbe’s Chess Curiosites. I have a casual interest in chess, mostly the human element concerning the freakishly eccentric players throughout history and not so much the actual tactical, move-by-move analysis. While much of the site constitutes analysis which goes right over my head, there is still plenty of interesting articles about chess history, theory, and personalities to keep one busy if there’s spare time to kill.

Tom Simpson

Put Me Back On My Bike dust jacketSurprisingly, UNC’s Davis Library has a fairly impressive collection of cycling books. While I should have been immersed in my Spring semester’s library school readings, I instead read several of these fine books in rapid succession. Here’s my first review:

Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson. William Fotheringham. London: Yellow Jersey, 2002.
Tragically, Briton Tom Simpson is best known for being one of only three cyclists in Tour de France history to die while competing and the only competitor to die without being involved in a high-speed accident. Tom Simpson expired near the summit of Mt. Ventoux on July 13, 1967 due to heart failure induced by the lethal combination of dehydration, exhaustion, sweltering heat, amphetamines and alcohol. His shocking death brought the insidious specter of drug use in the professional peloton front and center, and sadly, to this day, drug use is still an issue in professional cycling. The title of the book is supposedly Simpson’s last words to his mechanic who ran to Tom’s aid after he collapsed on Mt. Ventoux.

Tom Simpson wearing the yellow jersey in the 1962 Tour de FranceProfessional cycling had always been a sport dominated by continental Europeans. Tom Simpson, from 1959 to 1967, was one of the early English-speaking pioneers to compete on the continent and to this date his palmares have yet to be equalled by any UK professional: victories in the World Championships, the Tour of Lombardy, the Tour of Flanders, Bourdeaux-Paris, Milan-San Remo, the Tour du Sud, and Paris-Nice, the first English-speaker to wear the maillot jaune in the Tour de France, podium finishes in Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Ghent-Wevelgem, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Baracchi Cup, Fleche-Wallonne, G.P. du Midi Libre, plus a top 10 finish in the Tour de France still stand as the benchmark for any English-speaking professional to emulate.

Tom Simpson was in many ways a man ahead of his time regarding diet, team structure, financial investments, and technical innnovations. Simpson was obsessed with his weight and he maintained a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meat. Perhaps his greatest dietary staple was a daily dose (1 liter) of fresh carrot juice. Incredibly, this required his wife to peel and juice 10 pounds of carrots everyday. Simpson had a revolutionary approach to financing a professional cycling team which never got off the ground in his day (due to his untimely death), but is now the model for the successful Basque squad Euskaltel-Euskadi. His idea was to sell subscriptions to the public to foster a sense of regional/national pride. Also, not satisfied with the Brooks leather saddle which was really a rider’s only choice for a seat, Simpson designed his own saddle which is the model for contemporary racing saddles: a plastic shell, thin layer of foam padding, and a thin leather covering stitched to the shell.

Tom Simpson being attended by race doctors following his collapse on Mont VentouxOf course, no summation of Tom Simpson’s career and life would be complete without commenting on the tragic ignorance on the part of pro cyclists regarding drug and alcohol use plus the dangerous practice on the part of race promoters regarding the limited amount of fluids allowed to riders during races in stifling heat. Amazingly, on hot days racers would actually stop in bars along the route and steal water to drink since the race caravan provided no neutral water to the riders and prohibited handups from team vehicles. Also, there was a belief that small amounts of alcohol were beneficial in the heat. On the day Simpson died he was severely dehydrated, had consumed brandy at the base of Mt. Ventoux, and popped some amphetamines for an added boost sealing his fate. Simpson’s defenders, his wife and some former teammates, claim that it was the race doctor’s fault that Simpson died due to medical incompetence. Sadly, they seem to be in denial about the drugs in his system. Their prevailing belief is that since Tom Simpson had used drugs before and hadn’t died that he knew what he was doing. Ergo, the amphetamines in his system couldn’t have been the cause of death. Simpson was a pretty bright fellow, but he had no medical or pharmaceutical training and therefore was in no position to properly self-prescribe performance enhancing drugs.

Fotheringham truly admires Simpson and his book meticulously documents Simpson’s professional career and family life without sugar-coating his tragic death. Drawing from the journalism of Simpson’s era plus recent interviews with Simpson’s wife, former teammates, mechanics, soigneurs, and professional cycling peers, it was interesting to note the raw emotions and sense of loss still vivid and unresolved after 37 years. I’m a student of cycling history and was duly impressed by Fotheringham’s masterful job of situating Simpson within the larger milieu of 1960s professional cycling, a period characterized by the domination of Jacques Anquetil (whose dandyism inspired Simpson) and the dawn of Eddy Merckx. Simpson was a phenomenally gifted athlete; driven, focussed, and professional. Unfortunately, while undoubtedly not the only champion of his era to dope, the extreme pressure to succeed coupled with the financial uncertainty of the professional athlete in the 1960s forced Simpson to utilize any means to win. The monument to Tom Simpson near the site of his death on Mt. Ventoux should be a warning to the pros who still race past this hallowed ground, yet 37 years later the pressure to win and feelings of invulnerability still claim young lives. What a waste.

One last tidbit which I found fascinating: the only professional cyclist to attend Simpson’s funeral was his young teammate, the immortal Eddy Merckx.