Sunday 30 May 2010

Return to Lake Placid

Yesterday was a low point in my cycling for this year.  I decided to ride the hilly loop in Gatineau Park in preparation for my upcoming trip to the Pyrenees.  It was a hot, sunny afternoon, and I decided to skip the 14 km ride each way to the park in favour of driving there for the first time and just doing climbing.  After I unloaded the bike, I headed uphill and felt pretty good until, at 14.3 kms and 350 m of climbing, there was a loud bang and my rear tire simply blew off the rim.  I use Hutchinson tubeless tires which, when flat, can be fixed temporarily by installing a tube, or can even be gingerly ridden on.  In this case, the bead that holds the tire flush with the rim seemed to have failed completely and the tire, with or without a tube, would not seat properly.  I used up two CO2 cartridges, and that of a passing cyclist, to no avail.

It has been an odd Spring in Ottawa and I have been able to ride without the clouds of pestilential blackflies buzzing around.  As I stood sweating in the sun, I discovered another plague: horseflies, and swarms of them.  Unable to get the tire back in working condition, and bitten repeatedly, I decided it was time to take off my shoes and start pushing the bike back to the parking lot.  Several cyclists offered to help but there was nothing to be done.  I thought I would try to get a lift from someone driving an SUV or pickup truck, but my hitchhiking attempts were for nought.  I saw a small car approach and it stopped beside me and the driver offered me a lift.  She was driving a hatchback, so we loaded in the bike easily and I was soon back to my car.  It would have been a very, very long walk and I was most grateful to my Good Samaritan.  After getting home and replacing the tire, I spend the rest of the evening putting AfterBite onto the dozen huge bites on my arms, knees and even my right hip, where the fly bit right through my cycling shorts.

So it is much nicer to think of pleasant rides, such as the one I did two weeks ago today.  This was a Return to Lake Placid to ride the Ironman Course.  After the success of last year’s expedition, I once again offered the ride up on our United Way auction at the office and had another eager taker.  Eric and I had a few beers in the weeks before the ride and I found him to be good company.  A beginning triathlete, he was keen to ride the course and we were hoping the weather would be as good as promised.

It was indeed.  After a 7:00 am start, we reached Cornwall pretty quickly (although not too quickly–police cars were after speeders all over the place, both in Canada and the USA) and fortified ourselves at that fine Canadian institution, Tim Hortons, with doughnuts, before crossing what must be the worst-paved bridge in North America.  A second, better bridge took us into the United States, where the border guard asked us a surprising number of questions.  He was doubtful when we said we were going cycling in Lake Placid since he only saw Eric’s bike on the hitch rack, and I opened the trunk so he could see my bike there.  He wanted to know how we knew each other, where we worked, when we were last in the United States, and if we had been convicted of any criminal offences.  It must have been a slow morning for him but after satisfying his questions, we drove off into the Akwasasne Mohawk Reservation, where the casino guarantees “Winners Every Day!”  Passing this opportunity by, we drove on towards Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.  It was a sleepy Sunday morning and we made good progess.

After parking in the big municipal lot we used last year, we got changed and rolled out.  I discovered immediately that somehow I had mis-downloaded my file for the GPS, so the directions ended after only a few kilometers.  However, the course is a very easy one to navigate around and since I recalled all the landmarks from last June, it was pretty easy to do the loop.

Leaving Lake Placid proper, we rode out on Route 73, which was not nearly as bad for traffic as last year, although I am always nervous about the number of pickup trucks, particularly those towing trailers.  We stopped to take some photos of the Olympic skijump before continuing onward, climbing gently and then getting a screaming descent down into Keene.  We stopped to celebrate the first leg of the ride at the Cedar Creek Run Bakery & Café, where we enjoyed some appallingly sweet pastry and coffee–perfect.  Then we turned onto Route 9N, heading towards Upper Jay.

We saw a few other cyclists out, and passed a couple of older gentlemen as we cruised along in the wonderful sunshine.  Of course, we did not neglect sightseeing, and photographed a buttercup yellow house as well as an impressive stone house built in 1829.  Eric is capable of taking pictures from a moving bike, something I don’t have the confidence to do, but we also felt unhurried enough to stop where we liked.  One of the other cyclists passed us, and then we came upon his friend in a parking lot and chatted for a bit after he was kind enough to take our photo.  We offered to tow him up to his friend but that didn’t work very well as he lost our draft as soon as we came to the first small hill.  By then his friend was coming back, so we did not feel too bad about this.

Turning left just before Jay, we began to climb gently again and caught up to two more cyclists.  One was wearing a Bike Colorado jersey and I talked to him about that ride, which he was training for to do this year’s ride.  He told us that the Lake Placid Ironman course was probably going to be changed slightly due to bridge reconstruction so after stopping to take some photos of some fishermen on the river, we turned right and followed the detour signs, hoping to match the Ironman course as closely as possible.  On this deserted country road we rode side-by-side for a while and, of course, this had to be the only moment some idiot in a speeding Pontiac decided to drive along, leaning on his horn as he caught up to us.  I cannot imagine why anyone on an essentially traffic-free and quite wide road would feel the need to do this but I suppose he thought he was teaching us a lesson of some kind.

Our detour required us to drop down to the river and we joined the original Ironman course, following it for what was probably the right distance into the woods.  On the return,we took a short break next to an old one-room schoolhouse that had been in use from 1863 to 1949.  It had an enormous stove inside and was in great condition, but the farm surrounding it looked abandoned, although all the grass was cut.

Retracing our steps, and after the steady climb up from the river, we found ourselves again in Wilmington and followed Route 86 back to Lake Placid.  There was more climbing than I remembered, although the rushing Ausable River next to us cheered us on, and the fly fishermen waved their greetings.  At one stop, we chatted with an ornithologist from the local college who was a falconer and was trying to look at perergine falcons on the cliffs below Whiteface Mountain.

We were both slowing down noticeably but the promise of the finish in Lake Placid and the opportunity to drink beer spurred us on.  We arrived in fine fettle, and after getting changed, repaired to the Lake Placid Brewing Company for beer and dinner, sitting on the roof deck.

The drive back to Cornwall went quickly, although clearing the border to get back into Canada took a while as the traffic was backed up for half an hour.  We got back to Ottawa by 8 pm after a very fine day out.  If you have the chance to ride this course, take it.  And as to the triathletes, who do the course twice (after swimming 2.5 miles and then having enough energy to run a marathon after the bike ride), all I can say is “Chapeau!”

Book Review: The Lost Cyclist

L.P. Hartley began a novel with the sentence: “The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.”  And in his new book, “The Lost Cyclist,” noted cycling historian David Herlihy introduces us to a most peculiar world, albeit with elements that we would still recognize.  The book is actually two stories The first deals with Frank Lenz, a young bookkeeper from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who became a noted high-wheel bicycle racer in the late 1880s before recognizing his chance for fame and fortune would really come with the advent of a new kind of bicycle, the “safety bicycle,” with new-fangled pneumatic tires.  Frank Lenz decided to take advantage of the new invention, then in its infancy, and using his skills as a cyclist, and as a passionate amateur photographer, his achievement would be the first around-the-world solo cycling trip on a safety bike.  To this end, he sought out sponsorship and arranged with the editor of New York’s “Outing” magazine to send back stories and photos of his trip, which was expected to last two years.

He began his formal launch of the around-the-world tour on May 15, 1892 from Pittsburgh, setting out with a 57 pound Overman bicycle, 13 pounds of camera gear and 25 pounds of other equipment.  He headed eastwards and in New York met worked with the editor of Outing to garner maximum publicity before beginning the trip proper on June 4, heading west and crossing the United States in five months.  He was 25 years old.

Although Frank Lenz may have been slight in stature, weighing 145 pounds, he was clearly, as one witness is quoted in the book as saying, “he was quite a novel person–one possessed of great pluck, energy and determination...” He told a reporter who asked about the dangers of the trip: “I have nothing but the most pleasurable anticipation of my trip abroad.  I have never encountered anything yet I have not overcome.”

In the telling of Lenz’s story, the author is clearly charmed by his cherubic protagonist and clearly wishes us to be as well.  Frank Lenz was indeed an innocent abroad, and his letters home, written in his superb bookkeeper’s script, are fascinating.  It is easy to forget that in 1892, most people simply did not travel to foreign countries, let alone on a bicycle.  His photos of Japan, his first stop after taking a steamer from California, are marvellous and he constantly comes across as a go-ahead, can-do and very good-humoured young man.

Along with the wide-eyed wonder, however, there was definitely danger.  Travelling alone, speaking no languages except English and German, he was highly vulnerable.  Although his writing tended to make light of the scrapes he gets into, some of them, such as an encounter with Chinese peasants, were quite terrifying.  He managed to deflect their hostility by clowning around and using his bicycle to entertain them.  The Chinese, most of whom had never seen a bicycle at all, threw stones and mud at him, and he often simply avoided encounters by riding at night through cities and towns.

His long, long ride in China came to an end as he headed next towards Burma.  It is here that the real dangers become evident, as the roads are impassable and he hires coolies to basically carry his bike onwards.  During the crossing of a rain-swollen river, one of the bearers drowns, and the reader begins to wonder how much of a toll Frank Lenz’s dream ride will eventually take.

Making his way to India, he caught up with his enormous steamer trunk, full of spare parts and equipment, and basically built up a new bicycle.  He had been on the road for a year and a half in his projected two year project, and there are indications of his weariness.  But he continued undaunted through India (and today’s Pakistan), visiting the Taj Mahal, and, as a good egalitarian American, expressed his dismay over India’s caste system.

In mid-December 1893, “he found himself mired in the Makran Desert without food, water or shelter.  Fortunately, a camel caravan came to his rescue.”  Shortly after, he entered Persia and by April was in Tabriz, where he met the Crown Prince of Persia, Mozaffar al-Din Shah.  “A technology buff, he grilled Lenz about his gear and took copious notes...the prince himself took a photo of Lenz in the royal courtyard, mounted on his bicycle.”

Although local Westerners urged him to go to Europe via Russia rather than Turkey, he was only 900 miles from Constantinople, and was looking forward to cycling in Germany, his ancestral homeland, with a Pittsburgh club mate.  He missed pie and ice cream and while enjoying his trip, he wrote to the editor of Outing confessing his homesickness and how he longed for his wanderings to end.

The photo by the Persian Crown Prince, showing a pensive-looking (but surprisingly well-dressed) Lenz on what even then must have been an old-fashioned bicycle, is the last known photo of the adventurer.  Because after April 1894, nothing was ever heard from Frank Lenz again.

This takes us to the second part of the book.  Frank Lenz’s mysterious disappearance caused great concern among his friends and readers and the editor of Outing endeavoured to find someone to look for him.  After some false starts, William Sachtleben, another long-distance cyclist and seemingly cut from the same cloth as Lenz, went to pick up the trail.  The author intersperses an account of Sachtleben’s great cycling trip, with a companion, Thomas Allen, on a pair of solid-tired bicycles, riding in the opposite direction to Lenz.  This too is an interesting story and probably adds some bulk to the book, which would probably be a bit thin if only about Frank Lenz himself.

The book now moves away from cycling to the political situation in Turkey.  Sachtleben demanded action from the American Embassy and, unsatisfied with the results, launches his own investigation, hoping to shed light on the disappearance of Frank Lenz, recover his body, if possible, and see that any malefactors were punished.  In spite of his furious activity, Sachtleben’s mission ends in failure.  We never learn for certain how Lenz died, a cyclist alone in Turkey, but we do know that his route took him into an area rife with ethnic tension between Turks, Kurds and Armenians.  Sachtleben himself was to witness a massacre of Armenians by Kurds, and to learn that due process of law in America was nothing like due process in Turkey.  The Turks, probably to placate Sachtleben, arrested some Armenians, who were probably completely innocent of Lenz’s death, and two of them died in prison, bringing the number of deaths connected to Lenz’s trip to four, including his own.
David Herlihy’s book is highly entertaining, with an extraordinary cast of characters, and includes truly enchanting period photos of Lenz and Sachtleben & Allen.  It was an era of handlebar mustaches and dirt roads and while sepia-toned, promised bright futures to adventurous young men.  The craze for the bicycle in the United States would end, probably much sooner than Sachtleben or Lenz would have imagined, and their stories quickly forgotten.  The author has done copious research and “the Lost Cyclist” is not only a worthy addition to any cyclist’s bookshelf, but is in itself revealing social history of a world in transition.

The book will be released on June 18.

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance
by David V. Herlihy
326 pp, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-547-19557-5
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Suggested price: US$ 26.00

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Book Review: A Racing Cyclist's Worst Nightmare

Roll, Britannia!

The British Isles occupy a half-way point. Unlike North America, where bike racing has only comparatively recently come out of near-invisibility after a promising start early in the 20th Century, Britain, separated from the continent of Europe only by the English Channel, should have been positioned to make its presence known in the great races. But long before Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and Nicole Cooke, before those Scottish Millars (Robert and David), and even before ill-fated Tom Simpson, there wasn’t much of anything to make Union Jack-waving crowds cheer at a pro race. Instead, as Tony Newsom reveals in the stories that make up “A Racing Cyclist’s Worst Nightmare,” the British tradition of doughty amateurs fighting the good fight kept cycling alive in the post-World War II period, even when British cycling organizations were their own worst enemies. To Mr. Newsom, this was a Golden Age and his stories, whether memoir or fiction, are charming, often funny, and revealing of a very different world indeed.

The collection includes memoirs of the author’s first outings by bicycle, and accounts of his participation in British races, including winning the 1955 Tour of Britain, as well as riding behind the Iron Curtain (and learning all about black marketeers) in the Workers’ Paradises of Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany during the Peace Race, the Warsaw Pact’s equivalent of the Tour de France. The latter, a case of “Innocents Abroad,” saw the unheralded British riders do quite well but it is clear that the Cold War made for very foreign places. Mr. Newsom saw success in British races until his retirement in 1960, not really racing as a pro but not quite an amateur either. His account of his experiences with the short-lived Hercules racing team describes an organization where talent was supposed to somehow overcome a near-complete lack of money, management and support. It sounds a lot more like a Scott of the Antarctic approach than what Fausto Coppi or other Continental riders with the top teams were doing.

Of course, some Euro pros also had an individual approach to racing. Mr. Newsom obviously has a soft spot for the peculiar and extremely aggressive Jean Robic, who won the 1947 Tour de France, apparently to indicate his displeasure for being passed over by the French national team. The Tour still had national teams at the time, although due to the bad feelings remaining from the recent war the “Italian” team was actually composed of French riders of Italian heritage! Robic constantly alienated the French cycling establishment and also attracted more than his share of bad luck as well, constantly crashing. This relentless, foul-mouthed Breton was a source of fascination to the young author, who, then a schoolboy in far-away Sheffield, avidly read the French publication Miroir Sprint (a sort of message-in-a bottle for cycling-starved Brits) and debated the merits of racers with his friends.

And who could doubt the merits of the Buckshee Wheelers, one of the most unlikely cycling clubs ever? Nothing could have been more eccentrically British than a group of soldiers stationed in the desserts of North Africa during World War II wanting to form a cycling club, going on outings when not fighting Rommel’s Afrikakorps. It started with two cyclists, who were soon joined by ten others, but there was only one spare bike. An appeal to British manufacturers got them a hundred new bicycles and soon they were racing for the Bully Beef Trophy (25 mile time trial event with a can of beef mounted on a plinth as the prize) or at the Grand Prix de Ghezira road race in Cairo. Unsurprisingly, operation of the club required a great deal of resourcefulness to bend military rules and this virtue is obvious in a short story about three fictional Buckshee Wheelers, now back in postwar England, who discover cyclists are not always welcome guests at public houses. This entertaining story shines a light on what it was like to be in a country that, while victorious in war, still had its citizens under rationing. The cyclists are truly thrilled to find ham sandwiches (albeit with margarine rather than butter) and tomatoes at the pub, which speaks either of the deprivations of rationing or the limited ambition of English cuisine. Other stories suggest that cycling in Britain was a sport outside the norm, and its practitioners deemed nuisances and freaks, a view that persists in not a few English-speaking nations today.

A tale that appears in all publications related to British cycling of this period is the ridiculous conflict between the allied National Cyclists Union (NCU) and the Road Time Trials Council (RRTC) against the upstart British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC). The ultra-conservative NCU was opposed to racing on open roads, believing that civil authorities would not agree to it although there was no formal ban. Racing was either on flat, closed circuits or else in the British speciality, the secret time trial. Spectators were discouraged, cyclists dressed in black, and they went out on course at first light, pretending that they were just individuals out for a ride. The BLRC, on the other hand, called for Continental-style mass-start racing on public roads and quickly attracted a group of vociferous supporters, who actually shouted a battle cry: “Up the League!” The difficulty was the UCI recognized the NCU as the British governing body and the NCU was not prepared to let BLRC members race for Britain. Mr. Newsom identifies fiercely with the League and the whole chapter would be funny if not for the fact that the battle put obstacles in the way of British riders who wanted to race at the highest levels and prevented the kind of grass-roots racing structure that has always fed pro teams in continental Europe.

Since the reorganization of British cycling in 1996, the nation’s cyclists have seen impressive achievements on both the track and in road racing. But “A Racing Cyclist’s Worst Nightmare” is a fascinating and entertaining look back at a truly foreign world but one where the passion to ride was at least as strong as today’s.

“A Racing Cyclist’s Worst Nightmare”
by Tony Hewson
230 pp., Mousehold Press, 2009
ISBN-10: 1874739536
ISBN-13: 978-187473953

Saturday 15 May 2010

Giro d'Italia Stage 7: Epic!

I have always enjoyed the Giro d'Italia not because it is the Cool Stage Race, as BikeSnobNYC suggests, but because it not only has great scenery but lots of drama, often far more than you will find in the more exalted Tour de France.  Today's Stage 7, a flattish stage compared to what is to come, was expected to provide some interest as the race travelled some of the Strade Biance, the white gravel roads of Tuscany celebrated in l'Eroica for amateurs in October and the Monte Paschi in Spring for professionals.  Traditional stage racers, compared to Classics specialists, were considered to be at a disadvantage when it came to riding non-asphalted roads but there were lots of surprises brought on by the heavy rain today.

It has been a long time since Paris-Roubaix was run in wretched weather--2001 to be exact, when Servais Knaven crossed the finish line covered in mud.  The Monte Paschi race is seen as Italy's answer to Paris-Roubaix and it did not disappoint today.  I'm just glad I don't have to clean any of those bikes.

The best place to watch the Giro live is at the Gazzetta della Sport itself, which runs video here.  Not only do you get a live feed (and the chance to practice your Italian!), but there is a nice graphic below the video showing the position of escape groups in relation to the peleton.  Nice work, Gazzetta.

Sunday 2 May 2010

A Sunday Ride Around Ottawa

The weather has improved rapidly and I am starting to leave the confines of the Tour de Basement, blinking in the bright sunshine. Yesterday I did tempo circuits of the Eastern Parkway with Mr. Mocha before we enjoyed a well-earned cappuccino with a shot of caramel at Bridgehead. The weather forecast today was only moderately promising but I decided to persevere and just do two hours of relaxed cyclepath riding.  I thought that if I left early enough, I would avoid all the clueless pedestrians and dogwalkers who usually get in the way.

Leaving home at 10:40 under leaden skies, I felt much better than I have for most of the week.  I have learned that I am allergic to birch pollen and it has been pretty hard at times, with the weepy, scratchy eyes, the headaches and congestion but today seemed to be a huge improvement.  After leaving home, I took backstreets to get to the bike path along the Rideau River, and headed south to Hog's Back.  There was some kind of charity walk taking place so I had to take care on the bikepath and watch out for folk afoot who were wandering over the yellow line.  I crossed the Rideau Canal and went through the Experimental Farm, seeing the odd cyclist but very few people in general.  The route continues west and then loops up to the Western Parkway.

There seems to have been a very large charity event today as there were cyclists with numbers and they were clearly not racers.  The Western Parkway was closed to vehicular traffic for this (usually this happens only from the Victoria Day/May 24 weekend onwards) so I was able to enjoy two lanes to myself and I did a few windsprints.  I also managed to get the chain stuck on the Raleigh through bad shifting technique but it was soon set right.

When I reached Downtown Ottawa, I discovered that the bikepath along the river was closed due to construction, so I crossed the Portage Bridge and went along the Quebec side of the river, crossing over the MacDonald-Cartier Bridge and coming back into Ottawa that way.  Then it was a meandering ride through Rockcliffe, now in warm sunshine, before coming home to some espresso.

I have been a bit demoralized by the allergy, bad weather and a bit of a weight gain.  There are times, I realize, that I should just ride my bike to have fun.  Today I did not train for anything in particular, nor did I raise money for a charity, nor did I have any particular purpose.  However, I enjoyed the fresh air, the open road and my new/old Raleigh, which is proving to be a truly marvelous bike.

I wore my Lost Boys Tour of Europe 2009 jersey and thought about some of the great rides I have done as I cruised through town in 24C temperatures, a huge improvement over last week's 4C.  The smell of lilacs in New Edinburgh and next to the South African Embassy almost blew me away but luckily I do not seem to be allergic to them!