Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Paris-Brest-Paris footage, 1948

If you don't enjoy this, I can't for the life of me imagine what you're doing reading this blog.

Andrew Ritchie's Major Taylor Bio

Just finished Andrew Ritchie’s Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer. There are various interesting Taylor bios out there, but, save for the Major's own, more obscure attempt, this was the first of the lot. When Ritchie started it, Taylor had been wiped from public memory for many decades. Ritchie quite rightly thought this was a crime, and it took him ten years to finish the book that would right this wrong.

If you are an avid cyclist and you live in New England, you’ve probably heard at least some of Taylor’s story, but the essentials bear repeating here. In a day when hyperbole has become so commonplace, there is no way to properly portray the scale his accomplishments – nor of his challenges. However, Ritchie tries to pare it down at one point: “He was almost certainly the first black athlete to be a member of an integrated professional team, the first to have a commercial sponsor, the first to establish world records. He was the second black world champion in any sport…”

Okay, good. On top of that, he was one of the the most dominant cyclists in history; so much so that, throughout most of his career, opponents were afraid they were simply competing for second.

But the kicker, the coup de grace, is that he achieved all this at a terrible handicap: he was the only black racer at his level of the most popular sport in America, at the turn of the Twentieth Century. At a time when lynchings were quite commonplace, Taylor traveled around the country to compete against people who literally wanted him dead. Nearly every time he raced in the United States, he was victim of the foulest play, vilest epithets, and even death threats and physical violence. Even competitors who admitted respect for him in one breath flatly rejected his right to compete in the next. Well, what can we expect? He was the only Black man who had the shocking boldness to challenge the white man in his own living room.

Of course, all the human rights-based objections were patent nonsense; I sincerely doubt the response to Taylor’s presence would have been so venomous had he lost every race. What the Southerners couldn’t stand (and it was mostly Southerners who hated Taylor) was being beaten by someone they considered less than human – and a dangerous example, to boot.

And yet, by all reports, Taylor was level-headed and even generous while dealing with all of this. He was a staunch Christian, refused to race on Sundays, and cotinually withstood waves of abuse. Yet he was not spineless. He had the strength to stand up and speak out against his treatment to referees, governing bodies, and in public newspapers, all in careful yet clear words.

* * *

In all, Ritchie’s writing is good enough to get across the mythic scale of Taylor's successes. As a cycling fan, he also manages to convey the drama of key races. The fact that Ritchie was, first and foremost, a photojournalist is obvious in his repetitiousness, clear progressive bias, and sometimes purple prose. And, like many amateur writers tackling historic subjects, Ritchie threw in every detail he could get his hands on. I skimmed large portions, but that worked fine; it was easy to find the important segments.

I barely need note the pleasure of reading about a time when cycling ruled the American sports world, drawing far more spectators (and paying far better) than even baseball. If you're a history buff, you'll find plenty of treats here.

* * *

There are annual Major Taylor rides in Massachusetts, his adoptive home state, one of them taking place next weekend. (I’m proud to say he came here for our tolerance, even in that day). There is also a memorial to him in Worcester. We are rightly encouraged not to forget this singular man (nor his interesting story). The comparisons to Jackie Robinson are inevitable and just, but the fact that Robinson had an equally hard journey integrating his sport a full fifty years after Taylor only underscores how courageous the Worcester Cyclone was. Few were able to follow his example until well after he had passed on.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Marvelous Metric

A terrific day yesterday. Completed my second metric century, 62 miles circumnavigating the Quabbin Reservoir, with nearly 4700 feet of climbing -- a personal record. (Well, I may have done more on one of my teenage bike trips, but that was nearly thirty years ago, so who remembers?) Scenery beautiful enough to rival any spot you care to name in the United States, especially with the fall colors beginning to emerge. Precious little ponds and swamps with fiery red trees illuminated from behind. Jewel-like farmhouses folded snugly into intimate, multicolored hills. Sun and blue skies everywhere.

A little twingey in one knee, but overall, the fitness was there. Though I won't lie; after hours of hills (the entire ride consists of giant rollers), the final stretch, including the Quabbin park loop -- a couple miles of climbing -- and the giant rollers between there and home on Route 9, with gangs of motorcycles roaring by my left shoulder... well, that was a bit sloggy.

Overall, extremely rewarding. After stretching, eating and napping, I went out on the deck and relaxed completely in the toasty September sun with a Diet Coke. It felt as if everything in the world was in its rightful place.

Now it's Monday, and I'm off to work!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ode to Autumnal Brilliance

Hail to thee, oh Late-season Fitness!
Would that I had but one single witness
To the feats I accomplish in your sunlit realm
As my bike conquers mountains, with me at the helm

I fly down the flats like a Roubaix-bound Boonen
And dream I lay waste to my Pro-Tour opponents
No peak is too high, no town is too far
But then you recede like a 5 a.m. star...

How tragic! how young! how lamented you are!

Then I sit at my desk, just dreaming of spring
Oh, Late-season Fitness! You sweet, fickle thing!

~ Composed upon the boneshaker, 9/15/09

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pee is for Performance

Well, the leaves are tinged with color and the mornings are starting to get misty and chilly. As the cycling season winds down, I find myself synthesizing lessons learned this year. Some are lessons I learned last year, too – obviously, not well enough. Perhaps I’ll post a series of them now, in no particular order. Well, except this one, which I think has become the One Overarching and Immutable Rule of Cycling for me:

Pee Last.

Better to walk around the house like something out of a male strip show gone horribly wrong, my white gauzy bib straps hanging down my legs and an unzipped jersey slung on to ward off the morning chill, risking the sarcasm of my loving spouse, than to hit mile eight of a forty-five mile ride and realize I have to stop already, secure the bike, waddle into a cafĂ© under the glare of the the patrons’ bemused gazes, and do the chimpanzee dance in the bathroom tryng to remove all the layers so I can relieve myself. Waste of time and momentum. If I walk about the house before roll-out with everything undone, I remember that, after I put on the gloves, adjust the shades and the helmet, and yes, even and especially the shoes (if I wait til the shoes, I’m sure to be ready to go) I must stop in the bathroom as my very last step.

No slacking on this: I’ve discovered that if I push pee time up even so much as five minutes, wanting just to suit up so I don’t feel so floppy and ridiculous, I pay for it later. The wheel of Nature’s law grinds slow, but exceeding sure. If I pay heed, I can usually spend the remainder of the ride in that sweet balance between intake and output, never stopping unwillingly.