The dangerous summer revisited, yet again (EH part 5)

1.

In Paul Morand’s story, the ‘Six-Day Night’, part of his ‘Open All Night’ collection published in 1922, the narrator of the story is pursuing a woman named Leah whose companion is taking part in the six-day race at the Vél d’Hiv – the Winter Velodrome – in Paris. Explains Leah: “He’s a stayer, a six-day man. He’s riding a six-day race. What! Never heard of Pattimatheu where you come from?” The narrator follows Leah to the velodrome to see the action. “Shrill whistles pierced the air. There were four thousand yells, Parisian yells, coming from well down in the throat. The sprints began… The sixteen racers repassed unfailingly every twenty seconds in a compact platoon.”Leah and Pettimatheu are a couple but in his pursuit the narrator finds himself more involved in the action, down amongst the riders in their ‘pit’ area. “Now drawn out into file, the sound of each lap was briefer than the preceding, and at the bell sixteen men passed, like roulette balls projected in straight lines from the twisted curve-banking.” It is nighttime, near the end of the event, and the constant racing has taken its toll on riders and their support crews. “Stained mechanics in khaki shirts, with five days’ beard, wound the handlebars with tarred thread, stacked up the wheels that needed going over, tightened a nut here and there… The men who had been replaced got off their machines for two hours’ sleep. Their managers stopped them, catching the saddles and handlebars, unwrapped their straps from the pedals, and conducted their colts with tender care to their couches.”

Leah appears to be coming around to the narrator’s intentions. It is the sixth night of racing, 158 hours of racing and nearly 4,000 kilometres covered. “It was very late. The night sprints were over. The racers went round with their hands reversed to rest their wrists.” Despite Leah’s apparent intentions to follow the narrator home and abandon Pettimatheu, the narrator wants to remain. “Nothing would have given me greater pleasure, even yesterday,” I replied, caressing her. “And possibly tomorrow. But today my whole heart is here… I want Pettimatheu to win… We have become part of the velodrome, an instant of the race, a waiting for the victory. A few hours more.” The story then ends with ambiguity, whether Pettimatheu will win and whether indeed our narrator will indeed be successful in winning the affections of Leah. Continue reading “The dangerous summer revisited, yet again (EH part 5)”

The dangerous summer revisited, again (EH part 4)

1.

Last year your author revisited an original post on The Dangerous Summer with an interlude that considered Hemingway, heroes, and the golden age of cycling. Re-reading it, there seems much that is still pertinent to the current debates in cycling, if your author doesn’t say so himself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, one might say. This might be even more appropriate given that it would appear that the French senate will release a report on doping at the 1998 Tour during this year’s Tour itself. Pro cycling again tarnished by past transgressions.

Robert Millar readily admits that he is not a neutral observer, but he is certainly more than eloquent on the subject of past doping. There will no doubt be some skeletons coming out of closets if the report is indeed released and is as inflammatory as all expect. But will we be surprised? Would you, dear reader, be surprised if every single top rider at the 1998 Tour was taking EPO? One would hope not. Would you be surprised if every single Tour winner from 2006 backwards (with the likely exception of Greg LeMond) took something at some point in their career, whether it was EPO and transfusions or a little cortisone or a dash of testosterone? Prior to the EPO era, one did not need drugs to win the Tour, but it certainly could help – even if it was a bit of ‘hormone re-balancing’ at the start of the season or ahead of a major stage race. We might conclude that not all Tour winners doped during the Tour, but was any past winner completely in the clear for their entire career?

Continue reading “The dangerous summer revisited, again (EH part 4)”

The dangerous summer revisited (EH part 3)

Ernest Hemingway and cycling is an ongoing theme on this blog. Hemingway’s legacy is a mixed one, particularly in literary circles. In reviewing the publication of the first volume of his collected letters (in itself an interesting story, given that all the new letters come from archives in the basement of his former house in Cuba), Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books repeats the typical charge that Hemingway inflated his own experiences into his fiction then did little to deny the myths he had created. “The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it,” O’Hagan writes.

Perhaps Hemingway was complicit in this process, or perhaps it is just easy to see it that way. His writing, so much of it based on experience, skates uneasily between truth and fiction. His early works drew on personal events, although clearly fictionalized. Later, in Islands in the Stream, for example, the main character of Thomas Hudson appears to substitute almost entirely for Hemingway and his life in the Caribbean. In The Green Hills of Africa he sets out to write real events as if they were fiction; his posthumous follow-up, Under Kilimanjaro (first published as True At First Light) is a ‘fictional memoir’ – and much of it must indeed be fiction, although just how much is for scholars to unravel. Indeed, in the book Hemingway acknowledges that truth can be slippery: “…but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon…” But does this matter? Surely it is unimportant that Hemingway may have enlarged himself through the process of his writing. Going wider, do we really care if the author himself was a lying, alcoholic, misogynistic egotist? Do we not read Hemingway’s books for what they are, not what they pretend the author to be?

But personality matters. All the more so, one might argue, in professional sports where much of our fascination is with the personalities taking part and not just the action on the pitch or on the road. Perhaps part of the fascination with Hemingway, and why the publication of his letters from 100 years ago matters, is because of his outsize personality. He was a literary figure but also a public figure and his life was anything but uninteresting.

What your author finds more interesting is that Hemingway, in his works, never seemed to be interested in the big picture, in the big issues of his time. In his fiction (and even his reportage) the focus was often very narrow – the individual swimming in the currents of history, rather than the history itself. One might contrast this with his contemporary John Dos Passos and his sweeping trilogy, U.S.A. Or, to take another tack, note that the Spanish Civil War saw Hemingway produce For Whom the Bell Tolls – a heroic tale of sacrifice for the republican cause – while George Orwell wrote a Homage to Catalonia – the tragic collapse of the revolution into cynical betrayals. Elsewhere, the fate of Hemingway’s beloved Velodrome d’Hiver as the round-up location for 13,152 Jews from Paris and its suburbs from 16-17 July (when the Tour de France would have been running had it not been suspended due to the war) to be shipped to German concentration camps (only 811 survived) never receives a mention in his wartime reporting, surely an interesting story with parallels worth drawing.

Perhaps the newly discovered letters will contain comment, although – as historian Tony Judt has pointed out – discussion of the Holocaust, in France and elsewhere, did not really start taking place until decades later. (A future post will look at the Vel d’Hiv events in some detail.) Hemingway might not have actually known what transpired. When he was circulating around old haunts in Paris following its liberation, there is no mention of whether he went past (frustratingly, in Carlos Baker’s nearly 1,000-page biography, there is no listing in the index for the Vel d’Hiv at all, although it is mentioned in parts of the text). Hemingway was involved in the thick of the action on the approach to Paris in 1944, working as a war correspondent but managing to become the liaison between a group of French irregulars and US troops. He was later mocked for being more interested in ‘liberating’ the Hotel Ritz and its bar, and he did apparently exaggerate his role in the liberation of the Travellers Club, but the most detailed accounts suggest that he did actually find himself in considerable physical danger as the Germans fought their rearguard action. Playing soldier and inflating his successes likely obscured the actual role – minor, but indeed dangerous – that he did play. As always, it was writing he did best and on the approach to Paris he wrote this memorable line: “…I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.”

One could argue that Hemingway never really claimed to be more than he was. He took his experiences and wrote them up as fact or fiction, as the experiences of the individual. He wrote what he wanted and should not be accused of sins of omission. His works should judged on their literary merits rather than for what they say about the author. But, for the sake of this discussion, let us take this focus on the individual versus history and run with it a little further and see where it takes us.

One of Robert Capa’s famous pictures from the 1939 Tour de France, here showing French rider Rene Vietto (International Center of Photography).

The autobiography (and heroism)

There are numerous books on cycling that are excellent and well worth reading (another future post will discuss some of these). As a rule, cycling autobiographies do not make for the most dramatic of reading. They are either self-serving to various degrees (like a Hemingway book, if the critics are to be believed) or just dull: an impossibly-talented youngster enters the rarefied and pedestrian professional cycling world and wins lots of races and suffers some notable, character-building setbacks that are then overcome. Unlike a biographer, the autobiographer finds it difficult to step back, to view themselves from the necessary distance.

The exception to this rule is The Game by Ken Dryden. This is not a cycling book but a book about hockey and the author’s experiences with the almost always victorious Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Regarded by some as the best sports autobiography available, part of its appeal is surely that the author can indeed detach himself from the various narratives and consider many of the wider questions of sport, although tensions remain: “Even now… I can’t forget enough to get outside my story and see it as others do.” There are echoes of Dryden in David Millar’s autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, where – despite the criticisms that he does not go far enough and still wants to control the narrative – Millar is able to detach himself and give an unconventional and brutally honest account of his experiences and to do so with candour and humility.

Millar’s comeback is a heroic one, but perhaps he is ultimately an anti-hero, in terms that Hemingway would recognize. His downfall was almost preordained by a system that cared little for individuals but saw them ultimately as pawns in a larger game of success, fame, money, glory and power. Such was the milieu in pro cycling in which he participated. His choices were always constrained by the system and it was run by those in power to be thus. Perhaps there is – contrary to the grandiose prose we are often subjected to – little actual heroism in sport, just a mistaken believe in the claims of those who would seek to inflate its essence to sell the sport to the public. On this point, Dryden is illustrative and worth quoting at length:

We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes enabling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else. Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not. Our cause, our commitment is no different from anyone else’s, the human qualities engendered are the same. Instead, we are no more than examples, metaphors, because we enter every home, models for the young because their world is small and we do what they do. But by creating celebrity and mistaking it for substance, too often we turn celebrity into hero, and lose again.

Yes, even if you know little about hockey (like your author, although better informed now), there are some very thought provoking insights in The Game.

The golden age (of cycling)

It was a dangerous summer of cycling for a number of reasons, but perhaps no more so than the ongoing sage of Lance Armstrong and the charges against him of doping. Thousands of keyboard strokes have already been expended on the subject, and many more will follow. The editorials have been engaging but have ultimately said more about where the author has positioned themselves in the debate over the last few years than their actual subject. Indeed, perhaps you, dear reader, took some satisfaction from the pithy statements made by long-time supporting journalists, or took some delight in those long vilified being able to at last been seen as capably doing their jobs.

With the USADA file threatening even more revelations the spotlight of media will again be on the less salubrious aspects of cycling. For some, these revelations will be neatly assigned to the ‘bad old days’ and we can put them behind us and move on. For others, they will represent just a few more cracks in cycling’s edifice, perhaps not to bring it down completely but at least to leave it well scarred. This we might lament, just as writer Jeremy Whittle notes in his book Bad Blood: “In a problematic world, sport should offer escape; it should offer sanctuary from the casual lies and banal cruelties that punctuate everyday life. Rather than embodying the ugliest elements in human nature, it should strive to encapsulate the best.”

Overall, these are noble sentiments, but too idealistic. This is what sports should represent to us, the fans. But to those taking part, it is not an ‘escape’, it is their everyday life, their job and their profession. If your own work does not encapsulate the best of human nature, why should their job be any different? Surely we are not naive enough to think that professional sports, or even Olympic sports, is a pure endeavour instead of one intimately bound up a multitude of forces. As one commentator said, somewhat cynically, of the Olympics: “The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multi-national capital.” Sport is not some separate arena from the rest of society, but a part of it; we don’t escape, we participate.

Money might be part of the problem, and every professional sport that has grown too fast has had to deal with this issue. As Ken Dryden laments, “money is a threat, not in the stresses it puts on sports’ structures (though that is significant), but what it can do to those who have it,” with over-paid participants increasingly cut off from the public and the fans that sustain them. Still, players (and riders) have to make a living, and determining appropriate remuneration is a fraught process. Are top cyclists really earning too much for their hard, hard sport?

In moving forward, Whittle puts the onus on us: “Ultimately, what happens next is our responsibility.” With respect, not entirely. Amid cries that we need to do more, or that riders need to speak out and change their sport, we have to remember that the power lies with the organizers, the administrators, the owners and the overlords. There is much we can do (witness the Paul Kimmage defence fund, for example), but we should recognize the limit of our power. As well, we should not expect the riders to join in. Their positions are always tenuous and they operate in a top-down management structure where they are employed by a team and that team is ultimately responsible to those further up the chain, particularly those who administer the rules of the sport and organize the races. It is from the top that change must come, and where public pressure should be applied – if it can be. It is the managers of cycling that have put us in this predicament and they should be the ones to get us out. If they will not do so, then the sport will not change. For riders such as David Millar, they were working under the conditions given to them. In this sense, perhaps the interesting debate is not over the details of Lance Armstrong’s (apparently now well proven) doping but whether he was a victim of the system or one of the architects that prolonged its existence. If societies set their own morals, rather than through reference to an external system, and pro cycling is a societal microcosm, then was Armstrong just following the ‘rules’ or was he also shaping them?

Which brings us to the golden age, a lament that ‘back in the day’ things were better and different. Cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, but at the professional level in Europe, when you strip away the self-serving myth making, it has been a curious, insular world for much of its existence. “There was never a golden age of fair play in cycling’s history,” Whittle writes. “Cheating has always been characteristic of the sport…” Which is perhaps no surprise. Riders have constantly been struggling, labouring under a structure that is ultimately exploitative and places on them intense physical demands for often limited returns (again the subject of a future post). A team sport, it still celebrates and rewards individual excellence and winning is paramount. Yet, despite its quirks, there is still something about its beauty, grandeur and captivating nature that draws in participants and observers – pros are still joining its ranks and we still want to watch them. A curious paradox, indeed.

“Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports’, the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood,” writes Ken Dryden. Indeed, it is when we are young – still with our enthusiasm intact and not yet cynical – that our indelible memories are formed. This is the time we want to return to, even though we cannot and the times were not as good as we remember them to be. On this, we will give the last word to Hemingway: “The old days were supposed to have been simpler but they were not; they were only rougher.” For pro cycling, maybe those rougher days are now indeed behind us, and it is the future that holds the golden age, a time for childhoods again.

capa_hem_greg_41
Capa’s picture of Hemingway and son Gregory in Idaho in 1941. Unfortunately, the rougher times for both were still to come (International Center of Photography)

First published October 2, 2012

The dangerous summer (EH part 2)

In 1959, Ernest Hemingway returned to Spain to cover the summer bullfighting season for Life magazine. The extend account of his trip was later published as the book The Dangerous Summer. For Hemingway, the 1950s were a period of nostalgia. After the acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was somewhat adrift with his writing and would return to old themes and haunts. There was time spent in Paris on research as well as an African safari, which resulted in A Moveable Feast and True At First Light, both published after his death in 1961.

This period started with Spain in 1953, Hemingway’s first visit to the country since the Civil War (perhaps a low point for his personal conduct but a high point for his writing as it was the genesis of For Whom the Bell Tolls). He introduced his wife Mary to everything to do with bullfighting and met the talented young matador, Antonio Ordoñez, the son of Niño de la Palma who was the inspiration for Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Then it was on to Africa for their safari. The trip ended in disaster with two plane crashes and a fire that saw Hemingway badly injured with external and internal injuries. Rehabilitation would be long and slow and his physical and writing powers suffered as a result. Continue reading “The dangerous summer (EH part 2)”

Hemingway’s grimpeurs (EH part 1)

Ernest Hemingway was a great fan of sports, most notably bull fighting and fishing. He also followed cycling, particularly the 1920s six-day races in Paris, which – along with horse racing – were among his pastimes chronicled in A Movable Feast.

Hemingway was well known for his obsessions with different sports and other activities, learning them quickly and wanting to become a master in all aspects. He learnt about bull fighting in Spain in the 1920s, but not big-game fishing until the 1930s in Quay West, but became an expert in both. Boxing was a life-long pursuit, as well as shooting and hunting.

It is perhaps no surprise that in his ‘sporting life’, Hemingway developed a detailed knowledge of cycling during his European years.

“Hem knew all the statistics and the names and lives of the riders,” friend and author John Dos Passos once said.
Continue reading “Hemingway’s grimpeurs (EH part 1)”

An epistemology of speed

In Karl Popper’s magisterial book The Poverty of Historicism, the philosopher warns about extrapolating the future from the present; given that we are unable to adequately describe the present, even the future will be elusive to us. “It is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature,” he wrote. “In fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective.”

Popper was talking about the great sweep of human history and criticizing the idea that there are laws of development in history and that these laws are evolving towards some sort of ideal end point. But even on a smaller scale, Popper was wary about relying on certain ‘truths’. In his epistemology, we accumulate knowledge of the world through the process of deduction. We put forward hypotheses and test these with appropriate observations. The rules or laws that we discover are at all times subject to falsification through further testing. Some laws withstand a substantial amount of testing, and are therefore more robust than others, but are – in a philosophical sense at least – still falsifiable. Overall, we must always be critical. “For if we are uncritical, we shall always find what we want,” Popper said. “We shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”

This post will look at the question of speed on a bicycle, and how we achieve it, with these two approaches in mind: the difficulty of accurately describing the present situation, and hence the difficulty of predicting the future; and a critical approach to established theories of going faster. As such, I argue for a much less obvious epistemology of speed.

Continue reading “An epistemology of speed”

Climb like a badger

In the bucolic British children’s fable, ‘Wind in the Willows’, the character of Mr. Badger is a rather gruff fellow, a no-nonsense practical type, rather solitary in the winter off-season and sticks close to home, but generous – if not somewhat paternal – to his friends, but sometimes prone to outburst. “Now the very next time this happens,” he scolds. “I shall be exceedingly angry.”

In the somewhat more recent French version the Badger, le blaireau, is not an entirely different character.

“I’ll be the badger forever,” Bernard Hinault wrote after his retirement. “It doesn’t bother me.” Hinault was at a loss to explain the nickname and suggested that it was a commonly-used nickname that seemed to suit him and stuck to him somewhere around 1977.

“Very little is known about badgers,” he said. “And that suits me.”

What people did seem to know about badgers, however, was their ferocity. “As long as I live and breathe, I attack” was Hinault’s most famous quote.

Hinault 1
Le blaireau proved to be an apt nickname

Continue reading “Climb like a badger”

The ride better project (Or: A rambling manifesto)

I.

“We think in generalities, but we live in details.” – Alfred North Whitehead

It is a staple of cycling media that the main purpose of cycling is to go faster (the mainstream cycling media that caters to the road cycling amateur racer or enthusiast). How-to articles are a regular occurrence, equipment reviews focus on weight (reduced weight apparently helping you to go faster), and bike reviews always make a comment on how ‘fast’ a bike is (the rough equivalent of testing a car without reference to what engine it has, but never mind). Reviews have reached a kind of pseudoscience degree of ridiculousness – effectively advertorial (true quote: “I honestly felt like this shoe made me faster”; this raises some interesting cognitive biases and interesting questions of epistemology) – that won’t be discussed here and is best left to the more capable (and perhaps more cynical).

If you were a roadie a few decades ago, your main interest probably was in going faster. You were likely a young aspiring racer in what was a mostly fringe pursuit. Your interest was in progression up through the category classes in road racing. (If you, dear reader, are one of these riders right now, stop reading here. And best of luck.) There were no fondos or other general events and anybody who was bike riding for fun was probably on a mountain bike.

This idea of progression remains the main thinking of the industry, despite there being a large number of riders who are not interested in moving up as amateur racers. And now it is much more consumer driven. As you progress (i.e. get faster) you graduate onto (supposedly) better bikes and equipment. Bike reviews regularly note whether a road bike is a beginner version, or for an enthusiast, or an aspiring racer. This is despite the marginal difference between bikes in these different classes – at least in terms of performance – and that trickle-down has meant that groupsets and wheelsets and other components, even at the lower end, are more than adequate in most cases and the potential performance gains of more expensive equipment entirely minuscule.

As well, we are currently in the age of the ‘details’ about our riding. We are now able to measure and record a huge number of parameters that even a few years ago were out of reach. Once, in the age of the basic bike computer, only distance and speed could be recorded – perhaps HR if lucky. There was no real way to compare performances with others, except for the stop sign sprint or to front up to race day and to see how you placed, which would be a factor of who else was there on the day.

Now, with varying degrees of investment, we can record power output, possibly VO2 max, not to mention various permutations of speed, distance and cadence, as well as our location and our ride stats compared to others on a variety of courses through apps such as Strava. There is very little that is left undocumented and unrecorded.

The purpose of this technology is more speed. A print ad for the Garmin Vector power meter pedals reads: “Without power, I never sniffed the podium – even at Cat 4. Now I’m a Cat 2.” Technology and information leads to more speed, and progression. As do other improvements, such as Specialized’s #aeroiseverything campaign: the goal, again, is to go faster. Not too far away, surely, are drag coefficients printed on product packaging, alongside numbers for weight.

Combined with the ubiquitous training plan, we are in thrall of the numbers and bending them to our service with the goal of speed. This is how we progress – more miles, higher FTP, more KOMs and trophies – all validating what we are doing and the effort we are putting in. What is effort without reward? And that reward is more speed, and perhaps progression onto a new (faster, of course) bike and a set of carbon aero wheels.

Strava is the prime example of being in the thrall of numbers. A ride is measured in terms of distance and metres climbed – the basis for earning trophies – as well as achievements of PBs and KOMs. There is a ranking system, among all Strava users but also in the clubs that you can form with fellow riders. The higher the numbers, the higher the ranking. Thus, the value of a ride is in generating higher numbers, and the purpose of a ride – according to Strava – is to Prove It: go faster, higher, stronger, and longer, and achieve more. Then share it. After all, if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen.

But does this matter? A confession: I like trying to ride fast at times, and I enjoy pushing myself and seeing the results (such as they are) on Strava. Competition can be good, and training harder has some other value (exercise needs some intensity from time to time to maximize its health benefits). But in the pursuit of speed is something else being lost? In the book ‘The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost In A World of Constant Connection’ the author, Michael Harris, explores to effect of internet technology, social media and constant connection to our lives and how it affects us in various ways. [1] But to lament what we have lost means establishing a moral value to various activities. Is reading a book in quiet contemplation better than noodling away on Twitter?

I want to do two things for the remainder of this piece. Firstly, to argue that the pursuit of more speed is ultimately going to end in disappointment and more frustration than satisfaction. This is because there is an upper limit to performance and, as well, over time, you will actually get slower. Secondly, to argue that there are other goals for riding that will give greater satisfaction than just the pursuit of speed (and the sharing of it on social media). Ultimately, despite wanting to avoid a moral judgement, I suggest that the mental and social/community aspects have more enduring value than being able to record a new personal best. Although it was not its intention, the overall argument might be seen in the context of ideas of alienation: a mindset focused on a narrow definition of cycling, aided and abetted by (often but not always) commercial interests, prevents individual enjoyment – even flourishing – of all the aspects of cycling. If riding a bike is about freedom, then the pursuit of speed will keep you in a kind of bondage.

Continue reading “The ride better project (Or: A rambling manifesto)”