April 17, 2016 § 16 Comments
Although regarded by discriminating readers as the greatest novel of all time, and regarded by less discriminating readers as gibberish, “Ulysses” by James Joyce is unquestionably one of the greatest books in any language about cycling, better even than “Positively False” by Floyd Landis.
After recently completing this mammoth read from Mammon at the pace of 25 pages per day (est. 2.6 minutes per page), I realized that far from being a modern allegory about Odysseus, “Ulysses” is in fact a book about bicycling.
In the spirit of the freshman English class that I failed, what follows are my textual references to support my novel thesis about this most novel novel. After 782 pages of careful analysis I discovered that Joyce writes movingly and with passion, depth, and understanding about bicycling exactly thirteen times. Here they are.
- “They passed from behind Mr Bloom along the curbstone. Beard and bicycle. Young woman.”
- “His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side.”
- “Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle.”
- “As per usual somebody’s nose was out of joint about the boy that had the bicycle off the London bridge road always riding up and down in front of her window.”
- “W. E. Wylie who was racing in the bicycle races in Trinity college university.”
- “But he was undeniably handsome with an exquisite nose and he was what he looked, every inch a gentleman, the shape of his head too at the back without his cap on that she would know anywhere something off the common and the way he turned the bicycle at the lamp with his hands off the bars and also the nice perfume of those good cigarettes and besides they were both of a size too he and she and that was why Edy Boardman thought she was so frightfully clever because he didn’t go and ride up and down in front of her bit of a garden.”
- “His right hand holds a bicycle pump.”
- “He smites with his bicycle pump the crayfish in his left hand.”
- “Love on hackney jaunt Blazes blind coddoubled bicyclers Dilly with snowcake no fancy clothes.”
- “He had sometimes propelled her on warm summer evenings, an infirm widow of independent, if limited, means, in her convalescent bathchair with slow revolutions of its wheels as far as the corner of the North Circular road opposite Mr Gavin Low’s place of business where she had remained for a certain time scanning through his onelensed binocular fieldglasses unrecognisable citizens on tramcars, roadster bicycles equipped with inflated pneumatic tyres, hackney carriages, tandems, private and hired landaus, dogcarts, ponytraps and brakes passing from the city to the Phoenix Park and vice versa.”
- “of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete”
- “pretending to read out the Hebrew on them I wanted to fire his pistol he said he hadnt one he didnt know what to make of me with his peak cap on that he always wore crooked as often as I settled it straight H M S Calypso swinging my hat that old Bishop that spoke off the altar his long preach about womans higher functions about girls now riding the bicycle and wearing peak caps and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money”
- “can Milly come out please shes in great demand to pick what they can out of her round in Nelson street riding Harry Devans bicycle at night”
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May 11, 2015 § 39 Comments
In 1995 I started writing a novel about a Japanese family. I was living in the city of Utsunomiya at the time and had tired of all the zen-like, mystical, and reverent books about the inscrutability of life in Japan.
The polite, sophisticated, ambiguous, homogeneous Japanese apparently lived somewhere else, because my daily reality smacked up against people who were as rude, crude, obnoxious, funny, compassionate, hilarious, outrageous, subtle, overt, lying, thieving, honest, honorable, humble, prideful, and contradictory as people I’d seen in every other part of the earth I’d ever been.
For ten years I worked on the novel, then put it aside. A few years ago a good friend who had seen the very first draft asked me how it was going. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t have it anymore.”
“I think I have the copy you gave me,” she said, and a couple of weeks later she had scanned it and sent it over. I looked around on the Internet for a copy editor, but balked at the $2k price tag, so I began the laborious process of editing my own work, something akin to hearing your own voice on a recording for the first time, only much more repulsive. Each edit was slower than the one before, but after a dozen careful reads I was finished. The final proofing step on Amazon’s publishing platform picked up two more typos — not bad for 100,000 words — and I hit the “publish” button and was done.
The novel is called “Blossoms on the Family Tree,” and I hope you will buy a copy. My good friend Jack Daugherty has posted the kindest and most flattering review imaginable on Amazon, and if he’s even 1/1000 on the mark, then this is a book I can be proud of. And even if he’s not on the mark, I can say this: This is the best thing I’m capable of writing, and it’s got nothing to do with bikes!
Though the novel is hardly autobiographical, every single thing in it is true except for the parts I made up. And one of the parts I didn’t make up is that the Japan of the late 1980’s is gone. I still remember arriving on January 15, 1987, heading out into the provinces two weeks later for my first job, and getting mobbed by elementary schoolkids who had never seen an American and wanted to touch my hair.
I remember the hundreds of bicycles stacked up and around the Utsunomiya JNR station, a time when bikes were everywhere and used by everyone, all the time. Most of all, I remember the young people and what a young country it was, and how, in only that way perhaps, I blended right in.
My relationship with Japan began then and has continued unbroken for almost thirty years, and if I had to say that there is one thing above all others that has molded me in my adult life it has been the Japanese women around me. My wife of course but also the women in her family: Mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters in law, cousins, nieces … women who in a myriad of ways taught me firsthand about strength, resilience, determination, frailty, humanity, and love, and who gave me a Japanese cultural lesson every single day for each of the ten years that I lived there. It’s not a lesson that you’ll find in mainstream writing about Japan and the Japanese.
This novel, after twenty years’ gestation, is as fully formed as anything I’ve ever written or hope to write. The era it encompasses is gone forever, but the women who populated it are still here, some still present in the flesh, all still here with me in spirit.
For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog, and for a few more bucks you can buy “Blossoms on the Family Tree” in Kindle or paperback through Amazon’s Evil Empire. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!
March 26, 2014 § 1 Comment
I met Bruce in 1988. He doesn’t remember it.
Roger and Jimbo, fellow bike racers, had suggested that we do a “little run” along Town Lake. I reminded them both that I only ran after a bad Mexican meal. Neither cared; it was a set-up. Roger ran regularly and Jimbo did, too.
Bruce met us and we started out on our “little” 10k. Exclusively a cyclist, I was amazed at how my biking fitness translated into running. I left those turkeys in the dust before they’d even warmed up. After the first mile I felt funny. After the second my legs seized up. Everything hurt so badly after that I could barely walk.
Bruce, an actual runner, blew past. Roger, a crappy runner, roared by a bit later. Jimbo, who gave jogging a slow name, lumbered by as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. By the time I reached the end of the run they were conferring, I suppose, about whether or not to send out a search party.
That’s the first time I had ever run two miles, and the last time I ever ran anywhere, and like the rest of my life, that moment was tied and twisted and nailed down through some vague connection to a bicycle.
Through Roger I met Dave, and a few weeks ago I posted some musings on Dave’s music. Dave, through all these years, is good friends with Bruce, and forwarded him the link. From there Bruce, perusing the blog, ran across Cycling in the South Bay, my epic book which is now ranked #697,843 on the Amazon bestsellers list. Bruce bought a copy, pushing this seminal work relentlessly higher on its inevitable surge to #1.
And as things turn out, Bruce is a writer. Not a bloggy, scratch-your-ass-in-the-morning-in-between-bong-hits while trying to think up some way to fill up the screen type of writer, but, you know, like, a real writer. A person who does plots and characters and dialogues and climaxes and settings and novels that are so damned real they will scar the hair off your hot parts.
He wrote a book called “Sour Lake.” It’s not about how to mix whiskey cocktails.
What it is, is a book you should read. What it is, is a book you should read in paper, not digital format. What it isn’t, is a book you should read alone, or late at night. Especially don’t read it late at night.
I recommend reading this book in the paper format because there will be less damage to your e-reader from your terrified clutch as you move through the harrowing tale. The book will also suffer less from the sweat that pours off your forehead. How gripping is this story? It reminded me of “The Shining,” which I read during the summer in broad daylight during the algebra class I’d failed in the regular school year. I still remember being scared witless reading that book in the afternoon surrounded by people.
The plot of “Sour Lake” I’ll leave to you. If you’re interested in scary-ass stories, you will like it plenty.
What I won’t leave to you is the inner mechanical beauty of this book. I’ve never read a novel that so completely blurs the lines between fact and fiction. In the beginning it seems like a historical novel, almost real in its verisimilitude. Then it clearly becomes fictional. Then it drifts into the science-fiction genre. So far, so good, unless you begin reading it a bit too closely (this tends to happen late at night when you’re good and scared).
By the end of the book you will, I promise, be wholly uncertain as to whether you just read a spectacularly scary book or an objective primer on the demise of the human race. This midwifery between novel and journalistic account is so well done and so unnerving that it is only by the light of morning and a hard coffee-toast-butter-jam-coffee scrum that I can confidently push the thing over into the “fiction” pile.
The Big Thicket
The second beauty of this book is its portrayal of the Big Thicket. I’ve floated the Neches down through the heart of that thing. I’ve hiked the deep trails and been surprised by wild hogs and their piglets. I’ve seen pitcher plants, pileated woodpeckers, and have watched hooded warblers flitting through the trees. And I will say this: Bruce McCandless has woven the primeval nature of the Thicket as the background for his story with hardly a thread out of place.
I say “hardly a thread” because early on he remarks that a “crane flew up,” or some such ornithological nonsense, and at another point he makes a comparison to a whooping crane. These missteps aside, his rendition of the Big Thicket as a force for evil and as a place that has eternally thwarted the efforts of men is done with incredible skill. You know he’s spent time there, and that he’s well versed in the history and character of one of the last great wild places in Texas.
Since it’s a novel that features gore and terror galore, the Thicket is a perfect setting perfectly matched to its subject matter. But let me say this in its defense: the Big Thicket is no fear-filled place of goblins and demons. It’s one of the last pieces of wild left in America and has been under assault for decades by timber and other interests. It is a gentle and beautiful outdoor wonderland where the confluence of biological time zones has produced an amazing variety of life, especially plant life. Still, if you’re tramping it at night …
The Sears Craftsman
The final beauty of the book is the way it is crafted. If you love writing where every word has been selected with care from a million others and placed perfectly in series, you will be blown away by the prose in this story. The words fit the story like the perfect jigsaw puzzle. Not a single anything is out of place. The careful mix of letters, news clips, and prose make for page-turning reading at its best.
You’ll also love the dialogue and Bruce’s feel for the way people speak. He’s a connoisseur of bad Texlish, which is some of the most expressive language anywhere. In short, the book doesn’t read. It runs. I suppose from a guy who used to race 10k’s at the head of the pack, I should have expected nothing less.
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July 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
“The Unknown Tour de France” by Les Woodland is ranked #47 on the Cycle Sport All Time List of Greatest Cycling Books Ever in the History of Anything. Putting in the category of great books is so wrong. Putting it in the category of “factoidal compilation” is so right.
The book is a themeless, random romp of Tour trivia and well-known Tour tales despite the alluring title, which kind of suckers you into thinking you’ll get to read about behind-the-podium blowjobs and cool shit like that. Unlike some of the other execrable publications on this list, though, it deserves a read, especially if you can get a copy for .99 at Alibris.com, which I did. Undeserving a proper review, I’m listing the following factoids about the book below.
- Easy read, hence good for the book-lazy cycling public.
- Misprint: “television programed” instead of “program.” (p. 86)
- Observes that fanboys don’t make good cycling journalists (p. 87). Or good book authors.
- Modern cycling? “The riders, the teams, are all the same.” (p. 90) Bravo!
- Misprint: “dark-hared” rider. (p. 102). Silly rabbit! Spellcheck is for kids!
- Proper and awesome use and correct spelling of “time-trailing.” (p. 110)
- One stage of the 1928 Tour, a time trail, was 387 km long. Har!
- Misprint: “farm workers followed suite,” (p. 157.) I hope it was the Presidential one.
Badly written book, hardly “great” or even “good,” more like “half-assed” or “fanboy pabulum,” but better than TMZ. Barely.
June 30, 2012 § 8 Comments
Everybody needs a hero.
When I was growing up in Houston, I used to walk a lot. In summer I walked to the pool or the library. It was always long and hot and boring, so when I walked I imagined I was a superhero.
Buck Davidson was one righteously badass dude. His outfit was a leather suit with lots of buckskin fringe and big, pearl-handled six-shooters. He had long red hair and huge muscles. He was handsome and stronger than a hundred men. Buck Davidson was always saving the world or the galaxy or the universe from all kinds of shit.
Sometimes he’d pick up a bus and throw it at a skyscraper, knocking off an alien who was gnawing the tip off the Empire State Building. Another time he’d use his genius laser brain ray to look at bacteria and figure out how to cure cancer. Other times, handsome and super as he was, he’d run off to a quiet place and have awesome sex with Penelope Watkins, the beautiful actress who followed him everywhere and who he was always rescuing.
Although I was pretty clear on the bus-throwing stuff, the sex thing was kind of fuzzy. I knew that Buck had a penis, and that it was a honking one, and I knew from the one or two times I’d seen my mom naked that there was a furry bush to which the penis was somehow supposed to connect, but the actual mechanics were a mystery.
Having an active imagination, though, I didn’t sweat the details and just made it up, same as with curing cancer. I didn’t need to know jack about Stage 4 or metastasis in order to heal the world. Buck just stared with his brain waves and pow! Cancer was fucking dead. Then he’d flop his big ol’ penis towards Penelope’s bush and pow! They’d do sex, whatever that was.
Buck Davidson was real to me. As soon as I walked out the door he’d get involved in every kind of escapade and death-defying heroic act I could imagine, and let me tell you, I had an imagination that just wouldn’t quit.
One time Buck was tied up and about to be dipped in a vat of plutonium. Snaxellander, the evil villain from Dorskabenixx, got up close to Buck and gloated over his imminent demise. “Prepare to die, Buck!” he snarled in his alien dialect, which, because he was so fucking smart, Buck could understand perfectly.
Unable to move his superhumanly strong arms or legs, he opened his mouth and knocked the shit out of Snaxellander with his super strong tongue. Snaxellander was knocked out cold and fell backwards into the vat of plutonium, starting a chain bomb reaction that, if not defused, would detonate and explode the planet.
Buck then craned his neck and used his super strong tongue to snap the chains that bound him. Once free, he stretched his super-stretchy leather shirt with the cool buckskin fringe over the vat, revealing hugely massive and powerful muscles that were awesomely strong, and which made Miss Penelope Watkins faint, as she had also been tied up by Snaxellander. The buckskin cover deprived the plutonium of the oxygen it probably needed to start blowing up.
Then Buck lobbed the whole fucking mess into outer space, where it hit an asteroid, which then got knocked off course and wound up smacking into Dorskabenixx, killing all of the Hoganimms (the race of aliens to which Snaxellander belonged) and making the galaxy safe again. Then Buck untied Penelope and they a good ol’ sex together.
He did all that shit just walking to the pool.
The absence of super-villains isn’t the absence of villains
The thing that bummed me out, though, was that no matter how hard I wanted to be Buck Davidson, superhero, by the time I got to the library I was still just skinny little nerdly Wankmeister Jr. Almost as bad, I couldn’t help but notice that we didn’t have any super-villains or aliens or ticking plutonium vat bombs.
Most depressing of all, there was no one remotely like the devastatingly beautiful Penelope Watkins, with the possible exception of Doris Scrantly, the sixteen year-old babysitter who called me and my brother “little disgusting creeps.” I was pretty sure if I ever tried to show her my penis she would tie it around my neck until I choked to death.
Even though Snaxellander never reared his four heads on the way to the library, the world in 1972 did have plenty of villains. One of them, cancer, is still around and still killing people. No Buck Davidson has appeared on the scene to zap the fuck out of cancer with his genius laser brain waves.
There is, however, one globally renowned athlete who has made “curing cancer” his mantra. He has touched the lives of thousands of cancer patients, stumped for cancer awareness, and reached out personally to countless people struggling with the disease.
For this, he’s been called a hero.
Let’s accept his narrative as true, for a moment, and push all of the scandal and grand juries and witness testimony and the impending USADA hearing off to the side. Instead of weighing his heroism against accusations of cheating and foul play, let’s weigh his heroism against something else.
Let’s weigh it against the heroism of a cyclist a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
In 1938, Gino Bartali won his first Tour. Hailed by Mussolini’s Fascist government as proof of the genetically dominant Italian race, this devout Catholic and distinctly apolitical bike racer found himself used as a symbol of racial superiority just as the Fascists had allied with Hitler and adopted the basic German social framework for Italy that the Nazis used to plan, organize, and implement the extermination of the bulk of European Jewry.
In an extraordinary book by siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, “Road to Valor,” we have been given that rarest of things: instead of a bike book about a bike racer written by half-literate bicycle fanboys, we have a beautifully written history that took ten years to write and research by two Princeton grads, one a journalist and the other a scholar.
The Italian Jews were first stripped of their property, fired from their jobs, booted from the schools, and ripped from the fabric of the society they had been a part of for hundreds of years. Most importantly, their citizenship was essentially revoked, and along with it the all-important identification cards upon which life itself depended. Without a card, you couldn’t get food rations, rent a home, or work.
People who once led prosperous lives were forced into beggary in a matter of months. By 1943, when Hitler took direct control over the part of Italy that the Allies hadn’t yet conquered, Himmler’s SS arrived and began arresting and deporting Jews to the northern death camps in earnest.
The real suitcase of courage
Bartali, whose fame had allowed him to avoid combat, was recruited by a Catholic cardinal from Florence for a horrifically dangerous mission: to carry forged identification cards from Assisi back to Florence, where they would be distributed to Jews who could use them to either flee Italy or to obtain jobs, food, and housing.
With the cards rolled up and secreted in the seat tube of his bicycle, under the ruse of “training” Bartali regularly made the 170-mile one-way ride to Assisi, met clandestinely with his conspirators, and rode back to Florence. Along the way he ran the constant risk of detection. The stress of being discovered at the numerous military checkpoints led to such fear and anxiety that he eventually developed PTSD.
At one point he was interrogated in one of the most infamous torture chambers in Italy, and only escaped because the inquisitor’s assistant vouched for Bartali’s honesty, as he had previously been Bartali’s commanding officer. As a result of heroism that saved the lives of hundreds of Jews from the Nazis, Bartali was recognized poshumously by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
After the war, Bartali tried to resurrect his career but was far past his prime. He took up smoking as a way to improve his performance, and put in the huge miles of a younger man, with no time for his older body to recover. Moreover, he had lost virtually all of his fitness over the course of the long war, which for all Italians was an extended exercise in malnourishment.
Adding to the challenge, greats such as Fausto Coppi and Louis Bobet were much younger and in the early, rocketing trajectory of their legendary careers even as Bartali was at the end of his own. In 1948, Bartali returned to the Tour with virtually no chance of winning. After Stage 12, Bobet had a lead of more than twenty-one minutes, and Bartali knew his campaign was hopeless. He was prepared to quit the race and go home in defeat.
That night, Bartali received a phone call while he was in bed. Alcide De Gasperi, prime minister of Italy, told him that Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the opposition had been shot, and Italy might be on the edge of a civil war. De Gasperi asked Bartali to do his best to win a stage in order to distract people from the impending conflict. Bartali replied that he would win.
Against all odds and prognostications, Bartali set out on Stage 13 of the Tour with an attack almost from the gun, an audacious and incredible tactic considering the stage’s 170-mile length and the fact that it traversed five of the worst cols in the Tour, finishing with the legendary Izoard. From the very first serious ascent the heavens unleashed freezing rain, sleet, and snow that continued for the entirety of the race. Frozen to the core, Bartali attacked each climb until none could follow. He took back virtually all of his 21-minute deficit.
The following day he clinched the lead with a devastating win on the 163-mile mountainous stage to Aix-les-Bains, and the next day won the 159-mile Alpine odyssey to Lausanne. No rider would again win three consecutive stages until Mario Cippolini took four sprint stages in 1999. The ten-year gap between Bartali’s first and second win has never been matched, and only three riders have ever won a Tour at his age or older. Bartali won the 1948 tour by more than 26 minutes, put more than 32 minutes on Bobet, and finished more than an hour up on the tenth place finisher.
This incredible victory convulsed Italy into celebrations, such that it temporarily forgot its divisions and drew back from civil conflict due to the exploits of this singular, indomitable man who had reclaimed his position as victor of the Tour a decade after his first win.
But he never made a yellow wristband about it
Like so many others who lived through the war, Bartali never spoke about his participation in this heroic resistance to fascism and the Holocaust. When asked about his silence, he would say only this: “I was no hero. Those who gave their lives, they were the heroes.” Others–particularly the Jews who owed their lives to Bartali’s heroism–disagreed.
Today is the first day of the 2012 Tour de France. We’re at the edge of our seats, waiting to see who will be crowned our newest Tour hero. Which man will conquer the field? Which one will conquer the clock? Which one will conquer the mountains? Which one will cross the finish in Paris wearing yellow?
We’re right to call them heroes in the limited sense of “champions.” We’re right to admire their heroic exploits in the physical sense.
But heroes cut from the same cloth as Gino Bartali, a man who combined physical prowess with profound courage? Heroes cut from the same cloth as…Buck Davidson?
June 25, 2012 § 10 Comments
“A Century of Paris-Roubaix” by Pascal Sergent has all the makings of a wankerbook. The format is coffee table. The original French has been translated by Joe the Plumber and copy edited by his sister in between jar-shaking sessions while cooking meth. Worst of all, at the outset at least, is the approach to rendering Paris-Roubaix’s history into words, which is done like the race itself, beginning at the beginning and slogging through every cobbled, rutted, nasty, miserable year from 1896 to 1995, listing the palmares of every winner and listing the top ten finishers of every race with detailed descriptions of what happened to whom at which juncture.
But what looks bad out the outset turns into a very solid read.
Paris-Roubaix is really simple
The whole fucking century of races could be summarized thus: Legit contenders, plausible hopefuls, and what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-heres line up to race. Everyone bonks, gets worn out, crashes, punctures, or breaks some weird part of the bike like the handlebars or the pedal or some other part that never fucking ever breaks even when you get hit by a car.
Six racers or less remain with 20-km to go. Some Belgian dude named “–inck” or “–ooy” or “–erckx” wins. Like all great French races, the last time a Frenchman won was back in 1766.
Winning Paris-Roubaix is even simpler than describing it. 1) Stay towards the front but not at the front. 2) Don’t crash more than four times. 3) Attack with 40-km to go. 4) Solo in or win the sprint. ) Be Flemish. There. Now you too can win at Roubaix.
The devil is in the details
The real treasure in reading this book lies in the details. Sergent’s annual recaps bring life to the small things that make the race a monument. The dude who first rode the course to see if it was suitable for a race found it ghastly, nightmarish, and undoable, while the man who came up with the idea in the first place thought it would be “child’s play” for any worthwhile racer.
In 1904 they held a second Paris-Roubaix in the same year, only the entire 265-km were ridden on the Roubaix velodrome. What a bunch of nuts…hunh?
In the early days there were controls where the riders had to get off their bikes and sign in; they likewise dismounted at feeding stations. For many years the first big split in the race occurred at a hill in Doullens, and the split there was often the deciding move of the race. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Arenberg Trench made its first appearance. These and numerous other fine points show how the race has fluctuated and shifted over the years.
The human element is as detailed and fascinating. When the first Italian, Jules Rossi, won in 1937, the flummoxed band at the velodrome didn’t know the Italian national anthem, used as they were to dominance by the Belgians and the occasional French winner, so they played a soft, stylish tune that sounded suspiciously like the Marseillaise.
The awesome thing about the coffee table book format is that it’s filled with pictures; fantastic ones. So even though everyone in your family yawns and walks away when you start talking about cycling, and especially when you mention Belgians with unpronounceable names, this book will absolutely attract interest. Before long, they’ll be asking you questions, and allowing you to play to your strong suit, which is making shit up.
“Hey, Dad, who is this?”
“That’s Toady Wampers, 12-time winner of the Tour. He won P-R that year in a 300-km solo break.”
“And what’s this?”
“That’s the finish line in Helsinki. One year they raced from Madrid to Helsinki, all on cobbles. Everyone died. It was very sad.”
Finally, you can appreciate this book by reading this review, as it’s no longer in print and is hard to find, and when you can find it (I got this from Alibris) it’s a whopping $25. Compared to some of the other dreck in the Cycle Sport reading list, though, it’s worth every penny.
June 19, 2012 § 4 Comments
Number 49 in Cycle Sport’s all time list of the greatest ever cycling books is, by pure coincidence, a book project that was pitched to Michael Barry by…Cycle Sport. I love it how when you come up with an idea, the idea gets implemented, and then you get to vote it as one of the greatest of all time. Next week I’ll be doing a list of the fifty greatest cycling blogs of all time, and can’t wait to vote on my own greatness.
“Inside the Postal Bus” is Michael Barry’s account of riding for Postal and an insider’s view of what it was like to support Lance Drugstrong in his Tour campaigns of 2002-2004. Barry doesn’t let it get in the way of the story that he never rode the Tour.
The short answer to the question, “Should I buy this book?” is “No.”
“What if I can get it on Alibris for $1.99?”
The answer is still “No.”
“What if I can get it at Half-Priced Books for fifty cents?”
“What if a friend gives it to me?”
That person is not your friend.
The blurb review
It’s my opinion that books purporting to be factual should not be filled with deceptions and lies. So perhaps the best way to review this shovelful of shit masquerading as a book is to present the book’s jacket blurbs and contrast them with the actual book.
“From winter training camp in California to the Tour de France, ‘Inside the Postal Bus’ offers an accurate behind-the-scenes view of our team. If you have ever wondered what the life of a pro cyclist is like, read this book.” Lance Armstrong, 7-time Tour de France winner and teammate.
Michael Barry’s book doesn’t offer a behind the scenes view of the team in the Tour, because Barry never rode the Tour. The book offers a series of jumbled observations that Barry gleaned from watching the Tour on television, like the rest of us. If you have ever wondered what the life of a pro cyclist is like, after reading this book you’ll conclude that it can be summed up in one word: Coffee. Barry mentions the coffee machine on the bus so often, and updates us on details like whether it was working, that you can’t help think that “coffee” is code for “homologous drug transfusions, steroids, and EPO.”
If you’ve ever wondered what a pro cyclist’s life is like, you’ve wondered about training regimens. Barry is silent on this topic with the exception of a description of some early season team rides. So apparently pro cyclists do some “bonding” type easy miles early in the season, and that’s it. The other topic that’s ignored is doping. It’s interesting to read through Barry’s list of heroes, great riders, people he admires, and icons of the sport with today’s after-acquired knowledge of all the riders who were busted for doping.
Vino, Landis, Hamilton, Beltran, Armstrong, Bruyneel, and on and on and on, the boys on the bus, the magic bus, the happy bus. The “accurate” view that Lance promises in his blurb would really only be achieved with descriptions of how they did the drugs, where they stored them, how Bruyneel organized it, and what the mechanics were of shooting up before a big race. We don’t get any of that.
The subject that the book doesn’t skirt is the wonderfulness of LiveStrong. He’s the kindest, strongest, best person ever, a patient signer of autographs, a thoughtful and brilliant team leader, an inspirational fighter of cancer, and an unbeatable competitor when combined with Johan Bruyneel, who also gets mention after mention for his fantastically super smartfulness and cleverity.
“A truly remarkable story of Michael Barry’s life alongside a squad ruled by one man–Lance Armstrong. It is a great read.” Phil Liggett, OLN Cycling Commentator.
When I think of a remarkable life, I think of Helen Keller or Teddy Roosevelt or Abe Lincoln or Christopher Columbus or Winston Churchill. I don’t think of a Canadian dude whose dad owned a bike shop and who spent his career as a routinier in the service of Lance. Far from being remarkable, Barry explains that his life as a domestique is boring, hard, and not all that interesting. To call the book a “great read” is, like virtually everything else that randomly tumbles out of the mouth of Phil Liggett, rubbish. The book has no organization; it doesn’t even have a story. Various things are haphazardly thrown in with no connection to anything else. His 2003 Vuelta campaign starts at the beginning, and mysteriously ends at stage 5.
The next chapter randomly talks about the hotel, about bumping into Johan in the hall, and a reminiscence about riding in the snow in Toronto as a child with “Joe.” Great read? It’s nothing more than “Michael Barry’s random thoughts. Catch ’em if you can.”
Barry does, however, display a keen sensitivity to sponsor suckass and nutlick. He mentions all of the Postal sponsors repeatedly. Berry Floor refloored the team bus. AMD helped design everything, including the bikes, because all the computers used AMD chips. Clif Gels get copious mention. Oakley and Nike get air time, and a portion is even devoted to the big sponsor dicklick where the entire team has to travel to Scottsdale and let the wanker sponsors ride with the boys.
For those who really want to lap up the encomiums, there’s great stuff about how wonderful Sherly Crow was, how she rode with the team occasionally, and about uber-wanker Robin Williams when he was in his Cat 4 mode and fed the addiction by groupie-izing the team bus during Drugstrong’s Tour victories.
“Barry has cycling in his blood. And now he has shown that he can write more than passably, too.” Vancouver Sun.
He’s done no such thing. In fact, he’s shown that he can’t write at all. There’s not a single drip, drop, or drab of analysis or insight into what makes any of the actors in this book tick, how they endure the hardships of the sport, or why cycling should capture your interest or imagination. Barry describes people as “awesome,” “fantastic,” and “incredible” as a substitute for describing them through their characters or actions. Instead of doing the hard, heavy lifting required to bring life to the world’s most boring spectator sport, Barry has generated a concatenation of insider-speak anecdotes for road junkies. You can make sense out of it only if you follow the pro peloton, and even then it’s a mishmash. Much of the writing, far from being “passable,” is garbage. Entire sentences, even paragraphs, add nothing except to help meet the word-count requirement of the editors. Like what? Like this…random opening to page 152: “Lance couldn’t have had two better guys [Hincapie and Ekimov.]
Or this, on page 60: “But that is the way it goes…” or “Generally everybody fits together really well; there really aren’t any cliques.” It’s one long string of platitudes and uninformative statements with zero peeking behind the curtain. The activities on the bus are shrouded in the same veil of omerta at the end that they were at the beginning.
“Written in an artculate, fast-flowing style…Barry has a keen eye for the minor details of professional life. This is the main reason that the book offers a real and rare sense of what it is like to be part of a major squad.” Cycle Sport.
They pitch the project, market the project, and then vote it one of the best books ever. Gotta love the wankers at Cycle Sport! Unfortunately, they lie. The book isn’t articulate; it’s written in the crude, rough, workmanlike prose of someone who spends hundreds of hours pedaling and not many hours writing. Barry admits his difficulties in the foreword and it’s the only honest thing in the entire book. It’s not fast-flowing, either, in fact it doesn’t flow at all. We go from training camp to his childhood to early season races to bus descriptions to here and there and everywhere. The only thing missing are the green eggs and ham. While it’s true that Barry mentions lots of details, his eye is hardly keen–he has no ability to discriminate between important details that reveal character and meaningless ones that add nothing. “America has changed since September 11, 2001.” Deep stuff.
Since the book’s publication, Barry has gone on to complete a Tour and publish two more books, Le Métier and Fitness Cycling. Without some indication that he’s improved, though, I’m declining to donate more money to the cause. As our former President once said, “Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me, you can’t get fooled again.”