Book Review: The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes

history-cycling-50-bikes-bookContinued cold has made for little cycling but more reading, so here’s a review of my latest cycling book, The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose.  As with many of my book reviews, this will be somewhat tepid.

I’ve been asking myself why I’ve been so critical in my reviews.  Lots of people write very positive things about almost anything they come across.  Clearly, I am not like those people.  It would seem I have high standards for my literature.  Whether those are fair or not I shall leave to you, Dear Reader.

One of my favorite authors is Bill Bryson.  He started out in life as a travel author, but even in those days he had a unique ability to tell a story rather than simply catalogue his destinations.  While describing a place, he weaves its history and its idiosyncracies with its modern-day charms, finally adding large dollops of humor to create a very entertaining and informative read.  Bryson has since taken on other subjects, including how the American version of English developed and the not-so-modest “A Short History Of Nearly Everything.”  Even these seemingly dry topics he makes interesting through his story telling ability.   Because of Bryson, I now understand why Bostonians speak differently than Virginians and how scientists know what the Earth weighs without ever putting it on a scale.  On a very good day, I hope this blog approaches some of Bryson’s characteristics.

So when I crack a binder on a book giving the history of cycling in fifty bicycles, I am hoping against all hope I do not get fifty separate, unrelated stories, but rather one long story, full of oddities and interesting facts that I was previously unaware of.  I’d like a few large themes that connect the smaller stories in a way that helps explain how we ended up where we’re at.  While not required, humor would be a pleasant addition.

In short, I’m looking for Bryson.  That’s not what I found, so I should probably just leave it at that and talk about other aspects of the book.

The Quadricycle - imagine if this version won out!

The Quadricycle – imagine if this version won out!

Ambrose begins (logically enough) at the beginning of cycling.  After a short chapter where he discusses “proto-bicycles” – good ideas that never quite caught on due to a lack of materials or technology, he picks up the story where most authors do, with the Draisine (1817).  In addition to well-known bikes such as the Velocipede and the Boneshaker, and Penny-Farthing, Ambrose includes other lesser known bicycles such as the Macmillan Pedal Bike, The Facile, and the Salvo Quadricycle.  He points out that there were widely different views on what a human-powered machine should look like, including how many wheels, the manner of propulsion, and the steering mechanisms.  It made me begin to wonder what is the first bike that had all the attributes we have come to understand in a typical bicycle.  I began to look for the first bicycle with brakes, and gearing that we would recognize in today’s machines.  More on that search later.

La Francaise Diamant

La Francaise Diamant

As the story moves into the 20th Century, things become a little confusing.  The focus of each chapter becomes less about the bicycle being highlighted and more about a famous person associated with it.  The bike’s influence on history, it would seem, is significant only because of the man who rode it.  La Francaise Diament is a case in point.  In a single paragraph it is pointed out as being typical of the bikes used in the first Tour de France.  A nice picture of the bike is provided for reference.  The next five pages are devoted to that first race with nary a mention of the bicycle again.

Automoto advert - it suggests you won't notice the Pyrenees with this bike

Automoto advert – it suggests you won’t notice the Pyrenees with this bike

I could see bicycles maturing with each story – pneumatic tires are introduced and primitive gearing is employed.  I could sense that we were getting close to the bicycle I was searching for and I was intrigued with the possibilities of The Automoto, the bike ridden by Italian legend Ottavio Bottecchia.  Ambrose builds the case that the Automoto was the center of the French bicycle industry and would be the first choice for many Tour riders throughout the 1920s.  The text acconpanying a picture of the brake pads states distinctive design features were used throughout the Automoto and another picture includes the statement, “Automoto combined fine engineering with a particularly Italian attention to detail.”  Sadly, no further information is given on the bicyle.  The four pages in this chapter are given to the career of Bottecchia.

After interesting diversions onto unusual ideas like the Velocar (which eventually would lead to recumbents) The Hercules (designed specifically for women), the Bartelo (first sprint bike), Schulz’s Funiculo (first mountain bike), my interest in the “first modern bike” was piqued again with a chapter on derailleurs.  The conversation eventually moves to the Campagnolo Derailleur, introduced in the 1940s.  This appears to be the first modern derailleur.  Then again, maybe it was pointed out on the next page when “modern parallelogram movement replaced the sliding bushing.”  Not much is given as an explanation for this seemingly important change, nor is it made clear what bicycles actually used the technology.

Merckx and his Ugo de Rosa

Merckx and his Ugo de Rosa

The pattern of highlighting the careers of the legends through their bikes continues.  Fausto Coppi’s story is told by referencing his Bianchi.  Eddy Merckx’s career is reviewed under the chapter supposedly dedicated to his Ugo De Rosa, and Tommy Simpson is discussed in detail under the chapter dedicated to his Peugot PX-10.  Each of the cyclists are discussed in detail.  Their bikes less so.

A chapter is spent on mountain bikes, featuring the Breezer Series 1 (1977).  BMX racing is covered by The Haro (1982).  By the time the author gets around to the super aerodynamic Lotus 108 (1992 – Chapter 39), the chapters are beginning to blur together.  I was curious to see my humble Madone made the list as the subject of Chapter 42, along with its infamous rider, Lance Armstrong.  The book was published after the revelation of Armstrong’s misdeeds, but the author skirts the issue by stating, “his recent fall from grace is all the more spectacular given his many achievements…”  An interesting notion, that.

Ambrose wraps things up with a few chapters devoted to bike share programs, city bikes like The Gazelle (which was invented in 1940 yet makes its appearance near the end of the book).  The final chapter looks to the future by examining some experimental designs in use today, such as square-wheeled bikes, origami bikes, etc…

Fittingly, there is no conclusion or summary.  The reader reaches the last chapter on futuristic designs and…  you’re done!  This is a fitting way for a book like this to end.  It’s simply a compendium of bicycles, fifty of them to be precise.  On this simple level, the book works well, apart from some shoddy editing.  Sadly, the book could have been much more than fifty separate chapters.  It could have been a cohesive, informative, and entertaining review of cycling history, combining the key bits of technology and the people who invented them or rode them in a gripping story.

I wonder what Bill Bryson is writing about these days.  Perhaps he would appreciate a suggestion…


Military Bicycles – The Early Years

“Look, look!” Aymo said and pointed toward the road.

Along the top of the stone bridge we could see German helmets moving. They were bent forward and moved smoothly, almost supernaturally.

As they came off the bridge, we saw them. They were bicycle troops . . . Their carbines were clipped to the frame of the bicycles.”

                               ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

This week was Veterans’ Day (or perhaps Armistice Day, or maybe even just another Sunday/Monday, depending on where you live) and I thought a belated review of bicycles in military history might be an appropriate (and fun!) little romp for us to take together.

Hard to imagine this being practical

Hard to imagine this being practical

Say what you want about militaries, but I think we can all agree they are never hesitant to incorporate new technologies into their organizations.  Bicycles are no different.  As far back as 1870, both the French and Germans were testing Penny Farthings (those old-fashioned bikes with the huge front wheel) as dispatch riders and scouts in the Franco-Prussian War.  I suspect the tests didn’t go very well.

Still, interest remained.  When the Safety Bike was invented in 1885, the British used them as scouts in military exercises that sasme year.  The French Army formally introduced bikes into the service only two years later.  In 1898, US Army LT James Moss effectively led 100 black soldiers on bicycles to dispel riots in Havanna, Cuba.  In 1890, bicycles saw their first significant military action in the 2nd Boer War where both sides successfully employed them.  The Boers created the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps and used bikes instead of horses whenever possible to save the animals for actual combat.  They developed a technique of placing leather strips between the tire tube and rim and thus greatly reduced punctures, making their machines much more reliable than the British.  For their part, the Brits developed this interesting piece of gear known as the War Cycle, used on railway lines:

This could be converted to carry a Maxim Machine Gun and had a top speed of 48kph

This could be converted to carry a Maxim Machine Gun and had a top speed of 48kph

Other enterprising uses of bicycles in the 2nd Boer War included using them to carry carrier pigeons, as transporting them on horseback upset the birds too greatly.  The Scots Guards used a collapsable bike to carry a kite for photography and later to lift an aerial for use in wireless telegraph experiments.  One can only imagine a overworked Scotsman as he huffed and puffed across the South African plain to get his kite in the air.

The Americans were busy at this time as well.  In 1891, the First Signal Corps of the Connecticut National Guard was established as the first American bicycle unit. Tests were conducted to determine how fast cyclists could deliver messages.  One cyclist delivered a message faster than an entire flag signaler team, while a relay team carried a single dispatch from Chicago to New York City in just four days and 13 hours. A follow-up challenge brought a message from Washington, D.C. to Denver in just over six days.  In 1896, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps moved from its home base in Montana over 1,900 miles to St. Louis in 41 days.  That’s almost 50 miles per day with no roads.  The 25th was the same unit that would be used against the Cuban riot two years later and its commander was the same Lt Moss.

The 25th Bicycle Infantry, Departing Ft. Missoula, MT

The 25th Bicycle Infantry, Departing Ft. Missoula, MT

Swiss 1905 Bike

Swiss 1905 Bike

By the early 1900s, almost everybody was getting into the act.  The Swedish 27th Gotlandic Infantry Regiment replaced horses with bicycles in 1901.  By 1942, the Swedes had six bicycle infantry regiments.  The Swiss began equipping some of their infantry with a bicycle built to customary high Swiss standards in 1905.

Italian Bersaglieri (Light Infantry) with folding bicycles

Italian Bersaglieri (Light Infantry) with folding bicycles

Bicycles continued to be of use in WWI.  When generals originally thought the war would be one of great movement, bicycles were considered to have great potential.  As the war ground to a halt in the trenches, bikes lost their utility as combat vehicles and their use was primarily to get soldiers to the front.

Only thirty years after the invention of the Safety Bike, bicycles had proven their worth in combat in a myriad of different uses.  This post only scratches the surface of the military’s use of bicycles.  As the winter days grow colder and my cycling decreases, I’ll regale you with the rest of the story – WWII to present.

You have been warned.


Further Reading:

Military Bicycles:  A Short History

Military Bicycles (Utility Cycling)

Wikipedia:  Bicycle Infantry

Hell On Two Wheels:  The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps

Bicycles In The Anglo-Boer War of 1889 – 1902



There’s been a lot of talk recently about a former American cycling legend and his tarnished legacy. It’s probably time to review the achievements of the original American Cycling Legend so that he might once again be properly considered as a cycling great and a pioneer.

I give you Greg LeMond.

Most casual (American) sports fans can tell you Lance Armstrong won a bunch of Tour de Frances.  Many can even tell you the actual victory total is seven.  Very few of them will even recall the name of LeMond.  That’s a shame, because his story is almost as remarkable as Armstrong’s fiction and the fact that the former champion was bankrupted by the latter fraud makes the story only more poignent.

LeMond & Hinault in 1986

LeMond & Hinault in 1986

Before LeMond, no non-European had ever won the Tour de France.  Ever.  He finished third in his first-ever TdF (1983) and won the Young Rider classification.  The next year he finished second, helping his teammate, the great Bernard Hinault, win his fifth tour.  Most analysts believe LeMond could have beaten Hinault except team managers insisted he ride in support of the Frenchman.  Hinault promised to return the favor the next year and instead battled his teammate tooth and nail.  Despite the disloyalty, LeMond won his first TdF.

1989 - note the aerobars, pedals, sunglasses, and helmet

1989 – note the aerobars, pedals, sunglasses, and helmet

In 1987, LeMond suffered a dramatic setback akin to Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis when he was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while turkey hunting.  After almost dying and with 35 pellets still in his body, two year’s of rehabilitation ensued.  Hoping to finish in the top 20 of the 1989 tour, LeMond won the whole thing behind a breathtaking time trial on the final stage, beating Laurent Fignon with an average speed of 55.5 km/hr (that’s 34.5 mph – try it sometime) – a record at the time which has only been bested twice since then.  Later in 1989, he won the World Cycling Championships.

That year, LeMond was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year, the first cyclist to win the award.

"Team Z"

“Team Z”

In 1990, LeMond won his third and final TdF after signing a record-breaking contract with $5.5 million to ride with Z-Tomasso (aka “Team Z”).  He won the tour without winning a single stage, taking the yellow jersey on the second to last day after yet another strong time trial performance.

LeMond continued to compete for four more years but grew increasingly less relevant in the general classification category.  He finished 7th in 1991, abandoned in 1992, was too exhausted to enter the race in 1993, he retired in 1994 after being forced to abandon once again.

In addition to his first-ever tour wins for a non-European, LeMond was a pioneer of cycling technology which we take for granted today, including the use of aerobars on time trials and the measurement of power (watts) in training regimens.  He was the first rider to win the tour on a carbon-framed bicycle and successfully use clipless pedals.  He played a big role in the success of Oakley sunglasses and Giro helmets, endorsing their products and improving their designs.

In 1990, LeMond founded LeMond Bicycles.  In 1995, the company partnered with Trek Bicycles.  Trek would eventually go on to sponsor Lance Armstrong.  When LeMond (always a strong opponent of doping in the tour) made comments questioning Armstrong’s achievements, it led to several years of bickering between him and Trek.  The acrimonious relationship eventually led to court suits in 2006 and an eight year feud with Armstrong.  Many people felt that LeMond was motivated by jealousy over the fact he had lost his position as America’s Greatest Cyclist.  Supporters argued that LeMond was simply being consistent with his strong anti-doping advocacy.

Whatever his motivations, it is now apparent that he was right.

So let us reflect on the achievements of Greg LeMond, three-time TdF winner, the first non-European to win the tour, a man who overcame a near-death accident, a pioneer in cycling technology, and a staunch advocate of anti-doping measures.  Theres a lot to be said for a career like that.

Further Reading

Greg LeMond Webpage

Cycling Hall of Fame

This Week In Cycling Dope

Point of Order - the guy on the left counts with his fingers correctly; the guy on the right does not.

Since I have a blog which concerns itself with cycling, I am obligated to discuss this week’s happenings in the professional ranks.  Most Americans are generally aware that federal prosecutors have dropped their investigation into possible doping activities of Lance Armstrong and his teammates during his epic seven consecutive Tour de France streak.  Only the most cycling-focused of us Yanks are aware that three-time TdF winner Alberto Contador was ordered to forfeit his 2010 victory by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (cycling has a court!) and suffer a two-year ban.  This same court is expected to issue a ruling tomorrow on yet another TdF winner, Jan Ullrich.  No American has ever heard of him.  Ok, a few Americans have heard of Ullrich – but not many.

Regardless of their overall popularity in The States, all three cyclists are very popular in the cycling community.  What are we to think of the prospect of doping featuring so prominently in the sport we love?  How does this impact us as cyclists?

My answer to the first question is, “What’s new?” and to the second question I say, “Not at all.”

Cycling has an extremely rich and consistent involvement in performance enhancing drugs.  It has been this way for over a century and has continued unabated despite 50 years of efforts to remove them from the sport.  My only surprise in the continued infractions is that people are surprised by them.   A significant PED scandal hits the cycling world every few years for the past century, so another is hardly a novel thing.  In this regard, cycling is no different from any other sport where millions of dollars are at stake.  When the margin between greatness and average is very small and the incentives to cheat are extremely large, cheating is to be expected.

So why the ruckus?  I believe it is because cycling fans make the common mistake of idolizing the champions of the sport (“fans” is short for “fanatics,” after all).  What happens when our heroes are exposed?  Illusions are shattered and enjoyment of the sport is lessened.

So should we all stop watching and supporting professional cycling?  Of course not.  I suggest we simply take it for what it is and not attempt to embellish it with the stuff of myth and legend.  It’s a beautiful sport with sweeping vistas, fascinating strategy and tactics, teamwork, and tremendous hard work.  That’s enjoyable to watch and when some of these millionaires are caught crossing the line, they are punished and the show goes on.

If you want heroes, I encourage you to look elsewhere.  For cycling heroes, the Blogroll on the right side of your computer screen is an excellent place to start.  You will read inspiring stories of people overcoming all sorts of obstacles to achieve their best.  There are people cycling across continents, folks climbing mountains in their spare time, losing incredible amounts of weight, riding in extreme heat and cold, and doing so in all manner of age, gender, and physical ailment.  If we spend more time admiring folks like this and less time trying to make professional athletes something they are not, I think we’ll all be better off.

An Abridged Timeline Of PEDs in Cycling

(submitted for your reference – I could have added more, but this suffices, I think)

1896 – Arthur Linton dies of exhaustion and typhoid fever a few weeks after finishing 2nd in the Bordeaux-Paris race.  At least one researcher claims Linton was “massively doped” for this race by his manager, the infamous Choppy Warburton, who was known for doping his charges.

1896 – Participants in Six Day races are routinely given Nitroglycerine to improve their breathing.  The drug was a hallucinogen and was often used to stimulate the heart after heart attacks.  Marshall Taylor, one of the world’s most accomplished cyclists, refuses to continue in the New York Six Day Race, stating, “”I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.”

1924 – The Pelissier brothers (Henri, Francis, and Charles) drop out of the Tour de France and give an interview in which they claim to have used strychnine, cocaine, chloroform, aspirin, “horse ointments,” and other drugs to improve performance.

1930 – Taking drugs was so accepted that the Tour de France rulebook reminded riders that race organizers would not provide drugs to cyclists.

1949 – Italian champion Fausti Coppi states that there is no alternative to taking amphetamines if one wants to be a competitive cyclist.  He jokes that he only takes the drugs when absolutely necessary, “which is nearly always.”

1955 – Jean Mallejec collapses on the famous Mount Ventoux during the Tour de France.  In the ambulance, he claims he was drugged against his will.

1958 – Roger Riviere sets the hour distance record.  He later admits he accomplished the feat under the influence of amphetamines.

1960 – Denmark’s Knud Enemark Jensen collapses during his team’s 100km Olympic time trial, fractures his skull, and later dies in the hospital.  An autopsy reveals the presence of amphetamines and Roncil, a drug which decreases blood pressure.  Jensen’s death lead to pressure on the IOC to establish drug controls.

1960 – During the Tour de France, Gastone Nencini was discovered in his hotel room with plastic tubes running from each arm into a bottle of blood.  Transfusions like this were legal at the time.

1960 – Roger Riviere ends his career in a crash during a descent on Mt. Aigoual.  Riviere believes the crash was caused by his use of the painkiller, Palfium.  Riviere states his fingers were so numb he couldn’t work the brake levers.

1965 – Jacques Anquetil claims “only a fool” would attempt to ride the Bourdaux-Paris route without drugs.  “Leave me in peace,” he says.  “Everybody takes dope.”

1967 – Tom Simpson dies on Mount Ventoux during the Tour de France.  The autopsy found amphetamines and alcohol in his system.  More drugs are found in the pockets of his jersey and in his hotel room.

1969 – Eddy Merckx, one of the all-time greats, tests positive for drugs during the Giro d’Italia.  In what would become a familiar defense, Merckx denies the charges and claimed his urine sample wasn’t handled properly.

1972 – Juan Huelamo finishes 3rd in the Olympics and is later disqualified after testing positive for coramine.

1973 – Eddy Merckx is stripped of his 1st place finish at the Giro di Lombardia Classic after testing positive for a banned substance.

1974 – Advances in testing technology helps catch 13 prominent riders.

1975 – Benard Thevenet wins the Tour de France with the assistance of cortisone.  “I was doped with cortisone for three years and there were many like me,” said Thevent.  “The experience ruined my health.”

1976 – Rachel Dard details how he and fellow riders tricked testing officials by using condoms containing uncontaminated urine.

1977 – Another improvement in testing nets Eddy Merckx yet again, along with Freddy Maertens and Michel Pollentier.  Pollentier would be caught a year later trying to trick testing officials using a bladder containing somebody else’s urine.

1978 – Jean-Luc van den Broueck states, “In the Tour de France, I took steroids. That is not a stimulant, just a strengthener. If I hadn’t, I would have had to give up… You can’t call that medically harmful, not if it’s done under a doctor’s control and within reason.”

1980 – Dietrich Thurau tests positive in three separate races.  After his retirement in 1988, he admits to doping and states most cyclists do it.

1984 – Francesco Moser breaks Eddy Merckx’s one hour record and admits to blood doping to prepare for the event.  At the time, this was not banned.  Seven members of the American Olympic Team admit to taking blood transfusions to prepare for the games.  The US Federation banned this practice the following year.

1989 – Johan van der Velde retires and undergoes hospital treatment for his addiction to amphetamines.

1991 – Sean Kelly is surprised to learn he failed a drug test despite using the urine of a team mechanic.  Unfortunately for Kelly, the mechanic was also using banned substances to provide a lift while working late at night.

1996 – In 2007, seven members of Team Telekom admit to taking banned substances (including EPO) during the season when teammate Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France.

1998 – The entire Festina team is ejected from the Tour de France when a large haul of doping drugs is found in a team car.

2001- The Giro d’Italia is marred by drug raids conducted by over 200 police officers. Numerous cyclists are implicated, including contender Dario Frigo.

2003-2004.  Eight riders die of heart attacks.  This is an unusually large number, even for a sport which routinely sees its world-class athletes suffer inexplicable numbers of heart attacks.

2006 – Tour de France favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso are banned from participation due to their connection to the Operacion Puerto doping case.  Eventual Tour Champion Floyd Landis would relinquish his title due to a positive doping test.

2007 – Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen misses drug tests then lies to officials about his whereabouts.  His team eventually drops him from the race.  Four other riders test positive and two teams are asked to withdraw by officials.

2012 – Alberto Contador has his 2010 Tour de France title stripped due to a urine test which discovered the presence of clenbuterol.  Contador blames the result on contaminated meat.

Marshall “Major” Taylor

“Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart.”

Last winter, I regaled you with a few articles on the early history of cycling.   You seemed to enjoy it and much to my surprise these remain one of the most-often viewed articles I have ever posted.  Since my cycling activity has dwindled a bit, I now have some time to add to this series.  I thought I would share with you the story of Major Taylor.

53 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and 28 years before the first African-American won an Olympic gold medal, Taylor was racing bicycles professionally.  The year was 1896 and Taylor was 18 years old.  He was competing against the best cyclists in the world at Madison Square Garden’s famed six-day race.  And he was good.

The son of a Civil War veteran, Taylor found his way to NYC from rural Indiana after being banned from cycling in amateur races due to his ethnicity.  Initially, folks didn’t have an issue with Taylor (who would perform stunts outside the bicycle shop where he worked dressed in a soldier’s uniform – hence the nickname), but when he started winning races emotions ran high.  After he broke the Indianapolis track’s one mile record at the age of 15, Taylor was barred from competing there.

Fortunately, Taylor had caught the eye of Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, the owner of the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company.  Taylor worked in Munger’s Indianapolis store and Munger convinced him to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, after the banning incident.  Worcester was the cycling capital of America, home to six bicycle factories and 30 bicycle stores.  Munger gave Taylor a job in Worcester Cycle’s factory and sponsored his racing activities.

Taylor in his national team uniform and his Iver Johnson track bike

By 1898, Taylor was arguably the greatest cyclist in the world.  He held seven world records at distances from 1/4 mile to two miles and he won 29 of the 49 races he entered that year.  Nobody else was even close to this level.  In 1899, he won the World Championship.  He did the mile from a standing start in 1:41, a record that stood for 28 years (try it sometime).  His championships were almost never realized since there were strong petition campaigns designed to bar him from national races.  Fortunately, they did not succeed (largely through the public support of teammate Earl Kiser) and Taylor was world sprint champion in 1899 and 1900 – only the second black athlete to earn the title in ANY sport, after Canada’s George Dixon accomplished the feat in boxing.

Taylor in Europe

Still, Taylor was banned from almost all races in the South and for a good while the League of American Wheelmen wouldn’t admit blacks as members.  In 1902, Taylor competed successfully in Europe, where more progressive sensibilities made it possible for him to race in a less hostile environment.  The French were reportedly exceptionally fond of him.  He won 40 of the 57 races he entered and beat the champions of England, Germany and France.    He then spent ’02-’04 racing in Australia and New Zealand as well as Europe.  Toward the end of his career, he was reportedly earning up to $30,000 a week.  By way of comparison, Honus Wagner earned $5,000 in 1905 as one of baseball’s most famous players.  Taylor was one of the richest athletes (and richest black men, for that matter) in the world.

Despite all of the hardship he was forced to endure, Taylor remained a remarkably positive person.  He was very religious and refused to race on Sundays for a long time, complicating his racing in Europe.  He began each race with a silent prayer.  He was known for being intelligent and courteous.

Memorial at the Worcester Public Library

Sadly, things did not end well for Taylor.  He lost his money on a series of bad investments, the stock market crash and medications for persistent illnesses.  He died penniless at the age of 53 in 1932 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Cook County, Illinois.  In 1948 a group of former pro bike racers, with money donated by Frank W. Schwinn (yes, THAT Schwinn), organized the exhumation and relocation of Taylor’s remains to Mount Glenwood Cemetery, near Chicago. A monument to his memory stands in Worcester, and Indianapolis named the city’s bicycle track after him.

“It is my thought that clean living and a strict observance of the golden rule of true sportsmanship are foundation stones without which a championship structure cannot be built.”

Further Reading

A World Championship, Just Down The Road

Yesterday, the Union Cycliste Internationale announced that the 2015 World Road Cycling Championships would be held in Richmond, Virginia, a mere 80 miles from where I live.  This gives rise to all sorts of questions, including:

o What the heck are the World Road Cycling Championships?

o Why can’t the French ever get their adjectives in the right order?

o Seriously, Richmond?

It turns out this is kind of a big deal.  UCI is the sport of cycling’s governing body.  They oversee all major cycling events and issue licenses to the riders.  They are headquartered in Switzerland, which may be evidence of their strict neutrality, or their penchant for keeping the secrets and monetary fortunes of arch criminals safe, or both.    UCI has been hosting the championships since 1921 and the winners in each division (there are Junior’s, Men’s, and Women’s divisions for both road races and time trials) get to wear a rainbow jersey for the next year in all UCI events, signifying they are a world champion and are in no way (necessarily) affiliated with the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender community.

It appears that winning this event is quite an achievement.  It is considered one of the three most important races of the year, along with the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia (which is Italian for “Our Tour Is A Big Deal, Just Like The Tour de France”).  Together, these three races form cycling’s Triple Crown.  The crown has been won only twice, once by Irishman Stephen Roche (1987) and the other time by the legendary Eddy Merckx of Belgium (1974).  That’s it.

Choosing Richmond as the location for this event may seem odd.  That is because it is odd.  The Road Championships have been most recently held in Melbourne Australia, Mendrisio Switzerland, Varese Italy, and Stuttgart Germany.  The last time it was held in the USA was 1986 in Colorado Springs.  Somehow, Richmond doesn’t seem like the next logical step in this chain.  There are several centers of cycling buzz in America (Portland and Austin come immediately to mind) and although I am certain Richmond is working hard to make itself “bike friendly,” it normally doesn’t come up on the list of America’s best bicycling cities.  Richmond was almost guaranteed a selection after Oman, its chief competitor, withdrew its bid.  UCI’s selection for Richmond was unanimous.

So congratulations to Richmonders (if that is the right word for someone who lives in Richmond)  for overcoming major obstacles and convincing a bunch of secretive Swiss to hold their world championships in their fair city.  I now have four years to start building enough interest to drive down the road and watch the event.

Hopefully this helps explain the race and a bit about the city of Richmond.  As for the French, I have given up trying to understand them.

Book Review: Bike Snob NYC (Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling)

I happened across a neat book in my LBS (that’s Local BOOK Store).  It’s written by Eben Weiss, AKA Bike Snob NYC.  Many of you have no doubt come across Bike Snob’s very popular blog and have enjoyed his sardonic wit.  This book is a distillation of four years of blogging and is filled with the same humor and no-nonsense points of view that characterize his blog.

The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The Basics (including a nice history of the bicycle, a taxonomy section, and “What Is A Cyclist, And Why Would Anybody Want To Be One?”)
  2. Road Rules (with sections discussing cycling in the city, the myth of a “bike culture,” and my personal favorite, “Why Is Everybody Trying To Kill Me?”)
  3. Advanced Cycling (with discussions on how to remove the “burden of bike ownership” and just enjoy your bicycle, rules vs. fashion and “A Brief Guide To Etiquette For Non-Cyclists”)

Bike Snob hails from New York City, so his commentary has a decidedly urban slant to it.  Still, it’s a very humorous and fast read which has a great deal to say to cyclists regardless of their location or abilities.  The book provides a fresh perspective on cycling norms and causes the reader to reevaluate how he approaches the cycling hobby.  Apart from the humor, this is the book’s greatest virtue and it makes it well worth the read. 

For those interested in an in-depth discussion on maintenance, nutrition, or some other advanced aspect of cycling, you will be disappointed.  Any book that attempts to survey the entire cycling landscape is by necessity rather short on specifics (on some “how-to” subjects like changing a flat, Bike Snob simply states that he isn’t going to tell you how to do it as there are plenty of places to look that information up).  While some helpful tips are provided, they are given in the larger context of a discussion on why people should want to bike and how they should go about doing it.

At the end of the book, there was a pleasant surprise for me – stickers!  I have now adorned my hybrid with its first-ever sticker.  I think it looks rather nice.

Tour de France: The First 50 Years

1903 - Finish Line at the First Tour

Some of you (and by the looks of the cycling blogs out there, darn near all of you) are aware that cycling’s great annual event, the Tour de France, has been underway for a week.  There’s still almost two weeks to go, including several trips through the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps.  When the race is finished, riders will have traveled over 2,100 miles, or about 300 miles further than I have cycled all year.  That’s a depressing thought, so I’d rather focus on the Tour’s interesting history.

The Tour started in 1903 as the publicity stunt of a failing cycling magazine with the ironic name,  L’Auto.  The race’s original June 1 start date was delayed until July because so few riders had signed up.  After cutting the course from 35 to 19 days and halving the entry fee, 78 riders were registered and everything was set.

It’s hard to imagine how these cyclists managed.  The derailleur had yet to be invented, so this would be a “fixed-gear” race out of necessity.  Free wheels and drop bars did not exist.  There were no such things as cycling clothes.  Teams didn’t exist and cyclists were expected to manage all aspects of the tour by themselves, or risk disqualification.  The first stage was 290 miles long (Paris to Lyon).  43 riders quit on this first leg.  Eleven of the quitters were allowed to resume the Tour in Lyon, but they could only compete for stage wins, not the overall “General Classification.”  Fueled by the free publicity of L’Auto, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen turned out to watch the event, which was deemed a huge success.

The rest, as they say, was history.  Here are some of my personal favorites of that history:

1904:  Cheating is so rampant that the Tour is almost abandoned.  The Tour’s first champion, Maurice Garin, had his title stripped as a review of check point logs clearly showed he had received a lift via auto or train.  Other riders were caught drafting team cars.  Fans ambushed competing riders and beat them with sticks.

1905:  Throwing nails onto the course becomes popular.  In Stage 1, every rider punctures at least once.  Keep in mind that riders carried their own spare inner tubes  with them and riders were required to complete any patching without assistance.

1909:  Francois Faber almost freezes to death in a snow storm storm while climbing Ballon d’Alsace.  Gale force winds blew him off his bike twice.  And he was attacked by a horse.  Mud at the bottom of the course was eight inches thick.  That’s a tough ride.

More Snow: Goustave Garrigou walks past six foot snow drifts in 1910

1913:  Marcel Buysse is hit by a car and his bike is seriously damaged.  When informed that Buysse lacked the skills to forge a new fork at the village blacksmith, Race Director Henri Desgrange says, “As a professional rider, you should know how to repair your bike.”

1925:  Teams are permitted to participate and riders are allowed to exchange and supply each other with food, small parts, and “light assistance.”   Teammates are permitted to stay with a stranded rider and work together to return to the peloton.

1930:  Destraught over the increasing influence of commercial sponsors which detracted from national teams, Desgrange forces riders to compete on generic yellow bikes.  The entire race is funded by the now-famous publicity caravan.  The first sponsor?  Menier Chocolates.

You have to start somewhere: 1930 Publicity Caravan

1935:  Francisco Cepeda falls on the descent from the Col du Galibier and dies five days later, the first rider to die on the Tour.  Later in the same tour, Julien Moineau employs a clever strategy by having fans line the road with beer bottles.  While all other riders agree to take a break to enjoy the unexpected surprise, Moineau pedaled onward for a 15 minute stage victory.  This Tour also marked the first use of derailleurs, 30 years after they were invented.

1948:  Gino Bartelli wins the Tour, ten years after winning it for the first time.  This remains the largest gap between victories in Tour history.

1952:  Fausto Coppi wins the first-ever race up Alpe d’Huez.  This spectacular mountain climb has been used 17 times since, but this is the first and only time riders were forced up it in an individual time trial. (thanks, Gerry!)

Fausto Coppi climbs Alpe d'Huez

Clearly, there are a lot more stories, but these are some of my favorites.  I could go into some detail on the 98-year history of performance-enhancing drugs, but I’ve decided to keep things relatively positive this time!

I Watched Two Movies

A morning snow flurry squashed any plans for cycling today.  Perhaps the roads will improve enough for a spin tomorrow, but I’m not optimistic.  My streak of consecutive weekend rides since August may be broken. 

With no bicycle riding on the schedule, I did the logical thing.  I watched two movies about bicycling.  They were documentaries, actually, so I was able to get through them fairly quickly.

The first movie was Blood, Sweat, and Gears: Racing Clean To The Tour de France.  I was intrigued by the premise of the documentary, which covers the Garmin Slipstream racing team as they pledge to compete at the highest levels of cycling while not using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping.  I was very interested to see how the team conducted its training to compete against a world of cheaters.  Despite its title, the documentary spends almost no time showing how the team alters its training or otherwise proves to the racing public that they are not doping.  The team simply asserts that they don’t dope and that’s that. 

Although I was largely disappointed in this flick, it was mildly interesting to see how a professional race team organizes itself and prepares for the racing season.  Races in Qatar, Paris-Roubaix, and Olympic Track Cycling Qualifiers are featured, with the climax being the Tour de France.  I learned that professional teams are quite big, often racing in more than one location and in more than one type of discipline (road and velodromes, for example) at the same time. 

Here is the trailer:

The second documentary was Ride of My Life: The Story of the Bicycle, by Robert Penn.  This one was cool.   Penn is an extremely experienced cyclist, who once cycled around the world.  Based on the book, It’s All About the Bike, the documentary follows Penn as he builds his dream bike.  He travels to bike factories in Germany, Italy, England, and America to meet with the very best designers of bicycle parts and purchase their equipment.  Often, he watches the part crafted in front of his eyes.  Each part is chosen for its unique contribution to the history of cycling.  Along the way, we learn about Draisines, Penny Farthings, Bone Shakers, Safety Bikes, and Mountain Bikes.  We see the Italian shrine to the patron saint of cyclists, the last bicycle factory in Birmingham (it’s Brooks), and meet the Americans who launched the mountain bike craze.  The end result is an outstanding bicycle that will last decades and is the ultimate conversation piece. 

This movie has something for everybody, whether you are a rabid enthusiast or an occasional pedaler.  You can see this documentary via YouTube.  Part 1 of 4 is below.  It’s worth your time!

When Velodromes Were Big Business

Newark Velodrome

It is hard to imagine, but professional cycling was once one of America’s most popular spectator sports.  As I sift through various histories of cycling’s Golden Age, I am struck by just how big cycling was in the 1920s.  The only sport that was arguably more popular was boxing.  That’s it. 

Here are some facts which some of you may actually find of slight interest:

– In the 1920s, National Football League franchises could be purchased for about $100.  The entire league was worth about $1,100.  That is what a good cyclist could earn in a single nightCyclists were the best paid athletes in the world.

Revere Beach Velodrome

– By WWII, there were over 100 velodromes in the United States.  The main circuit consisted of Philadelphia, Newark, NYC, and Boston.  Other cities like Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake City had thriving operations as well.  A group of 50-60 riders would travel between Boston and Philadelphia, racing every day for seven months a year.  This was the racing capital of the world.  Few Americans raced overseas because the money was so much better in the U.S.  The best Europeans and Australians traveled to the U.S. to race for big prizes of thousands of dollars.

Madison Square Garden

– Many people are not aware that the current Madison Square Garden is the fourth incarnation of that edifice.  The first two were purpose-built as velodromes.  The modern track cycling discipline of “Madison” takes its name from The Garden, which hosted an annual six-day race that was about as popular as the Super Bowl is today.  16,000 people would continuously cram into MSG for the event and fire marshals were required to cordon off the building to prevent too many people from entering. 

– Babe Ruth was invited to fire the starter’s pistol in the 1922 six-day race.  That year, he earned and $22,000 to play baseball for the Yankees.  Alf Goullet, a champion six-day racer, earned approximately $100,000 that year.

Six-Day Races.  The nightly races tended to focus on sprints and relatively short lengths of a mile or two.  However once or twice a year, the larger venues would host epic six-day races, which pitted up to 16 two-man teams in a non-stop endurance event that strains credulity.  Each team was required to have a man on the track at all times.  At most times, both were on the track as drafting helped the cyclists go faster.  During peak hours of fan attendance (usually the evenings), sprints would be arranged for extra cash prizes.  The 1914 race was won by Australian Alf Goullet and Tasmanian Alfred Grenda, who covered a distance of 2,759.2 miles, a record which still stands.  By way of comparison, the 2011 Tour de France will 2,156.8 miles and the riders will have 22 days to complete the Tour.  Goullet and Grenda rode 600 miles further in 16 fewer days

Alf Goullet

Speaking of Goullet, the man was a beast.  In that 1914 Six-Day Race, he finished the last hour by himself because his partner had an attack of appendicitis.  In addition to winning the event, he won the race’s final sprint.  Alone.  By 1925, he had won over 400 races, including The Garden’s Six-Day Race eight times.  He was paid $50,000 alone for winning the 1924 race.  To induce him to participate in the 1925 race, the organizers gave him a whopping $10,000 as an appearance fee.

In addition to his feats at the Garden, Goullet won six-day races in Melbourne, Sydney, the inaugural Paris six-day (where he beat two prominent Tour de France winners), Boston, Newark, and Chicago.  He was the US sprint champion twice.  He set world records at the 1912 Olympics in Salt Lake City for 2/3 of a mile, 3/4 of a mile and the mile.  He set a speed record for 50 miles of 1 hour and 49 minutes  (try it sometime!) that lasted for 50 years.

In short, Alf Goullet was one of the greatest, most famous, and richest athletes in the world for about 15 years.  It’s a pity that most people today have never heard of him.

The Great Depression and World War II effectively ended the mass appeal of velodrome cycling in America.  Recreational cycling had already suffered sharp declines in popularity and bicycles were viewed as children’s toys.  It would be forty years before the sport enjoyed a resurgence in America.  By then, the stars of yesteryear were largely forgotten.  That’s a shame, as there were some truly amazing events and cyclists in this era.

Further Reading: