Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Racing Through the Dark by David Millar (Book Review)

Racing Through the DarkRacing Through the Dark by David Millar

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Because of all the Lance Armstrong related hubbub I have not reviewed this because I thought I should do something more than just review this one book, but better to do something than nothing.

Many people who are not cycling enthusiasts will not know who David Millar is - there is a Wikipedia article that provides a lengthy overview. (Arguably it is a wiser time investment to read what is in Wikipedia than the book.)

Millar rode for several teams and was someone from whom success was expected not long after turning professional, then in 2004 he was caught doping and sat out two years. In 2006 he returned to riding as a vocal advocate for riding clean.

This memoir that clocks in at close to 350 pages has four parts: childhood through youth and early riding career, then his progressive conversion to doping followed by his being caught and banned for two years, and finally his reborn career and stance as anti-doping advocate.

The first section is too long - there is no compelling reason to have included most of what is here since little of it provides any background or explanation for what follows. Simply starting to read at page 58 or skimming up to this point would be a way of avoiding most of the pointless reading.

The second section - his professional career from 1997 through 2004 - is the most interesting part of the book. I have not read Tyler Hamilton's new book but I would guess it is similar. Millar avoids taking direct responsibility for his actions explicitly and offers a variety of excuses, including "it was expected," "the other guys were depending on me," "what I did at first wasn't doping, it is easy to slide over the line into doping" and more.

The description of his life as a cyclist and his fellow riders during this period reveals that things were quite bad - one wonders that something didn't set off a reaction then, long before Lance was busted. Riders didn't just take things to perform better during the race, they took various things to recover faster and took sleep aids as well. At one point Millar took a sleep aid while drinking (despite knowing this was unwise) and jumped from a window injuring an ankle and then not being able to ride for months.

The drinking aspect was not something I expected as apart of the story - for a professional athlete, Millar drank quite a lot. In only one photograph in the book where he was not on a bike is he not holding a drink. I suppose one can give him credit for being open about this.

The third section of the book is about being busted and serving a two year ban from riding. Millar is suitably grateful to folks who saw him through this period but in places he is whiny - given that he is a professional athlete who would drink, take pills, then injure himself it's kind of hard to feel sorry for him. He also moans and groans about his personal financial difficulties, the details of which I forgot about the instant I finished reading about them - given how much this subject may have occupied his attention during this period he likely thinks he kept description of this short, but it seemed labored to me.

The last section is the redemption section - as with many memoirs written by athletes who are still active, he doesn't want to annoy his new teammates so this is not terribly revealing (or interesting).

He makes an exception for his former teammate Bradley Wiggins who left Garmin-Slipstream for Team Sky. Millar describes his unhappiness at this (in large part, he says, because he took a pay cut so that Wiggins could earn more) and shares that he and his teammates regarded Wiggins' chances to win the Tour de France, his goal, as slim. "We looked forward to watching him fail" and "we were certain that he'd never be on the podium at the Tour." (Work on this book was completed long before the 2012 Tour de France that Wiggins won.)

Lance Armstrong comes up twice - early in his career he and Lance were both riders for Cofidis, although they didn't have that much contact since Armstrong was just coming back after cancer treatment. Much later, after the doping suspension, Millar lectured Lance at a cocktail party and Millar describes that incident in some detail. Otherwise what one gets relative to Armstrong's situation is confirmation that the culture of doping was widespread, pervasive.

The issue of doping overshadows the subject of bicycle road racing in this memoir, which is unfortunate. From time to time Millar does provide descriptions and analysis of some of his races and racing accomplishments but this comes across as a secondary topic. Millar had a number of big races where he just failed to win and much like his excuse-making with doping, he usually offers excuses for those failures. (As a memoir written with a co-author it seems remarkable that in numerous places a reader forms a less than good impression of Millar - not that he was doping, that he makes excuses and doesn't take responsibility for it more directly, and like that.)

In the 338 pages here there is around 120 pages of interesting stuff. There are some photos, both color and black and white. There is an index that can help you what what he may have said about particular people or events without plowing through all if it but no timeline for Millar's career, which would have been helpful. (You can look up his professional career accomplishments.)

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Masked Rider by Neil Peart (Book Review)

The Masked Rider: Cycling in West AfricaThe Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa by Neil Peart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neil Peart is the drummer for the band Rush - as an author he is mostly known for writing a book about a 55,000 mile trip by motorcycle after his daughter and wife died in less than a year. This book was written and published years before that and is much lighter.

Peart had participated in cycle tours in Europe but decided to try something more challenging that would be combined with an interest in Africa, so he went on an organized bike tour of Cameroon in 1988. The operator only had Peart and three other clients on the trip. The book is a description of his trip and what it was like.

Generally "adventure" travel books don't describe organized tours but in this case the tour was probably more arduous than many independent cycle tours. The tour lasted for a month, for one thing. In the per-Internet world, they were quite isolated almost the entire time, relying on the relatively modest belongings the carried on their bikes.

There is plenty of description of how physically difficult this was over the month, with the heat and generally primitive conditions. (They generally used lower cost accommodations even when western style ones were available, mostly to keep costs down.). He does a good job of describing what he saw and experienced. Much of the focus, as with most travel books, is on his interactions with people, both the people of Cameroon and his fellow travelers and the tour leader. (I wonder what his fellow travelers thought of this - it is somewhat critical of each of them.)

From time to time Peart engages in introspective reflections that I gather are more the point of his motorcycle book - I found these passages did not interrupt the narrative. I enjoyed reading this and will likely read it again.

You were always aware this was a book about travel by bicycle but there was not much description of anything particularly technical about that aspect. As a cyclist I felt like I had a good sense of the difficulties for cycling in this part of the world as a tourist from reading this (although things have likely changed since this was almost 25 years ago). The tour operator is still in business at http://www.ibike.org/bikeafrica/.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Bicycle Polo in 1896

As usual, I have noticed a drop-off in the number of bicycle commuters and other riders as the weather gets cooler (and wetter).

In the 1890s, there were various attempts to encourage cycling during cooler months - in 1896, one strategy was to encourage new indoor cycling activities, including an article in the October 17 1896 Washington Evening Times about "Bicycle Polo".

Bicycle Polo 1896

The most exciting novelty of the wheeling season has been bicycle polo, which was practically unheard of until about a month ago. It is a rather dangerous game, but not more so than polo as played with ponies at an East Indian gymkhana or a Meadowbrook Hunt meet. A low-geared bicycle has decided advantages in playing it, because it is so much easier suddenly to check or start it. Precisely so, a low-geared pony-that is to say, one that can start or stop promptly and is quick in turning is preferable to one that is merely fast. Of course, the rider in bicycle polo must have a quick eye for distance, be able to ride "hands off" at any angle, and to turn in the shortest compass. In spite of Its difficulties. the game will be the principal attraction at most of the big exhibition meetings in the riding academies this winter.

WHBPC | 4th World Hardcourt Bike Polo | GVA 14-18 août 2012
Bicycle polo is still around . . . photo from Del~Uks Flickr offerings

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Cycling a Benefit to Women" (1897)

Cyclists in Washington 1897
From the Summer Washington DC Evening Times cycling page
Cycling a Benefit to Women.

Women, perhaps more than men, are benefited by wheeling. Before the bicycle was perfected, horseback riding was the only outdoor exercise of the kind suited to feminine needs, and good, gentle, sound riding horses were hard to find, expensive to buy, and still more expensive to take care of, so that few women kept one. Good bicycles, although costly, seem to be within the means of almost every person; at all events hundreds and thousands of women and girls who never could have owned a horse go gaily over our streets and roads on bicycles that are quite equal in price to any but the finest Kentucky steeds. The good effect of this change from sedentary indoor life to free and exhilarating exercise in the open air is already quite noticeable even to the casual observer. Prejudice has rapidly given way before the fascinating progress of what at first seemed but the fad of an hour. and we have already become accustomed to seeing sunbrowned faces, once sallow and languid, whisk past us at every turn of the street. The magnetism of vivid health has overcome conservative barriers that were impregnable to every other force. And this is, let us hope, but the beginning of a revolution, humane and soundly rational, which will bring an era of vigorous physical life to women.

From the Washington Evening Times.
July 31 1897

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adding Fenders (for Winter ?)

No, I haven't been making many blog entries. Not sure how to explain that. Will see if I become more inspired . . .

I bought these fenders as a "daily special" probably two years ago from Bike Tires Direct - then let them sit in the box ever since after I realized (duh) how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to get them onto my (other) bike that has disk brakes that is nominally the "bad/rainy/wet weather bike." They were about 12 dollars so it didn't bother me that much to have bought them and not to use them . . . saving them for a rainy day. Ha ha.

Well actually not that funny since there were lots of rainy days but the fenders just stayed in the box, contributing nothing.

Bridgestone Sirius with (cheap) fenders
Cheap black fenders don't look that bad - from a distance

I decided I would see how they work in practice on this bike - it certainly was easy enough to install them. When it rains, these should keep the water from coming off the front tire in particular and bouncing off the downtube onto my shoes - also just keep the bicycle cleaner (hopefully - have to see).

Of course this means I'll ride this bike in some rain rather than the "dedicated" bad weather bike, but I am having various problems with the drive train and brakes on that bike so it can sit until (or if) I figure them out.

These are very lightweight, "polycarbonate" - that is plastic. They are adjustable in ways that mean you have to make sure the adjustment bolts are tight on a regular basis. Perhaps if I decide that I don't think fenders slow me down (which the randonneuring types would assure me they don't) I will buy some proper custom fit Velo Orange hammered fenders.

Although not prominent in this photo, another retrograde aspect of my winter rig that is shown here is my headlight - now I could buy a 200 lumen light with the battery built into the light unit for less than I paid for a 100 lumen unit with a rather large-ish battery that is separate and connects to the light with a cable. I think this unit is now three years old. Still, the battery holds a charge well, why should I replace it? Hmm.

The "incorrect" position for riding
We see from this 1892 book illustration that fenders are not an innovation