Monthly Archives: September 2010

Are these guys from Krypton?


“They are seekers, madmen and angels hell-bent on riding across America on a bicycle in less than 10 days.”
— From a synopsis of the 2009 documentary Bicycle Dreams, about the annual Race Across America

It’s good to keep things in perspective.
I try to remember that
as I read or hear about the exploits of cyclists who seem to be endowed with superhuman abilities.
I consider myself a pretty good bicyclist. Despite my age, 67, I still have sufficient stamina for a long-haul ride. I rode across the United States last fall — from San Diego, Calif., to St. Augustine, Fla. — and a few weeks ago did a 273-mile ride across Missouri on the Katy Trail and then on to my hometown, Alton, Ill., for a high school reunion.
But I learned long ago that someone is always stronger and faster — some man of steel who will surely kick your butt whenever you start feeling that you’re a pretty studly specimen.
There are some cyclists, for example, who inhabit a different planet — maybe Krypton, where Superman is from. Even when I was young, I wouldn’t even have dreamt of being in the same league with these cyclists.
There are the pros, of course, who routinely ride about 20,000 miles a year — more miles than most people put on their cars — and compete in such grueling events as the Tour de France, three weeks of body-punishing riding at speeds averaging about 25 mph.
Consider, also, the Race Across America, which calls itself “the world’s toughest bicycle race.” The aim is to ride across the United States from the West Coast to the East Coast in the fastest possible time.
Unlike most multiday bike races such as the Tour de France, RAAM has no stages. Riders have no specified distance to travel each day. Until recently, there were no designated rest periods for food and sleep. Sleep was optional.
As in a time trial, the clock runs continuously from start to finish; the overall time includes rest periods.
The winner is whoever can ride the fastest while making the fewest and shortest stops. The victor usually finishes in eight to nine days, after riding about 22 hours per day through mountains, deserts and plains.

Jure Robic on the road

Participants have to complete the journey in 12 days to be considered a “finisher.”
The record time for the crossing was set in 1992 by Rob Kish, who rode 2,911 miles in eight days, three hours and 11 minutes at an average speed of 14.91 mph. But Kish rode a course that was a bit shorter than the current one.
In terms of speed, the fastest for a male participant was set by Pete Penseyres in 1986, when he rode 3,107 miles (5,000 kilometers) at 15.40 mph (24.8 kph) in 8 days, 9 hours, and 47 minutes.
This year’s winner in the “solo male” category for entrants under 50 years of age was Jure Robic of Slovenia, who covered the 3,005.1 miles from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., in nine days and 46 minutes. It was the fifth time that Robic had won the event, which began in 1982 and is held every year in June.
Sadly, Robic was killed Sept. 24 in a road accident near his home in Jesenice, Slovenia. Police reports said that Robic, while descending a narrow mountain road on his bike near his home, collided head-on with a car driven by a 55-year-old local man. Robic, 45, a former Slovenian soldier turned long-distance cyclist, trained nearly every day, cycling in a year the distance around the world at the equator.
A 2009 documentary, Bicycle Dreams, focuses on several veteran participants in the RAAM, including Robic, who was known for opening insurmountable leads at the start of a race by riding for more than 40 hours without sleep.
“It’s painful — yet weirdly inspiring — to watch the riders gradually break down as the miles mount,” said a review on the website roadbiker.com.
“They hallucinate. They weep. They bicker with their crew. They collapse. But they keep going. It’s about challenging your limits, one says. It’s a spiritual journey, explains another. It’s ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things, adds a third. As one commentator says, ‘There’s no way these people are normal.'”

Paul de Vivie, considered the father of randonneuring

Closer to home, we have the randonneurs of North Texas.
Randonneuring — which comes from the French word randonneur, or long-distance cyclist — is one of those crazy-people sports like BASE jumping, free climbing and sky surfing. It involves riding a bicycle hundreds of miles in a single weekend. It was invented and promoted in the late 19th century, during the golden age of cycling, by Frenchman Paul de Vivie, known by his nickname “Velocio.”
During the weekend of Sept. 23-25, the Lone Star Randonneurs held their annual Texas Time Trials, a qualifying event for the Race Across America. The featured event was the Tejas 500, in which participants had to ride 500 miles in 48 hours to qualify for RAAM.
Twenty-seven male riders began the Tejas 500 and 17 finished. Gary Gottlieb of Aledo, who placed third in overall time in last year’s race, was the first male rider to finish the 500 miles with a time of 29 hours and 37 minutes, averaging 17 mph. One female, Sharon Stevens of Richardson, was able to ride all of the 19 laps in the allotted time.

Jeremy Shlachter

Riding that same weekend in another event, a 400-kilometer (248-mile) “brevet” — a long-distance bike ride with checkpoint countrols — was longtime friend and neighbor Jeremy Shlachter.
Jeremy was doing the 400-kilometer brevet to complete an annual brevet series — events of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers. He rode the 600-kilometer brevet the weekend of Sept. 4-5. He finished that ride with a time of 35 hours and 10 minutes, well under the allotted time of 40 hours.
Once a rider completes the full brevet series, he or she wins the appellation of “super randonneur.”
“I probably wouldn’t put myself through something like a brevet series if the word super was not attached to it,” Jeremy wrote on his blog, Gallus, which is also the name of a line of bikes that he builds.

Jeremy in his shop

“From the start of the ride,” Jeremy wrote of the 400-kilometer brevet, “my only goal was to get through the ride and finish the series. Randonneuring does not offer any bonus for finishing first or having the best time.”
Perhaps the real heroes of long-distance cycling are not the big-name pros — who get most of the attention but all too often seem to derive their superhuman abilitites from a hypodermic needle — but riders like Jure Robic, Gary Gottlieb and Jeremy Shlachter. They do what they do not for high-dollar salaries and endorsement contracts, but for the challenge and love of the sport.
The goal is simply to complete the journey.
That’s my goal, too. But, keeping in mind that all things are relative, my journeys will probably be a bit shorter and I’ll take time to smell the wildflowers.
Check out the trailer for the documentary Bicycle Dreams:

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Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Training

Living vicariously


“If you’re a good journalist, what you do is live a lot of things vicariously, and report them for other people who want to live vicariously.”
Harry Reasoner, American broadcast journalist, 1923-1991

A favorite pastime when I’m not engaged in my own bicycle travels is to follow vicariously the journeys of other cyclists.
Frequently, there’s much to be learned. Sometimes it’s information about new routes that might be ridden one day or reports on field tests of innovative hardware or gadgets to facilitate life on the road.
And usually those online journals, about places that I’ve stopped in or ridden through myself, pique memories of my own bicycle trips.
A good website for vicarious travels is crazyguyonabike.com, which hosts journals of long-distance cyclists on journeys all over the world. I’ve been particularly interested in the journals of cyclists riding Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., which I did last fall.
That route, across eight states along the southern tier of the United States — California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — is usually undertaken in the spring or fall because of the hellish heat in the deserts of the Southwest during the summer.
This is about the time when the fall crossings begin. In fact, a Texan named Paul Nethercott plans to set out on Sunday from San Diego on the eastbound journey of about 3,130 miles. I plan to follow his trip on crazyguyonabike.com and compare experiences.

Russ and Laura

Another extended journey that I’ve been following is that of Russ Roca, a photographer, and Laura Crawford, a writer and jewelry maker. They’ve been engaged in a meandering bicycle journey from the West Coast to the East Coast for more than a year and chronicling their adventures on their website, The Path Less Pedaled. They passed through Fort Worth last spring and gave a presentation on April 28 at a local bike shop. (See Aug. 14 blog post, “A year on the road,” for a look at a video of their first year on the road.)
Russ has been field-testing various bits of gear during the trip, and the reviews posted on their website have been useful for anyone contemplating a long-distance bike trip.

Zac Ford on the road

Another website well worth a look is The Pondering Cyclist. It’s the blog of a friend and fellow cyclist, Zac Ford, who left Fort Worth in early June on a journey to the West Coast and back that he calls the Trans Western Cycling Expedition.
He took along two cameras with helmet and bike mounts and has been chronicling the trip on his blog and Facebook page. With the help of a friend, he has also put together a video on the first 2,000 miles of his trip. Check out the preview.

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Filed under Americana, Blogging on the road, Cycling across America, Journeys, Travels

A river of memories


“[Y]esterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.”
— Capt. Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, 1985

The river of our youth, the Mississippi, flowed past in its timeless majesty as we gathered in Alton, Ill., for a reunion of Marquette High School’s Class of 1960.
When I was a callow youth of 17, about to graduate from that high school named for an explorer of the Mississippi, Father Jacques Marquette, that river was a highway to a broader world beyond Alton and the Midwest.
The school sits high on a hill overlooking the Mississippi. As I gazed at it day after day, I sometimes entertained a fanciful notion of finagling a job as a deckhand on one of the towboats that plied the Big River and making my way to New Orleans. There, I figured, I’d sign on to a freighter bound for who knows where.

Marquette High School

A song from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s summed up my aspirations at the time. And it rattled around in my head throughout the summer of 1962, when I and a Marquette classmate flew to London on a Southern Illinois University charter flight and traveled throughout Europe on Mobylette mopeds bought in Brussels. We got as far south as the Amalfi Coast of Italy on those underpowered beasts before abandoning them in Bordeaux, France, in favor of hitchhiking to Paris.

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you’re going I’m going your way.
Two drifters off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end —
waiting ’round the bend,
my huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.

I did get to see a chunk of the world since that magical summer, mostly as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press for 16 years.
But that seemed like a lifetime ago as members of the Class of 1960, including my 1962 traveling companion, Jim Schwegel, congregated on the Mississippi River just above Alton for the first event of our reunion. It was a walk of about a mile, through a wooded park, from the Great River Road to the high ground on the limestone bluffs above the river, and back down the trail to the start point.

Coach

From there we went to lunch on the deck of a winery on the river. A highlight of the luncheon was the attendance of our former varsity football coach, Ron Holtman, now 81, but looking younger than many of my classmates.
During his 11 years at Marquette from 1955 to 1966, his first job as a high school head coach, Holtman molded young minds and bodies in his world history classes and on the football field before becoming a coaching legend at Country Day School in St. Louis by winning seven state football championships.
I described Holtman as “a real-life Mr. Chips” in a story I wrote in 2005 for the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, my employer before I retired in 2008.

A young Ron Holtman with 1957 Explorers co-captain Jim Fallon

“Winning, of course, was important to Holtman, but not paramount,” I wrote in that 2005 piece. “His real legacy is a multitude of once-impressionable teens who heeded his example in the classroom and on the playing field and went on to lead decent, productive lives. To us, he’ll always be ‘Coach.'”
And “Coach” he still was at our 50th reunion, attended by former students who went on to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, priests and journalists. Although he must have coached and taught thousands of students in his stellar career, the last 39 years at Country Day, Holtman remembered the faces and names of his former Marquette players and the positions they played.
Arthur Chipping, the title character in James Hilton’s 1934 story Goodbye, Mr. Chips, would sometimes recite by rote the names on the rolls of previous classes. “Where had they all gone to, he often pondered; those threads he had once held together, how far had they scattered, some to break, others to weave into unknown patterns?”
Holtman’s former charges also are scattered far and wide. But they’re tied together by memories of an influential adult in their formative years.
At a Saturday night dinner at a local country club, none of us looked much like we did 50 years ago. But name tags with photos from our senior yearbook helped prevent embarrassing memory lapses. Someone circulated among the former classmates, passing out copies of a bit of doggerel by an anonymous author about the ritual of high school reunions.

I’ll never forget the first time we met,
We tried so hard to impress.
We drove fancy cars, smoked big cigars,
And wore our most elegant dress.

It was quite an affair; the whole class was there.
It was held at a fancy hotel.
We wined, and we dined, and we acted refined,
And everyone thought it was swell…

A verse near the end spoke to the attendees of our reunion:

By the fiftieth year, it was abundantly clear,
We were definitely over the hill.
Those who weren’t dead had to crawl out of bed,
And be home in time for their pill…

It was a wonderful weekend for savoring a river of memories and renewing friendships. But as Capt. McCrae said in Lonesome Dove: “[Y]esterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.”

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Filed under Americana, History, Travels

On the trail of Lewis & Clark


“He was entering a heart of darkness. Deserts, mountains, great cataracts, warlike Indian tribes — he could not imagine them, because no American had ever seen them.”
— Stephen E. Ambrose, writing of Capt. Meriwether Lewis in Undaunted Courage, 1996

Lewis and Clark

A bicycle ride along the Katy Trail in Missouri is a journey into the past, to a time when the nation was young and gangling and approaching an expansive adolescence.
About 150 miles of the 225-mile-long Katy Trail State Park track the Missouri River, the waterway used by Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery to explore the vast land west of the Mississippi River acquired from France in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.

Loaded up and truckin' on the Katy Trail

When Lewis and Clark stopped at a place called La Charette on May 25, 1804, only 12 days into their westward journey from the mouth of the Missouri, the village of seven French families was the last white settlement that the members of the Corps of Discovery would see until they stopped again on their way back from the Pacific Coast on Sept. 20, 1806.
“The people at this Village is pore, houses Small, they Sent us milk and eggs to eat,” Clark wrote of La Charette on May 25, 1804, on the Corps of Discovery’s outbound trip. On their return, the sight of cows along the river bank at La Charette prompted the men to raise a shout of joy and spring to their oars, Clark wrote, because they knew they were back in home territory.
At the time, La Charette was at the western edge of the frontier. From there westward, the journey of Lewis and Clark was like a trip to the far side of the moon — terra incognita to Americans in the 17 states east of the Mississippi in 1804. The westernmost state at the time was Ohio, admitted to the Union on March 1, 1803.

Riding partner Dean Wisleder on an MKT caboose at Boonville, Mo.

The Katy Trail, which I rode with a cycling friend from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, crosses La Charette Creek near where the village once stood. The Missouri River washed away La Charette in 1841, 24 years after the nearby town of Marthasville had been founded on higher ground by Dr. John Young, who named it for his wife.
The story of the epic journey of Lewis and Clark is well told along the Katy Trail with informational signs, maps and graphics, from Boonville, Mo., where the trail joins the Missouri River, to St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis that is the trail’s eastern terminus.

Pearl White

Snippets of later history can also be read at every trailhead, beginning at Clinton, Mo., the trail’s western terminus that calls itself the “baby chick capital of the world.”
A trailhead sign in Green Ridge, Mo., for example, proclaims that it was the birthplace in 1889 of silent movie actress Pearl White. She, her parents and four siblings lived on a farm at Green Ridge and moved to Springfield, Mo., when Pearl was about 10.
“She went on to act in Hollywood serials, including the 20-episode Perils of Pauline, in which White, as Pauline, fended off a villain trying to kill her for her inheritance,” the sign says. “She was famously dangled from a cliff (the word ‘cliffhanger’ came from this kind of dramatic close to an episode) and tied to a railroad track before an oncoming train.”
Pearl would have been familiar with railroad tracks as a young girl; the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway (MKT) passed through Green Ridge. And it’s from that railway that the Katy Trail takes its name. The state of Missouri began purchasing the right-of-way of the MKT when the railway ceased operations in 1986 and turned it into the longest and narrowest state park in the nation — 225 miles long and about 100 feet wide.
Dean Wisleder, a cycling friend from Springfield, Ill., rode the Katy Trail from St. Charles to Clinton, Mo., where he met me on Aug. 28. The next day, we set out together to ride the trail back to St. Charles, with overnight stops in Pilot Grove, Hartsburg, Hermann and Defiance. At St. Charles, Dean squeezed his recumbent trike into his Prius and headed back to Springfield. I rode another 36 miles or so — for a total of 273 miles — through the flat farmland of St. Charles County, crossed the Mississippi River on the Clark Bridge and rode into my hometown, Alton, Ill., for a reunion of the Marquette High School Class of 1960 over Labor Day weekend.
At our ages, we, too, were old enough to be part of the history of the region. But Lewis and Clark were before our time.

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Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels