Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

18 February 2017

The Best Place In The World For Ducks

I didn't see any other cyclists.  But I wasn't the only one who went to Point Lookout today. 

I mean, who wouldn't have wanted to be outside on a day like today?  Skies were clear and the temperature reached 15C (60F).  

Tosca, my Mercian fixed gear, was also happy to be out for the ride, even if she got spattered with mud and wet sand.  Most of the snow from last week's storm was gone, but the sand and road salt weren't.  At least, with only one gear, she's easy to clean--though I think I might ride one of my bikes with fenders tomorrow.  Still, it was great to spin that gear again!

I was stretching my legs, and they were spreading their wings.  A woman with two small boys watched them.  "I've never seen so many ducks here," she marvelled.

"Nor have I."

Then the older kid--about four or five years old, with eyes as bright as the sky--chimed in.  "They're here because it's the best place in the world for ducks.  Isn't that right, Mommy?"

She said nothing.  He turned to me.

"Lady, don't you think they're here because it's the best place in the world for ducks?"

"Why else would they be here?"

"So this really is the best place in the world for ducks."

I nodded.  "Do you know what makes this the best place in the world for ducks?"

He shook his head.  His mother gazed at me.

"Here there are a lot of things they like to eat."

He gazed at me, fascinated.  She looked puzzled.

"Well...Don't you like to go where there are good things to eat?"

"Yes, ma'am.  What do they like to eat?"

"Clams, oysters, you know, the creatures with shells on them. The ducks love those.  And seaweed, too."

Now, for all I know, I may have given him nothing but misinformation.  But I figure he's no worse-informed than anyone is after one of our current President's press conferences.

What did I just say?  Hmm...It's probably a good thing I've never been a parent!

17 February 2017

When They Tried To Bar Major Taylor

This month--February--is Black History Month here in the US.

Mention "black cyclists" and one of the first names that comes to mind is "Major Taylor".

He was the first African-American athlete to win the world championship of any sport.  (Canadian bantamweight boxer George Dixon was the first black athlete to accomplish that feat.)  Although he was one of the most famous and admired athletes in the world, the "Worcester Whirlwind" was not insulated from racism.

The Worcester Whirlwind, circa 1900. From wikipedia.

The city from which Taylor's nickname was derived--Worcester, Massachusetts--was one of the centers of the Abolitionist movement.  Even so, not everyone there welcomed him with open arms.  When he bought a house in the well-to-do Columbus Park enclave, alarmed white neighbors tried to buy it back from him.

Even if you're the best in the world, you can't stop fools from being foolish.

Even so, life was better for him in Worcester--and in the rest of the Northeast--than it was elsewhere in the US.  While he won pretty much every race and award that could be won in his home region, he could not advance his career unless he won in other parts of the country. Two things conspired against him:  One, owners and promoters of races and tracks in the South banned him--and all other black cyclists--outright. Second, in 1894, just as Taylor's career was in ascendancy, the League of American Wheelmen--then the governing body of bicycle racing--voted to ban blacks.  Some have speculated that the ban was specifically aimed at Taylor, who, even at the age of 17, was beating his white challengers, some of whom were far more experienced than he was.

(The LAW is now known as the League of American Bicyclists.)

That ban, of course, closed other doors for him.  There were, however, a number of races--mostly in the Northeast--that allowed him to compete.  And, of course, he went to Canada:  In 1899, he won the World Championship for the one-mile sprint in Montreal.  

(Interesting aside:  In 1946, Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, which was the top minor-league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Fans in Montreal embraced him, as they did Taylor half a century earlier.)  

But even in the relative tolerance of his home region, Taylor encountered hostility.  He was often denied lodgings and food on account of his color, and white racers turned into pure-and-simple thugs when riding against him: One opponent hauled him off his bike and choked him into unconsciousness.

In the racial atmosphere of that time, the only way Taylor could advance his career was by racing in Europe.  He, in fact, had a number of offers to participate in races and join teams, especially in France.  He was grateful for the opportunities but would not accept them at first:   In Europe, many races were held on Sunday, as they are now.  Taylor had become a devout Baptist after his mother's death and would not race on the Sabbath.

Some of the offers he received were lucrative, to say the least.  When pleas and urgings from prominent African-Americans as well as cycling fans had no effect on him, black newspaper editors of the time published what we would now call "fake news"--saying that his religious scruples had been conquered by Mammon--or editorials speculating that such a thing would happen.

Of course, it didn't.  Finally, in 1901, a French team offered him a contract that specified he wouldn't have to race on Sunday.  He accepted, and before he even mounted a bicycle on the other side of the Atlantic, he was treated to a hero's welcome. 

An American in Paris.

Europeans were as impressed with his dignity and grace as they were with his athletic prowess.  He did much to help improve the level of European racing, not only by his presence, but also by mentoring young racers.  Here is one account of such tutoring, from his autobiography:

  I recall that on my first trip to Europe in 1901 I saw a French youth, whose name was Poulain, ride in an amateur event at Nantes, France. He was very awkward as he rode about the track, but something about him caught my eye, and I became interested in him at once. At the close of the race I made several suggestions to him, adjusting his pedals, and handle bars, and giving him some advice on how to train. I stressed clean living upon him, and told him in conclusion that if he trained carefully and lived a clean life, I would predict that some day he would beat all the amateurs of Europe and the professionals as well.

  When I returned to France in 1908 this same Poulain, who in the meantime had won the amateur and professional championships of France, defeated me in a special match race. Imagine my surprise at the conclusion of this event when my conqueror told me who he was. The laugh certainly was on me. I did manage to bring him into camp, however, after I reached by best form.

"The laugh was certainly on me." How could they not love someone with such an attitude?  Unfortunately, not everyone in his home country felt the same way.

16 February 2017

Ice Bikes For Parkinson's In The City Of Light

Sometimes it's hard to believe we're in the same state.

I'm talking about New York City--my hometown--and Buffalo.

While The Big Apple is known for its Bright Lights on Broadway, the Queen City of the Great Lakes was once called--without irony or sarcasm--America's City of Light.

That was the image it tried to portray at the Pan-American Exposition it hosted  in 1901.  At that time, Buffalo was the nation's eighth-largest city, just edging out San Francisco and well ahead of Pittsburgh and Washington DC.  Two decades earlier, it had become the nation's first electrified city; the city fathers wanted to use the Expostion to show that the Nickel City was ready to take its position as an industrial powerhouse to rival Birmingham or Manchester, a center of commerce like London or New York and a mecca of beacon of culture akin to Paris. (The Exposition featured a dazzling display of electrically-illuminated buildings called "The City of Light".) 

"The City of Light":  The Pan American Exhibition, Buffalo, 1901

Well, a number of things conspired against Buffalo becoming a world-class city.  The first was the Exposition itself:  For all of its dazzling displays, it was also widely panned for exhibits that were, frankly, hokey or simply racist and imperialist. (Yes, people levelled such charges even in those decidedly-less-PC times!)  Also, on the night of 6 July, a powerful thunderstorm knocked out transmission lines and flooded the power station as well as other cities.  In other words, the biggest attraction of the Exposition--its electricity--was short-circuited by an electrical storm!

But the "nail in the coffin", so to speak, was the assassination of President William McKinley on the Fairgrounds.  The Exposition ended a few weeks later and most of its structures were quickly razed.  Today there is scarcely a trace of the fair.  On the other hand, the Unisphere, fountains and other monuments of the 1964-65 and 1939-40 Worlds' Fairs in New York have been preserved.

Today, Buffalo seems to be known for two things:  spicy chicken wings and weather--specifically, winter weather.  Even as New York City winters become less winter-like by the year, Buffalo never seems to escape the months between Halloween and Easter without at least a couple of major snowstorms.  And, as cold as the waters of the East and Hudson Rivers may be, they rarely form ice, and then only along the edges.  At the other end of the Empire State, Lakes Erie and Ontario, which are really inland freshwater seas with their own tidal systems, routinely freeze over.

That last climatic characteristic has actually been a blessing for some.  I'm not talking about ice fishermen.  Rather, I'm referring to a group of people you might not expect:  sufferers of Parkinson's Disease.

How's that?, you ask.  Well, since this is a cycling blog, you probably have surmised that it has something to do with bicycles.  And it does.

For the past three years, the National Parkinson Foundation of Western New York has held ice bike events at Canalside.  "Bicycling has been discovered to be very, very good therapy for Parkinsons," says Chris Jamele of NPFWNY.  He explains that cycling provides the low-impact exercise people with Parkinson's need.  But riding an ice bike has one distinctive advantage, he adds:  It's very difficult to tip over.

Hmm...There's a bit of technology to be developed: A bicycle like the ice bike that can be ridden on other kinds of surfaces.  That would be an innovation as revolutionary as any shown in the Pan-American Exhibit!  Could ice bikes make Buffalo rise again?