31 May 2016

At Least It's Not Electrical

Maybe I am old.  After all, I can recall a time when we didn't munch on "energy bars" or anything with the word "energy" in its name.  In fact, such terms--let alone the often-inedible snacks they denoted--hadn't yet been invented.

At least, not as such.  You see, there were other high-calorie bites that became our foods of choice when we needed a boost--and could be easily stowed in bike jersey pockets, tool bags or backpacks.  

One was "gorp".  Upon hearing of it for the first time, most people weren't sure of whether it was the sound of an alien swallowing or vomiting.  But the word was actually an acronym for "Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts"--not, as some believed,  a synonym for "granola" or "trail mix", though gorp is certainly a type of trail mix.  In time, people started mixing the raisins and peanuts with M&M's or other bits of chocolate.  (I have always liked miniature nonpareils--milk chocolate in those days, dark chocolate now.)  Often, almonds, pistachios, walnuts and other nuts were substituted for peanuts--which are legumes, not nuts--and dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries and other fruits for raisins. 

We used to pack a couple of fistfuls of gorp, or other trail mix concoctions, into fold-top sandwich bags like the ones made by Glad. (If I recall correctly, Ziploc hadn't been invented.)  We did the same with granola:  Back then, nobody had thought to make grainy candy bars out of it. 

Aside from those concoctions, the most popular proto-energy snack was probably the banana.  In those days, I was riding with the Central Jersey Cycle Club and the Century Road Club.  One--or both, perhaps?--used to designate their rides with bananas:  a five-banana ride was long and/or involved a lot of climbing or other difficult conditions, while a one-banana ride was a "social" Sunday afternoon ride.  

While granola and trail mix had more calories and could keep you feeling full until your lunch or dinner stop, the banana was easier to eat and swallow, especially if your mouth was dry.    Also, although food allergies weren't as well-known, we knew that some people had trouble digesting, or simply ingesting, some of the concoctions I've mentioned.  (Who knew that one of the most common allergies was to peanuts?)  On the other hand, while banana allergies have been documented, they don't seem nearly as common. At least, I've never known anyone who couldn't eat bananas for that reason.

Bananas have one problem, though:  While they're easy enough to stash, they're even easier to trash.  And, in the process, they can trash whatever you stash them in.  All right, that's a bit of an exaggeration.  But if you're of my generation, you might have had a banana "explode" or "implode" in the pocket of your wool jersey.  Needless to say, it made a mess.

Perhaps such a memory inspired the creator of this:


I mean, really.  But, hey, it's versatile, right?:


Would this be allowed in states with a concealed-carry law?:


Then again, it's not that difficult to get a banana stain out of a pair of Levi's 501s.  Trust me, I know!

Do you think this is a joke?  Well, here's the real joke:  the price.

At least, neither the bike--nor the banana--is electrical.


30 May 2016

The Day After A Ride: Memorial Day

Yesterday I rode to Greenwich, Connecticut.  Upon arriving, I propped my bike on a park bench, where I drank some Poland Spring water and munched on Welch's fruit snacks.  (Strange combination, perhaps?)  More to the point--at least for the purpose of this post--that park bench stood to the side of a memorial to Greenwich residents who died fighting in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Now, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you've noticed that I've written a bit about the roles the bicycle has played in the military.  As interesting as I find that aspect of cycling history, I hope that no one has construed it as a love of war on my part.

As anti-war as I am, though, I still believe that those who have served--and died or suffered life-altering injuries--should be remembered.  (One of the most shameful facts about this country today is that there are veterans living under bridge and highway overpasses.)  However, I abhor the rhetoric that celebrates the violence of war, or that touts service members for "making the ultimate sacrifice" for "our freedoms" or some such thing--especially since such treacly phrases are so exploitable by the worst, most opportunistic, politicians.

Instead, this day should be an opportunity to remember, rather than memorialize, them.  That they lost their lives or limbs or eyesight at such early ages is, in itself, tragic and thus in need of remembering.  Also to be remembered, though, are the ones they left behind:  the mothers, the spouses, the siblings, the other loved ones whose lives will never be the same.

We Began With An Epitaph

My family began
on the Fifteenth of November
the day my uncle was born.
1934:  There was no spring
or fall that year, only
bare trees twisted
in the wind
                  like my grandfather's
arm, jabbing the air.  "Winter's
gonna be long and cold.  Nothing
we can do about it."

My uncle was named Christopher
in the middle of his father's
desperation:  that year, a struggle
until summer.  Somehow he grew...

Christopher, you grow in my mother's
stories.  You climbed trees
to the attic. 
                   You had
a view of Flatbush Avenue, like the dark
river you saw
from a hill in Korea
which we know only as the Fourteenth
of April, 1953.

29 May 2016

Riding To Trees And Light Ahead Of The Storm

Tomorrow we're supposed to have torrential rains, courtesy Tropical Storm Bonnie, ready to slam into the Carolinas any second now. To me, it's one thing to start a ride with the possiblity of rain, or even in a shower.  But riding in a hurricane or monsoon is beyod the limits of even my insanity!

So, I am happy I embarked on today's ride.  For the first time this year, I pedaled to Connecticut and back.  True to other predictions I heard, I saw very little traffic, even along Boston Road in the Bronx or in downtown New Rochelle or by the state line.  Almost anybody who planned to travel this weekend is already at his or her destination and will probably return tomorrow afternoon and evening.

Aside from the light traffic, today's ride was a delight in other ways.  For one thing, I rode Arielle, my Mercian Audax, again.  (The flat just before the state line on my return trip wasn't her fault!)  And while the temperature reached 33.3C (92F) in downtown Greenwich, the heat didn't feel oppressive until the last few kilometers (out of 125) in the Bronx and Randall's Island.  That may have had as much to do with my relative fatigue (I wasn't drop-dead tired!) as with the weather.

But what I found most enjoyable was the light of this day: the kind one might see, depending on where one is, on the cusp between late spring and early summer.  Thin wisps of clouds dissipated the sun's refulgence to make it reflect the former, but that light was bright and warm enough to signal the arrival of the latter.  I especially noticed that light around the trees by the war memorial in Greenwich.

Those trees reminded me of one of the loveliest coins ever produced in this country.  In the late 1990s, the US Mint inagurated a series of quarters, or twenty-five cent pieces to the rest of the world, commemorating each of the fifty states.  The Connecticut quarter is my favorite:

US Mint Image

Anyway, I noticed something else rather interesting during today's ride.  Quite a few people were riding bikes.  Some were families; others were on social or training rides.  Most of the riders in the latter category were men; most were on road bikes and the rest on mountain bikes.  Fixed-gear bikes were conspicuously absent. 

On the other hand, I saw a few riders on fixies yesterday after I crossed the city/county line into Nassau County on my way to Point Lookout. Not as many as I might see in Williamsburg or even my neighborhood of Astoria, but enough to be noticeable.  One reason might be that the terrain on the South Shore of Queens and Nassau County is completely flat, while there are some hills in Westchester County on the way to Connecticut. Also, the riders seem to be a bit older in Westchester than on Long Island and, at least from my observations, fixie riders are younger than other riders.

Whatever...I had another great ride today.  What else can I ask?

28 May 2016

Looking Out At My Great Luck

Every traffic report I heard said, in essence, that traffic would not be heavy today, as most people who planned on traveling this weekend had left yesterday, or even earlier.

Those reports turned out to be true--even for going to the beach.  I decided to take a chance in riding again to Rockaway Beach, but continuing to Point Lookout because today was just as hot as yesterday.  And, as with yesterday, I was pedaling into the wind on my way to Rockaway Beach, though it wasn't quite as stiff as what I experienced yesterday.  Or, perhaps, it didn't seem as difficult because I was riding Arielle, my Mercian Audax, which has gears.  In contrast, yesterday, I was riding Tosca, my Mercian fixie.

Perhaps it's strange to antrhopomorphosize a bicycle, but sometimes I swear Arielle is just excited to be outside on a beautiful day.  She may not be the lightest machine--she is steel, after all, as are all of my bikes--but she's hardly porky.  To me, she's proof that design--specifically, design by and for cyclists--is more important than exotic materials. Though, I must say, people in much of the world would probably think Reynolds 631 is pretty exotic compared to whatever bikes they have available--if indeed they have bikes available!

But back to Arielle's sprightliness:  Sometimes I think she's like that because she knows the sun brings out her colors!

Anyway, the ride--both to Point Lookout and back--actually was faster than I thought it was.  That, or my watch slowed down, which seems unlikely as it was, at the end of my ride, still in sync with my cell phone and every other time-keeping device I saw.

Even after my decades of riding, there are some things I haven't figured out.  What I experienced today is one of them:  To wit, I have done considerably less cycling during the past month than I would normally do at this time of year.  Yet my time today on a ride I have taken many, many times before was about the same, give or take two to five minutes (over a 105 kilometer ride) as it was at my peak during last year's riding season.  Yet there have been times when I was in better shape (and younger!) and thought I was pedaling like Eddy Mercx or Jeanne Longo, but my ride took a lot longer than I expected.  Not that I care so much about time, except when I'm "sneaking away" or "playing hooky" and have to be somewhere (e.g. work or a date) at a specific time after my ride.

Oh well.  Perhaps I should also mention that I didn't stick around long at Point Lookout. (I don't count the time I stay at my destination in my ride time.)  A lot of people were there, but none in the water, there or anywhere else along the coast.  As I mentioned yesteday, the water is still fairly chilly (at least for most people).  Also, at Point Lookout, most of the people were there to see the air show at Jones Beach, directly across the inlet.  The show wasn't scheduled to start for another couple of hours, but as I understand, the beach would be as packed as if it were the Fourth of July, with weather like we had today.  I couldn't, however, bring myself to stay for it--in part, because I wanted to continue riding, but also because one of the planes scheduled to fly in the show crash-landed in the Hudson River, killing its pilot.  I don't know how I would have felt while watching the stunts after seeing footage of poor Bill Gordon saving everybody but himself after his plane's engine failed.

Today I was luckier indeed.  And I am grateful for that:  I had to do nothing but enjoy my ride. 

27 May 2016

Fixed Into (And With) The Wind

Some of us try to create routes that are circular, triangular, trapezoidal or in geometric shapes with names I've forgotten.  One reason, of course, is to keep from taking a back-and-forth ride:  you know, the kind in which you ride to someplace and ride back to wherever you started via the same route you took to get there.

I'm guessing, though, that the majority of rides people take are of the back-and-forth variety (or what the French would call aller-retour, the same term they use for "round trip").  Those are, of course, interesting and fun in their own ways.

On such rides, the wind becomes more of a factor than on other kinds.  After all, if you're riding in a circle, there are parts of your ride in which the wind won't be a factor at all, and you will probably spend less of it pedaling directly into it, or with it at your back, as you might on a more linear route.

When riding back-and-forth, most of us probably would prefer to ride into the wind on the way out and to let it blow us back home, or to wherever we started riding.  At least, I know that's my preference. And I certainly got it today!

I got on Tosca, my Mercian fixed gear some time after three this afternoon.  For the first five kilometers or so, to Woodside, I was riding diagonally into the wind.  But lwhen I turned south on 69th Street, I was found myself riding into the teeth of a wind that varied from thirty to forty-five kilometers (about 19 to 28 miles) per hour for the twenty or so kilometers I pedaled to Rockaway Beach.

Once I got there, I wasn't surprised to see kite flyers or a kite-surfer:

The latter "wiped out".  He certainly didn't have an easy time retrieving his board while holding onto his kite!

The temperature had reached 90 F (32C) before I started riding.  The air felt about twenty degrees F (or ten C) cooler on the beach, under a bright, intense sun.  In the middle of summer, people would go into the water, even though it would seem relatively cool.  However, only the surfer braved the waves:  The ocean temperature is still only around 55F (12C), cooler than most people prefer for swimming.

I could have stayed all day and all night!  But I had a couple of things to do tonight, so I didn't stay long.  Perhaps I could have stayed longer than I did:  It took me only half as much time to make it home as it did for me to pedal to Rockaway Beach!  

And, of course, you notice the wind you're pedaling into--or the one blowing you home--even more when you're riding a fixed gear!

26 May 2016

We'll Cross That Bridge---When Traffic Allows!

Last night, I stayed at work later than I'd planned.  I figured it would be easier to finish grading a bunch of papers in my office than at home.

That meant I couldn't go via Randall's Island, as the Queens spur of the RFK Bridge closed for repairs at 8 pm.  So I rode into Manhattan via the Willis Avenue Bridge, which lets cyclists off at 125th Street and First Avenue.  It was already past 9:30 by the time I got on my bike, but I figured that if I channeled the messenger I once was, I might get to the Queensborough (59th Street) Bridge path before it closed for repairs at 10pm.

Well, things didn't quite work that way.  The Queensborough path was indeed closed when I got there.  At least a bus is provided.  Actually, there's a bus and a truck.  Each cyclist is given a number for his or her bike as it's loaded onto the truck.  The bus follows it across the bridge.

Not a bad arrangement, right?  Well, the bus and truck are nice, and the drivers are prompt and helpful.  There are two problems, though.  One is motor traffic on the Bridge:  I never realized there would be so much after 10 pm! The other is that the bus and truck have to take circuitous routes to get onto the bridge, and once they leave the bridge, as some streets are one-way and others are narrow and don't allow buses or trucks.

So, it took about 45 minutes from the time we left 59th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan until we disembarked on 23rd Street at Queensborough Plaza.  In other words, that trip took  twice as long as it took me to pedal from my job, at 149th Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to 59th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan!

I won't whine about the inconvenience:  We got across the bridge safely and as quickly as conditions would allow.  And, as I said, the drivers and truck-loaders were courteous and helpful.  I can't help but to think, though, that whatever reduction in carbon emissions any of us might have acheived by riding from wherever to the Bridge was negated by all the time the bus and truck was stuck in traffic on the Bridge.

25 May 2016

Don't Try This While I'm Grading My Papers!

I am in the middle of grading papers and exams.  So, today's post will be short.

How short?  You will be able to read it in as much time as it took for this kid's wheelie to abort:

Funny Cycle Accident with Small Kid by extremelymagnificant

So, kiddies (of whatever age you are):  remember to eat your vegetables and make sure your front wheel is on good and tight!

24 May 2016

To Catch A Thief (And He's Not Cary Grant!)

I have to admit:  I take a perverse pride in having foiled a bike theft.  Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not as proud of having kept a stranger's bike from being stolen as I feel, even to this day, glee in recalling the expression on the would-be bike thief's face after I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around, only to see my glowering visage.  I wish I could have captured it on film, video or something.

In those days--circa 1990--there weren't nearly as many surveillance cameras as there are now.  I can't say I'm happy that Big Brother Is Watching Us, but I will admit that some crimes are foiled or solved as a result of some would-be perps' fifteen seconds of fame.

This took place outside WCG offices in San Francisco.  From what I've read about the company, the designer who tackled the would-be thief might have been acting out of anger and frustration brought on by the workplace environment!

23 May 2016

OTEC Will Keep You Going In Circles, But Not In The Way You Expected

Back when I was racing--and even when I wanted to stay in (or pretend that I was) in the same kind of shape I was when I was racing--one of the goals of training could be summed up in three letters:  RPM.

In other words, we believed that spinning at the highest cadences possible would make us go our fastest.  That meant riding, at least at first, in a lower gear and working up to higher gears.  The one who could spin the highest gear would win the race.

Now, of course, nobody is going to turn cranks with a 54X11 gear (which I actually had on my road bike for a time) at the same rate as, say, a 42X15.  But all of the trainers and training manuals told us that it was better to do 120 rpms on the latter (or a higher gear later in the season) than to mash the former.  If nothing else, it gives you a better cardio workout and is easier on your knees.

Apparently, there are some folks who don't agree.  Ever since the invention of the "safety" bicycle (two wheels of more or less equal size driven by sprockets and a chain), someone or another has tried to "improve" on circular pedaling motion.  Examples of such endeavors include the oval and elliptical chainrings that seem to reappear in one form or another every generation or so. Shimano's Biopace is probably the most famous example; currently Osymetric rings have a following among some members of the peloton.  There have been all sorts of other ways to make pedaling more efficient by eliminating the "dead" spots so that power is transferred all through the arc of pedaling.

Just recently, I came across something I saw in the bike magazines some years ago but never actually saw in person.  It seemed like one of the most bizarre, Rube Goldberg-ian contraptions I'd ever seen on a bicycle.  But, apparently, the idea has stuck around:  The organization that patented it in 2007 was founded in 1998.

At the risk of offending anyone with any sense of political correctness, I will say that the idea is so high-tech and so complex (complicated?) that it could have come from one of only two countries:  France or Japan.   

If you chose the Land of the Rising Sun, enjoy your sake.  OTEC, the company that patented and produces the SDV system, says "The direction of a motion of a pedal in its power phase is designed to coincide with the direction in which the rider can most easily apply force on the pedal while stretching his or her legs."  The result is that its geometry  "makes riders use larger muscles, resulting in lower cadences than expected".  

That is exactly the opposite of what we were all trying to achieve all of those years!  But, in looking at it in motion, I can see how it would make sense for, say, someone like a climber or, perhaps, an individual time trialist.  It also seems to me that it also might be better suited to a recumbent bike, on which the rider pedals from behind, than on a diamond frame, on which the cyclist pedals from above.

I am curious enough to try an OTEC if given the opportunity.  What differences, if any, would I notice in my pedal stroke or my ride?

22 May 2016

My Real Motivation (!)

You've probably heard, by now, about the "bathroom bill" passed in North Carolina.  In essence, it says that people have to use public bathrooms in accordance with the gender indicated on their birth certificates.

Since this a blog about cycling (well, mostly), I'm not going to get into what the law means for transgenders, or people in general.  I am fortunate, I guess, in that it's been a long time since I've been hassled about being in the "wrong" bathroom.  One thing I wonder, though, is whether or not I need to carry a copy of my birth certificate with me if I ever have to change flights in Charlotte, or go to the Tar Heel State for any other reason. In case you're wondering:  Yes, my birth certificate says I'm female.

Anyway, in fairness, I'll point out that North Carolina isn't the only jurisdiction that has such a regulation, whether in the letter of the law or in effect.  The probable reason why the law has made gotten so much publicity is that the state legislature voted for it, and the governor signed it, the day after the city of Charlotte passed its own law saying that LGBT people would be protected in "public accomodations", including bathrooms. 

Also, this is a Presidential election year and although North Carolina voted for Mitt Romney four years ago and for every Republican candidate since 1980--with one exception--the margins of victory have been slim.  (That exception came in 2008, when Barack Obama took the state from John McCain.)  Also, there are pockets of the state, such as the "Research Triangle" and much of Charlotte, where Democratic support is almost as strong as it is in most Northeastern states and coastal metropoli.

But about the bathrooms:  I hope that no place where I cycle will ever pass its version of a "bathroom bill", and that no ride organizer will institute such a rule.  After all, organized bike rides are among the few arenae in which the lines for the women's rooms are actually shorter than those for the men's rooms.  

Now you know the real reason why I "changed" my gender! ;-)


21 May 2016

The Long And Short Of Women's Bikes: Terry

Smaller and cuter, preferably in pink.

I can remember when that was a pretty fair summation of bicycles and other sports equipment made for women.  It was assumed that girls wouldn't pedal, swim, run, climb or whatever as hard or as long as men did--and, most likely, would do so in the (possibly grudging) company of a husband, boyfriend or other male in her life.   Thus, she wanted to look good, or at least cute, by his side--or so the thinking of manufacturers and marketers seemed to be.  

Most bike manufacturers offered "ladies'" versions of one or two models in their lineups.  At first glance, they seemed the same as their men's counterparts, except for the dropped top tube on the frame.  This makes a "ladies'" bike less stiff and stable than its male peer, though how much less is a matter of debate.

1898 Cygnet "Swan" 

Anyway, some bike makers seemed to use this trait as an excuse for making sluggish machines with imprecise handling.  Granted, a bike with less torsional stiffness will not respond as quickly or efficiently to a rider's pedal strokes.  Still, there have been any number of diamond-frame (a.k.a. "men's") bikes with relatively slack angles and long wheelbases that nonetheless offered a sprightly ride.  So, it seemed disingenous--at least to me--to, in essence, say that someone who buys a women's bike shouldn't expect much.

Mind you, for most of my life I wasn't interested in having a really nice women's bike.  I did own a couple of inexpensive women's bikes that I got for little or nothing and  used as commuters and "beaters".  But on such bikes, which I didn't ride long distances, I wasn't as concerened with performance as I was on my "good" bikes.  If it fit well enough (which wasn't always to say "well"), or could be made to do so for little or no money, I was happy.

Perhaps it was working in bike shops and for American Youth Hostels, and thus having the opportunity to meet discerning female riders and try a number of bikes, that made me aware of what I've described.  Also, even though I was of average height for a male (which makes me taller than 90% of other women), I have a few abnormalities, namely somewhat longer-than-average legs and considerably shorter-than-average arms for a man (or even a woman) of my height.  

So, while I had little trouble finding a bike that was the "right" size (i.e., height or seat tube length) for me, it wasn't until I got a custom frame that I would ride something that truly fit me.  For years, I rode bikes with 55 or 56 cm (depending on whether they were measured center-to-center or center-to-top) seat tubes--and top tubes of the same length, or longer.  That meant riding stems with short extensions--sometimes as little as 8 cm--which made racing bikes handle (at least for me) like shopping carts.

Even though I had a harder time than most other men I knew in obtaining a good fit, I knew the situation was much worse for most women, a few of whom I rode with. For example, Tammy, who was about 8 cm (a little more than three inches) taller than me, had shorter arms and smaller hands than mine!

During the past couple of decades, various bike companies have tried equally varying methods of tailoring their offerings to women, particularly those who are more petite than the likes of Tammy or me.  Some tweak their geometries to make shorter top tubes; others have tried varying the shapes of both traditional diamond as well as mixte and step-through frames to accomodate the proportions of smaller women.  A few have even offered bikes with smaller wheels.  For extremely small women (and men) this could make sense; after all, it's hard to build a bike with 700 C wheels on which someone who's less than five feet tall can clear the frame while standing.

Perhaps one of the most interesting solutions was tried by one of the first bike-makers to really try to re-configure women's bikes.  From about thirty to about twenty years ago, I would see one of those bikes--usually ridden by someone on a club ride--during one of my weekend road rides.    You've probably seen at least one:

Terry road bicycle, circa 1990

From 1985 until 1994, Terry Bicycles offered road bikes with 700C rear and 24 inch front wheels.  Their quality was actually quite good:  During the first few years they were made in Japan.  I am guessing that Panasonic or Bridgestone made them, as their lugwork and finishes, as well as other details, looked much like those of bikes from those companies, or companies (like Schwinn and Bianchi) that had bikes made for them by those companies.  Likewise, the details on later models, which were made in Taiwan, lead me to believe they were made by Giant, who also made bikes for Schwinn and other companies.

I have never tried one of those Terry bikes with the small front wheels.  The accounts I heard about them varied:  Some women said that their Terrys were the first bikes that felt "right" to them, while others thought the bikes' handling was "weird" or unresponsive.  There were claims--which I suspect were exaggerated-- that the front wheel slowed the bike down, as was the inconvenience of having to carry more than one spare inner tube on a ride (or tire on a long tour).

In time, I saw fewer and fewer of those early Terry bikes.  Ironically, one of the last people I saw riding one was a man:  a very short (for a man, anyway) Latino.  These days, those bikes can be found relatively inexpensively on eBay and in other venues.

20 May 2016

Now They'll Know I Rode To Work Today!

Many, many years ago, I attended Catholic school.  Like my classmates, I went to confession every Friday and mass on Sunday. 

You weren't supposed to receive Holy Communion unless you'd confessed your sins.  Of course, that meant just about all of us who went to the Catholic school partook of that most important (by the Church's reckoning, anyway) sacrament. I always wanted to ask how God saw whatever sins you might've committed between the time you went to confession and mass.

Not that I was so worried about receiving communion.  After all, how many kids look forward to having  flat, flavorless wafers put in their mouths and having to kneel, with eyes shut, and pray (or pretend to, anyway) silently as long as those wafers are in their mouths?  Most kids probably wonder--as I did--why the wafer couldn't at least taste like chocolate or something?

Then there was something else we received from the church, if once a year:  ashes.  I know that having charcoal or whatever rubbed on your forehead is supposed to symbolize that to which we return, or some such thing.  On Ash Wednesday, we were all supposed to be so marked.  The nuns treated us juuust a little better (they were nuns, after all!) if we were. 

Some people--usually old (or, at least, they seemed that way to us)--used to walk a little prouder--or, perhaps, just a little more smugly--with the smudges on their foreheads in full view.  It was as if they had to show the world--God?--that they were indeed devout Catholics.  Because they were older, I used to wonder whether that mark would help them if they fell down dead.  Would God recognize them that much sooner and whisk them into their eternal reward?

I got to thinking about this, oddly, because today is Ride Your Bike To Work Day. Now, those of us who normally ride to work don't give it a second thought.  About the only thing I did differently was to stop at the Transportation Alternatives table on the Bronx side of the Willis Avenue Bridge for their free coffee (which was pretty good, actually) and Kind bars. (I like the Blueberry Almond and Honey Oat!)  And, oh yeah, to renew my membership.

Since I normally ride to work and my co-workers and friends know it, I don't feel the need to show it.  But I got to thinking about how I might show off my concern for the environment and all of those other things that commuting by bike are supposed to signify, if I were so inclined.

Here's one way:


19 May 2016

Helene Dutrieu: She Did It Without A Corset!

For better or worse, everyone knows Lance Armstrong's name.  And, for a time, all Americans--whether or not they'd ever even touched a bicycle--knew about Greg LeMond, who won the Tour de France three times in the late 1980s.

And, of course, everyone who has even the slightest familiarity with bicycle racing has heard of a guy named Eddy Mercx.  For that matter, you don't have to be intimately connected to the sport to recognize names like Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil.

The fame of female cyclists, however, tends to be much more fleeting.  Most of what I know about them--including the ones I've written about on this blog--I learned by accident. 

Now I can add Helene Dutrieu to my list. Given her accomplishments, it's almost criminal that she's not better-known. 

She was born on 10 July 1877 in Tournai, Belgium--perhaps not coincidentally, the birthplace of Clovis I.  When she was a young girl, she moved with her family to Lille, in the north of France.  At age 14, she left school to earn a living.

I couldn't find any information about her first job(s).  But, at some point, her older brother Eugene inspired her to follow his career path:  bicycle racing.  In 1893, at age 16, she set the women's world record for distance cycled in one hour.  Three years later, she won the world women's track cycling championship and reprised her title the following year. 

Helene Dutrieu racing for the La Chaine Simpson team.

During that time, she won a twelve-day race in England and raced for the Simpson Lever Chain (La Chaine Simpson) team, immortalized in a Toulouse-Lautrec illustration.   In 1898,  she won the Grand Prix d'Europe.   Belgium's King Leopold II awarded her the le Croix d' St. Andre with diamonds in honor of her exploits as a cyclist.

Toulouse-Lautrec illustration of Constance Huret  in a pursuit race.

Her velocipedic virtuosity was matched by her daring:  She gained, perhaps, as much renown as a stunt cyclist, first on a bicycle and, later, on a motorcycle.  She created a stunt--a jump of about 15 meters on a bicycle--called "La Fleche Humaine" (the Human Arrow), which became her nickname.

In reading about her, I came away with the impression that she was, first and foremost, a performer.  In addition to her feats of athleticism and daring, she also gained renown as an actress, appearing on such stages as the Theatre des Capucines.  During that time--from 1903 to 1909-- she also was a stunt driver, first on motorcycles and, later, in automobiles.

Dutrieu in a Henry Farman-type two-seater, circa 1911.

That the public and press loved her didn't escape the notice of Clement-Bayard de Levallois, the company that sponsored her as a stunt and race car driver.  They were about to introduce their new aeroplane--the Santos-Dumont No. 19 Demoiselle.  Especially with a name like that ("Demoiselle", as you probably know, means "young lady"), who would be a better candidate to be its first pilot than Ms. Dutrieu.

In those days, flying was truly not for the faint of heart--or heavy of body.  Those machines didn't have much power and, thus, couldn't bring much weight aloft.  Naturally petite and trim--and fit from her years of cycling--Helene Dutrieu thus had advantages over nearly every other pilot candidate.  Though her first flight ended in a crash--not unusual in 1908-- she quickly developed a following that grew with the skills she developed as a pilot.  In fact, she was the first woman to fly an aircraft bearing a passenger, and would become the fourth woman (and first Belgian woman) in history to earn a flying license, which she would need to enter competitions.  La Fleche Humaine soon would be known as La Femme Epervier (the Lady Hawk).

One thing to remember was that in those days, in most of the world (including her native Belgium and France), women didn't have the right to vote, or many other rights.  And we were thought biologically incapable of doing many of the things we do today.  So, while the public loved seeing her fly, her sponsor was also capitalizing on a subtext of her exploits:  This plane is so easy to fly that a woman can do it!    


Gender norms in those days were more rigid, both literally and figuratively, in other ways.  So, while people were enthusiastic about Dutrieu's exploits, they expected her--as they would expect any other woman--to adhere to the standards of modesty of the time.  The biggest scandal about her, then, was not a result of  any of her daring feats, but in doing them--as the press discovered accidentally--without a corset! 

(Because she was so thin, I have no idea of how that terrifying fact was discovered!)

But that didn't seem to bother Pierre Lafitte.  He published Femina, one of France's most popular women's magazines.  An early aviation enthusiast, in 1910 he announced a prize for the longest flight--in both distance and time aloft--by a woman in an aeroplane.  Dutrieu flew 167 kilometers in 2.6 hours to win the title, which she defended the following year.  She would fly in the air-show circuit for another two years before retiring in 1913, after France awarded her the Legion d'honneur.

Hélène Dutrieu (Library of Congress

When Dutrieu won the Coup Femina in 1910, a woman named Marie Marvingt finished second, flying 42 kilometers in 53 minutes.  Interestingly, their careers turned in the same direction with the outbreak of World War I:  both became ambulance drivers!

So, like so many pioneers in the worlds of automobiles and aviation--and women's achievement--Helene Dutrieu started her revolution with revolutions--of her pedals.  Her journey ended in Paris on 26 June 1961, at the age of 83.

18 May 2016

"Like Doping In The Tour De France"

As a writer and someone who teaches English, I find it interesting that people use so many sports metaphors in their everyday communication. In particular, I am struck by the fact that so many people who use those metaphors aren't aware of their origins--or don't care about sports.

How many times have you heard someone refer to being "on the ball"?  As I understand, the expression originated with American GIs returning from World War II, mainly those who fought in Europe.  Many of them attended football (soccer) matches for the first, and only times, in their lives.  To them, the best players always seemed to be "on the ball".

Here in the US, we often say that someone who's succeeded at something has "hit a home run".  Or we might say that someone who equivocates, delays or simply sloughs something off is "punting".

And who hasn't talked about "winning (or losing) the game" in reference to some endeavor that has nothing to do with sports or games?  Or referred to doing something difficult as "pedaling uphill" or "pedaling against the wind", or having an easy time as "coasting" or "pedaling with the wind at your back"?

Well, now it seems that another cycling metaphor--with more negative connotations--is entering the everyday lexicon.

Cartoon by Gary Barker.

Lately, I've heard people--who, to my knowledge, aren't cyclists--say that some negative practice or another is "like doping in the Tour de France".  And, just today, I came across someone who used that phrase in reference to test prep centers in China and other countries who help students in getting high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which improves their chances of getting into the most competitive American colleges and universities. 

It seems that for years, the College Board, which administers the SAT, has been administering tests abroad after they have been used in the US.  In my day, some kids might talk about some of the questions afterward, but now they discuss them in online fora.  We all know that once something is posted online, anyone with a computer can gain access to it, no matter where in the world he or she happens to be.

That, it seems, is what the test prep centers in China and other places have been doing.  The operators of those centers know that "the only way to survive in the industry is to have a copy of the test" in advance of a sitting. So says Ben Heisler, who offers test-prep and college-consulting services in South Korea.  "It's like doping in the Tour de France," he opines.  "If you don't do it, someone else will."

Hmm... Could "doping in the Tour de France" be the new way of saying "doing what ya gotta do"?


17 May 2016

Going Incognito, Or, For Your Eyes Only

The candidacy of Donald Trump makes a shambles of everything many of us hold dear.

Time was when the man did things that were merely creepy, like getting involved with beauty pageant.  Actually, I think the whole idea of a beauty pageant is pretty creepy, even if they make some pretense at judging a young woman by her brains and not merely by her body.

But a Miss Universe contest, with or without The Donald behind it, cannot compare to this:

Apparently, there were "Miss Lovely Eyes" contests, like the one in the above photo (which took place in Florida around 1930), in many different parts of the world.  The only difference between them, it seemed, was in how much of the contestants' faces and bodies were covered in order to isolate their "windows to the soul". 

Hmm...I wonder if they ever held such contests in countries ruled by Sharia law?

Perhaps the folks who made the Hannibal Lecter masks in the first photo ( I wish it had higher resolution so we could see the inscriptions on them!) came out of retirement to design this:

Yes, this was actually touted as a "bicycling hat"!  And it was available in four colors, no doubt to co-ordinate with your favorite cycling abaya:

After all, what is cycle clothing but a fashion statement?  Still, even the best-coordinated outfit has nothing on a pair of beautiful eyes, even if you can't see them because you or the person who has them is riding too fast.

(By the way, I have been told I have beautiful eyes by people of all genders and sexualities.  But no one has ever told me so while I was riding!)