Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

22 January 2019

Blame The (Phantom) Bike Lanes!

Every one of us, I suspect, has had a moment when we realized that someone we looked up to was just plain wrong about something.  

Most of us, I guess, have such a moment in childhood.  That person who suddenly became, as it were, mortal might be a parent, older sibling, teacher, coach or other adult who nurtured us in some way.  Such a moment might have seemed like "the end of the world," at least for a moment, and left us feeling angry, hurt, abandoned or empty.  Fortunately, though, most of us move on from such an experience and learn the lesson that "nobody's perfect."

Good thing, too, because as we go through life, people we respect or admire have moments of stupidity, arrogance, greed, meanness or thoughtlessness.  We learn that our heroes--if we still create such figures in our lives--are, after all, human.

For many years, I've been a major fan of Whoopi Goldberg.  In fact, when I was still watching TV and had a schedule that allowed it, I watched The View mainly because she was one of the panelists.  She is a funny, irreverent woman who always seemed to resist pressures from society and the entertainment industry (where, perhaps, such pressures are the most intense) to conform to prevailing notions about attractiveness or femininity--which, of course, are Caucaso-centric. (Is that a word?)  Also, she has been an outspoken advocate for causes, like LGBT equality, that matter to me.

Of course, one can be outspoken about things one doesn't know much about. I've probably done it any number of times on this blog! If I have, I hope I haven't caused harm, or at least not much of it.  I'd like to think that I expounded on things I know little or nothing about only because I didn't know as much about them as I thought I knew--or because I was acting on information I didn't realize was inaccurate.

I hope that such is the case for Whoopi Goldberg.  I am willing to believe that it is because, well, I've always liked her.  Also, I think she probably doesn't ride a bike much in Manhattan, if she rides at all.

You see, anyone who regularly cycles in Manhattan knows where the bike lanes are.  Mainly, they're in midtown, and parallel major uptown-downtown and crosstown thoroughfares.

While Tenth Avenue runs the length of midtown, on its west side, it's not one of the streets with a bike lane.  She could be forgiven for not knowing that.  On the other hand, she blamed the non-existent bike lane for "ruining" the avenue and traffic flow in the city.  


  Oh, but it didn't end there.  She went as far as to say that the bike lanes are part of a conspiracy to bring Manhattan traffic to a standstill so that the Mayor can implement "congestion pricing"--which, of course, would take a bite out of her bank account as well as her "right" to drive--or, more precisely, be driven--in Manhattan.

What's really crazy about her rant is that it was a non sequitir. She was interviewing Mayor Bill de Blasio about something else entirely.  I guess she figured that since she had him in her crosshairs, she could unleash her pet peeve--however unfounded it is--on him.

Here's something I find really ironic:  She, among celebrities, has been one of the most outspoken critics of El Cheeto Grande.  Yet she behaved no differently than he has in any number of public appearances:  She told a lie or repeated misinformation (depending on what you believe) and doubled down on it.  Her tirade, like most of what we hear from T-rump, is devoid of facts and fueled by a sentiment of "If I feel it, it must be true."

Then again, she does have a few things in common with him:  They are, or have been, television stars.  They live in mansions and are driven in limousines or armored SUVs everywhere they go.  And they haven't ridden bicycles since they were kids. 

21 January 2019

A Real Freedom Ride(r)

I am not the first person to say this:  Donald Trump's promise to "Make America Great Again" doesn't hold up because, well, America was never great.  No nation ever has been.  A few have been powerful and influential.  But great, no.

A nation should not be confused with a culture or people.  Whether or not a culture is great is open to interpretation.  Every nation, however, has at least one interesting or even inspiring culture:  That is the reason why I have taken trips to France, Cambodia and other places.  

Even though nations aren't great, and even if cultures might or might not be great, within each of them there have been great human beings.  Of course, most of us might be seen as great by some people, but not others.  There are a few, though, who are undeniably great.

Today is a holiday to commemorate one of them. Although his actual birthday came last Tuesday, his "birthday" is celebrated on the third Monday of every January.  I am talking, of course, about Martin Luther King Jr.  Whether or not you agree with the ways in which he tried to achieve his goals, it cannot be denied that this country, and this world, are better for his having been part of them.

Here he is, on Fire Island, just off Long Island,  seven months before he was assassinated:

20 January 2019

Even Arnold Wasn't This Strong

If you were young, had cash to burn and wanted to believe you were tougher than you actually were, you drove a Hummer.

Styled after a military vehicle, the first Hummer rolled off the assembly line in 1992.  Fittingly, Arnold Schwarznegger bought it:  He was the one who lobbied American Motors Corporation, who'd been making Hummers (then known as Humvees) for the US Armed Forces, to offer them to civilians.  

The pseudo-tank was a cash cow for AMC and, later, for General Motors, who bought the brand in 1998.  It also helped to enrich the coffers of petroleum companies (and a few despots) because one gallon of gasoline would propel it for only ten miles.

Of course, those are the reasons why the brand tanked (pardon the pun) when the world's economy crashed and oil prices spiked.  A couple of years ago, while on a ride, I saw the first Hummer I'd seen in years.  Even in its bright yellow finish, it looked like a dinosaur to me.

Where are the Hummers now?  Are they in junkyards and other landfills with other motor vehicles?

Wherever they are, bicycles from that same period are still rolling along. 

This rider is even stronger than I ever was.  I mean, I've carried all sorts of things on my bike, but not a car(cass).

19 January 2019

For The Woman Who Had (Almost) Everything In 1951

What I am about to say is not a boast; it's a fact.

I don't know anyone who owns or rides a mixte frame as nice as Vera, my Mercian.  And the only person I know who rides a full-on women's frame (in which the top tube is dropped even further than the twin parallel tubes on the mixte) is Coline, who sometimes comments on this blog.  And I know her women's bike is as good as Vera because a.) it's a Mercian and b.) I used to own it.  I sold it to Coline only because I prefer the style of the mixte. 

Truly high-quality mixte or women's bikes have long been relatively rare.  In France and other countries, stylish and utilitarian bikes that don't have the "diamond" ("men's") configuration are relatively common.  Some are very good, but rarely does one see such a bike with a frame constructed of Reynolds, Columbus or Vitus tubing, or with components that rise above mid-level (though they are, for the most part, at least serviceable).  Certainly, one almost never see mixte or women's bikes that rise to the level of the best diamond-frame racing or touring bikes.

Such bikes have always been even rarer in the US--and they were probably rarer yet in 1951, during what Sheldon Brown has called "the dark ages" of cycling in America.  Who would have made such a machine?

One answer:  Emil Wastyn--or his son, Oscar.  If that name rings a bell, you are: a.) my age or older; b.) know more about the history of cycling in the US than 99.99 percent of the population;  c.) are a Schwinn geek or, d.) are from Chicago.

The bike in the photos isn't a Schwinn, but it could have been.  Oscar Wastyn built it.  His father is the one who convinced Frank Schwinn that his company should build top-of-the-line racing and touring bikes at a time when enthusiasm for six-day races  (which basically kept racing alive in the US during the Great Depression) was waning and the world was on the brink of war.  Those high-end Schwinns, known as the Paramount line, were built by the Wastyns from the marque's inception in 1938 until 1955.

Until the 1960s or thereabouts, the Paramount was the only true high-performance racing or touring bike built in the US, save for the few that were made by a handful of regional builders (mainly for the small-but-active cycling scenes in places like New York, Chicago, Boston and, ironically, Detroit).  Certainly, the Paramount was the only high-quality US-built bike one could buy or order from a local dealer anywhere in the US.  

From what I can see in the photos, the workmanship on the frame is meticulous and in keeping with the style of the times.  I don't know which tubing was used to make it, but I suspect that it was either Accles and Pollock (used on the original Paramounts) or Reynolds, which Wastyn would use when Accles and Pollock stopped making bicycle tubing. 

Also in keeping with the period is the Sturmey Archer three-speed hub.  American cycling at the time was, not surprisingly, influenced by the British, who had yet to embrace the derailleur for their high-speed and long-distance machines.  And, of course, the fenders and chainguard would have been found on any bike, no matter how high its quality, that wasn't a dedicated racer.

As for other parts on the bike, they are typical of the period--save, perhaps, for the front hub and cranks, both of which are "Paramount", the same ones used on Wastyn's bikes bearing that name.  To my knowledge, Paramounts from that period are the only American bikes besides those made by the aforementioned small builders (such as Dick Power and George Omelenchuk) to use three-piece cottered cranks.  Cotterless cranks were still relatively new and expensive, and were still not seen as durable or reliable as their cottered counterparts.  The front hub looks much like Campagnolo and other racing hubs of its time.

I don't know who bought that bike for whom:  Few American adults, and even fewer American adult women, were riding bikes--let alone top-quality ones--in 1951.  Whoever bought it, though, had taste and whoever rode it did so in style.  

18 January 2019

Home Again

By the time you read this, I'll be on my way home or already there.  Back to my "normal" life!

If you don't hear from me for a day or two, it's probably because Marlee wouldn't let go of me.  I guess I can't blame her if she's upset:  After all, I spent a week away, a couple of days home, and more than a week away again.  So far, I've been home for only three days in 2019!

Will the rest of the year be a journey?  For the world, it might be an arduous one, to say the least. It might be for me, too, but I hope that it will be as interesting and fun as it's been so far!

17 January 2019

A French Lunch With Old Friends

On this visit, I've ridden more than 20 kilometers on only two of the seven days I've been here.  But cycling lots of kilometers (or miles) wasn't the point of coming to Paris, though I didn't want to go without pedaling the pave (cobblestones) as well as the paths and paved streets.

Yesterday I didn't ride at all.  I did, however, visit two more old friends who had me to their house for one of those wonderful and inimitable French lunches.  In many ways, it was the best of all worlds:  the lunch was both civilized and leisurely, and they live in a house full of sunlight in a town that feels like the country even though it's only 15 kilometers from the center of Paris.

I met Michele about 15 years ago through my late friend Janine, who lived nearby.  Since then, she re-connected with Alec, whom she met when they met in Spain.  At the time, they've explained, they were living as hippies and hitchiking around Europe--much to the dismay of both of their parents.

Neither of their parents approved and each of them eventually married people their parents approved.  From the way I'm telling you this story, you've probably guessed that their unions didn't work out.  Well, Michele's didn't, anyway, and Alec's wife died.  So, nearly four decades after first meeting, they reunited and married four years ago.

Our lunch started around noon, when I arrived and lasted well into the afternoon.  I, of course, am on holiday, and they are retired, so we don't really know--or care--when the lunch ended. (Does it end when you stop eating or after you take a walk and come back for more cidre rose and coffee?) 

The food was uncomplicated but exquisitely prepared:  a starter of sliced sausage, followed by three different kinds of salad:  one of shredded red cabbage, another of carrots and onions, and still another of creamy cucumbers.

What followed was a rare steak and some wonderful roasted sliced potatoes.  Of course, it was accompanied by bread.  Alec had bought some before we met, but in following an old French custom, I brought a baguette which we ate.  (I also brought a box of fancy chocolates.) And, after all of that, chocolate and cafe creme eclairs, with espresso coffee.

Don't believe for a minute that the French--even Parisians--are not friendly. When I toured the countryside by bicycle, I experienced all sorts of kindness.  And here in the Paris region, people have treated me well. They simply don't make friends with people immediately, as Americans and other people often do.  They have to get to know you, or meet you through someone they know well. 

Somehow, though, I suspect that I might've befriended Michele even if I hadn't met her from Janine, just as I would've been friends with Isabelle if she hadn't been married to Jay.  

He did more bike riding than I did today!

It was also fun to spend some time with Michele's grandson, who was spending the day with him.  Now, you probably think a prototypical (or stereotypical) name for a French boy is Jean or Jacques or Yves.  But this three-year-old boy has a name only a French person--or someone who loves impressionist paintings--could have given him.  Are you ready for this?  Matisse.  At first, I thought it was a French pronunciation of Matthis or Matthew.  But I learned that he is indeed named for the Picasso's friend and rival.

Don't you just love this water pump in the local park?  It actually works!

I would love to see what he becomes when he "grows up."  Will he rebel against it and become an accountant or lawyer, or even a physicist?  Or will he live up to the connotations of his name?

Of course, that is not the only reason why I want to visit Michele and Alec again, or have them visit me, some time soon!

16 January 2019

Cycling, Cubism, Computers And Commerce In Paris

I am certainly not the first cyclist to notice that pedaling enhances the senses.  We can see and hear more vividly, and whatever we taste or touch (or touches us) is more intense.  And we all know that our favorite foods and drinks taste even better during and after a ride.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that I found myself thinking about these phenomena as I pedaled around the Place des Vosges and through narrow streets lined with sandstone-colored buildings:  My morning's meanderings ended at la Musee Picasso.

So how are my ramblings and ruminations connected to the creator of Demoiselles d'Avignon and Guernica?

Well, actually, I started to think about the way we receive sensory details--on or off our bikes--on Saturday, while looking at an exhibit of Cubist painters in the Centre Pompidou.  The way Picasso, Braque and others dissected (visually, anyway), faces, objects and vistas, then re-assembling them in new ways, does not reflect the way our eyes see--or, at any rate, the way we are accustomed to thinking that our eyes see.  Rather, those artists were showing us how something besides our sensory organs--call it the mind, the intuition or the spirit (I mean that in a secular sense.) senses the world around us--which, of course, cannot be a re-creation of the object, the face or whatever we see.  

It makes sense when you realize that the words on this page, or any other words, cannot transmit the things they are supposed to communicate or represent.  All they can do is convey something--a code, if you will-- that the mind turns into an image or idea of whatever the words are supposed to convey.  The mind doesn't do that simply by taking in the sequence of letters that form the word; it turns them into something that the mind or consciousness, or whatever you want to call it, can use to portray an idea or essence of whatever that word is supposed to represent.  If you see the word "house", your mind provides you with an image of a house because it turns the letters of the word into something your mind can re-assemble into a visualization of some house or another.

I am not a neuroscientist, so I have been able to describe our conscious processes only in the language I could find in my own intuition, such as it is.  And I know even less about the way computers process data, so please forgive me if what I say next makes less sense than anything I've said before.

Here goes: It occured to me, while riding afterward, that Cubism may well have been a prototype of how computers process data--and, in particular, how information is conveyed through computer systems and, in particular, across the Internet. As I (mis)understand it, what I am typing right now won't be posted directly to my blog:  It must be changed into a format that can be sent and re-assembled into the intended message or content.  And that format, as I understand it, bears no resemblance (at least in terms of logic or syntax) to the language we use and has to be rearranged in ways we never would (or could) do in order to convey our message.

So..Could the Cubists have been pro-computer scientists?  

Anyway, riding is always a great primer for looking at art, or almost anything.  And within steps, literally, of the Picasso there are two other museums.  I was going to go to the Carnavalet, but it was closed for renovations.  So I went to one I visited on my previous trip to Paris:  the Cognacq-Jay.

Like the Jacqmart-Andre, it was the residence of a wealthy couple who collected art and objects.  The collection was on display, but there was also an interesting exhibit about "l'art du commerce."  It shows how artists like Jean-Antonine Watteau were instrumental in bringing about what we might recognize as marketing in the 18th Century.

The convergence of a few factors made it possible. One was, ahem, colonialism, which gave France and the rest of Europe access to a wider variety of materials--and designs they'd never before seen.  Another was the means to reproduce the exotic objects that came from afar, mainly the Middle and Far East.  Then there was the development of merchant and middle classes --whose tastes and demands drove these new markets--and, last but not least, a group of artists and other creative people.  

This is the era in which, essentially, department stores and catalogues began. That is why artists like Watteau others of his generation were so suited for this development: They had sketch-like techniques developed for creating portraits of  merchants, bankers and other professionals:  the sorts of people (and their families) to whom marketing was directed.  So, in some weird way, you can thank (or blame) Watteau for Amazon--or, if you're of my generation, Bike Nashbar, Performance, Supergo and all of those mail-order shops that sold all of those exotic and unaffordable bikes and parts we couldn't find at our neighborhood Schwinn dealers.

Could it be that the bicycle developed from the draisienne to what we ride today because of the l'art du commerce?

15 January 2019

A Bike Ride As Preparation To See A Master

I've known and ridden with cyclists who could or would not ride by themselves.   Whether they went on organized treks with clubs or impromptu sprints with friends and acquaintances, they simply could not conceive of a solo spin down their local streets or in a faraway locale.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I am not that kind of cyclist.  And I have never been.  Oh, there are times when I like to ride with one other person, or in small groups. (I haven't done a big organized ride like the Five Boro Bike Tour in a long time.)  But I am also content when my ride is simply me, my bike and my surroundings--whether that backdrop is a winding lane in the hills, a road along a seashore or a boulevard in a fashionable (or not-so-fashionable) part of a city.

The last clause in the previous paragraph describes the riding I did this morning.  I rode down arrow-straight residential streets near my hotel to rondeaux at la Place de l'Opera, la Porte de la Vilette (where African immigrants waited for contractors to hire them out as day laborers), la Bastille and la Republique before heading down to the Boulevard Haussmann in the 8th Arrondisssement.  You can't get much more fashionable than that.

I did not, however, go there to be seen--especially being dressed the way I was!  Instead, at the suggestion of Jay and Isabelle, I checked out a museum that I now cannot believe I never entered in my previous visits to (much less in the time I was living in) Paris.  It was like going to la Musee Cognaq-Jay (which I visited two and a half years ago), only on a much bigger and greater scale.

The similarity is this:  the Museum is a mansion , like the Cognaq-Jay, named for the people who lived, and collected art, in it.  Edouard Andre came from a prosperous French Protestant family and developed a love of art.  Nelie Jacquemart, on the other hand, came from a Catholic family of modest circumstances.  She became a painter of some renown who made portraits of some powerful and influential people of her time.  Andre--who was known for his taste as well as his means of acquiring art--commissioned her to do his portrait.

I know this sounds like a period-piece romantic comedy movie script, but they got married.  Whether he was taken by her portrait of him, or she by his taste (which may have included said portrait) was never made clear.  What is known, however, is that they shared a passion for art and artifacts and, never having had any children, spent the rest of their lives travelling to acquire such pieces, and promoting the work of artists and musicians who were their contemporaries.  As a guide said, "They made their lives a work of art."

He died about two decades before she did and he left everything to her with the stipulation that she would be prudent with their heritance.  Her will, in essence, stipulated the creation of the museum.

I can't help but to wonder about the artist who was featured in a special exhibition.  Their collection consisted mainly of late-17th and 18th Century artists, which collectors were starting to favor a century later, during Andre's and Jacquemart's lifetimes.  

The artist featured in the exhibition--which will run for the rest of this month--did this painting:

The man in the picture is with himself, reflecting on the state of his soul.  It's hard to see in this photo, but there is a crucifix in the background which is even hard to see when you are face-to-face with the painting.  And, unlike other portraits of saints, this one has a halo that's barely visible.

One of my regular readers (hint:  he lives in Finland) surely knows the creator of this image.  I am sure that some of my other readers do, too.  For everyone else, I'll tell you his name:  Michelangelo (no, not that one) Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.

Contrary to what you may have heard, he did not invent the "chiaroscuro" technique of painting, in which the subject is set against a dark background, so that there are no "props", if you will, to distract the viewer.  But he probably used it to greater effect than anyone else.  One of the best examples of it, in my opinion, is the painting of St. Francis in meditation I showed above.

Some might opt for this one, of St. Jerome translating the Bible.  I wouldn't try to change their opinion:

or the opinion of anyone who prefers this one, of a young John the Baptist with a ram:

or either of the Mary Magdalen portraits he did:

Somehow, I think he could have done some very interesting portaits of cyclists alone on a mountain pass or the Boulevard Haussmann.

14 January 2019

A Market, A Canal, A Church And A Fountain

My bike ride today took me to alternative universes in Paris.  That's what they seemed to be, anyway.

I encountered the first one after riding some side streets near the Place de Clichy, I wandered up some cobblestoned streets (that were really more like lanes) and found myself at the Porte de St. Ouen.

If you are cycling, walking, driving or taking any other kind of ground transportation, you enter or leave the city through those "portes", which are usually passages under the Peripherique, a highway that rings the City of Light. The location of the "portes" are said to approximate the location of openings in the walls that surrounded the city itself and those outlying towns in earlier times.

Anyway, just after passing through the "porte", I saw a sign for "puces".  No, the French highway folks aren't telling you where to find fleas.  Rather, it's shorthand for "flea market" (marche de puces).  So, of course, I followed it.

I hadn't been to the St. Ouen-Paris flea markets in some time. The hyphenated designation isn't just marketing hype:  Although most of the market's stalls are indeed in St.Ouen, a whole section of stalls lies within the Paris city limits.

Notice that I used the plural:  "flea markets".  That's because there are in fact over a dozen different markets, each of them arranged along different streets of the city.  Or, you might say that the markets are like a city of open-air malls.   The only shopping experience that even remotely reminded me of St. Ouen is the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  Of course, they are very different because the GB is covered and, of course, because of the disparate cultures (even if some of the sellers at St. Ouen are Turkish). I don't know which is bigger, but they both dwarf any flea market I've seen elsewhere.

In both places, it's possible to buy just about anything, though there are certainly more antique and vintage-item sellers in St. Ouen than I recall seeing in Istanbul.  But St. Ouen made me think about the term "flea market", which is a direct translation of "marche aux puces". (The French usually call the markets "puces" for short.)  The term is said to have originated because the sellers in the original markets were often homeless, and covered with fleas.  According to what I've read, their practice began in the latter decades of the 19th Century, when much of the city was rebuilt under Baron Haussmann.  (He's the one who replaced the serpentine medieval streets with straight thoroughfares that radiated out from plazas and parks:  Think of the "Etoile" in which the Arc de Triomphe is located.)  As a result of this realignment, many old buildings were torn down, and their contents were left lying  in the streets--where they were scavenged.

Now, I must admit, some things indeed looked as if they were brought in by people (or even dogs or cats) with fleas.  But some other things certainly didn't.

And, while many of the structures that became stalls were old industrial facilites, others looked like they might have given a bourgeois lady or gentleman quite a view.

There are also some interesting contrasts, such as this:

I like it a lot, but it's kind of funny to see the kind of graffiti art you might see in Bushwick or Mott Haven on a building in which old paintings and prints are sold.

Speaking of structures, later in the day, at the other end of town, I encountered a church unlike any I've seen in this city--or anywhere else.

All right, from the outside you might think it's just another late-19th (or early-20th) Century church built in the Romanesque style.  And, in fact,it is, deliberately so:  It was built to replace another church similar in style--on the outside.

Once you get inside, the church still shares some characteristics with other Romanesque churches, including the high, vaulted ceilings--which, of course, are designed to get parishoners to look upward and be reminded of the vast power of God.  But then there's something you've never seen in any other Romanesque church--or, probably, any other church:

Steel girders!  If someone were to build a Romanesque church in Manhattan's Meatpacking District (when meat was indeed a district where meat was packed) or Soho (when it was still industrial), I might expect something like this--maybe.

The girders were taken from the Palais d'Industrie constructed for the 1855 Universal Exposition and torn down in 1891.  And the stone on the outside was taken from an earlier church that had become too small for the community it was serving.

Even though the city made a rather detailed historical marker for it, and the church offers pamphlets and other materials explaining the church's history, I guess they don't expect tourists to visit, as it is on the far southern end of the city, far from better-known sites.  Thus, the marker and the printed materials are only in French--which, fortunately, I can read, so I was able to write about the church (however sketchily) here. 

Along the way, I made other stops at interesting spots--and for a picnic lunch on the Quai de Jemmapes, by the Canal St. Martin.  And near the end of my ride, I stopped at Place Felix Eboue to hydrate:

Well, if I were my iPhone or laptop, I guess I could have hydrated there.  I enjoyed it nonetheless.  It's different and it's Paris, after all!