Sunday, July 21, 2013

Do It 'til It Hurts: Tour de France 2013 (Pt. 2)

Greg LeMond was "the American" in the Tour de France during the 1980s and early 90s - even though there were other Americans in the Tour during those years - most notably Andy Hampsten and Davis Phinney for the U.S., not to mention usually solitary Americanos - Colombians, Panamanians, Brazilians, Costa Ricans, Mexicans - as well. All of them Americans, too, but never mind, we'll come to that.

Raul Alcala (MEX), Tour de France, 1993

The Tours of the 21st century, since the great Indurain retired, have been dominated by U.S. riders - Lance Armstrong's consecutive victories, followed by Floyd Landis's recalled victory in 2006 - a pretty amazing national run for a country that rode balloon tires until about 1970, and where cyclists are still regularly run off the road for fun.

And of course we still remember the Tylers (Hamilton and Farrar), Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie - retirees now, some of them witnesses for the Armstrong prosecution, all either disgraced, semi-redeemed by confession or by prosecutorial immunity. But as any good Calvinist will tell you, there's no such thing as semi-redemption. Paradise and a permanent place in the record book are granted neither the partial hero nor the confesser.

Last year's Tour, if you were wishing for something completely different, was won by Bradley Wiggins, the first Brit in history to win it. This year's Tour has by now been won by his teammate, Chris Froome, an Anglo-African born in Kenya. The runner up, wearer of the King of the Mountain polka-dot jersey and the Best Young Rider's white jersey, is Nairo Quintana, a rookie Colombian rider. (The Colombians, whether by some genetic marker or cultural mandate, ride for the polka-dots and usually get them.) The only other Colombian in the Tour, Jose Serpa (another rookie), will finish in the top 25 riders.

The U.S. had six entrants in the opening stage this year. Two (van de Velde and King) have dropped out, and Andrew Talinsky will probably finish a respectable (Schleck-like) tenth. Not exactly dominant. I have to wonder whether U.S. supremacy in the post-Indurain era was largely due to Armstrong's religious enforcement of team doping, and to what must have been an expensive and pervasive secrecy that involved the UCI, the Tour sponsors, and broadcast agencies with which the latter held lucrative contracts. More than I know, but it suggests the grip Armstrong had on the sport if you see it that way.

The Colombians have been around, mostly invisible, since the mid-80s. Luis Herrera was probably the first to make his mark on the European tour - the first to win a Tour de France stage (L'Alpe d'Huez, '84); the first South American to win a Grand Tour (Vuelta a Espagna, '87); and only the second (after another great Spaniard, Federico Bahamantes), to win the King of the Mountain jersey in all three Grand Tours.

So Lance is hiding out in Austin; CadelMageddon is over; los Estados Unidados are either in temporary, post-pharamaceutical disarray or are reverting to our own cultural mandate . . .

So I'm basically keeping my eye on Quintana and the Colombians these days. All two - or three? - of 'em.

A bunch of Colombians

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Amnesiac American Wakes Up Swedish

Sounds like something from The Onion. But no, there's the headline big as 64-point font, in no less a publication than The Guardian: "American man wakes up with amnesia speaking Swedish." It appears that a California sexagenarian (stop it, I know what you're thinking) named Boatwright, who has spent time in Sweden, was found unconscious in a Palm Springs motel room. On waking up in the hospital, he began speaking in Swedish and claimed to be none other than Johan Ek.

"Sudden, unplanned travel"

In March, doctors diagnosed Boatwright with transient global amnesia, a condition that can last for several months and is triggered by physical or emotional trauma. The rare mental disorder is characterised by memory loss, "sudden and unplanned travel," and possible adoption of a new identity.

Lucky devil, I thought when I read this tale of a lost self. It's not that I'd want a new identity particularly, having grown so accustomed and (if I may say so) complacent with my own. It seems to suit me right down to the ground, so much so that I've been tempted more than once to "like" myself on Facebook.

But it strikes me that if some chap who's roughly my age can doze off in a motel room in the course of "sudden and unplanned travel," and immediately upon awakening launch into the Swedish tongue, what new vistas might await an amnesiac Miguel? It reminds me of the one about the fellow who sustains a head injury, and on coming to he asks the doctor if he'll ever be able to play the piano again. "Why, I don't see why not," the doctor assures him. "Great," answers the fellow, "I've always wanted to be able to play."

The story sets a man thinking: if amnesia were to blot out the familiar, the tried and true, the old accustomed Miguel, what new skills and talents would I wish to discover in myself? I'm not sure about being able to speak Swedish. Greek and Latin tempt me. But if I could speak and write in Urdu it would have been worth the trauma of losing my mind.

Another thing that appeals, having been unmusical through the years, is a musical skill of some sort. Not just the usual thing - you know, becoming popular among a wide circle because I can unaccountably play "Roll Out the Barrel" on the harmonica or the accordion - no, here's a chance to think in larger terms.

"Pull out my stops, big boy"

I'm certain I wouldn't want to come to consciousness as a pastry chef, let's say, or an accountant. But I'd not mind taking a page from Boatwright/Ek, who was a medieval history buff, and come back around as an expert jouster . . . 

. . . or an ace fighter pilot . . .

Ace fighter pilot

. . . or better yet, an ace fighter pilot who's also a European aristocrat of the old school.

Le Baron Rouge

It's possible I'm getting beyond myself here, letting the old imagination run rampant as my days wind quickly into senescence. I can see how this would unfold. A good whack on the cranium, a longish doze in the hospital, and I know how I'd wake up.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Six-Day Race (Pt. 3)

[From a manuscript purported to be among the literary relicts of the estate of Raymond Chandler, creator of the private investigator, Philip Marlowe. Chandler died in 1959. In observance of the 2013 Tour de France which commenced this July, as it does each year.]

  The Six-Day Race

Why do they call it Aspen? I asked the barmaid. She blinked at me like I'd asked her why a Kodachrome sky was green.

I'm sure it must be the aspen trees, she said. There are aspen trees everywhere out here, I shot back.

Real estate developers, she said after a pause. Save an elk, shoot a developer. I guess they thought it sounded cute. I figured she was probably right at that.

Then I flipped a photo onto the bar. Ever seen this guy? I asked. The barmaid glanced at it, shook her head and started to walk away. But I'd seen her do the double take.

Sure? I said, and laid a fin on the bar. She looked offended, like a debutante at a pig roast. Just for information, I explained. Oh, she said, and stuffed it somewhere in a shirtfront like a double nail bin in a hardware store.

He's been in a couple times, she said. That's all.

That's all? I asked. Know where he lives? Where I might find him?

He's not local, she answered. I think he's in the medical trades, pharmaceutical, something like that. What I've heard, anyway. I think his name's Ben.

Any last name? I asked.

Dizz  . . .  Dizzrailer, I think. Or maybe Derailler. Like some bicycle part, what I was told.

Disraeli? Benjamin Disraeli? I asked. Yeah, something like that, she said. Know him?

He was the prime minister of England, I said. Really? she said. She seemed mildly impressed. I figured I was in Aspen, so I let it go at that.

One other question, I said. Did you ever see him buy a bag of blood?

Jees, she exploded like a steam grate, we're not all preverts out here, ya know.

That's the last impression I'd want to leave you with, miss, I said. I just need to know who you've seen Ben with in the last 24 hours. A doctor, local vet? Anyone?

The barmaid (by John Brack)

Well OK, but don't get so mangy. So there's this guy named Stan he meets here when he's in town. I think that's his name.

Stan? I asked. So a last name?

Baldwin, she said after a minute. Yeah, Stan Baldwin.

As in Stanley Baldwin? I said.

I suppose so, she said. Stanley, Stan. Is it a big deal?

He was the prime minister of England, I said, not to anyone in particular.

I've heard they have bad blood in the royal family over there, she said absently.

Bad blood, I repeated.You mean hemophilia?

Well, yes - homophobia, I've heard. One of those.

And all the time I'd been thinking just bad teeth. Honey, you may have given me some daylight here, I said, and walked back along the blazing sidewalk to the Buick.
The Buick

I had the motor idling and flared a match to fire up a smoke when I saw the sign just a block down - Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe. Begorrah! I muttered in a brogue as phony as the joint in question.

I shut off the engine, pocketed the key, stubbed the cigarette, strolled back down the sidewalk and in through a front door grimed with smoke and disuse. That probably meant that the back door was the entry of choice for this clientele. The first thing I could make out in the musty interior was a pastry case with about three pork pies lounging in the back, covered in more dust than a miner. I'd never seen a pork pie before, and these particular samples weren't a compelling advertisement for the culinary merits of the genre. I'd been thinking about lunch until that moment.

Something emerged from a curtain behind the pastry case and into the murky light of the joint. May I assist you? asked a fruity voice.

I'm looking for Stan, I said.

I am Stanley - how might I be of service? the voice asked. My eyes were adjusting to the dust and the dim light, and I could barely make out an aging chap in a tweed jacket, a starched white shirt and an ascot that hid more chins than a Chinese phone book. He was wearing tassel loafers. I reminded myself that this was Aspen.

Stanley Baldwin? I asked.

And to whom do I have the honor of being unintroduced? he purred.

Sorry, I said, immediately sorry I'd apologized. Name's Marlowe. Philip Marlowe, from Los Angeles. I'm a private detective and I've been engaged to track down a cyclist who's gone missing from a six-day at the Coliseum. I've heard him called Clement Atlee . . .

Oh dear, said the fellow behind the pork-pie case, Clement's been retired now for years - went to Majorca, I understood.

Clement Atlee, "a sheep in sheep's clothing"

I wouldn't know about that, I said. He was seen four days ago, two days into a six-day in L.A.

Are we speaking of a different fellow, perhaps? asked the fruity voice. I flipped the photo onto the glass top of the pastry case. Oh, said the chap, and who might this be?

Not Clement? I asked. He shook a negative. What about Ben? I shot back.

Ben? he countered.

Ben Disraeli, I barked. He go to Majorca as well? Not with the family silver, I hope.

Oh, really, Mr Marlowe, the Ascot chuckled. I have only the highest regard for Mr. Atlee and the deepest reverence for the memory of Mr. Disraeli. But surely, surely you're not aware of the identities of England's illustrious own. This photograph is of some Lower Midlands tout, I wager, one who may well have absconded with some family's silver. Though I doubt it would have been his own family's.

Know anything about blood? I asked him.

Blood, he mused. Blood . . . you mean as in blood lines, families, that sort of thing? Like in Debrett's Peerage?

Not like that, I said. Like in quart bags. For sale.

The chins stopped waggling for a moment and then the Ascot looked thoughtful. You must be mad, he said at last.

I've heard there's some demand for blood over on your side of the Atlantic, I said. Among the highest circles of government, if you see what I'm driving at.

Oh, surely . . . he spluttered . . . you can't believe everything you read in the San Francisco Chronicle. Or is it the Sacramento Bee?

L.A., I corrected him. But I was buying time because by now I'd figured out that the bad blood angle was a false scent. I thought I'd recognized this guy when he oozed out from behind the curtain back of the counter, and I finally made his mug. His name, or his stage name, was Desmond Desmond, a B-movie walk-on, the type the Hollywood geniuses always cast as a snotty butler or a continually outraged father-in-law in cheesy society dramas that feature types whose rooms are awash in white drapery and who go to night clubs with Busby Berkeley floor shows, skinny cigarette girls and Latino crooners.

I'd also seen a refrigerator behind that plastic curtain, and while the Chin was spluttering about the purity of the royal house I'd also seen a guy with hips like a snake's, fishing out a bag of what could have been raspberry jam. Or enhanced blood. From where I stood, I couldn't be sure which. Anyway, I figured that whatever they were up to was probably more weird than it was illegal. Besides, I figured, I'm in Aspen. Who cares what goes on here?

I walked back down the sidewalk to the bar and bought a roll of dimes, then went into the phone booth to call Lafferty. I didn't have anything to tell him except I was finished with the case and thanks a lot for the trip to Aspen. He picked up after about four rings. I'd probably woke him from a doze. I asked him if there'd been any sightings of Clement Atlee back on the Coliseum track.

Yeah, said Lafferty. He finished the six-day yesterday, came in first, I hear. Hey Marlowe, did you know he used to be the prime minister of England?

I heard something like that, I said. I just let it go. I figured it was only Lafferty.

The young Lafferty

Do It 'til It Hurts: Tour de France 2013 (Pt. 1)

In Sunday's fifteenth stage of the current Tour de France, Team Sky's Chris Froome went off like a shot seven kilometers from the summit of Mont Ventoux, finishing a half-minute ahead of the young Colombian Nairo Quintana to take the stage and the polka dot King of the Mountain jersey. He kept as well the yellow jersey with a four-plus minute lead overall. It was an amazing performance. Ventoux is the mountain that, in the 1967 Tour, conspired with the heat and a lethal mix of alcohol and amphetamines to kill the British rider Tom Simpson, whose memorial now stands on its slope.

 Froome in front

Some genius of the sporting press inevitably compared Froome to Armstrong, who has also gone up Mont Ventoux like a shot in Tours past, leaving a scattered and demoralized field of riders to sort things out below. "I'm going to take that as a compliment," was all Froome said in reply.

Armstrong has left a scrambled and confusing legacy - amazing rides, Tour victories that are no longer on the record but survive in countless digital and human memories. His pharmaceutical regimen aside, Lance was one of the greatest riders. When he was younger he was merely "brash." As he aged and grew to the status of a legend, brashness turned into arrogance, his general nastiness a cover for the fact that he had something to cover. Still, Travis Tygart and USADA only managed to uncover Armstrong's defects of character. They couldn't alter the facts - that he was an amazing cyclist, a dominant figure in Tour history despite his palpable removal from the books.

Froome is no Armstrong - meaning that he is diffident, quiet, and most probably clean. And coming from a 28-year-old, his rejoinder was a wonderfully terse mot juste, encapsulating at once a good bit of class, a mature presence of mind, and the judgment of history on Armstrong. Nothing more to be said, really.  

 Alberto Contador chases Andy Schleck up Mont Ventoux, 2009

Monday, July 1, 2013

What We Need Before We Go

"I want an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle!"
                  (The correct answer to the question, "Ralphie, what would you like for Christmas?")

In every life, the world divides pretty neatly into all the things you need . . . 

. . . the things you think you need . . .

(Pick one)

. . . the things you definitely don't need . . .

Doughnut burger

. . . and the one thing you need to own before you die. This thing is different for different people, of course, and (except in cases of severe developmental problems) it alters over the span of a single person's lifetime. So while Ralphie may have wanted a Red Ryder air gun in his nonage, his middle years may have felt hollow for want of a Ferrari Testa Rossa 250, let's say . . . 

. . . or a cellared flagon of Pomerol in the proper year . . . 

. . . both of which I have hankered after at various times of life, though for want of $16.4 million my Ferrari lust was bound to be unrequited. I knew it, and knowing it cooled my ardor after a time. 

Still, there remains a bit of Ralphie in every geezer and Miguel is no exception. Idly searching the flyrods on Craigslist one dreary day in April, I chanced on an Orvis Battenkill two-piece Bakelite-impregnated seven-and-a-half foot six-weight with (not a compass in the stock, but) an Orvis Hardy-built CFO fly reel - all in immaculate condition. I said it all over again quickly, to myself, as though I were Ralphie answering The Question: "Ralphie, what would you like for Christmas?"

Nearly three months later I met its original owner and keeper of the tube on the main street of a Denver suburb. A stranger carrying an aluminum fly rod tube is no longer a stranger so far as I'm concerned. Not to mention that he stood out, as Raymond Chandler once wrote, "like a kangaroo in a dinner jacket." We walked to a park bench across the street, I unscrewed the cap to the tube, slid the rod sections out of their pouch, checked all the serial numbers (they matched), slipped one of the tips into the ferrule on the butt section, looked along a true span of Tonkin cane, and flexed it in a liquid arc above both our heads. The rod bent into a perfect bow behind and flexed forward in a mirror image. It felt fluid and powerful at once, much as I once might have said of a properly tended Chateau Petrus that it possessed both firmness of structure and delicacy of finish. 

So I handed over my envelope of cash, screwed the cap onto the tube, gathered up my Hardy-built reel (Hardy, the reel maker with the royal warrant) and drove back down the interstate and home. This was yesterday. In one of life's cruel ironies, I'm in Kansas today and rising trout are thin on the ground out here.