Major Taylor: The World’s Most Popular Athlete

February 8, 2018

Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame, by Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber; Foreword by Greg LeMond (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014)

The cycling life of Marshall W. “Major” Taylor is inspiring, as the authors of this biography claim in the subtitle to their thoroughly documented and graphically written biography. He was born November 28, 1878, on a farm near Indianapolis, at a time when racist antagonism toward African Americans was at a high point and lynchings were public spectacles. At home he experienced love, developed good work disciplines, and learned to play the piano.

His father, a Civil War veteran and horse trainer, often took his eight-year-old son with him to the home of a wealthy Indianapolis family where he worked as coachman. Marshall played with Daniel, the owner’s son, and his friends, and the owner bought Marshall a bicycle, which had become the rage everywhere, so he could ride with the other boys.

Marshall quickly outperformed his companions. He also taught himself how to do trick riding. Along with Daniel, he was privately tutored and learned the rudiments of reading and writing.

When he was thirteen, Marshall took his bike to a bicycle shop, one of several along Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, and was given a job that paid a little more than his paper route. A couple of years later, at another bike shop, he met Louis Munger, a thirty-year-old racer whose legs were giving out. Impressed by the scrawny teenager’s abilities on a bicycle, Munger became his trainer and friend, helped Marshall enter amateur races, and prepared him for the professional circuit.

About the same time, he met Arthur Zimmerman, one of the most celebrated cyclists of the era, who also befriended the young, inexperienced black athlete. With help from Munger and Zimmie, Marshall became an aggressive cyclist, specializing in short distance sprint races in which he clearly surpassed virtually every other rider. Taylor’s distinctive and powerful riding style won races, endeared him to spectators, and drew ever larger crowds, much to the delight of promoters.

The cycling establishment and most cyclists were opposed to allowing black people to compete in their sport. Much of this book details the terrible odds that Marshall faced. Other racers conspired against him, so that he would be boxed in, forced off course, and sometimes injured. A low point was when an enraged cyclist jumped on Taylor who was still lying on the track after an accident and came close to choking him to death. Despite the criminal character of the event, the assailant’s attack received only a modest penalty. Read more. . . . The World’s Most Popular Athlete


Holding Winter in a Bicyclist’s Embrace

December 28, 2017

The bike riders are out today, even some on rental bikes from the stanchions across the street. And why shouldn’t they be! Bright sun, dry streets, quiet traffic. A nice day, except for the temperature, 17 degrees.

When I lived in Indianapolis during my working years, I commuted three miles to the campus where I taught regardless of temperature, even on sub-zero days, except when the roads were slick. I would do 20-mile recreational rides on sunny days when the temperature was 25 or higher.

But so far today, during the first seriously cold winter weather since my return to Indianapolis, I’ve been sitting in my sun-filled bachelor pad trying to talk myself into going out for a trial cold weather ride. During the next six or eight weeks, there are places I will have to go, including a doctor’s office next week. Some will be too far to walk, and bus connections are awkward. That leaves my bike as the preferred option, unless snow is falling and the roads are slick.

“Go for it!” the gals in the apartment rental office told me. “You won’t get as cold on your bike as you would waiting for the bus both ways.” Biking to my appointment next week will take fifteen minutes each way rather than an hour on the bus (including walking, waiting, and transfers). I still have the heavy winter gloves from former years and know how to protect my ears. By layering my civilian clothes, I can be reasonably warm while maintaining suitable appearance for activities at the destination points.

It’s not a choice between prudence or cowardice as it was a couple of weeks ago on a morning when there was a glaze of ice on the streets. Today, it’s a question of character. Am I going to live up to my regula, to borrow a word that Laura Everett uses in her book Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels?

If using buses and bikes instead of an automobile is to be a guideline for the next period of my life, then there’s no choice but to take a break-the-ice bike ride on a winter’s day as nice as this. If I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, with five feet of snow on the ground, then bus or snow shoes would be the only options, but here there is practically no white stuff even on grass in shaded places.

So bicycle it has to be, and today is the day for moving into the out of doors that now is my world.

Even when the temperature is as warm as 17 degrees, I found out on today’s five-mile ride, my winter cycling attire needs to be improved: something to cover my face, better ear coverings, warmer gloves or mittens, and long underwear or heavier civilian pants. A trip to REI or Patagonia is in the offing.

At 3:15, the sun is obscured by an apartment tower across the street, but today’s ride, even though it was only five miles and ten or twelve minutes long, is casting its own brightness for the rest of the day.


Indiana’s White River System: A Bicyclist’s Observations

December 18, 2017

Responding to Indiana White River Guide Book: East Fork and West Fork, by Jerry M. Hay (Terre Haute: Indiana Waterways, 2002).

white-river-guideAlthough I am a bicyclist rather than a boater, traveling on roads rather than rivers, I have long been interested in the waterways that shape the land and human cultures that develop along their banks. This interest influences the books I read, such as Blaine Harden’s A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia and Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience, edited by Robert L. Reid.

Now that I am living once again close to Indiana’s White River (West Fork), I am focusing attention on this ribbon of water that twists in an almost tortured way from its starting point near Muncie, Indiana (home of Ball State University), to its confluence with the Wabash River at Mt. Carmel, Illinois.

The first book on this river that I have been able to find, and this is in the reserved section of the Indianapolis Public Library, is a spiral bound document, with 8.5 by 11 inch pages, that provides a boater’s guide to both forks of the river. It is divided into thirty-seven sections, each with two facing pages, one primarily text and graphics and the other a line-drawing map of a section of the river that is approximately ten miles long. The map shows nearby roads, dams, bridges, power plants, access points, and other information that boaters need to know as they travel on the river. The author provides information on “reading the river,” navigation information and advice, and other material that would be important for safe boating.

The West Fork of the White River begins east of Muncie, flows 273 miles to its confluence with the East Fork, and continues an additional forty-six miles as the White River with no fork designation, for a total of 319 miles to its mouth at the Wabash. The East Fork officially begins near Columbus, Indiana, at the confluence of the Flatrock River and the Driftwood River, the longest tributary of which is the Big Blue River.  The Big Blue-Driftwood River is 152 miles long and merged into the East Fork of the White River at Columbus, flows another 162 miles to the junction with the West Fork. Adding these two figures, the Big Blue-East Fork is 314 miles. It then travels another forty-six miles as part of the White River, making a total length of 360 miles.

Larger cities along the West Fork are Muncie, Anderson, Noblesville, Indianapolis, Martinsville, Spencer, Bloomfield, Edwardsport, and Washington. Starting at the officially designated beginning of the East Fork, larger communities are Columbus, Seymour, and Bedford. Hay’s description of this two-forked river confirms what one sees when looking at maps: for the most part, this river runs through rural country. In addition to towns and small cities, and the one major metropolitan area, Indianapolis, there are many villages, and cross roads settlements along this river. Even so, travelers should pay attention to food and other supplies. When motor boats are being used, special attention should be given to the fuel supplies.

One characteristic of the White River system stands out in the line drawing maps that Hays provides: it twists and turns in a constant sequence of wiggles throughout the length of both forks and their tributaries.

I have no experience with canoes or motor boats and therefore will not be able to see the White River according to Hay’s guide. As a cyclist, I could gradually work my way along, taking little roads to the river in many spots along its nearly 700 miles (counting the full length of both forks). It would be a slow process, and I’m not likely to undertake the full challenge.

I can, however, imagine a gradual process of exploring vantage points in Indianapolis and Marion County. Hays devotes two sections to this stretch, starting at mile 101 and ending at mile 127.

Another way to develop a bicyclist’s understanding of the White River would be to develop a route that pieces together roads and trails that stay close to the river. Even if such a route could be developed, riding would have to be easy-going. Just to figure out where to turn to stay on the right back roads would be a challenge. Often the roads would be rough and inhibit fast riding. And always, there would be things to look at and people with whom to talk.

In my mind’s eye, I can see it now. But will this virtual trip translate to tires on the road? Well….? What do you think?

white-river-indps

 


When cycling becomes mainstream, everyone’s safer

November 17, 2017

Part Two of a Response to How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker

The Cultural Trail, Indianapolis

Peter Walker advocates that cities develop facilities for “mass cycling, the sort where, say 20 percent or even 30 percent of all trips . . . are made by bike [which] only happens when cycling becomes mainstream” (xi-xii). He writes with specific places as examples, including London where he lives, works, and rides his bike.

Lower Thames Street in downtown London is an ancient thoroughfare which in the 1960s was widened and made into “the sort of double-lane urban freeway so popular in that era, when the dominance of the car appeared absolute and forever” (viii). After the rebuild, only the most daring bike riders dared use it. Even Walker who had been a bike messenger in earlier years and continued to be “a reasonably confident rider” avoided Lower Thames Road after the rebuild.

Then came the decision to build two Dutch-style “Cycle Superhighways,” one of them on Lower Thames Road. Many Londoners scoffed at the idea, but when these two routes were opened in May 2015, they were deluged with cyclists. Now on these separated lanes, Walker writes, “I regularly wait at traffic lights amid a massed pack of two dozen or more cyclists.” Most of them are ordinary people, “older, younger, slower” than “the speedy young men riding rapid bikes” who used to be the main group of cyclists on the streets.

Although I have never seen a bicycle superhighway, I have no reason to doubt that they work the way that Walker reports. I see a little evidence while looking down from my apartment window and watching people riding the Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis. Not a superhighway, it is more like a super-sidewalk running alongside ordinary city streets, yet ordinary people on all kinds of bicycles use it for all kinds of trips—commuting to the office, buying groceries, shopping along Mass Ave, easy-going recreational rides, some with small children on trikes and bikes with training wheels.

Walker has persuaded me that creating networks of good cycle ways like the one on Lower Thames Road (and those in other cities he describes) would bring large numbers of people out on their bikes. I would probably use them, too—when they go to the places I want to go. I fantasize on how much better downtown Indianapolis would be if the Mile Square, with its geometrical grid, diagonal streets, and rich array of business and eating opportunities, would be redesigned in favor of ordinary people walking, riding bikes, and taking the bus.

For cycling to go mainstream, however, major challenges have to be met.

Designing bicycle-friendly streets: Walker writes that the foundational ideal is sustainable safety, which is definitively discussed in a 388-page guidebook written by Dutch traffic engineers. It has five principles. (1) Roads come in three types, high volume through routes, local streets, and connector routes. (2) Street systems should be homogenous, with big differences in size and speed eliminated as much as possible.” (3) Roads should be designed “so that people instantly know what sort they’re traveling on.” (4) “People are fallible. . .and the road environment should be as forgiving as possible.” (5) People should be educated on “how to remain safe” (119).

Even in bike-friendly cities like Portland and Seattle, streets currently fall short of meeting these criteria.

Educating the public: Cyclists certainly need to be educated. One way is with bike safety classes in schools where children and young people learn good cycling skills and traffic-wise patterns. Similar training can be offered in programs (I think of one in Portland) that help low-income adults get bikes for transportation. And most adults would benefit from training in attitude adjustment and learning better skills for cycling.

Of course, drivers need serious re-education to help them overcome what seems to be an instinctive determination to bully their way wherever they drive: jack-rabbit starts and stops, lane crowding, sudden and reckless twists and turns, cell phone and coffee cup distractions, and the unwillingness to give pedestrians common courtesy and rights to cross streets, especially at crosswalks.

Revising public policy: All of this requires significant shifts in public policy: city government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, business organizations, retail merchants. It sounds impossible, but Walker gives examples from places all over the world where it is happening. So maybe it can happen right here—wherever that is—and Walker believes that we’ll all be the better for it.

And so do I.

Even so, we have to save room for the  “Velcro-clad street warriors” of whatever age, whom Walker dismisses disdainfully. More on that next time.

 

 

 


A new kind of city—for bicycle riders and everyone else

November 13, 2017

Peter Walker’s title, “How Cycling Can Save the World,” catches the eye but overstates his intention. A sentence in the introduction is better: “This book is ultimately about everyday riders, and the astonishing and varied ways in which they can transform the urban environment and way of living for the better.”

The cyclists whom Walker eulogizes are personified by a woman he saw cycling on a London street: “peddling an ancient folding machine at a sedate, regal cadence,” she was “probably in her sixties, wearing red trousers and bright blue visor to shield her eyes from the glare.”

Walker hopes that his book, which is filled with reports of research studies, will encourage an ever-increasing number of people to think of bikes as “nothing more than a convenient, quick, cheap way of getting about, with the unintended bonus being the fact that you can get some exercise in the process.” He imagines a time when 20 to 30% of daily trips will be on two wheels.

How can this save the world? Rather, how can this kind of cycling transform life in the cities of the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States? In four ways, Walker declares.

A healthier world: “Study after study has shown that people who cycle regularly are less prone to obesity, diabetes, strokes, heart disease, and various cancers. Cyclists don’t just get extra life years, they’re more likely to remain mobile and independent into old age” (9). Cycling (instead of driving) as one’s normal way of getting around works because it is “incidental exercise,” something built into the ordinary activities of daily life, rather than add-on actions, like going to the gym, that are shoehorned into a schedule that’s already too full.

A safer world: We have normalized “a complacent, entitled, careless, driving culture, where millions of people who would see themselves as moral, kind, and careful people nonetheless get into a motor vehicle and routinely, unthinkingly, put others’ lives in peril” (39). Walker argues that “creating streets that are more welcoming for cyclists has a wider safety dividend for other road users, particularly pedestrians” (54). Drivers slow down a little, pay more attention to their driving, and are likely to make fewer trips.

A more equal world: Walker argues that “cycling can make societies fairer. It comes down to the fact that the bike is arguably the most equal and democratic form of transport in existence, at least in an urban setting. It is nearly as cheap as walking, and in some ways is arguably more inclusive, not least because. . . a bike can greatly expand your physical and social boundaries” (61). Bicycling offers mobility to people who otherwise are “travel-deprived,” including children, older people, women, and people with disabilities. Cycling is a less expensive way of getting around.

A happier, more prosperous world: Not only does cycling instead of driving improve the environment, but it has economic advantages, too. Walker claims that building better bike infrastructure is being “billed as a new model for competitive cities—that they are these days judged less on busy roads than on people-friendly streets lined with pavement cafes. . . [T]his philosophy aims to bring about a happier, healthier, more human-scale city” (88–9).

Networks of protected bicycle lanes: What has to happen to bring about this dramatic increase in the number of ordinary people who use their bikes for ordinary trips? Walker’s answer is stated in the title of chapter 5, right in the middle of the book: “Build It, and They Will Come.” A hasty reading of the chapter suggests that the key to changing cities is “fully segregated cycleways,” in which cyclists and motorists are completely separated. One example is a new network of these roadways in Seville, Spain, that was completed in 2006. Within a couple of years, the number of trips starting by bicycle increased from 0.5 percent to 6 percent.

Later in the chapter, Walker makes it clear that building protected cycle ways is only part of the strategy for change. “And for all the occasional opaque discussions about curb heights, lane barriers, and traffic light phases, this is about something more fundamental. Bike infrastructure is, at its heart, about a changed vision for the place occupied by human beings in the modern urban world” (112).

In forthcoming blogs, I plan to  continue my discussion of Walker’s book. Coming next: Walker’s recommendations for how to transform cities like Indianapolis where I live. In the third blog of the series I intend to speak on behalf of cyclists (like me) whom Walker disparages—the “Lycra-clad warriors” ready to hold our own in streams of traffic on city streets.

[How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017)]


Old man’s bicycle mount

October 20, 2017

The Old Man’s Bicycle Mount

 “I’m having trouble getting on my bike,” I told Bill Davidson when he was delivering the custom bike he had just crafted for me. “I can’t swing my leg over the saddle as easily as I’ve been doing all these years.”

“Do it this way,” Bill responded. “Lay the bike on its side and step over the top tube, placing your foot on the ground in the middle of the frame’s triangle. Bring the bike half way up and step on over the crank to the ground on the other side. Pull the bike upright, engage the pedal with your foot, and you’re ready to go.”

I’ve tried the old man’s mount from time to time and find it clumsy and slow. It embarrasses me to do it when someone’s watching.

Even so, the time has come when I have to swallow my pride. For four three or four years, I’ve been troubled with a sore left leg that seems to be a persistent case of IT band syndrome. My doctor, a cyclist himself (and twenty-five years my junior) gave me the diagnosis and recommended an exercise regime. I used my Silver Sneakers program to join a fitness center and paid a physical trainer to help me. Although the pain pattern changed, the discomfort continued.

Therapeutic massage eased the pain. I signed up for yoga in a studio a neighbor recommended, but the teacher spent more time describing her personal relaxation experiences than in teaching a novice like me how to learn the positions. After a few weeks, I dropped out. I continued stretching the way I had learned to do it during cross country training when I was in high school and added moves that are described as IT band-specific.

The problem has continued. While I’m on the bike, I feel fine, but the next day the pain hits and continues into the night. Although my flank hurts a little, the more serious pain clusters around my knee and where my leg joins the torso. Massaging on a foam roller helps, but the pain doesn’t go away.

There seems to be no choice but to use the old man’s bicycle mount. After three days, I was feeling better—enough to take a forty-four-mile ride, my longest in several weeks. It was a humid, unseasonably hot day. On the bike there were a few twitches of the syndrome. After the ride, a shower and a nap, both legs, my lower back, and shoulders were stiff and sore. I spent a few minutes rolling around, took a pain pill, and dozed again.

Within a couple of hours, the pain was nearly gone and by evening I was moving in an almost normal way. The next morning I was fine, except for a little residual fatigue. Does this mean that the old man’s bicycle mount is the solution to my problem? It’s too early to tell, but I intend to stay with it long enough to improve my technique and give it a chance to work.

At the McDonald’s where I stopped half way through the long ride, I talked with a man about twenty years younger than I. Because of chronic vertigo, he’s given up riding a standard road bike and now rides a performance-oriented three-wheeler. We agreed on one point. Moving into our later decades, whether our sixties as in his case, or the eighties as in mine, the advancing years bring challenges.

Fortunately, cycling is an adaptable sport. Some people start cycling when they have to give up running or tennis. Even cycling, however, makes demands upon our bodies and we have to adapt or quit. For me, learning the Old Man’s Bicycle Mount appears to be the way to go.

Six weeks after making the change, I’m doing better, and it may be that I’m on my way to recovery. It’s probably time to try yoga again, but this time in a studio that has a program for old guys like me. No meditative chants. Hands on coaching for beginners. Emphasis on flexibility and strengthening core muscular strength.

In their book Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100, Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katovsky affirm that old guys like me can keep on riding. If the old man’s bike mount will help me reach that goal, I’m going to keep doing it!


Bicycle Talk on Lake Washington Boulevard

July 22, 2017

“When did you buy that bike? Back in the eighties?”

“Earlier than that,” I responded. “Probably in 1973.”

I had seen the questioner when he and his six-year-old daughter were buying their drinks and snacks at the Starbucks where I was resting before assaulting the ridge up to my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill. They were sitting at an outside table eight or ten feet from my reconditioned, classic Mercian bicycle. While Anna was reading her book, her father, Jeff, had been looking closely at my bike.

I joined them at the table and we spent the next few minutes in bicycle talk. In response to his questions, I gave him a brief history of my life with the Mercian. He volunteered suggestions on how I could polish the Campy Record components so that they would glisten even more brightly. He filled in a few of the details of his racing in earlier years, primarily on criterium races. “I was always too stocky for road racing,” he explained.

“The bike that was on the other side of the rack,” he told me, “was a Pinarello Dogma carbon fiber bike.”

“Several years ago I saw one priced at $14,500, but I think they are more reasonably priced now,” I responded. “The man who’s riding it told me that he had to get back on the road so that he could make another circuit of Lake Washington. He’d already been around one time, which his wrist-mounted device registered at 48.9 miles.”

“I have to hurry,” he explained, “because I have to run this afternoon after finishing my trips around the lake.”

During these conversations, at least a dozen other cyclists, all dressed in serious Lycra cycling gear, stopped at the Starbucks. Several of them, I presumed, were also stopping at The Polka Dot Jersey, a bike shop one or two store fronts up the street. The sidewalk in front of the shop was a jumble of bikes, riders, and mechanics. Inside, the shop looked smaller than the Starbucks, and there was hardly room for even one more person to push through the open door to ask a question or make a purchase.

“One of our mechanics, who’s not here today, is an expert on classic bikes with old components,” a mechanic on the sidewalk told me. Chances are I’ll bike over to the Polka Dot Jersey in a few days to talk with the Campy expert.

These conversations took place in the Leschi neighborhood, on Lakeshore Boulevard, about three and a half miles from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill, a former streetcar suburb south of downtown Seattle. Her house was built in 1908 and has been her home since 1981. During my visits these many years, I have explored bike routes over and around Beacon Hill and adjoining ridges.

For me and many others, Lake Washington Boulevard is a happy place to be. While some people frolic in the lakeshore parks, others are walking or running on the walkways near the street. And cyclists? This road, with its peaceful ambiance is a destination point. In a city with hard climbs, steep down hills, and constant traffic, we can enjoy few miles of hard, fast cycling and, friendly  bicycle talk over Starbucks coffee.