Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Familiar but Forever New Journey

            I am a long-distance cyclist.  I ride about 8,000 miles a year, and I have had the good fortune to ride my bicycle in China, in Australia, and in much of Europe.  This past summer, my bicycle and I climbed the Col D’Aubisque, a mountain pass that is often featured in the Tour de France.  The climb was thrilling.
            But the most significant and important journey for me is the one I make almost every day, from my home on the near northwest side of Indianapolis to my workplace at Butler University.  Much of my route follows the towpath along the Central Canal.
            I am in my twenty-fourth year of riding along the canal, but I still find it fresh and invigorating.  For me, this journey tells several intersecting stories.
            One story is cultural and institutional.  I pass in front of Naval Armory as I make my way to the towpath, and I am always amused to think of this massive structure guarding the White River from any foreign navies that might dare to invade central Indiana.  Soon thereafter, I pass by the stately homes of Golden Hill, safely situated on the other side of the canal.  Then it is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, with its lovely grounds, and its grand building presiding over the White River Valley.
            When I take the wooden underpass under Michigan Road, I always remember Ray Irvin, the former director of the Greenways, first for the city and then for the state, who did so much to develop our system of trails and to make my commuting route pleasant.  Soon after that, I pass by the Christian Theological Seminary, and I admire its architecture and am grateful to the Irwin and Miller families for their contributions to public buildings in both Indianapolis and Columbus.  And, finally, I arrive at Butler, where I am proud member of the English Department.
            In this way, then, I think of the Canal as a kind of cultural corridor that connects some of the most important and interesting institutions in the city.
            But the canal also gives us entry into the natural life of the city.  When I was a boy, I remember traveling deep into a forest to see a Wood Duck.  Now, I see wood ducks almost every day, and I am still enthralled by their bright colors and exotic markings.  In the late Fall, I often come upon a Great Blue Heron, who is startled into flight when he sees me, and lands a bit up the canal.  When I come up to him again, he again commences his gawky-but-graceful flight, and I think of him as a kind of guardian angel, guiding me on my daily commute.  I sometimes see kingfishers, beaver, foxes and deer, and I always see turtles.  I love them all.
            My journey down the canal is also a personal one.  I remember running into my friend, Scott Swanson, jogging over there, and Jim Poyser, riding his bike, over here, and just a bit further down the path, I fell one slick winter evening and broke my elbow.  It is a path full of memories for me.
            I believe that we have a duty to see the world, and, in coming years, I will make a point of seeing as much of it as I can from the seat of my bicycle.  One of the benefits of travel, though, is that it allows us to see the familiar world to which we return in a new light.  My daily journey along the canal is familiar and comforting, but it is also endlessly surprising and enlightening.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Grief on Wheels

Remembering Randonneurs We Have Lost

            Two of the most difficult moments of my life have come on randonneuring events.  Both involved the death of a fellow randonneur.
            The first was during a particularly groggy and sleep-deprived stretch of Paris Brest Paris in 2011, when I came upon a number of emergency vehicles in the outskirts of a village.  I saw an abandoned bicycle under a truck, but I did not stop to figure out what had happened, partly because I did not want to get in the way, and partly because I did not then want to know the details.  I knew in my bones that something bad had happened.
            As I continued the ride, the information that came to me about the incident was fragmentary and confusing.  Eventually, I did get word that a rider had died.  For a while, I thought that two riders had been killed. 
            In my confused and exhausted state, I thought that the death of a rider would surely mean the end of PBP for that year.  “How could we continue after the tragic death of a rider?” I asked myself over and over again, in the obsessive way one does on a long ride.  I was surprised, then, when I arrived at the next control, and found that it was functioning as usual, with no talk about closing down the ride.  Eventually, I, too, returned to normal, and stopped obsessing about the disturbing scene I had witnessed.
            Only after I finished did I learn that Thai Pham of the DC Randonneurs had tragically died on the ride at the age of 58.
            These painful memories of three years ago came flooding back to me during a 200K in Ohio in March of this year.  As I approached the turn-around point in Troy, Ohio, I came upon a stretch of road that was closed off, with police cruisers, a fire truck and ambulances blocking the way. 
            This time, there was no doubt about what had happened.  Joe Giampapa, a 56-year-old cyclist from Columbus had been struck by a minivan and killed.  His body lay along the side of the road, covered by a blanket, and his mangled bicycle was some distance away.  The windshield of the van was shattered, and its driver sat in a police vehicle writing his report.
            To be at this site was to feel deep loss.  Beyond the mere fact of Joe’s untimely death was the fact that there was no way of explaining it.  He was killed in the late morning, when there was plenty of light and no glaring sun on the horizon.  The road was straight, with no chuckholes or other barriers to dodge. The driver was not impaired in any obvious way.  The bitter cruelty of Joe’s death was evident to everyone who was there.  A very kind sheriff explained to the six of us who had come to the site what had happened, and he could not hold back the tears as he did so.
            Eventually, the sheriff told us that we could continue on our ride.  As on PBP, I was unsure about what to do after the death of a fellow randonneur.  Should we stop the ride to honor Joe?  David Roderick, the Ohio Randonneurs RBA, had arrived at the site, and, after some deliberation, he said that we should decide for ourselves what to do.  The ride would continue, but everyone would understand if we decided to withdraw.
            Some riders did withdraw.  But because I had driven three hours to get to the event, I did not have an easy way to return to my car.  And it seemed that the safest way to return to the starting point was to follow the brevet route.  I and the riders with me decided to continue.
            We walked our bikes past Joe’s body.  It was unbelievably sad.  I could not think of any way to pay tribute to Joe except to remove my helmet.  It seemed a woefully inadequate gesture.
            Unfortunately, this scene was played out again on August 9th of this year, when Matthew O’Neill, a 33-year-old cyclist from Chula Vista, was killed on the California Central Coast 1200K. As was the case with Joe Giampapa, there is no good explanation for what happened to Matthew O’Neill.  He was killed at 7:30 p.m. on a summer evening by a 16-year-old who was driving a truck hauling a horse trailer on a straight road.  There was nothing about the weather, the state of the road, or the behavior of O’Neill that would explain this inexplicable accident.
            This was obviously a tragedy for Matthew O’Neill’s family and many friends.  But it must also have been a terrible thing for those on the ride with him and for the organizers of the event.  I feel deep sympathy for them.
            With the help of Mark Thomas, I have been able to identify four other riders, in addition to Joe Giampapa and Matthew O’Neill, who have been killed on RUSA events during the 15-year history of the organization. 
            Gustavo A. Antonini, aged 66, and his stepson William W. Cupples, aged 44, were killed while riding in a bike lane on February 8, 2004 on a 300K brevet outside of Gainesville.  The driver left the scene of the accident, but flipped his truck over about three miles down the road.  The driver was sentenced to 15 years for DUI manslaughter, and was spared a longer sentence after the family of the victims wrote a letter expressing forgiveness and asking for leniency in his sentencing.
            Stan Oldak, a 60-year-old randonneur from New York City, was hit by a truck and killed while riding a 400K near Columbus, Texas, on May 6, 2007.  Oldak had been president of the New York Cycle Club, and had come to Texas for the 400K in order to qualify for Paris Brest Paris.  The driver of the truck that hit him left the scene of the accident, and, so nearly as I can tell, was never apprehended. 
            James Swartzman, aged 46 from Encino, California, was hit and killed early on the morning of April 10, 2011, while riding a 600K near Leucadia State Beach.  The motorist left the scene of the accident, but was later apprehended and sentenced to two years for hit and run manslaughter.
            I am not well enough versed in the actuarial sciences to say whether six deaths over the 15-year history of an organization that has had 10,000 members mean that randonneuring in the United States is particularly dangerous.  With over 30,000 highway fatalities in the US each year, I am inclined to think that most randonneurs are at greater risk when they drive to events than they are when they actually ride them.  In the age of the automobile and jet plane, all forms of travel carry some risk, and I am not convinced that cycling in general, or randonneuring, in particular, are especially dangerous forms of travel.
            I do know, however, that all of these deaths hurt.  And I also know that 2014 has been a tough year for RUSA.  Not only have we had two deaths, but, in the passing of Joe Giampapa and Matthew O’Neill, we have seen two good men snatched away, in the prime of their lives, from their friends and family.  And there is simply no good explanation for either death.  As cyclists, Joe and Matthew were doing everything right.  And yet they were killed.
            One of the questions I have found myself thinking about since riding through the site of Thai Pham’s death three years ago is this: What do we owe to fellow randonneurs who have fallen?
            If you are in the middle of an event where this happens, it is hard to muster the detachment and good sense to give a reasonable answer to this question.  If it had been entirely up to me, I think I would have cancelled the events in both Ohio and in France.  And I think that would have been the wrong answer.
            For one thing, if you are a near-witness to a death, it is all too easy to put yourself in the place of the victim.  What if I had reached this place in the brevet an hour earlier?  Or what if the motorist had come by an hour later?  These are not merely hypothetical questions.  You know in your heart that it could just as easily have been you who died that day.
            Moreover, being at the site gives you a deeper sense of the loss than you would have if you had read about it afterward.  For several weeks after the death of Joe Giampapa, I was in touch with two randonneurs who were thinking about quitting the sport because of what they had witnessed.  It wasn’t so much that they feared their own death as they feared what their deaths would do to their wives and children.  How could I put my family through that, they asked?
            Ultimately, though, they both kept riding, and they both went on to finish longer RUSA rides in the course of the season.  And it seems to me that this is the right answer.  Curiously, we honor our dead best by continuing to do the sport that we love and that we share with them.  In this, randonneuring is like life itself.  Sooner or later, we must all come to grips with the death of friends, colleagues and loved ones.  But we cannot stop living out of deference to the dead.
            For this reason, I have been grateful for the wise and humane guidance of organizers and riders who carry on despite grievous circumstances.  In Ohio, I was impressed by the quiet dignity of David Roderick, David Buzzee, and the other volunteers who made it possible to finish that ride.  And, while I was not there, I understand from the accounts of others that the California Central Coast 1200K continued in a dignified and respectful way after the death of Matthew O’Neill.
            At the end of the day, I think, the best we can do for fallen randonneurs is to keep riding, and to keep their memories alive.
            One way to remember and honor those we have lost is to work to change the circumstances that led to their deaths.  After his death, the family of Joseph Giampapa released a statement supporting a three-foot passing law, which was then before the Ohio legislature.  (Unfortunately, the bill was later withdrawn.)  Likewise, the family of Matthew O’Neill launched a campaign, “Remember Matthew: Change Lanes to Pass a Cyclists,” to extend and enhance California’s recently enacted three-foot passing law, and to increase awareness of cyclists on our roads.  We owe it both to ourselves and to those we have lost to be the best bicycle advocates we can be in our communities.
            But we can also do a lot through RUSA and through our individual clubs to remember those we have lost.  One of my favorite things about randonneuring is the Société Adrian Hands, which has its own jersey and recognizes riders who achieve a time on PBP “equal to or greater than Hands' 2003 finish time of 88:55.”  While the mission of the Société is somewhat jocular, it keeps Adrian Hand’s memory alive, and it perpetuates the spirit he brought to randonneuring. 
Because of the Société and its distinctive tie-dyed jersey, I have had conversations about Adrian Hands with riders in various states in the US, and in England, the Netherlands and Norway, and I got to meet and ride with his son on a stretch of PBP in 2011.  I was very pleased to learn afterwards that Ian had managed to match his father’s time 88:55. As I have met others who have either joined the society or aspire to do so, it is clear to me that Adrian Hands is now a living part of an international randonneuring tradition.
            Likewise, when I rode the Cascade 1200 this year, I found that the ride jersey had RUSA number 2391 printed on one sleeve.   In this way, I got to know about Donald Boothby, who died a premature death from cancer at the age of 61 in 2012.  While I never had the chance to meet him, I learned that he was a spirited randonneur, and a much loved volunteer for Seattle International Randonneurs events.  I thought that a wonderful way to remember him.
            In the same way, I think we need to keep alive the memories of Mathew O’Neill, Joe Giampapa, Jim Swartzman, Stan Oldak, Gustavo Antonini, and William Cupples.  In some sense, they are all still with us.  We can look up their results on the RUSA website, and we can talk with people who knew and rode with them.  And we can go on telling their stories, and remembering what they brought to the sport.
           Let us ride on, then, no longer encumbered by their deaths, but enriched by their presence.

Postscript: Since I wrote this piece, I have learned of two more randonneurs who have died on RUSA events.  Jared Carr, aged 31, was killed by a drunk driver while riding a 400K in eastern Washington on May 27, 2012.  On May 18, 2014, John Fusselman, aged 67, was hit and killed while riding a 200K permanent outside of Austin, Texas.  This means that at least eight randonneurs have died on RUSA events during the 15-year history of the organization, and 2014 has been an especially painful year, with three deaths.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Super Brevet Summer

            When I described my cycling plans for the summer of 2013 to my friends, they said, politely, that they sounded “fun” and “challenging.”  They probably also thought that I was crazy, but they did not say so to my face.
            After completing my Super Randonneur series in Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia, my plan was to do two overseas grandes randonnées.  The first was London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), a 1400-kilometer ride that would take place from July 28 to August 2, 2013.  Then, two weeks later, I planned to do the Super Brevet Scandinavia (SBS), a 1200-kilometer ride that was to begin in Frederikshavn, Denmark on August 16, and was to end at midnight on August 19 in Kristiansand, Norway.
            But my plan was not simply to complete these two rides.  I would also ride my bicycle from the end of LEL to the beginning of SBS.  Thus, after riding 880 miles from London to Edinburgh and back, I would load my camping gear onto my bike and travel about 850 miles to Skagen, the resort city at the most northerly tip of Demark.  After a few days of rest in Skagen, I would ride about 25 miles south to Frederikshavn, and then about 745 miles over the next four days to Kristiansand, Norway.  After completing the Super Brevet, I would rest for a day, and then ride about 220 miles to Oslo, where I would board a plane back to Indianapolis.
            In total, then, my plan was to ride about 2800 miles over the course of one month, from late July to late August.
            I had several reasons for wanting to pull off this elaborate plan.  I completed Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011 (see my account in the Winter, 2011 issue of American Randonneur), but I had never undertaken two grandes randonnées in a year.  I looked forward to the challenge.
            Secondly, even as I have taken up randonneuring, I have continued to enjoy touring, and I go on several loaded trips each year.  I looked forward to the two-week tour that would take me from London to the tip of Denmark, and I liked the idea of combining randonneuring with touring in this way.
            Thirdly, I enjoy the self-sufficiency of bicycle travel.  I commute and do most of my daily travel by bicycle, and I wanted to see how far I could go on my own.  I relished the idea of covering a good swath of northern Europe by bicycle, unaided by the internal combustion engine or other machinery.
            So, at the end of July, I uncoupled my couplers, packed my bike, and boarded a plane from Indianapolis to London.  Once I arrived, I took the underground from Heathrow Airport to a hotel in a northern suburb of London, where I reassembled my bicycle.  I shipped my bike bag, via Royal Mail, to a hotel in Oslo, where I would end my four-week ride.
            The organizers of LEL had made arrangements for participants to stay at a campground near the start, so I rode there, and pitched my tent for the week.  This would give me a place to rest before and after the ride, as well as a place to store my belongings.  I registered, and then I rode back into London, where I spent the night in a cheap hotel so that I could take part in the Prologue, which went from Buckingham Palace to the start in Loughton.
            The ride itself was brilliant.  Like Paris-Brest-Paris, food and sleeping facilities were available at each of the controls, which were spaced 50 to 90 kilometers apart.  Unlike PBP, the registration fee—which was a very modest 219 pounds, or about $360—covered all of the food and services on the ride.  This meant that I and the other 1000 riders on LEL were well fed and sheltered for five days.
            The scenery on the ride was also varied and wonderful.  Once we crossed the massive bridge over the Humber River, the land turned lumpy, first in modest doses through Yorkshire, and then in more dramatic fashion as we climbed Yad Moss and entered Scotland.  The Devil’s Beeftub, just outside of Moffat, Scotland was one of the more memorable and memorably named climbs on the ride.
            And while there were not crowds cheering us along the route, as there are on PBP, there was an army of cheerful and ever-attentive volunteers at the controls, who saw to our every need.  At one point, I needed to replace a brake pad, and I was helped by a volunteer mechanic, who turned out to be Dave Yates, a well known frame builder in England. The spirit of the ride was incredible, and while it was quite different from PBP, it was equally memorable. 
            I finished LEL just after midnight on Friday morning, a little more than six hours ahead of the cut-off time.  I returned to my tent, had a nice long sleep, and spent the rest of the day, and much of the next morning trading stories with fellow finishers (one of whom broke his downtube in Scotland, had it welded by a local craftsman, and then finished the ride in good time). 
            At noon on Saturday, I loaded my bike again, and rode 70 miles north to Harwich, arriving just in time to board the ferry to Holland.  This was one of my few luxuries on the trip—I booked a sleeping berth, and purchased a three-course dinner and a big breakfast for the morning of our arrival.  Thus, I arrived at Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam, feeling well rested and well fed, ready to begin the continental portion of my journey.
            One of the pleasures of touring in Europe is that many areas have municipal campgrounds, allowing you to enjoy the pleasures of the city while camping outdoors.  I stayed two nights at a very nice campground within the city limits of Amsterdam, paying about $15 per night.  I visited the Van Gogh House and other sites, and enjoyed two very pleasant summer days in Amsterdam, watching all the world pass by on a bicycle.
            On most days, I aimed to ride only about 100 miles, and so I had a fairly leisurely trip across the Netherlands and into Germany.  I stopped for two nights at what must be most immaculate and meticulously maintained campground in the world, in the city of Bremen, and enjoyed several walks in that delightful city. 
            As I approached the Danish border one night, I could not find a convenient campground.  So I rode through the night, stopping, rando-style, for a three-hour nap during a pouring rain in a German bus stop.  German bus stops, I found, were better set up for sleeping than many of the Super 8s I have stayed in during North American brevets.
            I was surprised to find southern Denmark to be very hilly—I had always thought of that country as perfectly flat, and just a few feet above sea level.  I sprained an ankle hauling my loaded bike up one of these hills, and it was swollen and a bit bothersome for the rest of my trip. 
On the other hand, though, I found camping in Denmark to be fabulous.  Every small town had a small campground, and with only 20 or 30 kilometers between towns, I did not have to decide in advance where I would stop for the night.  I knew that, whenever I was tired and wanted to settle down for the night, I would find a campsite.  And Danish campgrounds, like German ones, were clean and well equipped. Not only did they have kitchens with stoves, pots and refrigerators, but they also had baby baths.  I did not have any babies with me, but I was happy to be in campgrounds that addressed everyone’s needs so well.
The touring portion of my journey ended in Skagen, the most northerly point in Denmark. I camped near where the Baltic and North Seas come together.  Because of its peculiar northern light and its barren beaches, Skagen has long been a Mecca for tourists and artists.  It proved an ideal place to rest before my last challenge.
Like LEL, the Super Brevet Scandinavia was very well organized, but it was also very different in character.  There were about 90 of us on SBS, and we stopped each night at the same hotel, and left each morning at the same time.  This meant that the fast and slow riders came together every day, and this, in turn, created a special kind of camaraderie among the riders.
Unlike my experience on LEL, I had some mechanical problems on SBS.  At one point, my chain over-shifted and got stuck in that inconvenient gap between my spokes and my cassette; it took a very kind Dane about an hour to coax it out with a screwdriver and hammer.  He broke a spoke in the process. 
Then, on the second night of the ride, my front light quit working, and I had lost my back-up light on LEL (this was one problem with doing two rides back-to-back rides—I did not have the chance to replenish my equipment).  This meant that I was stuck in the darkest corner of Sweden without a way forward.  But fellow riders soon came along and lit the way for me during that night, and, the following night, another rider lent me his back-up light.
On the final day of the ride, my GPS stopped working (a fate that seems to befall all Garmin Edge users at some point) just when the navigation got complicated in Norway.  Luckily, though, I was able to join up with some Danish riders, and we managed to finish, with just 30 minutes to spare.
I had been an exchange student in Norway when I was 16 years old, and I had not been back in 38 years.  It was thrilling to return, and I enjoyed trying out my very rusty Norwegian each time I stopped for food or directions.
I was surprised, though, to discover that Norway had grown some massive hills in my absence.  I knew, of course, that there were mountains in the north and in the center of Norway, and I had been to some of them, but I was unprepared for the long, long climbs of 8 to 10 percent grade on the road to Kristiansand.
Because of the difficult climbs, I did not completely fulfill my plan by riding 220 miles to Oslo.  I was tired and I could not bear the thought of climbing some of the same hills I had done on SBS.  So I took a train for about 100 miles, thereby avoiding some of the most difficult hills.
Nevertheless, I managed to get to Oslo under my own steam, and was reunited with the bike bag I had sent from London.  I went to the Munch Museum, Vigeland Park, and some other places I remembered from my exchange student days.  Then I packed up my bike, and flew home to Indianapolis.
My summer adventures brought me many rewards.  I was able to complete two great randonneuring events, and I made many new friends and had many great experiences along the way.  I rode about 2700 miles on my bicycle, and enjoyed the independence and freedom that come with such a long trip.
I also enjoyed crossing boundaries on my bike, watching England become Scotland, the Netherlands become Germany, and Germany become Denmark.  In one way, borders are fixed and absolute; you can identify the exact moment when you leave Sweden and enter Norway.  As I experienced them on my bicycle, however, borders were much more fuzzy, and it was fun to track the gradual and sometimes subtle changes in language, food and street design that signaled that I was leaving one country and entering another.
My trip also allowed me to experience some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world.  I have cycled through the Netherlands several times, and have always enjoyed the completely separate set of paths for cyclist throughout that country.  Cycling in the Netherlands is rather slow, however, because you have to stop at many intersections and ask for permission to cross the street by pressing a button.  I was surprised at how well cyclists were accommodated in Germany, and at how many Germans used their bicycles for shopping and for errands.  In many places in Germany, I traveled on cycle tracks far out into the countryside.  But I found the cycling infrastructure in Denmark to be the absolute best.  While cyclists are generally separated from cars, as in the Netherlands, they are also on equal footing with cars, and you do not have to press buttons at intersections to get permission to cross.  The Danish system for cyclists is fast, efficient and safe.
I also found great pleasure in connecting randonneuring with touring on my trip.  As Jan Heine has shown in excellent four-part history of randonneuring (Bicycle Quarterly, vols. 8-10), the origins of the sport lie in bicycle touring in late nineteenth-century France.  And, of course, Paris-Brest-Paris is still operated under the auspices of the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme.  I felt that, in my trip, I combined two styles of riding that belong together.
I enjoyed every part of my trip, but I doubt that I will try to repeat it in 2017, when LEL and SBS come up again.  Instead, I will continue to look for new and different opportunities for combining randonneuring events, and for combining randonneuring with touring.