Sunday, April 26, 2009

# 68 - "Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell" by Philippe Bouvet, et al.

I happened to be studying abroad in Freiburg, Germany in 2000 when the Tour de France wandered over the state line for a stage in my adopted home city. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about bike racing, the excitement surrounding the race was contagious. So when I got back home I started watching the Tour on television and eventually bought my own road bike. Although my subsequent injuries and the constant drug scandals in the pro ranks have slightly cooled my ardor for bike racing, I am still easily drawn in by the drama of it all. In order to fully appreciate bike racing, though, you have to know that it is more than simply jumping on a bike and going as fast as you can. There is an incredible amount of strategy involved. The bikers usually race for the leader of their team, giving up their own aspirations to ride a race designed only to help and protect their leader. There are also flats, crashes, breakaways, bad weather, and sprint finishes. And then there are the tortuous mountain stages where the race is often won or lost and the mainly drunk and unruly crowd swarms in on the racers trying to make their way up the curvy, narrow mountain roads.

Paris-Roubaix is another historical and famous bike race in France, having started in 1896. It is a one-day race from Paris to Roubaix, less than 300 kilometers, a distance not very intimidating for professionals. But what makes this race exceptional are the narrow, cobblestone sections. These old, narrow paths are often in bad disrepair, shaking the riders, and causing flats and crashes. When the weather is warm and sunny, the dust from these roads makes visibility incredibly poor and chokes the racers. But when the weather is cold and rainy, the roads become long tracts of mud and muck. The riders finish the race a dull shade of brownish grey, looking barely human.

I knew vaguely of Paris-Roubaix, but was interested in learning more, so I picked up Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell (2007) by Philippe Bouvet, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier, Serge Laget and translated from its original French by David Herlihy. There were some good things about this book: I learned a lot about the race, its history, and the most famous riders and winners. And there were a lot of good pictures that show the race from its beginning in 1896 through today. The riders, their bikes, their clothing, and even the spectators changed, but the mud and the dust and the suffering remained pretty constant. The nickname, "journey through hell" stemmed from what the land surrounding the course looked like as the riders biked through the war ravaged area north of Paris after World War I, although it is also a fitting characterization of what the racers go through physically. There were close finishes, surprise finishes and scandal throughout, and the book makes the weighty history of this race clear.

But this book is written for French fans of this race, not for Americans. Even though I know something about contemporary racers and bike racing, I could tell the authors were coming from a completely different culture. And it didn't translate well. I can imagine a typical French person reading an American book extolling baseball, naming all the greats and stadiums with reverence, and waxing poetic about the wonder of the hot dog, having the same effect.

And the writing really started to drive me crazy. Really, all I wanted to know is what happened. But the writers could not get out of this weird poetic trend that I found at best boring and uninformative. I can't be sure if it was the original writing or the translation or both, but it was hard to read. For example, a photo taken in 1993 showed a cyclist who had just finished the race. His shirt and helmet are off, but his face and legs are still caked with dirt and mud. He has a soda in one hand and his other hand is grabbing his crotch; his face has a "fuck you" expression that goes along with his hand gesture that made me think he's not appreciating the camera being shoved in his face at that moment. But the caption in the book only says: "The warrior rests. He's hung up his helmet. It's over, and he's returning to the land of the living. Just about. Hell has crushed his thighs and his arms. And his head too was caught in the vise...but his helmet saved him. He's a true warrior." Besides being embarassingly oblivious to what I think is actually happening in the picture, why couldn't they at least give me some useful information? Who is he? Did he finish the race? Did he place? Did he crash? Is that why he's mad?

If you are a particular fan of bike racing, the book is worth it for the pictures, as long as you avoid most, if not all, of the words.

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