When I took the buyout from the New York Times last December, a few people asked if there was anything I regretted not doing.
I had to pause. I could think of a few legendary college football stadiums, a few arenas or ballparks, some great soccer stadiums in Latin America and Europe.
Then something popped into my mind: Paris-Roubaix.
If there was one unique sports event I had never covered, one exotic specialty I had not witnessed in person, it was the trek from outside Paris to the cycling-mad town near the Belgian border.
The chief attraction is the roadway itself – multiple sections of cobblestones put in place during the Napoleonic Era, state of the art then, torture to human and machine nowadays.
I have grown to love cycling, covering the last tumultuous years of Lance Armstrong’s reign. Some of my best days were spent in a car with Sam Abt, the Times’ long-time cycling correspondent, and James Startt, photojournalist and cyclist and musician based in Paris.
James would drive, and Sam would smoke, and they would bicker over whether the CD would blare reggae (James) or punk rock (Sam, go figure).
James is still plying his trade, as anybody can tell from clicking on Bicycling.com.
He recently found one of the most obscure winners of the Tour, Roger Walkowiak of France, whose stunning upset in 1956 annoyed the French fans because (a) he had a Polish name and (b) he was not a favorite and (c) he employed tactics like preserving his strength by riding in the pack on key stages. No panache.
Walkowiak made very little money from cycling but used it to buy a sheep farm in southwest France, and has remained mostly incognito ever since.
Somehow, Startt cajoled Walkowiak into granting an interview that casts a deep look into the history and mentality of this fascinating sport. You can access it:
I was hoping my friend Startt, a former American cycling hopeful, would get to ride the Paris-Roubaix course ahead of the big race on Easter Sunday, but it didn’t work out. Instead, he and his camera were there when the cyclists arrived in the bustling oval in Roubaix.
Also, the new NBC sports channel carried the last two hours of Paris-Roubaix, live, with the same phalanx of planes, motorcycles and cars used in the Tour, plus good old Liggett and Sherwen doing the commentary. I could sit in my living room and watch the best cyclists in the world try to avoid being maimed by the cobblestones of Flanders.
That epic, singular race was described last week by John Leicester, the Associated Press European sports columnist. I won’t even try to go over his superb description and reporting:
The sections are called pavés. I had seen them up close during one stage of the 2004 Tour de France, which meandered from Liege through the killing fields of World War One, and into France. I remember watching the team trial go past on a rainy, windy day, hardened Tour cyclists quivering from repeated shocks to spines and central nervous systems from hitting one 18th Century cobblestone after another. The cameras were so close you could see the reinforced bicyles shimmy and shake. It hurt to watch.
The weather Sunday was cool and damp. People were bundled up along the narrow lanes, waving at the cyclists from inches away.(Why are there not more accidents?) I saw quaint villages and the green fields of Flanders in early spring. I was comfortable in my house, but could sniff the coffee and the frites. I would have loved to be transported to chilly Roubaix, listening to survivors grouse and marvel at this cruel test.
I could only adapt the Passover saying: instead of Next Year in Jerusalem, I said, Next Year in Roubaix. It’s a thought.
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)