I think Ten Points is in many ways the best writing I’ve ever done, but I wish I’d never had to write it. And I’m glad I did. When I was working on it, I pretended no one else was ever going to read it. Sometimes someone would ask what the book was about, and I would say it was a story about how being a mediocre amateur bicycle racer helped me become a better father. That’s not a lie, but it was barely true. I wish I’d had the panache to pull off saying what Men’s Journal did, which was, “Ten Points is about cycling the way A River Runs Through It is about fishing.” Here’s Chapter One.
I really don’t know what to say about this one anymore. There’s some good writing in there, some pretty damn good stuff — at least by the standard of what I am able to pull off — that gets the rhythms of a pro race, and odd details not many people ever write about, and a few set pieces still stick with me. I tried to write about what it was really like to be caught up in believing and not believing in the guy, and how it felt to be a fan of someone you knew was flawed. But, of course, I missed the big story so none of that counts. I learned a hell of a lot. Here’s how it opened.
Before I started getting published regularly, I spent a lot of time obsessing about being a writer — what it meant, if it was who I was…insufferable, I’d guess, though I mercifully can’t remember much about that time. One good thing was that I somehow ended up getting picked to research and put together this book of interviews with writers, which all originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine, where I was working. The owner’s daughter, Jennie, was helping out with the research and selections, and I remember we had one boozy night of heart-to-heart when, instead of working on the book, she scared the hell out of me by saying, “I keep thinking that with my body I could create a life, and with my car I could take a life away.” We left her car at the bar, Arlin’s in Cincinnati, and I walked her home, then I walked to my apartment and sat and stared at my computer for long time, wondering why I couldn’t write anything as good as what she’d said while drunk. I’m embarrassed by the title, and the faux handmade-paper texture of the cover. But it’s a damn good collection, going all the way from William Faulkner to Rod McKuen, Ray Bradbury to Ray Carver. I got to talk a little bit with Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, and I spent about five hours with Tom Robbins at his house in the Pacific Northwest for the interview with him I wrote and included in the book. It’s out of print, but before it died it made it into paperback, too. I like the softcover version better for some reason. You can still find both editions easily in the used markets, pretty cheap. As William Saroyan says, when asked at the end of his interview what else there is to say: “Just everything, most likely, but let’s agree on no more for a moment.” Here’s my talk with Robbins.
Back in 1996 I’d quit my magazine job and was trying to make a living as a writer. A friend of mine had compiled a collection of stuff people had said about his favorite sport — The Quotable Runner — and he gave me permission to rip off the idea. I did, and sold it to the same publisher, Breakaway Books, which is run by Garth Battista, one of those admirable people who give up the big time — New York City publishing, in his case — to create and run their own thing. I don’t think we ever signed a contract, or even shook hands. Once a year, Garth sends me accounting statements, usually with handwritten corrections and notes, and jots a quick note about his latest sporting obsession. Although I ended up going back to a real job after my daughter was born — insurance seemed like a good idea — QC and Garth helped me understand what it is I really want to do with my life. And now, more than decade later, most years sometimes around the holiday season Breakaway sells just enough of the tiny print run of QC that I get a modest check in the mail sometime before spring. I think families and friends of cyclists are too intimidated to even attempt to buy gear or clothing as presents, so they end up with my odd little book. A lot of people ask me what my favorite quote about cycling is. I wish it was Stephen Crane’s, “Everything is bicycle,” because that really says it all and, as well, is something I believe and live. But, in fact, this quote from Teho de Rooy has lodged itself into me: “Paris-Roubaix is a pile of shit. You’re up to your neck in mud and you’re riding in mud and you don’t have time to piss. It’s a pile of shit. It’s the most wonderful race in the world.” Here are some selections, and the essay I wrote to open the book.
For about five years, just at the peak and over onto the downslope of mountain biking’s popularity in the ’90s, I was so much into dirt that I almost never put wheel to pavement. I was writing a lot for Mountain Bike magazine, and the editor there, Nelson Pena, asked me to start a column that would reflect my experience with the sport as I progressed from novice to skilled rider. I don’t think I ever quite got to the skilled rider part, but even so the columns — which at their best focused intensely on a single basic technique such as doing a wheelie, or ratcheting your pedal to get through a rock garden — were popular. Occasionally, though increasingly rarely, I still meet people who remember that column and tell me I helped them learn how to bunnyhop or something. I guess I had a knack for describing physical action in clear, memorable ways that actually translated into useful skills. Somebody who must have been extremely junior at McGraw-Hill thought so, too, and suddenly I had a book contract in my hands. I think I was paid a $4,000 advance, and just a few years ago I finally earned some money beyond that. My first royalty check was around fifty bucks. The book is horribly out of date now, not only in terms of the equipment described, but in style. I learned to ride before suspension was popular or really even that effective. And the guys I learned to ride from had this ethos: Speed through smoothness. We rode, as dumb as it might sound now, to be graceful. Basically, I’m a candyass by today’s big-hit, high-speed standards. But there’s still some stuff worth reading in the book, I think. Certain ways of describing rides or the ways people sit, little phrases that perfectly capture the sport — some of it sticks in my head. And the illustrations, by John Hinderliter, a mountain biker who lived and rode around the hard trails of western Pennsylvania, are funny and informative. Anyway, cheap used copies are about all you’ll easily find, so it’s hard to go wrong. Here’s the closing chapter