By Mark Cramer
In a delightful book of reflective essays, frequent TDN contributor Mark Cramer leads readers on 39 bicycling day trips through the environs of Paris, his adopted home. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau's daily walks in nature, Cramer pedals through forests, along rivers, and into French towns, each trek prompting fresh reflections on the environment, economic growth, simplicity, and well-being. His key takeaway: A life of adventure is well within reach, locally. We need only travel lightly, observe with eyes of wonder, and be open to surprise encounters.
Day Seven: Longchamp
Bicycle road racers work out every day around the perimeter of the Longchamp racecourse, in bright jerseys pockmarked with advertisements. They never stop to watch a horse race. A bird's eye view would show parallel flows of bright colors within a green forest: jockey silks on the inside circumference, bike racing jerseys on the outside.
I wonder whether I belong more to the bicycle culture on the outer perimeter or the racing culture within, or perhaps I am the missing link between the two subcultures.
The only American horse race trainer in France, Gina Rarick, has a horse running at Longchamp. The racecourse is a 10km ride via the Boulogne Forest. I've followed her career, written about her courageous adventure that pitted her against the highest odds. As a journalist, Gina had written a NY Times sports blog about our 1,000k bike trip of 2010. When she decided to train horses, she set aside her career as a journalist.
During long periods, Madame Rarick's horses were profitable to bet on, with their average return on investment in the black. But she's been in a discouraging slump of late and I've decided to show up as a fan, to encourage her filly, Ameera. From her Paris-Turf past performances, Ameera does not have much of a chance, but during the past calendar year, Rarick had pulled off two upsets with 70/1 horses.
I am particularly inspired by Gina's resilience. She wakes up at sunrise to gallop her horses or takes them out to a paddock where they can jump and roam. She makes grinding trips to dozens of racetracks, often with horses that, given the competition, have little chance to win, even if they are in great shape.
The last time I'd been to Longchamp, I'd registered a complaint about the absence of bike parking facilities. When I arrive two races before Ameera is to run, I'm pleased to see that bike parking rails have been installed. To my satisfying surprise, I count 45 bikes parked outside the entrance. I am not alone.
In fact, all the bike bars are occupied, so I have to chain my bike to a fence.
I make one wager prior to Ameera's race. In a bet called the Multi, I need the top four finishers in any order, in a 15-horse field. My horses finish 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th, great handicapping with zero return for the effort.
I stroll back to the stable area to say hello to Gina. She flashes a broad smile, optimistic that Ameera will run well. In her underfunded stable, positivity is the best tool for long-term survival. I tell her to say hello to her husband Tim, a fellow bicycle rider.
Gina is doubtful about defeating the race favorite but hopes to finish in the top three. I've seen at least seven other horses that have a better chance than Ameera, but I say nothing to discourage her. After all, she's a hands-on trainer, and I do not want to say anything that might diminish her magic touch.
In the walking circle prior to the race, Ameera is acting up, using some of the energy she needs to conserve for the race. As a symbolic gesture I make a small placé wager on Ameera (placé yields a payoff if the horse finishes in the top three).
Ameera breaks well from the gate and presses the early speed horse from the outside, but visually the pace looks too fast for her to handle. She weakens before the stretch and the rider decides not to force the filly when the cause is lost.
Pedaling on my way home I have a lot to think about. I'm in the final outing of my adagio period, and I feel ready to seek climbing challenges while boosting the average number of daily kilometers.
Like Gina I am in it for the long run. But she has short-term bills to pay while I bicycle for free. Her fortunes are tied to a fiercely competitive business and need financial backers. I have total control over my own stamina. Unlike Ameera, I can pedal at my own comfortable pace. If I get passed by mamils (middle-aged men in lycra), it makes no difference.
I'd wanted to buy a racehorse through Gina. But Martha vetoed the project.
“You have a better chance betting on the horses than owning them,” she contended, with her usual objectivity.
(In Ameera's subsequent race, she finished second, less than a length from winning it all, earning purse money that would help pay the bills.)