Tour de France, 2011: 1

In 48 hours the first stage of the Tour will be over.  Even now the cyclists are preparing; most of them having converged on the environs of the Passage du Gois already.  Andy Schleck is checking his luggage to see if he can find where he left last year’s form; Alberto Contador is just finishing up his last course of clenbuterol so it will all be out of his system for the first drug test–all of it, this time.  The sprinters are wondering where Robbie McEwen is, after all those years of Tour competition.  New riders are imagining how they’re going to be feeling in about 17 days as the Tour enters its final, especially grueling week.

A week from now some riders will have withdrawn with injuries from the crashes that are bound to come in the early, nervous days of the race.  Others will have left with illness.  One of them will probably not be George Hincapie, the American rider for BMC Racing, who will be starting his 16th Tour.  This year’s ride will tie him with Joop Zoetemelk for the most postwar starts.  Hincapie’s team “leader” is Cadel Evans, a long-shot contender for the overall victory.  I think long-shot because Evans has always come up short in the Tour, finishing a distant second twice but never convincingly contending for the lead.  He’s a bit emotionally unstable and has never had the strongest supporting team; Hincapie should help this time, but not enough.

One looks through the TdF rosters of the competing teams, and one finds few riders who seem credible candidates to ride beside Schleck and Contador over the three weeks of challenging stages.  Samuel Sanchez might do it, but his team (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is not too impressive.  Others like Brad Wiggins of Sky might have a claim, but he is unconvincing for the long haul.  Possibly Jurgen van den Broeck if he continues to improve (he’s 28).  In all likelihood it will be between Contador and Schleck.  And Andy Schleck has shown little sign of being in contending form all spring.  We’ve seen the same thing before, of course, with Lance Armstrong.  But with Armstrong the sense was that he was holding back, riding within himself, never letting it all hang out.  Schleck’s 2011 spring has been full of tentative and inept performances that do not give the appearance of controlled consistency.  Perhaps that’s because while the overall performance of Schleck’s team, Leopard-Trek, has been impressive (UCI #2 team ranking as of May), it is not the sort of team that suggests a great Tour effort.  The DS (“head coach”) is unproven in Tour tactics too.  However, in Fabian Cancellara Schleck has a support rider who is among the very best time trialists and strongest lead riders in the world (in 2009 Cancellara kept Armstrong out of the Yellow Jersey by a fraction of a second with a superb performance in the Team Time Trial).

Armstrong’s last team, Radio Shack, has many skilled veteran riders, but nobody who’s going to be duking it out with Contador by the time they get to the uphill finish at Plateau de Beille on Stage 14.  In fact, unless Andy Schleck surprises, I think Contador will win the Tour by a margin of more than 5 minutes, and that Radio Shack will capture the “best team” prize.  Sprinters?  Despite the rule changes about points awarded for sprints, it’s Mark Cavendish until proven otherwise.

In 1999 Lance Armstrong picked up valuable time on the Passage du Gois (Stage 1), a slippery, slimy causeway that’s underwater at high tide.  he went on to win his first Tour.  This year the racers will be neutralized until they’re on dry ground, when the competitive riding will begin.  But the very first stage will end on a Cat. 4 (low-level) climb, so the first day of racing will tell us something about the competitive mettle of everybody.

I’m up for it!  The 23 days starting Saturday are bliss for the bike racing fan.  Let the fun begin!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Going the Extra Mile

I have my son-in-law (gasp) Sean to thank for the ride I took today (wheeze) all the way out to (gurk) Sterling and back.  I wasn’t planning on anything so (pant) long, but he talked me into (cough) it.  During post-church coffee hour, between watching grandson Ben eat grapes and granddaughter Emma walk unassisted (!) to get where she wanted to go, he asked me how far I’d be riding today.  We observed what a great day it was–mostly sunny, warm but not hot, and low humidity–and he mentioned that it was supposed to get warmer and more humid over the next couple of days.  He was a bit surprised when I told him that according to my (informal) “program” for getting back into shape, I’d be doing just a normal ride, and taking a longer one tomorrow.  Also, I must admit, Sunday rides are less of a pleasure because of the heavy volume of traffic on the Trail.

Sean, your words rang in my ears as I took off down Academy Street today.  All afternoon ahead of me, a beautiful day: I could visualize the trail leading out to Sterling.  A couple of miles into my ride I knew that my legs were feeling good (far better than Friday in the heat and humidity), and my energy level seemed high.  After a few more miles I realized that I was fighting a mild headwind.  All the better; I’d have a tailwind coming home.  Even the trail traffic seemed improved.  Yes, it was there, with its families of five or six single-file slow pedalers, half of them kids on little pink bikes, its teenagers frantically pedaling from a low seat position at high cadence and low gear with knees flying around, its stocky weekend warriors in that upright position on urban hybrid bikes.  But even they (mirabile dictu) seemed to know what they were doing, and to be sparse enough to let the rest of us roll along.  There was no stopping me.  I was going for it.

And it was a great ride, 30 miles, that left me invigorated and thinking I might do the same distance in tomorrow’s heat and humidity.  All that wheezing at the beginning was just for stage effect; the ride left me breathing easy.  So thanks, Sean, for your implicit carpe diem.  Consider the day appropriately seized.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Humidity

The cliché wisdom around here in the summer is that “it isn’t the heat, it’s the humidity” that’s so uncomfortable.  Never more true than on a day like today, when the sun rose in near-solstice earliness after a night of very warm, damp air and lots of thundershowers had wetted everything down.  Clouds came and went, blanketing the damp earth and keeping the moisture saturating the air.  When I rode out at 8:30 to beat the prophesied heat, the asphalt of roads and trail was still damp almost everywhere, because the sun hadn’t been able to shine directly on it very much to work its drying magic.

Slick bicycle tires pick up moisture quicker than Saudi cops pick up women drivers, so my Michelins were wet most of the trip, despite the total absence of rain or drizzle.  Dirtying my just-washed Trek, spraying walkers I passed, making me wary of sudden moves or emergency braking, they added a “degree of difficulty” or two to my trip thanks to the humid morning.

When I got home I was dripping, because sweat and condensation do not evaporate efficiently if the air is already nearly saturated.  Not that I sweat more; it just stayed around.

How humid was it, you ask?

It was so humid that I should have worn snorkel goggles instead of my shades.
it was so humid I didn’t dare breathe through my mouth for fear I’d swallow a lethal lungful of water.
It was so humid that the relative humidity was 110%.
It was so humid that on the W&OD they made us ride using the buddy system.
it was so humid fish were jumping out of the water into the air to find a wetter medium.
it was so humid people were going into Turkish Baths to dry off.
it was so humid that “all wet” applied to everything about me, not just these quips.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Sweat

On days like this the dew is heavy on the grass when I walk out to pick up the Post at the end of the driveway.  The rising sun shines through a watery haze evaporating from last night’s thunderstorm; the air is a golden glow.  Though the air is in the mid-60°s, two of the three summer H words are in place: Hazy and Humid.  Now all that we need to do is wait several hours for Hot to arrive.  The first act of the sun is benign.  it dries off the streets, grass, roofs, leaves, and other damp surfaces, and as the air warms its capacity to hold water increases and the relative humidity (percent of maximum water content in the air) lowers perceptibly.  This is the time to pump up the tires, fill the hydration pack with water and ice cubes, select the right sunglasses, and take off.  Bet the heat, beat the perspiration.

Sweat runs in my family.  It runs off the end of my nose as it ran off the end of my father’s nose.  Dad had a sun hat that was white and had a visor all around it.  The front section of that visor was transparent green plastic, rather like an old-time accountant’s eyeshade.  I remember how quickly he’d be dripping when he was working outdoors in the south-facing backyard at Venner Road, painting the house, mowing the lawn, working the Victory Garden.  I never thought much about it myself, but as I grew older and especially as I succumbed to male pattern baldness in my 20s, I recognized that perspiration was apt to roll off my brow in rivulets too.

Today is not hot by the standards of a Washington D.C. summer.  When I rode this morning it was about 79°, and now it’s “approximately” (as they say) 82.2° according to the indoor/outdoor thermometer.  But I knew what to expect on my morning ride.  I took a shorter 19.6 mile route today, but a hilly one (about 1070 vertical feet of ascending), and climbing hills demands intense energy output.  Before I had gone 8 or 9 miles my sweatband was soaked and ineffective, my nose and chin were dripping, my sunglasses were covered with salty liquid, and I was being very careful to keep my fluids topped off by using my water pack.  I stopped to rest at about the 12 mile mark, and needed to mop off my head, face, neck, and arms, as well as clean my sunglasses.  I always carry a big bandana to use for this mopping up.

Part of the rest-stop routine is wringing out my sweatband, to buy a little more absorbance on the way home.  But over the last several miles the front of my helmet was dripping like a faucet, and so was my nose.  Soaking wet on returning, my clothes had kept me cool on the way.  On days like this I have to keep a towel handy for about a half hour after I get back, until my body is convinced my core temperature is OK.  I also have to make sure all the lost liquid is replaced.

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Up to Speed

The weather this week has been downright Californian on occasion, a great inducement to my working back into shape.  it’s interesting how elusive “shape” is on many levels, but how precisely the cyclist can sense the exact degree of its presence on the bike.  Today for the first time, for example, I started out without my lungs initially reacting to the sudden extra effort they were making by eliciting a few involuntary coughs.  They felt really “normal” again.  For my legs, however, not entirely so.  After I speed downhill and hang a left at the bottom of the street, i have to climb a gentle hill up to the right-of-way onto the W&OD Trail.  The grade’s just enough to challenge me to (a) be in the right gear and (b) to ride without my yet-unadjusted system straining just a bit on the uphill.  My legs were emphatically telling me they’d had quite a workout doing home maintenance yesterday and weren’t quite over it yet.

Once rolling, however, they perked up a little, and I went all the way out to Sterling and back, a ride of just about 30 miles.  I noted with some dismay that that’s the longest I have ridden since April, thanks to my trips, the weather, and my illness.  Along the way today I was able to ratchet up my riding a small notch or two, powering over a few rises, committing extra energy to gain momentum, doing all those little things that you can do when you’ve got some reserve energy and power.  The return to that level is part of what “shape” means; the rider can do more than just move along at a moderate pace.  “What’s wrong with a moderate pace?” you might ask.  Nothing, except that I think the rider who settles for that level is not asking as much as he or she could from the body, not challenging his or her system to get to its best level.  The trick is not to overdo it, to be a cautious optimist about the capacity of one’s body, and push it gradually without ever breaking it down by overdoing it through too much exertion, too little nutrition and/or liquid, and/or unwise decisions about one’s limits.  The advice to cyclists of advanced years about caution is valid: when in doubt don’t do the extra 6 miles, the extra time in hot, humid weather, etc.  But I’d add: be honest about your doubt threshold, don’t sell yourself short.  It takes a patient, objective ear to listen wisely to what your body is saying.

My mind was screaming “onward” today, a la Tom Simpson.  And Tom wasn’t listening very well on Mont Ventoux on July 13, 1967.  So I listened to the body instead, and did not go past Sterling to Ashburn, a measly 3½ miles farther on.  Contrary to my own initial sensation, and the official wind-direction report I observed later, I had been getting the benefits of a weak quartering tailwind most of the way out.  So I had to battle a weak quartering headwind going home.  About 3½ miles (that distance again!) out my legs really began to feel dead on the grinding false flat across the marshes and fields from Hunter Mill Road into Vienna.  Just didn’t have much push there at all.  Inexplicably they recovered on the climb over the little rise between Vienna and Academy Street (perhaps because that stretch is sheltered a bit from the south wind, perhaps just because my body had a little left to give).  But the changes were very discernible.

An interesting and successful ride.  I have a way to go to be “full gas,” but I’m better than I’ve been since early May.  And my weight is the lowest of the season, almost where I want it to be.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Time Gaps

It’s been so long since my last outdoor ride that I felt funny on the bike today.  My nerves and reflexes “forget” the parameters of my skill and of the machine, so I have to think about things that usually are automatic for me: How fast do I descend Academy Street to start my ride?  How much time and space do I need to pass this walker?  How do I lean going around this curve?  It was fourteen days ago that I last rode, the day on which I decided to follow my usual route in to Shirlington and back home through North Arlington, using residential streets for a change of environment and of scenery.  I could have gone home more directly on the trail, and when I got there the long way I knew I’d asked my lungs to do too much.  I was wheezing, hacking, coughing up phlegm.  Four days later my course of antibiotics started.

Today the influence of the antibiotics should be out of my body;  I’m told they are still working four or five days beyond the last tablet taken.  Since the medication ended I have gotten over my cough and my infected sinus.  My breathing and heartbeat are more nearly normal.  All of last week, taking it easy and avoiding the brutal heat wave that resulted in overnight lows in the mid-70° range, I rode on my indoor bike, watching La Course en Tête, a biographic film about the career of Eddie Merckx, probably the greatest bike racer ever.¹  Then this last weekend there were two more days off the bike as we went out of town to a friend’s 70th birthday party.

This morning dawned cool and clear.  We had driven home yesterday through soupy air, laced by occasional downpours and, as we neared Washington, another “Terrorist Weather” “heavy thunderstorm warning” on our local newsfear station, WTOP.  The weather guy mixed observed phenomena–15° temperature drop in the wake of the storm, gusty winds, lots of lightning–with speculation–the storm “had the potential” to produce hail the size of quarters.  No hail was ever reported.  In fact, I’d be shocked to see hail in the form of disks anyhow.   That storm, and others like it, ushered in a cold front.  Consequently, the air took a while to warm up this morning.  I washed and oiled my bike, badly in need of both, and fixed the Audi windshield wiper that had picked one of the downpours we drove through yesterday as the time to fail.  By the time I was ready to go the air was a bit warmer, a bit on the breezy side, and by far the best it had been here for about 10 or 12 days.

One of the lingering effects of my illness has been a burning sensation in my lungs when I breathe hard.  I imagine this is partly a result of all the heavy coughing I did, and maybe the lungs’ reaction to being clogged with mucus and under-challenged for so long.  When I took off today my lungs were not quite ready for that much sudden exercise.  They burned and I coughed from the irritation.  But once they were used to breathing heavily again they seemed to get back to normal.  I had a great ride in cool air and brilliant sun.  I would certainly agree to any offer to continue exactly this kind of weather for the rest of the summer.  In fact, my lungs no longer “burn” much when I inhale deeply, so it seems they just needed to get stretched out a bit.  There’s a lot of riding to be done, lots to see out there, lots of good times to be spent on the bike.  If all these extraneous factors like heat waves and bacteria will just let it happen!

____________

¹Merckx has a great quip in this film.  He and the family are eating lunch, and someone has brought a box of cupcakes from the confectioner’s shop.  Merckx takes one (it’s during racing season), takes a bite, and says: “They say sweets are bad for cyclists.  It’s not sweets that are bad; it’s hills that are bad for cyclists.”

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Pro-antibiotic

The illness I alluded to a couple of blogs back was worse than I thought.  Two rides into my “reconditioning” program, I’d become unable to breathe deeply, and I was coughing up mucus at a disgusting rate.  The long weekend to celebrate the graduation of our godson and the life of my cousin turned out to be a necessary reprieve.  I came face to face with the worsening of my condition, and was encouraged to take definitive countermeasures: a course of antibiotics.

Antibiotics are like depth charges, sinking deeply into the body and then setting off mass destruction among the bacteria in one’s system.  While some medications largely treat symptoms until an illness runs its course, antibiotics attack the causes of illness.  Of course, there are drawbacks.  They are quite indiscriminating, so the “good” bacteria in the digestive system also die, and digestive/bowel problems are among the most frequent side effects.  If antibiotics are used too frequently bacteria can build up resistance, and this is a major concern in the medical field today.  But within a couple of days of beginning the course I was feeling much better, and now I’m practically back to normal, with few signs of my chronic sinus infection on my left side, as well as no mucus in my lungs.

The lungs still feel a bit underfunctional, as though the tiny little pockets need to be expanded by exercise a bit at a time.  So I have been on my indoor bike all week, getting back muscle tone and lung power.  The brutal heat and humidity (near 100° and 60% humidity) make riding inside a virtue of necessity.  My lungs still need a bit more airing out, but I have improved almost 15% in power efficiency over the week.  Next week: back on the bike for the umpteenth re-start of the season.  Maybe this time I can keep it going.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.