Back On My Bike

Coda

Jamis Coda Comp, my basic ride while in recovery. That is a 52-tooth chainring.

The British cyclist Tom Simpson is credited with the heroic, never-say-die plea “put me back on my bike.” Simpson was ascending Mont Ventoux in Provence during the Tour de France on Friday, July 13, 1967. It was one of Ventoux’ boiling hot days. Only a few kilometers from the top, out among the bare quartz boulders, Simpson fell to the road, a victim of dehydration, the heat, amphetamines, and the alcohol he had stopped to grab in the town at the foot of the mountain. Bystanders did put him back on his bike, though he may have only gasped “on, on, on.” But the thought was there. He wobbled a few hundred feet and fell again. He died on the airlift to the hospital, his internal body temperature a fatal 108°.

I have not been quite that desperate to ride, nor quite as heroic. The last time I was on my bike before today was May 3. By that time I had completed three of my prescribed nine weeks of radiation treatment, begun on April 13. I’d ridden my familiar 20+ mile routes twice since then, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. But on that first Sunday in May the roof kind of caved in. Two miles into the ride, I felt overwhelming fatigue. I rested at the little park next to Maple Avenue in Vienna, amazed at my lack of stamina. Reasoning that it was probably just a temporary reaction, I continued on after 15 minutes of recuperation. I got as far as Hunter Mill Road, about 5 ½ miles from home. I had to rest once more halfway there, and again at the road crossing. Realizing I’d been foolish to get myself out there in my condition, I got myself back home very slowly. That was the end of my bike riding for 10 ½ weeks. I couldn’t get my body out of first gear, and the thought of going anywhere by bike was unfathomable.

Until today. There have been a few days in the last couple of weeks when I’ve felt a little stronger again. And today was a beautiful, cool, clear, low humidity day. In his The Vision of Sir Launfal, James Russell Lowell wrote “And what is so rare as a day in June? / Then, if ever, come perfect days.” Not so fast, Jimmy boy. Today was pretty rare, too. And I’m talking northern Virginia in hot, hazy, humid July. Furthermore, I had just spent an hour watching the Tour de France charge up the mountain-top finish at Plateau de Beille. I figured that if those guys can spin uphill on wet, rainy roads at nearly 20 mph, I ought to be able to chug along the relatively flat bike trail for a bit.

For the first time in 2 ½ months, I couldn’t wait to get my gear on and take off. I was revved up, excited to be back in the saddle. I determined to go as far as I could, to turn back at the first sign of exhaustion or weakness, but in any case to go no farther than Hunter Mill Road. I know that athletic recovery has to be managed carefully and methodically. There’s no point in rushing things to the point that you suffer a setback and have to begin again. A body with 75 years of wear on it needs more time to get back into shape; no part of my frame was used to riding any more—not my arms, not my quads, not my calfs, not my butt. My motto: “go for it but go easy.”

I rolled down Academy Street, geared down for the incline up Jackson Parkway, hung a left up the paved right-of-way, and hung another left to roll westward on the W&OD Trail. Up and over the little hill between our house and Vienna. Check. Past the place I had to stop in the town of Vienna. Check. Feeling strong. Out past the old railroad station, along the park area to the west of town, over the bridge at Piney Branch, past the dead end of Clark’s Crossing Road, past Tamarack Park, over Angelico Branch, and stop at Hunter Mill Road. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check. I felt good enough to go on, but caution and common sense were in control, and I turned back. About halfway along I realized that I was beginning to feel a little weary, and was pleased that I had recognized the need to set limits. As always, I felt euphoric, better when I got back that I’d felt when I left.

Tomorrow is going to be another rare day. Wild horses couldn’t hold me back now! I’m going to . . . Oh, wait. I’m going to consult closely with my legs and my cardiovascular system tomorrow morning before doing anything rash.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2015

Déjà Vu

Today Chris Froome pretty much wrapped up the 2015 Tour de France.

Realistically speaking, everybody else is now fighting for the second and third spots on the podium. The second place rider is currently Tejay Van Garderen, who started the day only 24 seconds behind Froome’s yellow jersey, but is now a whopping 2:52 back. Froome took similar time out of his other main rivals, Nairo Quintana (now 3:09 in arrears), Alberto Contador (4:04), and Vincenzo Nibali (6:57). Froome got the huge lead by blowing everybody off his wheel on the very tough final uphill climb on the Col du Soudet. It is 15 kilometers long, and the first 10 kilometers have an average gradient of 8.1 %. This is the first serious mountain climb of the Tour, and most riders’ legs need time to adjust from the demands of flat and rolling daily stage routes to the sudden crunch of a long, steep, uphill chase.

Froome crosses the line

Froome Crosses the Line

But Froome had no such problems, thanks in part to his particular skill set, to lots of high altitude experience from training in his native South Africa, and to his very strong team, which has been selected solely on the basis of how effectively each rider can play a specified role in assuring that he is in position to maximize his opportunities to gain time on his rivals.   After today’s stage, in fact, Froome explicitly praised his team, crediting them with making his victory possible.

In some ways Froome is an unlikely hero. He was Sir Bradley Wiggins’ main domestique (support rider) when Wiggo won the Tour three or four years back. And he won the Tour himself two years ago. Still, Froome (now 30 years old) won very few major events until the age of 25. At that point he was diagnosed with bilharzia, a debilitating parasitic disease that he may have had for some time. Once it was treated and cured, his career took off, with numerous major victories in professional stage races.

Big gaps like the one Froome holds now in the Tour are not impossible to overcome. Several tough mountain stages still lie ahead, and he could lose the yellow jersey for good with a bad day, a crash, or an outstanding series of performances by a rival. But history shows that a rider in Froome’s position usually prevails, extends his lead, crushes any tenuous lingering dreams held by rivals. In fact, from 1999 to 2005 the pattern of victory was almost identical to Froome’s. A dominant rider with a strong, disciplined team working for him routinely crushed his opponents on the first day the Tour hit the mountains. His demoralized foes fought for second and third, while the team and its leader hammered on day after day. The rider’s surprising prowess was attributed to his excellent skill set and his strength following the diagnosis and cure of a debilitating disease. That rider is a Phantom today. Despite ample evidence in the form of film, videos, and human memory, he is said never to have won a stage of the Tour, never to have stood on the top step of the podium in Paris. At the time his victories were called “unbelievable” and “incredible.” These same terms are used to describe Froome’s performance today, even by Froome himself. But the Phatom Rider’s legacy was dematerialized by drug use. And that’s the difference, because we know today that no rider, however much his performance resembles the Phantom’s, can possibly be on drugs. Don’t we?