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