Friday, April 27, 2012

The Pyrenees Trip

One of my all time favorite bicycle vacations was to the Pyrenees with my friend and business partner John in the Fall of 2009. We had planned to ride all of the famous Tour De France climbs located close to the city of Lourdes. The City itself is quite an attraction. There are always thousands of visitors seeking the holy spring and supposedly curative waters under the cathedral where the young nun Bernadette, according to the story, spoke to the Virgin in the early 1900s.

Taken from just in front of the Hotel in St Savin
I have been on a number of bike trips with my wife and friends. In my experience when you go with a few buddies everyone assumes you are just regular guys out on a fun vacation, but if you go with just one guy many assume something more complicated, something perhaps more erotic. Two middle aged men, reasonably fit and traveling together, look like a modern day couple on their honeymoon. John and I flew non-stop to Barcelona and made our way to the French Pyrenees by car. Why fly to Barcelona and not somewhere closer? Switching planes while checking a bike is a no-no, as you can easily wind up on a bike trip with no bike. Besides, Barcelona is wonderful city with high energy, unique architecture and is home to my favorite restaurant, Cal Pep, a walk-in, primarily seafood, Tapas style restaurant. Two nights in Barcelona, two nights at Cal Pep. It was here in Barcelona that we first learned  everyone assumed we were "together."  "Not that there's anything wrong with it."

 John was confident the misconception was due to my small, round, tortoise-shell traveling glasses. I had a different theory but who cares. The issue of whether John and I were a couple followed us on the whole trip, and increasingly took on a  life of its own. At our small hotel in St Savin, south of Lourdes, we pulled our two single beds apart every night only to have them pushed back together by the staff each morning.

With Pierre, proprietor of St. Savin (and my 'friend' John)
The rides were the classics: Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspen, Luz Ardiden, Hautacam and Col d' Aubisque. Four climbs are " Beyond Category " and one is a Category 1.  This classification system dates back to earlier days when describing a type of car you would need in order to get up a particular mountain. Category 1 was the most difficult; " Beyond Category " meant it was impossible for a car of that time to make it. All the climbs were about 10 km in different directions from the hotel which is a perfect warm up before reaching the mountain. We were so happy to be there as well as overwhelmed by the surrounding beauty that we would not have minded an old guy or woman passing us. Besides who would know, unless we told, and that wouldn't happen.

As you likely know, the great climbs of the Tour de France are split each year, approximately half in the Alps and the other half in the Pyrenees. The degree of difficulty is similar but the backdrop could not be more different. The Alps are stark, grey, hard, gothic exposed, and intermingled with small towns that are typical ski villages you could find anywhere in our Rockies. I love the Pyrenees because  the mountains, though equally long and steep, are verdant, soft, sometimes shady and intermingled with ancient towns you would only find in areas of the world that have had a stable reasonable prosperous population for over a millinium . The population of St Savin is 300 to 400, the same population it had when their church was built in 1100 AD.

Each night Pierre, the hotel owner and chef, prepared us something to eat which was, in Pierre's words:
                " teeeepical of the rrrregion ".
His son would assist, home on break from from culinary school in Paris. When the son eventually takes over he will be the 8th consecutive son to run the only business in this small town. President Sarcozy stays there when he visits the Pyrenees. If my arithmetic is correct, it is possible Napoleon stayed there when Pierre's great great great great great grandfather was the proprietor.

The highest point on the highest paved road in all of France
On the plane ride back across the Atlantic we were sitting on the first row of economy. We could see the first class section when the curtain was pulled back and likewise we could be seen if anyone wished to look down upon us. After a typical so-so steerage meal,  John asked the flight attendant for another small glass size bottle of wine. The request was denied for some technical reason that she enjoyed describing. Her body language was such that even at some distance any observer could accurately surmise the encounter as negative. John was on the right side window seat and does not hear well in his left ear.
"What did she say?" he asked,
"She said 'no' " I replied.
Before I could repeat the explanation the steward from the adjacent 1st class galley, having witnessed the exchange, walked over to us.
"Don't mind her. She's an anti-gay Nazi," he counseled us, before heading back to his work station.
"What did he say?" John again asked
"I think he said he would take care of us " I suggested.
Soon the Steward returned with a newly opened bottle of wine and two very large glasses, real glasses, each potentially holding a third of a full wine bottle. Ceremoniously, the steward set  up the glasses and  generously poured a better quality wine than any we had enjoyed  in our week long trip to France.
"Guys, this is for a lifetime of oppression" offering me a knowing smile.
"What did he say?" John asked again.
"He said he will be bringing more."

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Six Gap

Last Sunday was a good opportunity to go to the North Georgia Mountains.  I particularly enjoy the area covered by the Tour de Georgia, a yearly intermediate length stage race which took place 2003 through 2008. Those of us who love to ride and also follow the professionals, were very excited when the Tour de Georgia came to life. To our delight, the race quickly evolved into the premier early event for the contenders of the Tour de France. Many of the sport's International stars used the Tour de Georgia to gain the necessary fitness needed at that point in the racing year. This included the legendary Lance Armstrong who rode in this race the last 3 years of his primary career. When he came to Georgia, he was at his absolute peak. He won here in 2004 and graciously conceded victory to his teammates in 2003 and 2005. Lance went on to win the Tour de France each of these years with progressively greater margins. Riding is always a thrill for me. I love to be on my bike, but I am especially motivated when I ride in these North Georgia Mountains along the same difficult stretches where the great Lance Armstrong rode.

After an easy 75 miles on Saturday at a relaxed 16 mph average, I was not too tired to attempt the ride. Picking up Norman, my usual riding companion, we were on the bikes before 9:00 AM at Turner's Corner, outside of Dahlonega, at the base of Blood Mountain. We set out to ride all six climbs of the famous Six Gap Century that attracts thousands each fall, some10,000 feet of total climbing. The distance for us, having cut out the non climbing part of the ride was 70 miles. Usually I am not in good enough shape to do this ride in early spring. Having such a good winter base however, I felt strong enough to accept the challenge.

The weather conditions matched my emotional state. They were perfect. The roads were dry, the temperature below 60. The trees had just come out and the native flame azaleas were in riotous bloom with the grayness of the morning greatly enhancing the colors. The wind, which usually complicates my life, seemed to follow our direction which rarely happens when you ride in a big circle. This was a day meant for riding, 

We went up the first climb to Neel's Gap using it as a warm up. It is long and steep and a slow pace early in the ride is prudent. We  were able to stick to our plan as no older guy attempted to pass us. (How shallow am I ? Only slightly worse than this.) The second peak is Jack's gap which is the least interesting of the six, followed by Unicoi which is very nice going both up and down.

 The 4th climb is the dreaded Hog Pen Gap. It is 71/2 miles of a 7% average grade including a few minor downhills. From the beginning of mile 3 to just over mile 5 we encountered a constant 12% grade. Nothing in the Tour de France is this steep, though many of the climbs in the Tour, of course, are much longer. It was not that pretty (meaning I suffered a bit on this climb) but with my compact crank having a 34 tooth small ring, I was able to roll up it without zigzagging. My admiration for Lance and his peers at these moments borders on adoration.   Near the top of the climb, gasping for breath, we encountered a young guy from New Hampshire who was on the 4th day of the 2000 mile Appalachian Trail hike back to his New England roots. Frankly, I did not think he saved that much money with the one way plane ticket.

The descent from Hog Pen is treacherous. Lacking switchbacks, you drop like a stone. The only reason to brake is that the machine is going faster than your comfort level. The below photo is taken of Lance Armstrong leading the pack down this mountain in the 2005 Tour. You can see the gentle turn and see the riders trying to increase their speeds. No professional is riding his brakes, a measure of bravado.

Lance descends the Hog Pen Gap
This is one of my favorite photos. Look closely. I would guess these guys were approaching 65 mph. Now study this photo again. Study Lance. Note that he, having seen me and my two friends, has taken one hand off the handlebars and has reached for his water bottle, not to take a drink, as we learned one second later, but to throw it to us; a small gesture to those of us who admire such a superior athlete. We were the only spectators to have walked the 3 miles to this spot. Taking one hand off the bars at this speed is INSANE. When we went down it on Sunday my brakes were feathered and I was holding the handlebars so tightly they begged for mercy.

At the first store stop I purchased a genuine locally made coonskin cap and considered riding with it to blend with the locals. I thought it was a good look but decided it was a bit dangerous as a substitute for my helmet. I wound up putting it on my seat which made me appear to have a tail, also not a bad look, but still somewhat conspicuous.

We managed to do all the climbs and I did not fade on the last two which is usually the case. Wolfpen was the penultimate climb and the prettiest climb in North Georgia. It is 3 1/2 miles at 6 to 7 %, with many switchbacks and almost completely canopied. Then there is 6 to 7 miles through Suches and lastly the easiest climb of the day up the backside of Woody's Gap. We finish with the great descent down Woody's which is over 6 miles but not so steep. I have been down it over a hundred time and know every turn and bank, allowing me to make the entire descent without ever touching the brakes. The cops were out en masse which explained the motorcyclists good behavior. I did my best to to get a speeding ticket doing greater than 45 mph in stretches of road with 25 mph limit in full view of the patrol car. That should have entitled me to a "super speader" ticket, bad for the wallet but good for my CV.

Less drag than a helmet

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pizza Night

Chuck, fellow Neurologist and friend, known in these parts
as "El Experto de la Pizza".
I love rocks. All kinds of rocks, but especially Georgia field rocks. Most stone stores will sell rocks that are variable in size but consistently flat. While store bought stones are all imported, and relatively easy to stack, our native Georgia rocks are dirt tinged, hard, irregularly shaped and vary dramatically in size. This make them difficult to work with and generally speaking no one wants them. I love these rocks for all the reasons they are unpopular. For years I harvested ALL the roadside rocks I could find, in this county and the next. I used them in numerous projects around my property: stonewalls, foundations and various other eclectic structures I felt drawn to construct.

A few years ago while riding north of town I came across 6 pallets of local rocks for sale at a garden store. I swung around, got off my bike, and studied the pile. This was very unusual to see. When the owner came out, I paid for them on the spot and arranged for them to be delivered. As I got back on my bike and started pedaling away, the proprietor asked what I intended to use them for and I responded " I'll think of something."

Every morning as I left for work, I saw those pallets of Georgia stone sitting in the side yard just waiting for me to come up with an idea of how to use them. I thought about those stones on the way to work, on my way home from work, and in the early evenings when I rode. One afternoon I saw the man who had delivered the stones.

"Have you decided how to use the rocks?" he asked."Not yet," I replied.

Then one day I had my idea. I decided to build a pizza oven in my backyard. It did not take long to find plans on the Internet. These plans were very detailed on how to build a raised concrete insulated slab and how to construct the oven that went on top of it from cut fire bricks stacked and mortared to form a parabolic dome.The chimney, stone house, iron gates and tile roof were my additions. For the personal touch I included about 10 small stones that I retrieved from the tops of most of the famous Tour de France mountains. It took several bike trips to climb these mountains located in the Alps, the Pyrenees, as well as the 'Giant of Provence', and the most difficult: Mount Ventoux. Adding a little weight on the descents when reaching speeds of over 60 mph seemed like a good idea at the time and now, when I look at the oven and see those rocks, I'm glad I made the effort.

Approaching the end of 32 kilometer Mt. Ventoux climb
I also added a porcelain black and white photo of my parents as newlyweds. I love this picture in part, I suppose, because they appear very happy.. This photo was taken before my birth, an event that may have soured their mood for decades. They certainly loved me and were very caring parents, but I suspect there were many days when my slightly hyperactive disorder wore them down.

The building of the oven was a long and difficult process, but now that it is finished, I'm very pleased with the result and use it regularly. This is the best time of year for pizza making here in Middle Georgia, no bugs and perfect temperature.. I have picked up some great recipes for the homemade dough and the pizzas. There is always a bit of work involved with preparing for a pizza gathering, but with the help of family and friends, these parties seem to go well. Chuck(seen above) is my regular 'sui' assistant.

The fire is built in the oven and the wood is pushed to the side with a copper brush when the pizzas are loaded. I can measure the temperature with a laser and the oven can reach 1200 F. The pizza will cook in one minute at this temp which is too fast. The ideal temp for best crust texture is 600 to 700F. The oven is surrounded by the herb garden, note the rosemary, and a semicircle of Italian cypresses. The copper tub is used to build a fire that can warm the guests on winter nights.

The Elder Hopes as young people

Monday, April 9, 2012

Back in the saddle.
This was one of those weeks I expected to happen and fortunately I have plenty of time to rectify. First, I over scheduled the day job. Secondly, our group had to take care of the in hospital Neurology consults after office hours. The hospital schedule is available but that type of detail consistently evades me.Then there were a few baffling hospital cases which are always unsettling (to put it mildly) and lastly, I got sick for the second time in 3 months which has never before happened.

Consequently I rode very little, slept less and the riding I did do was not hard enough to be helpful. Every time I got the least short of breath I started coughing. At the end of the week I was exhausted with little to show for it. Fortunately I started to feel better this weekend, and rode out to the new hay fields west of town (see photo below). The weather was perfect. The hay looked blue, almost psychedelic and there was no traffic.
The "unsettling" hospital cases took a lot of my time this week, however, and one case in particular, deserves some mention. The stress of being correct is the entire stimulus for my riding. Some bikers may ride for glory, and others ride for health, which is a bit ironic, considering the danger. Many bikers ride to burn calories so they can eat all they want and not get fat, which is nice bonus for me given the glory I acquired from racing was scarce and now a distant memory.

In Neurology we are consistently presented with complicated cases that always have the potential of randomly developing into something devastating. Occasionally the threats dissipate, the patients magically recover and the worries I have carried over many days fade. On other occasions, however, the complexity of a patient's symptoms mystify and bewilder me. There is an entirely rational obsession that something has been misinterpreted or overlooked. The resultant anxiety can be disabling.

This week I saw a guy with several months history of bilateral leg pain and progressive leg numbness and weakness. Initially he was found by other physicians to have severe spinal stenosis in his lower back. This means he had significant pressure on the nerves going to the legs which is a reasonable explanation for the problem. The patient had the standard surgery and though he may have improved for a short period of time, his condition deteriorated. He lost his ability to walk and a short time later began to lose any leg movement. He was then re-admitted to the hospital.

It was at this point I was asked to evaluate him and make recommendations. On my examination the man had an interesting micro neurological finding, a very subtle reflex jerk in both legs at the hip when I stimulated the bottoms of his feet. This usually indicates a spinal cord problem higher up than the lower back. The admitting physician arranged for a second MRI of the lower spine that showed an accumulation of some fluid. This fluid appeared to be the problem supported by several findings on his examination. He did not have an increase in his reflexes (you know, that rubber hammer on the knees thing) which should occur with the higher spinal cord problem I suspected. Also he did not have a 'Babinski reflex' which is usually a very reliable indicator of spinal cord or brain problem (Scratching the bottom of the foot in pathological conditions causes the the big toe to go up instead of down).

All the studies I ordered were normal with the exception of the upper spine MRI. He did have tightness of the cervical (neck) spinal canal with an abnormal subtle spinal cord brightness. Radiology attributed this brightness to old bruising/scaring which could cause some difficulty, but not to the extent of this guy's problem.

He needed something done and it was my call. I was baffled and somewhat unhinged, the latter being the consequence of the former, especially occurring in anyone of Irish descent who practices Neurology. It was important to know if the original surgery was helpful. Because I was not initially involved, I had to rely on the man and his wife's sequencing account of what happened after his initial surgery. Getting that history answered was a like an Abbot and Costello skit as the family members and I went back and forth with a re-creation of the story. According to various family members, the patient was walking with a cane before surgery, then had the surgery, "got better," but was then walking with a walker. Yikes! Was he better or not better after the surgery? On the second look at the MRI, with a different set of radiologists, we determined the cervical (neck) spinal cord was not bruised and scarred but actually swollen, likely from a recent fall with minimal whiplash. This more accurately explained the situation. I ordered steroids. The patient quickly improved, regaining sensation and movement with some strength. He will have surgery on his neck in a day or two which will likely also help.
It's been a hectic and stressful few days, but hopefully I will get back on the training schedule this week...63 days to go!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Major setbacks over the last few days. I was able to get my package for the ride completed and sent. This included expected waivers, money, medical release from my doctor and an unsubstantiated affidavit to my current level of fitness.  I wonder if the company (ABB-America by Bicycle) would exclude anyone who was attempting to "ride myself into shape" starting with day 1 of the tour. Actually I am hoping there will be some attempting this. I am an amateur exercise physiologist and uncertain how that would go.. I feel fairly certain I  could NOT do it.  Likely I would progressively lose weight and start metabolizing muscle, get weaker and weaker day by day. The end point would be inability to ride or perhaps even walk . This observation will be less than scientific because it will depend on the particular rider's own account of what he/she claims to have done in preparation. Riders are generally liars on this subject. Not riding much implies laziness resulting in an exaggerated account of miles ridden. More commonly one will claim minimal training, when that is not the case, resulting in a more impressive appearing ability. "Wow that guy was able to ride 100 miles in just over 5 hours with little prep. If only he was fit to begin"

I will need to be more proactive in my work schedule.Our group is covering the hospital this week and there  were several bad nights after full work load with the day job. That throws training under the bus both time and energy wise so I have done nothing for 2 days and  am now letting the double expressos kick so I can get on rollers while dark before another full day and likely night. Very slim chance to make the Tuesday-Thursday group ride-race tonight

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Time to start hitting the road hard. The 3700plus mile ride over 49 days is rapidly approaching.Weather here has been good and the days long  enough to get off the rollers for the most part. I can still get in an extra hour on the rollers in the dark on the porch before work to add to rode miles or to keep from getting totally shut out if bad weather or unforeseen work issues preclude early release. Despite getting a new very light and very attractive carbon aero black and white Cervello for Christmas, (one of those from me to me gifts that are hard to beat) my favorite new toy in the last few years is my Bose noise reduction head phone set. Most are sold to frequent flyers. Spending $300 only to not find them on the day of one's occasional plane ride is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.To use them every day on the rollers was heaven. I was actually looking forward to the workouts.

white oak quercus albus
This is a really nice day here in middle Georgia. No April fooling. In fact unlikely to be nicer anywhere else on the planet. 58 to 72 degrees on 5 and 1/2 hour ride. No wind. I hate wind (more on that later). For the first time this year, in fact, the first time ever, I am doing back to back to back centuries (100 mile rides) over 3 days. I did not find anyone to ride with, my 2 main training partners are out of town. Therefore no one to jaw with and I had to deal with my own internal demons. Luckily conditions were such that I was able to keep the Irish angst at bay on the newly leaf canopied country roads. When last on these roads the trees were bare and subtle. Today the new leaves were stunning. That pale green color, particularly on the white oak trees, is my absolute favorite. The contrast between no canopy the last time I was there and the ride today was as shocking as it was beautiful. Very little traffic with the locals at their idea of Sunday worship.The birds were loud to the verge of hysteria and the smell of honeysuckle, banana shrub and tea olive alternated though out most of the ride. It is very unusual to smell them all on the same day. Thank you birds for the dropping the seeds of the former and thank you people for planting the latter two. None of these plants are native and it not too hip to say you love them which I do.

banana shrub fragrant michelia figo

I rode the carbon bike. Though light, stiff and fast I do not like it as much as the Serotta.which is titanium and more than 10 years old. It has perfect no hands handling, light enough and quiet. I hate noise more than I hate wind. The carbon makes one noise or another. So far I can not shut it up. Back to bike store tomorrow. I am so glad I got it at the local shop and I bring it in regularly.  Pretty soon they're going to wish I had bought it on ebay. Right now whenever I stand it creaks as bad as octogenarians on their second honeymoon. I often hear that same noise in the pack and I fear it will never be silenced.

It Begins...

Two months, two weeks, and two hours until the trek begins!
Training hard and rocking out to Pink Floyd "Wish you Were Here."  Highly effective.