Wednesday, August 28, 2019

How To Report Your Bicycle Accident


This post describes best practices for reporting your bicycle crash to your family. (This is not an emergency response protocol; that’s another matter entirely.)

Before we begin

In no way do I seek to mock, trivialize, or brush off the potential seriousness of bicycle accidents. Of course they can be pretty bad, as I know from painful experience. This guide concerns those crashes (the majority) where serious injury does not result.

(Levity aside, don’t mess around with head impacts. If your helmet touches the ground, somebody else needs to evaluate you, period. I have seen a concussed cyclist in complete denial, which isn’t a surprise given the fuzziness that can accompany head injury.)

One more thing. This post will make it seem like I crash my bike a lot. I don’t. I’ve been at this sport for almost 40 years, and have logged over 200,000 cycling miles, including more than 200 races. Of course I’ve had my share of accidents but in the words of the venerable Marshall Mathers, I’m “still alive and bitching.”

Okay, all that being out of the way, let’s continue.

Do you really need medical intervention?

First of all, if the medical establishment gets involved in your crash, you will have a lot harder time “controlling the narrative” (to quote a legendary cyclist/doper). So the issue of medical attention becomes something to manage as part of your notification protocol.

Sometimes a bike crash is frightening to an onlooker who naturally fears the worst, and summons more help than is necessary. I wiped out in a criterium back in 1983 and got some nasty road rash, but nothing more. Alas, it was raining, I was soaked, my body fat was minimal, and post-crash I was lying on a wet lawn, so I was shivering. Somebody took this for me going into shock. The race medic flew into action, cutting up my cycling shorts with those razor-like shears they carry. My johnson dangled out, and—looking up at all these spectators, two of my brothers included—I reached down and discreetly covered up. (My brothers teased me about this for years. Had I not made that adjustment, of course, I’d have been teased for being an exhibitionist.) I was carted away in an ambulance, which caused quite a sensation. At the awards banquet that evening (this having been the final day of a stage race), everyone seemed surprised to see me back on my feet already. The race director said, “I thought you’d broken your hip!”

Other than the johnson part, I confess I wasn’t much bothered by all the attention. That’s because I was only 14 and didn’t understand the emotional duress this episode caused my mom. (When my brother crashed in a race later that season and broke his wrist, she resolved never to attend a bike race again—and she never did.) My dad, of course, seemed to take my crash in stride. He was the one who accompanied me to the hospital, which I didn’t wonder at back then, but now realize is probably because my mom was too freaked to take part. My dad had to fill out this form explaining how the crash happened, and to the question, “List any object the bicyclist came into contact with,” he drolly wrote, “Pavement.”

Of course my brothers gave me no end of flack about the outrageous drama queen behavior I had employed just so I could ride in the ambulance. They chided me for the unnecessary financial burden I had inflicted upon the family just to gratify my narcissistic thirst for attention. They way they went on, you’d think I had Munchausen Syndrome. But they did have a point: if it’s possible, you should decide for yourself whether medical intervention is truly necessary. Any one of my brothers would have loved to clean out that road rash with a toothbrush at home, which would have been only slightly less efficient than the nylon brush used in the ER. One rule of thumb: without a head impact, and in the absence of any obvious sign that you need an X-ray, maybe you should just limp on home.

How to get home

Even if you do need medical attention, this does not always warrant an ambulance. Back in the late ’90s, I had a fairly dramatic crash on the Golden Gate Bridge. I was sprinting around one of the towers when my fork broke, right at the crown. I piled face-first into the concrete and bloodied up my chin pretty badly. I carried my unrideable bike to the San Francisco end of the bridge so I could call for a ride home. I encountered a group of little girls, Asian tourists who apparently spoke no English. They were alarmed but sympathetic and one of them dabbed at my bleeding chin with some Kleenex from her travel-size packet. I found a pay phone but, alas, I couldn’t reach any of my friends. Finally I called my employer’s Network Operations Center and had them page the engineer on-call, who came and picked me up. Unfortunately, in the meantime somebody had called an ambulance. Not knowing that you’re allowed to refuse an ambulance, I simply hid.

Note that in the above example, I didn’t call my wife. This is by design. If you can possibly manage it, avoid phoning your spouse/other to ask for a ride home. Doing this causes several problems. First, this non-trivial inconvenience doesn’t put you on the best footing for the other inconveniences your crash may cause later (e.g., extra laundry, excessive groaning or whining). Also, if your spouse/other comes to get you, he or she will have the entire drive to fear the worst, even if you’ve assured him or her that everything is fine. (As I’ll get to, that assurance is not always 100% accurate.) And, if your spouse/other has to leave work to fetch you, his or her colleagues will wonder and worry. It’s all so inefficient! By contrast, the colleague who picked me up got a good laugh out of it because my well-being had no bearing on his. (Our boss got another laugh out of it at the end of our next staff meeting: “Okay, who’s taking the on-call next … because Dana’s riding this weekend!”)

The idea here is to forestall your spouse/other’s knowledge of your crash as long as possible, so that she can see for herself that you’re fine before even knowing you crashed. After the Golden Gate Bridge incident, I need stitches, but I waited for my wife to get home so we could go to the ER (on foot) together. I hid the gauze on my (seriously bleeding) chin by assuming a pensive pose, like I was stroking a goatee, while we had a 5-minute conversation. Only after this did I say, as if suddenly remembering, “Oh, hey—I took a little spill on my bike this evening and need to get a few stitches. You wanna come with me to the ER?”

After another crash, when my bike suffered a broken crankarm, I got a ride in a Samaritan’s pickup truck to the nearest train station. While riding home one-footed from the station near my house, I stopped at a bakery for pastries, so that by the time my wife realized I’d crashed, she’d already know I was well enough to run a gratuitous errand. In fact, I wasn’t totally fine—I’d cracked some ribs, though I didn’t learn this until later. Though it was a pretty high-speed crash, it left very few marks on me.

In another case, I crashed on a descent near Oakland and hitched a ride home in a a friendly motorist’s van, my bike being again unrideable. I came into the house through the garage, announced to my wife that I was home, and then on the way to the bathroom whispered to my young daughter, “Bring me the first-aid kit from the kitchen cabinet.” I managed not to howl in the shower while scrubbing out my road rash, but it was all for naught because my daughter, halfway down the stairs, yelled out, “Hey Dad, why do you need the first-aid kit?” I should have explained the tactic better.

In general I don’t mind hitching a ride with a motorist, as their willingness to help is generally a good indicator of trustworthiness. That said, if somebody hits you with his or her car and then offers you a ride, you might think twice. After all, if he or she could be drunk, stoned, crazy, or some combination of these.

Now, the rules are a bit different if you’re not yet an adult. The best case here is that you have a friend with a car who can drive you to the hospital and/or home. In 1986 I crashed in a criterium in Denver, and the race medic directed me to the nearest ER for a few chin stitches. (Actually, since I wasn’t yet 18, he recommended the local children’s hospital, which had a much shorter wait. Good call, that!) My friend Bill drove me in his Volvo wagon. Unfortunately, he was in such a hurry to get going, he started to drive before I was all the way in the car, and managed to run over my foot. D’oh!

If you’re not yet an adult and don’t have a friend with a car, your parents are pretty much the only option (unless you have a local aunt or uncle). In this case you’re bound to scare the crap out of your parent(s) if you don’t play it just right. So do not have somebody else call if you can possibly avoid it; that implies that you’re out cold or otherwise can’t talk. Make the call yourself but do not say, “Oh my God! I’ve  just been in a terrible bike wreck!” (I have heard this said, by a young rider who was plenty frightened but wasn’t actually injured.) If you’re conscious and able to talk, chances are you can manage some composure for the duration of a phone call. An ideal explanation, given in as calm a voice as possible, would be, “Hi [Mom/Dad]. How’s it going? [Wait for answer.] Cool. Well, hey, um, I’ve got a bit of a problem with my bike. Could you possibly give me a ride home? [Wait for inevitable questions.] Well, yeah, I took a bit of a spill on it. I’m totally fine … it’s just that my [wheel/whatever] is all out of whack. [Wait for more questions.] Oh, yeah, I’m perfectly fine. Maybe a bit of road rash. Nothing to worry about.”

My own daughter called me last Sunday and said, “Hi Dad. Is there any way you can come get me? I had a crash on the bike path and I can’t get my handlebars straightened out.” On the way to fetching her I was only mildly worried. (Her bars, I’d like to point out, were perfectly straight, at least by the time I got there.) I give my daughter a B+ for this performance. She’d have earned an A, except there was a bit of a quaver to her voice. (Don’t worry, she’s fine.)

If you do need an ambulance…

The hardest call you’d ever have to make would be, of course, the notification that you’re about to be hauled off in an ambulance and need your spouse/other to meet you at the hospital. All I can recommend here is to accentuate the positive. Try to sound as chipper as possible, and lead off with whatever good news you can. For example: “I’m pretty sure nothing is broken but somebody called an ambulance, so I guess I’ll go get checked out.” If something is broken, you might say something like, “I’ve taken a spill on my bike but you don’t need to worry—my head is totally fine. It looks like I might have a fracture of some kind, though, so they’re taking me in an ambulance for some X-rays.” Do whatever you can to insinuate that the medical industrial complex is overreacting (“as usual”). Of course this will still be alarming but it’s a fair bit better than, “Oh my God! I’ve just been in a terrible bike wreck!”

Reporting your kid’s accident

Reporting your kid’s accident to your spouse/other is, needless to say, especially delicate, particularly if (like me) you’re the reason your kid rides bikes so much. If you take your kid to a bike race, ensure in advance that the folks in the medical tent have your cell phone number on file as primary, not your spouse/other’s. This isn’t just more practical, but it avoids undue stress in the case of an accident. It’s a lot easier not to worry when you’re onsite and can evaluate your kid for yourself.

After my daughter’s recent bike path crash, I wasn’t sure what to say to my wife, and in the end I said nothing. My daughter and I just waited until my wife noticed the Tegaderm dressings on her daughter’s forearms. By this point, we’d all been home together for at least half an hour so our daughter was obviously fine. “What happened?” my wife asked. “Oh, I crashed on the Ohlone Greenway,” our daughter shrugged. “That’s too bad,” replied her mom.

That’s about your best case scenario right there … other than not crashing at all, of course.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Will Self-Compassion Make You a Wuss?


Recently, my wife had me read a short article about self-compassion. Two things about this I found interesting: 1) the article, and 2) the fact of my wife’s recommending it. Obviously she feels I could be better at self-compassion, and I suppose I agree. So why shouldn’t I just have you read that article? One, I lost it. Two, it had the common flaw of trying to appeal to too broad an audience by being really brief—a series of five tiny nibbles that added up to an unsatisfying snack. In this post I’ll delve deeper, and ask a thorny question: why do I have so much trouble with this?

What’s wrong with self-compassion?

I guess to begin with I should define the term. Wikipedia’s description does a sufficient job: “Self-compassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” It’s basically cutting yourself some slack.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Self-compassion leads to all kinds of benefits; Wikipedia lists life satisfaction, happiness, and emotional resilience, and the article I read said something about reduced inflammation.

And yet, something about self-compassion makes me instinctively bristle. Delving into this reaction, I’ll confess that to some degree, it’s simply a habit. I grew up the youngest of four boys, and if there’s a polar opposite to compassion, my brothers exercised it at every turn. If I hurt myself, or even if they hurt me, they would say, “Ohhhh, poor baby! Did that hurt? You poor, poor thing!” This was delivered with the most brittle, icy sarcasm available—which was a lot. To visibly suffer was to demand sympathy, which was treated as a shameful act.

Perhaps our father helped create this culture. I remember how, when I was 12, my brand-new bike was stolen during the few minutes I spent using a San-O-Let at a bike race. Far from expressing sympathy, my dad was livid. “If you had spent your money on a good lock instead of a fancy cycling cap, you’d still have your bicycle!” he thundered at me. This was a pretty typical scenario, so I guess I’m not surprised that my natural reaction to any personal failure is still self-flagellation.

But in a sense, my hesitation to grant myself some compassion isn’t wholly irrational. On a very conscious level, I take some issue with compassion in general, if it’s applied too generously. As I’ve written before in these pages, “For every person who pushes himself too hard and needs to lighten up, I’d say there are 10 who are just too complacent to push their comfort zone.” Something about self-compassion strikes me as defeatist—like, by the time you’re doling out compassion, you’ve kind of given up, haven’t you? Shouldn’t we temper our our magnanimous acceptance with an opposing effort to encourage and challenge?

This is all very abstract, so I’ll give an example. For the past few years, I’ve coached high school mountain biking. The afternoon before every race, our team rides the course. Early in the season, one of the new riders showed up for the pre-ride but suddenly balked. “Coach, I can’t race tomorrow,” he said. “I’m having trouble breathing.”

Nothing about asthma or bronchospasm was mentioned in this rider’s pre-season medical evaluation, and he looked fine to me. Was it time to be compassionate? Of course! I looked him right in the eye and said, “Wow, I’m really sorry you’re such a pussy.”

No, of course I didn’t really say that! (Just having a little fun here … this essay was starting to drag.) I decided compassion was indeed called for with regard to the obvious butterflies in this kid’s stomach, but I wasn’t ready to concede that he had a bona fide breathing problem. So I told him, “Hey, how about you go ahead with the pre-ride, see how that goes, and decide in the morning if you feel like you can race.” Well, once he got out on the course, he started having fun, gradually picked up the pace, and next thing you know he was leading the team. At the end I told him, “Hey, the way you were riding today, I sure hope you can race tomorrow.” Which he did. (I asked him afterward, “Are you glad you raced?” To which he grinned, “No.”)

How does this tough-it-out business play in my own life? Well, it definitely causes me stress. For example, when I bought a new dishwasher, I really wanted to just pay someone to install it and be done with it, but I’d have felt like a wuss. The uncharitable side of me demanded that I man up and figure it out for myself. I reached out to my brother, and though he’s far more supportive today than in the “Ohhhh, poor baby!” days, he wasn’t letting me off the hook, either. By egging me on, and in fact questioning my manhood, Bryan applied powerful pressure, which gave me the motivation to continue. If instead he’d shown the same compassion as my wife had (something like, “Just hire somebody … you have more important things to do”), I’d be out a bunch of money and would’ve missed out on the satisfaction of rising to the occasion (and blogging about it).

Another issue I have is that, given my privileged life, self-compassion can feel indulgent and even ungrateful. I’m lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, to have close family and friends, and to enjoy good health—and any one of these privileges ought to be enough to keep me from ever feeling sorry for myself. To accept others’ solicitude, or grant it to myself, feels like tempting fate … as though God might say (perhaps in my late father’s voice), “I’ll give you something to cry about!”

So … will self-compassion make you a wuss?

So is that it? Should stoicism and a hard line always trump compassion? Of course not. Self-compassion, I must admit, is often appropriate given the various assaults that even a life of privilege can wage on our emotional health. With all these gifts, happiness can seem almost compulsory—like anything short of flat-out elation, under these circumstances, is a kind of failure. We’re not such rational creatures that we can simply talk ourselves out of feeling inordinately bummed about this or that personal slight, unfulfilled ambition, or grey day. Whatever our blessings, it’s hard not to compare them to the better life and better self we could have if we could only just … just … whatever. With this in mind, I’m ready to advance the idea that self-compassion doesn’t just ease our burdens, lower our stress, and serve as a balm; it can actually make us stronger.

How? Well, first of all, self-compassion can help us stand up to our own egos when it comes to tackling something difficult. I’ll use writing as an example. Something about spending a lot of time with one’s own text is almost intrinsically soul-crushing. Several times already, during the composition of this essay, I’ve fought the temptation to throw up my hands and say, “This is boring! Nobody wants to read this! I should just stick with fart jokes!” And maybe you agree—but that shouldn’t stop me from trying, should it? Many a wannabe writer gets so caught up in self-editing and self-critiquing that he fails, or declines, to produce anything at all. If every wannabe succumbed to this self-doubt, we’d have no writers, and nothing to read. The fact that this blog exists attests to my charitable acceptance of “good enough.”

(Is “good enough” actually acceptable? I can’t help but to keep asking this. But it is acceptable, and here’s why: when I was trying to write back in high school, I was far worse at it than I am today … but I’m still glad I made those early efforts. For one thing, they document that time of my life, and where my head was, in a way that memory cannot. Also, because I know I’ve improved, I can have fun taking shots at my early stuff, as I’ve done here.)

In case you’ve never wanted to write, here’s a more universal example: sometimes, by forgiving our physical limitations—especially the ones imposed by age—we can set more modest fitness objectives for ourselves, and thus do something rather than nothing. As a longtime cyclist, I’m perennially drawn into the data-slave mentality of monitoring my performance throughout every ride. This habit has become progressively more discouraging as I age, to the point that not infrequently I’ll feel like giving up mid-ride and slinking home because I’m going so slow. But I’ve learned to temper this, and not just with self-talk (e.g., “Who cares, it’s a nice day and a gorgeous road”). I have learned, on those bad days, to ignore the heart rate and stopwatch altogether, by turning my bike computer to “the weather channel.”

This doesn’t mean I won’t reflexively glance at the device to see how I’m doing, but when I do I’m reminded to forget about performance. The thermometer reminds me I’m not in control, that I’m subject to global forces larger than myself. I’m letting myself off the hook.

My latest cycling breakthrough has been shortening my standard route, to the point that I often ride for less than an hour (which I’ve traditionally thought wasn’t even worth suiting up for). I’m acknowledging to myself, “I’m 50. I’m busy. I’m tired. South Park is a bloody hard climb. It’s enough.” Is this a cop-out? Not as much as the dangerous alternative: deciding I don’t have the time or energy for a proper ride so I’ll just stay home.

The beauty of this scaled-down approach is that sometimes it frees me to scale back up later. Half the time when I set out on the short ride, I end up feeling okay after all. And once I’ve got the adrenaline going,  I’ll throw in one more climb—a “bonus climb,” so I can take it as slow as I want—and next thing I know I’m drilling it up Canon Drive and ending up with a pretty sweet hit of endorphins.

Another way self-compassion defies self-indulgence: it takes us out of ourselves, if we approach it the right way. If the opposite of self-compassion is dwelling on our failures, we need to remind ourselves how this affects those around us. When we suffer, so do they. Too much of this and we become insufferably self-absorbed. When I fear I’m succumbing to this, I try look at my situation from a loved one’s point of view and see if it looks as bleak from there. If it doesn’t, that tells me something. Using this trick to forgive myself thus reduces my self-absorption.

Finally, self-compassion helps me be more honest with myself. How? Well, consider how hard it is to confess to something when you have no expectation of forgiveness. I mentioned already how unforgiving my dad was; need I mention that my brothers and I generally hid our blunders from him, even when we could have really used his help? By the same token, if we can’t learn to forgive ourselves when we fail, how can we expect to be really honest with ourselves?

In other words, we might stoop to self-deception if the alternative is too painful to face. For example, let’s say I get bawled out by my boss. If I’m afraid to concede that she may have a point, I’m not likely to take her criticism very well. Instead of seeing her perspective, I might succumb to that self-protective reflex—to feel wronged, to decide she’s a jerk, and to channel my inner Dilbert and shrug off the criticism. This isn’t self-compassion—it’s denial! On the flip side, if I can forgive myself and be honest, I’m more likely to see her point. In this way I can actually improve—so my ability to forgive myself, so that I can face my failure and learn from it, is more of a life tool than an indulgence.

So … we’re good here, right?

Of course it’s easy enough to spew forth all these platitudes (actually it’s not, I’m starting to gag), but putting them into practice is another matter. I suppose I wrote this pro-compassion tract as much to convince myself as to convince you, whoever you are. So I’ll make you a deal: if you promise not to silently mock me for this earnest essay, I’ll try to do the same.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

From the Archives - Riding La Marmotte - Part II


This is the second part of the heart-wrenching (for me) tale of racing La Marmotte, a 108-mile cyclosportive race in the French Alps I did in 2003. For the first half, click here.

La Marmotte Part II – July 5, 2003

At the halfway point, the race seemed to be going just about perfectly: after my audacious full-throttle ascent of the Col du Télégraphe, my heart rate was back down to a sensible 162 bpm, my average speed was 16.7 mph (seemingly on track to best that of the previous year’s winner), and I found myself in a small group of very elite looking guys, exceeding my own expectations.

There was just one problem: it was here that I cracked.

Something had given. Some bodily threshold had been exceeded. Something had gone wrong with the human machine. There was no sound of the transmission dropping out and landing on the ground, but I did feel that sudden loss of power your car suffers when, say, the timing belt breaks, leaving you just enough juice to get over to the shoulder if you’re lucky. But I wasn’t lucky: I had half the race to go.

Perhaps one day sports medicine will have everything figured out, and the exact cause of such a meltdown will be easily and precisely diagnosed. It wasn’t a blood sugar crash; I’ve had that and know what it feels like. This was different. I found myself struggling just to keep going. The short descent to the feed station at Valloire had become long, and felt like a climb.

Had I missed it? I asked a couple of guys in the group where the food was; actually, I tried to ask, but in my turmoil couldn’t form the sentence properly in French. Or maybe the words were right but the volume was too low. Finally a guy seemed to understand: he motioned toward his mouth and said “manger?” I think French wasn’t his first language, either. I nodded. “One kilometre,” he said. It ended up being two, and very long ones at that.

The feed station was a couple of card tables. The guys working it kept asking if I wanted water. They’d evidently not heard of Gatorade, the word I thought would best convey the idea of caloric drink. I started shouting, “Sucre, sucre!” and one of the guys finally got the point. He filled my bottles with a liquid the color of weak lemonade or dirty water. I grabbed a few handfuls of dried apricots before pedaling onward, beginning the bleak climb up the Col du Galibier. I cannot recall feeling more despondent, before or since. Where was my body, the good one that had worked so well? What was happening to me? And how could I possibly make it all the way to the finish, with the fearsome Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez still to come?

The energy drink was so weak I thought it might be water. I plodded along, already in my lowest gear, not quite believing what I still had to do. My legs were now impotent Wiffle bats, and either my heart wasn’t being asked for more than 145 beats per minute, or it couldn’t fill a bigger order. Everything had gone slack; pedaling hard was like trying to pluck a broken guitar string. I started getting passed by my competitors. Finding the road ahead too depressing to contemplate, I stared miserably down into the ravine off to my right, and saw an actual marmot down there. It was running, half tumbling, and I was surprised how big it was. Shaped like a groundhog, it was the size of a dog. It finally tumbled through a hole in the ground into its underground lair. Where could I go?

I ground my way up the climb, looking down occasionally at the switchbacks below, seeing rider after lone rider, the original packs having exploded long ago. Though many of my competitors looked as wretched as I felt, others had doubtless been pacing themselves, biding their time, and would finish strong. Occasionally I would marvel at how quickly I was gaining elevation—the Galibier forces you to—but at other times I would look up at the mountain ahead, the dizzying switchbacks, the increasingly stark landscape, and feel despair beating at my door.

It was an amazing road, very exposed, rather bleak but oddly pretty against the backdrop of formidable snow-covered peaks. As I passed above the timber line, vegetation became sparse and the air grew chilly. Though it had been hot on the Télégraphe, there was still snow up here. I ate apricots as often as I could (even in the cold air, the sweat leaching through my jersey had completely rehydrated them), and kept working on my bottles until they were empty.

The road narrowed. Signs posted by the race organizers taunted me with the number of kilometers remaining. The remaining switchbacks, of which there were quite a few, were all laid out before me, in plain view, a scaffold of fiendishly steep roads, like a parking garage, and I began to bitterly resent the very idea of subjecting humans to such a thing. This climb is sick, I thought. The whole enterprise seemed an abomination.

My calf muscles started cramping up, for the first time in my life. They threatened to go from pliant muscle to useless stone. Each time a calf hardened, I had to back off and let it recover, over and over. I was on the verge of panic, fearing my legs would lock up and I’d tip over.

Toward the summit, spectators began to appear. There is a certain breed of French spectator—maybe not even a breed but a single one, though I noted his presence often enough to assume a whole race of men—who is a connoisseur of suffering, who studies it intently like a sommelier sampling a fine wine. I encountered one such fellow, a small man with a dark beard, on the last kilometer of Galibier. To say he cheered me on isn’t exactly right: he saw right into me, touring my pain as if exploring a dark cave. To borrow from Poe:
Deep into that darkness peering,
long [he] stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams
no mortal ever dared to dream before.
He made a gesture, holding his hands low, palms up, fingers curling and uncurling, and murmured gently in French, making a throaty rumbling sound like the burbling coo of a pigeon. It was encouragement, to be sure, but scaled to the nature of my endeavor, so much more attuned than someone shrieking “Go, go!” or “Allez, allez!” I don’t know that I felt inspired, but at least I felt appreciated, that I hadn’t suffered unseen. 

The very top of the climb finally came into clear view, and I realized this was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, on as perfectly clear a day as could possibly be. The distant snow-covered peaks looked like you could reach out and touch them. The atmosphere, completely free of glare, fog, and mist, seemed to shimmer somehow, and sparkle. And yet, I couldn’t enjoy it—imagine trying to take in a masterpiece of landscape painting while somebody strikes you repeatedly with a hammer. As I crested the summit, cheered by a large handful of what seemed, at least in my quasi-delusional state, to be a group of old French peasant women from the countryside, I felt that I would weep, if only I had the energy.

Once I began the descent from Galibier, I felt like a bike racer again. For maximum aerodynamic advantage, I didn’t put my jacket on. Sure, the air was frigid, but what’s a little cold when your entire body is screaming out in anguish? I took the curves good and fast, and though I only passed a couple of guys, I’m sure I extended my tenuous lead over many of the riders behind me. Moreover, I was going fast, and for awhile could forget how weak I was. I didn’t kid myself that the resting would do me any good—that would be like “fixing” a TV with a burned out tube by letting it sit awhile. But as the road flattened out somewhat and a group of six or eight guys caught me, I was able to do my share of the work and we were making good time.

It’s close to 30 miles from the top of the Galibier to the base of Alpe d’Huez, and I was relieved to be in a pack as we were fighting a stiff headwind. One of the guys in the group was massive—I reckon he was a Dutchman—and he and I took up the bulk of the work. Since powering on the flats uses different muscles from climbing, I was riding fairly well and my spirits improved a bit. (Going through tunnels in a group, by the way, is kind of a trip. Needless to say you have to have complete trust in your fellow riders; you can’t see each other too well in the dark and have to be very smooth. I enjoyed the visual effect of seeing only the silhouette of the rider ahead of me, like a paper cutout against the light at the end of the tunnel.)

Around 10 miles from Bourg d’Oisans (my grasp of distances, in fact of numbers in general, was shaky at this point), we hit a small climb steep enough to require the small chainring. To my horror, I threw my chain. A guy in the pack pushed me along while I tried to shift the chain back on. A nice gesture (if also pragmatic), but it was in vain. I had to stop to put the chain back on, and watched miserably as the group rolled away without me. Fighting the headwind by myself the rest of the way to the base of Alpe d’Huez, still with empty bottles, losing even more time to the crush of riders behind me, brought my morale all the way back down to Galibier levels, maybe even lower.

I rolled into the second feed station, drank a big bottle or two of water, and ate a million orange slices while a woman filled my bottle with Coke. This was the same woman, by the way, who served the hot lunch back in elementary school, whom I would watch slopping the food grumpily on the tray on those sad days when I forgot my sack lunch. The intervening decades have done nothing to improve her cheerless attitude. But then what was I expecting, Mary Lou Retton?

I hit the road again, pleased to have, at last, a full-strength sugary drink to help me up the climb. Then I remembered my emergency medical stash: two Tylenol and a NoDoz in my jersey pocket. I reached in there and felt around, and all my fingers found was a paste of completely dissolved tablets. I considered smearing this into my mouth, but it was hot now and I’d probably hurl.

Just before the road started to go up, a large pack of riders, maybe 10 or 12, passed me at a good clip. It was a menacing reminder that, poorly as I’d been riding, I still had a vast number of racers behind me and a potentially decent position to defend. My ride time at this point was a bit under 6 hours and 15 minutes. If (hypothetically speaking) I rode Alpe d’Huez as fast as I’d done it in training, my goal of 7 hours for the whole course was still within reach.

But of course I wasn’t going nearly as fast as before. It was a slog.

I can’t recall exactly when I got Ravel’s “Bolero” stuck in my head. Normally my brain chooses rock music as accompaniment for cycling. A short climb on a training ride might invoke the guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”; on a particularly fast team ride recently my mental deejay chose Beck’s “Loser” (perhaps for ironic effect); and on the Col de la Croix de Fer earlier in this race I’d somehow dug up “Gates of Steel” by Devo. I almost never get classical music. But the utterly repetitive, plodding dum-de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum-dum-dum foundation of “Bolero” matched my cadence and my eternity of rote suffering pretty well. In fact, my fried brain left out most of the more interesting melodies laid on top of this backdrop, and created a new extended dance mix of just the dum-de-de-de-dum business. It was the quasi-musical equivalent of a prison sentence, and thus perfectly appropriate.

Rider after rider passed me. Looking for some vestige of athletic dignity, I made a habit of checking their numbers. A low number meant a high finisher last year whom I’d caught and dropped earlier—slightly less demoralizing than a high number, indicating someone who’d not finished high before, maybe a first-time Marmotte rider like me, and moreover someone who may have started well behind me, maybe even minutes behind me, who had paced himself perfectly throughout the ride and would use the entire Alpe d’Huez climb to pass people. The majority of the riders overtaking me did have low numbers, and were obviously classy riders I couldn’t be ashamed of losing to. But among them were also high numbered riders whose form wasn’t even that good, whose bikes were older and lesser than mine, who didn’t have team jerseys—riders I know wouldn’t be passing me had I not completely botched the race by going too hard on the Col du Télégraphe.

The switchbacks on Alpe d’Huez are numbered, in descending order as you climb, so in theory you can mark your progress, like a countdown. But this only helps when you feel like you’re actually making progress, like the distance between switchbacks isn’t stretching out before you.

Alpe d’Huez had a lot more spectators than the Galibier, but many were there to cheer specific riders, and others seemed to be observing the spectacle without really engaging with it emotionally. Sure, a great many did cheer, but I couldn’t help notice others who looked at me with pity. Others seemed to consider me almost contemptuously, as you would look upon a scabby, humiliated dog wearing a giant satellite-dish collar.

Here and there I encountered the connoisseur-of-suffering type, always a small, bearded Frenchman, always making the finger-curling gesture and the rumbling burble of encouragement. (Could it have been one guy, somehow zipping ahead on the course? Or maybe a hallucination?) In most cases what I was seeing was not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather a kind of restraint, as though spectators were thoughtfully letting me die in peace.

One fellow told me, in French, that if I would sit down in the saddle he’d give me a push. Unfortunately my sluggish brain only parsed the sentence some 10 or 15 seconds after the fact, so I didn’t sit down; even so, he did give me as good a push as possible without crashing me. The climb went on and on, and finally after the last switchback I knew I was near the end. At this point I saw two riders in my sights and decided to pass them. After all, I had to feel like I was beating somebody. I managed to get by them, but they weren’t exactly fighting.

Finally I reached the top. Alpe d’Huez had taken more than an hour and fifteen minutes, almost half an hour longer than it had in training. I hit the flat section at the top and began sprinting, not for any particular reason other than to get the last bit over with. There was fencing set up along the sides, and some turns, and thick crowds, and I did have the thrilling feeling of going pretty fast. Not because I was, of course, but because I was finally on a flat road—it’s the same phenomenon that produces the feeling of floating over the ground after you’ve been on a treadmill for half an hour. A couple hundred meters from the line I even had the presence of mind to zip up my jersey. The road was slightly downhill now and I flew toward the line, spotting Erin and my mom right there on the sidelines, cheering me on. I crossed over the black pad that stopped my timing chip, but was so disoriented I didn’t grasp its purpose. For some reason I expected some official to come wave a wand of some kind at my ankle. I tried to pose a question to the riders around me and got nothing but exhausted, blank stares. Finally I realized I was really done.

My family found me right away and my mom conjured up a ice-cold Coke.

I straddled my bike for awhile, trying to figure out what to do. I could barely stay up, but climbing off the bike meant lifting a leg high enough to clear the saddle, and I wasn’t sure that was possible. So I just slumped over the bars and mourned my awful ride.

I managed to dismount and collapsed on a patch of grass. I wasn’t even prepared to deal with the Coke. Erin was excited, figured I’d had a great ride, and had no idea how emotionally crushed I was. She asked me how it went and after I felt I’d regained enough composure to talk, I tried to answer her. But what could I say? “I blew it,” I finally said. A wave of feeling poured over me, something between relief, awe, and despondence. After six months of intense training, burning off more than 20 pounds of extra body mass, and all the psyching up for this one event, I almost had a brilliant ride but instead fell far short. What difference might better judgment have made? I was having difficulty explaining myself, and difficulty trying to eat, and eventually found myself sobbing into some orange slices.

Erin couldn’t understand. I’d looked pretty fast to her, having finished before she’d really expected me to—especially, she said, since the form and physique of the riders who’d come in before me seemed, to her, much better suited to such a course.

I lay back on the grass and Erin held a jacket over me to block the sun. She was a bit concerned. I didn’t look so good.

After I rested awhile I felt better, and after a kiss from my little daughter was able to smile a bit.

Even so, Erin insisted I get checked out in the medical tent. One medic looked me over and then called in another guy, a big bearded dude with yellow teeth and cigarette breath, who explained that my body was having trouble re-oxygenating. He talked for some time, and the odd thing is I understood everything he said, though he was speaking French at a very fast clip. He prescribed pasta. Within half an hour I felt well enough to pick up my diploma and medal, turn in my timing chip, and make it back to the car.

Looking back now, I’m not completely displeased with my performance. As badly as I blew up on the Télégraphe, I did manage to salvage the ride somewhat, and I only missed my (albeit arbitrary) goal by 23 minutes. And to have achieved the fitness I needed even to compete in such a thing is something I hadn’t done in 12 years. Now that I know the course, and what not to do, it seems a shame not to put that knowledge to use … so I hereby resolve to return to France one day to settle my score with La Marmotte…

My Stats

*I don’t have the rate of vertical gain for the Télégraphe or the Galibier... I was too shattered to remember to start and stop the lap timer on my altimeter.

  • The winner, Laurens Ten Dam, was from Holland and finished in 6:07:04, a new course record. [Ten Dam went on to ride for pro teams including Rabobank, Giant-Alpecin, and CCC, and finished 9th in the 2014 Tour de France.]
  • The second place rider was also Dutch, and finished only 41 seconds behind. (My wife, driving up Alpe d’Huez during the race, was able to watch these two duking it out.) Third place went to a Frenchman, 3½ minutes behind second.
  • The top woman finisher was French, 36 years old, and placed a very impressive 50th with a time of 6:55:19. There were 72 female finishers under age 40, and 36 who were 40 or older.
  • The top finisher in the men’s 40-49 age group was a Frenchman, age 42, who finished in 10th overall with a time of 6:29:14. The top men’s 50-59 was age 54, from Andorra in a stellar time of 6:49:35 (31st overall). The top men’s 60+ was 62, from France, in 8:03:04 (496th overall).
  • The youngest men’s finisher was 16, from France, in 10:00:43 for 2,475th place. The youngest woman was 20, from Holland, in 10:32:40 for 3,039th place. There were two 71-year-old men, one from Belgium and one from France, finishing in 11:50:47 (4,036th place) and 12:52:26 (4,457th place) respectively. The oldest woman was 48, from Holland, in 13:05:39 (4,486th place).
  • The last finisher clocked in at 13:49:40, an average speed of 7.9 mph.
One American beat me: a 42-year-old who placed 91st (20th in his age category) with a time of 7:07:21. I’d hoped to be the top American. But then, I’d hoped for a lot of things.

Here is a breakdown of where the 2003 finishers hailed from. (Not listed: the ~2,000 who dropped out.)

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Saturday, August 3, 2019

From the Archives - Riding La Marmotte - Part I


Since 2003, I’ve been an occasional contributor to the Daily Peloton. A few years ago, my stories there vanished due to server problems, and then the magazine went offline altogether. Recently it’s come back up, but all of their archives are gone. I don’t know if these will ever be restored, so over time I will re-post my Daily Peloton stories here. What follows is the first article I ever submitted. It concerns an ill-fated bike race I did in the French Alps a lifetime ago. (Update: Part II now posted here.)

La Marmotte – July 5, 2003

What is La Marmotte?

La Marmotte is a French “cyclosportive” (like a granfondo), which pits riders against each other but also scores each rider according to his or her time. The top riders really race, while the less sportive aim for a bronze, silver, or gold “diploma.” Many of the 6,000+ riders are just hoping to finish. The route is a 100-mile circuit over three of the toughest Alpine passes of the Tour de France, followed by the 8-mile slog up the legendary Hors Categorie Alpe d’Huez, for a total of about 17,000 feet of climbing. La Marmotte has been held for some thirty years. A Belgian journalist told me it’s a rite of passage for any Belgian who wants to call himself a cyclist. It is most popular among the Dutch and the French.

My Background

I began bicycle racing at age 11 in 1981, in Boulder, Colorado. From 1984 to 1985 I worked for the Coors Classic bike race. I moved to California in 1987 and continued racing, mostly at the collegiate level, with the highlight being a national title in the team time trial in 1990. Following college I have continued to ride, and recently joined a local Berkeley-area team, East Bay Velo Club. I learned of La Marmotte from my brother Geoff, who lives in Holland. I decided to get as fit as possible this spring and then return to racing for one day.

Course Recon

The Tuesday before La Marmotte I drove, with my mom, my wife, and my 18-month-old daughter to Le Bourg d’Oisans so I could ride Alpe d’Huez, atop which the race finishes. The place was already swarming with cyclists, either training, doing reconnaissance, or simply being seen. It was starting to sprinkle when we stopped just outside of town to unload my bike. By the time I started the ride, it was raining in earnest, which seemed fitting weather for such an epic climb.

The Alps are not like any mountains I’ve ever seen. They are much more abrupt than the Rockies and the Sierras, by which I mean they have no foothills. They’re like cartoon mountains that kids draw, steep and spiky and sharp. After just a few of the 21 switchbacks, I could look down at the town below as though I were in a helicopter.

It was very motivating to be on such a famous—and grueling—climb, especially with all the other riders, and I hammered all the way up. My time to where the climbing ended (a few minutes shy of where I later learned the finish line would be) was 47 minutes (ten minutes off Marco Pantani’s record).

On Thursday we drove the whole course so I could ride the descents. (I’d read about how difficult and dangerous these were.) Driving up the Col de la Croix de Fer, we couldn’t believe how long it was, and how steep. No way! I kept thinking. As I later learned, this climb is also Hors Categorie.

At the top it was sprinkling, and very cold, and it took some gumption to get out of the warm car and begin the descent. The first section was very technical, steep with lots of hairpins, but smooth. About halfway down the road passed through some villages and changed to a lousy chip-and-seal surface with lots of loose gravillons, as the signs warned—slippery, coarse gravel. I slid around a bit and learned that you cannot brake or steer when on the loose sections—you have adjust your course beforehand and roll over them as passively as possible. The rain picked up, and the road got slick. Despite the cloud cover, there was enough glare to produce a terrifying effect: when I entered the first tunnel I suddenly became completely blind. There were no lights! I felt like I was falling through space for several seconds before my eyes adjusted.

The next few tunnels were lit, perhaps only because they had sharp curves in them. One tunnel ended right at a ninety-degree turn. This was really one of the sketchier descents I’ve ever done. The idea of doing it in a pack, especially given the range of skill levels represented by an event that draws from totally flat places like Holland and the UK, was frankly pretty scary. I decided to ignore the advice of a Belgian team staying at my hotel, and to do the Croix de Fer good and hard on race day, to get free of as many of the larger groups as I could.

After the descent, the route follows some narrow, flat roads through a couple of towns and then heads up the Col du Télégraphe, a really steep (and arguably underrated) 2ème Categorie climb. It peaks near the town of Valloire, to which the road descends briefly before the start of the Col du Galibier. (The climbs are practically contiguous.) The Col du Galibier, another Hors Categorie, is the most formidable of Marmotte’s climbs. It’s over 11 miles at an average grade of 7%, and peaks at almost 9,000 feet elevation.

It was very cold at the Galibier summit where, with a sense of resignation, I took the bike out of the back of the car and assembled it again for the descent. The pavement here was very good—clean and fast, though with lots of curves, some of them very tight. After plunging past the summit of the Col du Lautaret, about halfway down, the road straightened out a bit and went through several more tunnels. This brought us back to Bourg d’Oisans and the road up Alpe d’Huez to the finish.

Just driving the course was oddly exhausting. In fact, after a large lunch on Friday at an outdoor café in Bourg d’Oisans, as I idly watched cyclists go by, I was suddenly overcome with dread and began to wonder why I ever wanted to do this thing. It was a pit-in-the-stomach sense that I’d made a huge mistake. (Fortunately, by the time I digested that meal, I was fully amped up again.)

The race

I slept poorly the night before the race and was awake before the alarm. The saintly proprietor of our inn, the Hotel Panoramique, had arranged a pasta breakfast for the riders at 5:15, but I was too nervous to fully enjoy the camaraderie or even the food. My wife and I parked the car a quarter mile from the starting point, a supermarket at the base of Alpe d’Huez. I offered Erin a ride to the start line on my bike, but she wouldn’t have it. I arrived and was routed to the area for numbers 400-2000. I was 908, a relatively low number based on my early registration, but being this far back would mean probably never having contact with the leaders. The throng of riders stretched as far as I could see.

Stupidly, I still had the key to our rental car in my pocket, and when the start time approached, and my wife hadn’t shown up, I began to worry. Without the key, she would be stranded in Bourg d’Oisans, my mom and daughter would be stranded at our inn in Mizoen, and nobody would be waiting for me at the top of Alpe d’Huez. I found some fellow riders willing to hold my bike, and I took off looking for Erin, running through the throngs in my cycling shoes. Thousands of riders and spectators crammed into the parking lot and its feeder roads, and I was despairing. Ten minutes before the start I finally spotted Erin running toward me. (She’d been misrouted.) We got back to my bike with just minutes to spare before the start. You could say I was warmed up.

I lost four minutes just getting past the start line. Once I got onto the open road and began hammering, it was like one of those racecar video games—I was passing people continuously, weaving through them and the countless support vehicles. All the way to the bottom of the first climb, I was in my top gear, doing thirty. At the base of the Col de la Croix de Fer, I could see streams of riders several switchbacks up ahead. How demoralizing.

I set a very high tempo all the way up the climb, continuing to pass massive numbers of people. The farther along I got, the higher the caliber of the rider. My legs were very good and fresh, and I was keeping my heart rate at about 162 bpm, 87% of my maximum. (I thought this should be sustainable because during the Markleeville Death Ride in 2001, I was above 160 bpm for 2 hours and 25 minutes.) At the summit of the Croix de Fer, my average rate of vertical gain was 4,260 feet per hour, which cycling coach Stefano Ferrari says is fast enough for a peloton finish in a Tour de France mountain stage. Things were looking up.

On the descent I caught a small group, maybe eight guys, and was relieved to see that they were all great descenders, streaming through the turns without breaking stride. The deep, loose gravel I’d encountered in my recon was gone—it turns out to have been part of a repaving project. The unlit tunnel didn’t freak me out nearly as much as it had the first time. I threaded my way through a couple of grisly crashes but stayed up.

After the fast flat section through St.-Jean-de-Maurienne, I began the Col du Télégraphe alone, after shedding the guys I’d worked with to get across. I continued to pass guys here and there, and couldn’t believe how strong I felt.

A very lean, compact rider passed me, and—admiring his smooth, consistent form—I considered going with him. Pacing myself and erring on the side of too-easy had gotten me solid, but not brilliant, results in the past. I thought of the real winners I’d known, the eye-of-the-tiger set, who seemed too obsessed with victory to assess the risks of overextending themselves. I rashly decided to get the guy’s wheel.

His pace was smooth and consistent. My heart rate increased a fair bit. I was well aware of being at the redline, but the rewards were immediate. Now we were catching riders at a far better rate, including a wiry young fellow who latched on. I was starting to get a bit concerned about fuel; I’d given up trying to eat an energy bar earlier in the climb and was low on energy drink.

Still, I felt great and stayed with the two riders for most of the rest of the climb. About three fourths of the way up we caught a group of eight. I took this opportunity to scale back my efforts, letting the two go and staying with the small group to the summit. By this time, my bottles were completely empty, but I knew we had the first feed zone in just a few miles, after a short descent to Valloire at mile 60. The race seemed to be going just about perfectly: my heart rate was back down at a sensible 162 bpm, my average speed was 16.7 mph (with 4,000 feet of future descending banked), and here I was in a small group of very elite looking guys, exceeding my own expectations.

There was just one problem: it was here that I cracked.

To be continued…

Check back next week for the frightful second half of my heart-wrenching tale:

Riding La Marmotte - Part II

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