The First 40,000 Miles

Posted: 10/04/2000 by Damon Phinney


I got the bad news in February of 1987. The pain I’d been experiencing down in my right sitbone, where the hamstring muscles connect, was caused by cancer! It was a cancer that had spread from the primary site in my prostate. I’d find out in a few more days that the cancer had also spread into my spine. I had stage D-2 prostate cancer, incurable but usually controllable for some period of time by messing with the testosterone my body was making. It was stimulating growth of the bad-guy cells and needed to be reduced to the lowest possible level. There’s a simple and widely used surgical procedure for doing that. In 1987 there was also a drug, Lupron, that had come into use during the 1980s that was just as effective as the surgery. I would have to take it for the rest of my life. Either way the effects would be quite emasculating, but by going the drug route, at least I would be physically whole. I thought it would be important to remain that way, if possible, and opted for the Lupron. A few later I would add the androgen blocker, flutamide.

OK, so you’re going to be surgically or chemically castrated and will stop making any significant amount of testosterone. Sounds as if this is likely to have quite an effect on muscle tone and a tendency to gain weight, among other things. Connie, my daughter-in-law, who had been quite a cyclist right up to her retirement from competition immediately after the 1984 Olympics, said, "Now you’ll know what it’s like for me!" She was right about that. I knew I would have to get a lot more exercise to maintain some semblance of physical condition and to avoid more unwanted fat. I decided to ride my bike a lot more. I’d been a recreational rider since 1952.

Now it’s February 1994, 7 years from the day of that dreadful diagnosis. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been in complete remission and, although there are early signs that I may be coming out of that, a lot of men who started down this road with me are gone by now. My cycling log shows about 25,000 miles covered during those 7 years, and, no question, cycling turned out to be exactly right for me. I’m reasonably fit, with decent quads and an acceptable, stable weight. More importantly, I feel OK about myself in spite of cancer treatment side effects, such as loss of libido, impotence and some others. I’ve been doing plenty of riding on the big paved-road climbs that start almost at my front door on the edge of the Rockies in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been over most of the big high passes in the state, and a number of the biggest passes in the mountains of France. I’ve also been doing plenty of long rides in the flatter country east of Boulder, including half a dozen or more centuries every year, and at decent speeds. I had discovered early on that being able to finish a strenuous ride, even when it left me fried, was a big boost for my ego. I needed that boost and to check myself out frequently. I also had reminded myself of the obvious over and over...that being out in the sun and the wind and the fresh air for hours at a time was important spiritual rejuvenation. Could I have gotten along so well without it? And wow did I love that zooming ride back down Boulder Canyon to home...a 2800 ft descent in 13 miles. It ended many of my rides in the local mountains.

In 1994 I decided I would up the ante a little and shoot for 40,000 miles by the end of the 10th year from my diagnosis. I’d need to average 5000 miles a year instead of 3500, which would be just what the doctor ordered. I’d retired the year before, so I had not only the need and the inspiration, I had the time.

Jump forward again, this time to February 1996, starting that 10th year of cancer treatment. I’ve been making excellent progress toward my 40,000 mile goal. I only need about 4100 more miles. And another thing was about to happen...I’d be starting a different cancer treatment, after failing the first one I’d been on for so long. Now I have recurrence of cancer in my prostate and the metastasis in my sitbone. One of the new drugs would be hydrocortisone. Shortly I’d be discovering that hydrocortisone would make me much stronger on my bike! By the end of the year I would have set all-time PRs for both total miles (7100) and feet of climbing (430,000...80 miles! straight up).

Now it’s August 1996 and we’re in southeast France on a Breaking Away tour through the French alps (Breaking Away Bicycle Tours, Greg Hogan I write this in the year 2000, I have been on 10 of his rides). When this tour started, I only needed 360 miles to reach my 40,000 mile goal. I’ll be getting there on this trip, which will make it doubly special.

We are two days from the end of the ride, in a hotel in a small ski resort 3000 ft above the city of St. Jean de Maurienne. On our plate for the day is the Col de la Croix de Fer and l’Alpe-d’Huez. I only need about 30 more miles and should get there today.

Anybody remember when Andy Hampsten won the Tour stage that ended at l’Alpe-d’Huez? It must have been about 1992. Andy used to live across the street from us in Boulder, and was a teammate and, then and now, a very good friend of our bike racing son, Davis. It was such a thrill to see Andy on TV that day, dropping the others in the breakaway group as soon as they got on the first pitch of the final climb, then powering his way up the rest of those 3700 ft to the win. Just that one win is almost enough to make a career for most riders, but of course Andy had some other very prestigious stage race wins. Well, that day Andy had initiated the winning break on the Col de la Croix de Fer, after one earlier big climb, the Col du Galibier from Briancon. I’ll be riding in Andy’s tracks and if I can just make the Pass of the Iron Cross, I’ll reach my 40,000 miles somewhere on the 20-mile downhill of that climb, maybe 10 miles before starting up l’Alpe-d’Huez. And when I finish that steep second climb? Wow, what an exclamation point!

The northern side of the Col de la Croix de Fer climbs 5400 ft in 18 miles from St Jean de la Maurienne. The hotel where we have spent the night is way above that city but we will descend about 2000 ft and get on the route to the Col with 4500 ft and 15 miles still to go. Hey, Greg Hogan takes pride in the difficulty of his mountain tours! This is going to be a hard day but by no means as difficult as two other days we’ve had already on this trip.

I’m off the first big descent, back on the main route, and I can’t breathe! Right off the bat on my big day I’m in trouble, in spite of the hydrocortisone I’ve now been taking for almost 6 months! I’ve been here before and I just don’t remember feeling like this. Other riders who will be doing both climbs and who didn’t pass me on the descent go by and I’m now the last rider on the road. It’s a struggle but finally I reach a crest after about 3 miles and enter a level section and then a mile of gentle downhill.

A couple years later I will make an accurate profile of this climb and finally get an explanation for what happened to me. The grade for those first 3 miles is right about 10 percent. Try descending 2000 ft just after breakfast, with no warmup, and then immediately starting up a 10 percent grade that goes on without any letup for 3 miles. That’s why I couldn’t breathe. I went anaerobic right away and just never recovered until I reached that crest. To more fully understand my situation, wait until you’re 68. But if you should try this, I hope you won’t still be under treatment for cancer!

I’m breathing again, finally, and have 9 miles and 2800 ft still to climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer. It’s a good thing I didn’t have the exact specifics in mind. They might have been discouraging. I know the little village of St. Sorlin d’Arves is up ahead somewhere--where Andy Hampsten initiated the winning break when he won the stage ending at l’Alpe-d’Huez. And from St. Sorlin it’s 1800 ft more to the Col--with the grade varying from 7 to 10 percent much of the way. I reach the village and am going well again and the last 4 miles go by with surprising ease. Maybe it’s the lovely view as the road switchbacks up that final part of the climb--back down the valley of the Arves and across to l’Aiguilles (the Needles) d’Arves, three very prominent sharp peaks on the far ridge. I check it out several times but as usual during my climbs, most of the time my eyes are looking down at the road. Anyway, I’m up at last, where many of our group are taking their ease. I grab my bike and stand in front of the small iron cross that marks this place and gives it its name. Larry, a long-time member of the Breaking Away crew, takes my picture, and I’m off right away on the descent southward, past the turnoff to the Col du Glandon a mile down the road, and on and on for 20 miles. Somewhere before I get to the bottom, Tracy, one of the members of our group, overtakes me and a mile or two later I pass my 40,000th mile. I still have the climb to l’Alpe-d’Huez ahead of me so it’s a little early to celebrate. For sure I do it mentally anyway.

At the end of the descent from the Col de la Croix de Fer we come on a main road running up the valley of the Romanche for several nearly level miles to the town of le Bourg-d’Oisans. I am grateful for Tracy’s draft here. When we reach le Bourg-d’Oisans, a sharp left turn takes us across the river. Just on the other side the road to our second climb cuts off to the left. We will start the first pitch in about a mile and Tracy and I will part company. I’ll be climbing at about 4 mph and he will be going more than twice as fast.

L’Alpe-d’Huez was once a high pasture where farmers from the village of Huez, a couple miles below, grazed cattle. The original meaning of "alp" is "a high mountain pasture". Now l’Alpe-d’Huez is a big-time ski area and village with its own small airport. The climb is about 3700 ft in 8 miles, and famous for its 21 hairpin turns. In fact those turns make the climb much easier for the cyclist. Each one is numbered, counting down from #21 about a mile from the bottom, and the road is level going around each hairpin. Although the grades of the first couple pitches are up around 11 percent, and the overall average grade is more than 8 percent, you only have to set yourself the goal of getting to the next hairpin. Then there’s the little respite on the short level stretch, and again you just set yourself to do the short climb to the next turn. And so on. And as you see the numbers coming down, by the time you reach 10 or thereabouts, it’s obvious that nothing will ever stop you from reaching l’Alpe-d’Huez. The 21 pitches between turns only average a little over half a kilometer in length. Most of them go by quickly. The identical climb with the same grades and distances would be MUCH more difficult without those 21 sharp turns.

Even if I could remember them, I won’t go into details of my climb to l’Alpe-d’Huez that day. It was my fourth time there and after my little scare starting up the Col de la Croix de Fer I was feeling good. In fact, I was feeling elated at having completed my 40,000 mile goal. Anyway, I finally rounded switchback #1 where there is still about half a mile of climbing to reach the outskirts of town. Up there the grade levels and even descends a little. Then you take a sharp left turn and go through a "tunnel" and start climbing again into the main part of town.

Several members of our group were finishing off hotdogs and beers at a restaurant at the end of the main climb. I ditched my bike and joined them--a couple PowerBars had been pretty skimpy for the ride. Besides, what would beat a hotdog and beer in the company of friends from the tour toward the end of this day!

Then it was down the slight incline, through the bridge "tunnel" and up a winding road to our hotel, nearly at the highest point of the village. Greg would shoot off a few rockets after supper, as usual on days ending at l’Alpe-d’Huez. There was an extra one for me.

Damon Phinney
Boulder, CO
September 2000


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