Docs at the Top
It was the day before the event the whole cycling world had been anticipating for nearly a year. Lance and all the cycling gods were going to ascend the legendary Alp d?Huez and we were going to be there to witness the whole glorious race. But we had a few problems; well maybe more than a few. To be precise, we had two million problems in the form of cycling fans who had gathered from all over the globe who wanted to see the same dramatic struggle. Lance Armstrong was attempting to garner a record setting sixth Tour de France crown in the form of a tight yellow cycling jersey and a grupetto of challengers were determined to stop him. This mountain had to be the battleground where they could not give another inch. If the challengers were beat back here, the Tour de France for 2004 was basically over and Lance Armstrong had a record sixth maillot jaune.
The night before the race, when we gathered at our mountain hotel- it was like an army staff planning an assault. The gendarmes of France had been telling everyone and every media outlet that there were going to be two million fans on the Alp spread over ten miles of famous switchbacks. We had been planning an early start, cycling in from 35 kilometers away into the valley, getting on the mountain before 8 AM. Thomson Bike Tours, our hosts and guides, use bicycles like cavalry horses. When the roads get clogged near the Tour de France routes, we jump on our bikes, cruising through the buses and crowds, and the gendarmes just wave us onward toward our goals. At least that is the way it has been for the last few years at the Tour. But, all the dire signals buzzing around the Tour seemed to be altering this arrangement. The inside word was that the gendarmes would close the mountain at 6AM. Ach, it wasn?t even light until after 5:30AM and we had over twenty miles to ride while somehow keeping a group of 25 riders of varying abilities moving onward before attempting to climb on our bikes one of the most difficult mountains in the world.
There were two orthopedic surgeons even more excited and avid then the average crazy cycling fan in our riding assault group. Actually there were four orthopods in our group, but two especially devoted Lance fans. They had started riding together over ten years ago when one of them was mentoring the younger, newly minted resident in pediatric orthopedics. Tony Herring, Chief Orthopedic Surgeon at Scottish Rites Hospital of Dallas had taken immediately to his young pediatric orthopedic fellow, Channing Tassone. He was drawn to his focused energy and exuberance. When they learned each was a cyclist, neither was surprised and they started to ride home after long days at the hospital. This cemented a friendship which culminated in Channing inviting Tony to take part in his wedding in Colorado after the fellowship year was complete. Tony understood right away when Channing wanted to get up and ride at 5AM on the day of his wedding. What better way to start out a red letter day, slay any jitters, and stay healthy than to get on the bicycle and climb a mountain.
So, on July 21, 2004, Tony understood when Channing said he would get up at 3AM and go ahead with grandmaster scout Peter Thomson to check out the possibilities, permutations and pitfalls in the Alps and report back to the main assault group. We all took some final looks at road maps and elevations and forsook the last glass of wine and retired to try to sleep.
Up early we breakfasted in the dark, rode the bus through the tail end of the night and were ready to mount up at the crack of dawn. The early word back from our scouts was that things looked good if we moved quickly and stayed ahead of the throngs. We jumped on our bikes and rode our duty getting into Bourg d?Oisans at just before 7 AM. When we pedaled up to the base of the climb the gendarmes just waved us on and smiled. A few of us tried our broken French on them enough to learn that they had never really thought the crowds would be in the millions but hoped their gloomy forecasts had kept the unmanageable throngs away. Hard to argue with that in our broken French. Allez and up we go- twenty one switchbacks and nearly ten miles to the finish line. Lance Armstrong terms this one of the two hardest climbs on all the Tours. About Alpe d? Huez he says, ?It?s steep and its relentless- it just goes.? Well, we?ll find out now.
Once we mastered four or five switchbacks, most of us knew that we could not be stopped this day. Some raced to the top, but most took their time and enjoyed the crowd. Channing took the challenge and did the ascent in just over an hour. He beat Tony by nearly twenty minutes. Another orthopedic colleague of Ron Kendig took nearly two hours. However, it wasn?t a race. The race would come later when the pros took over the mountain. But it still feels very good to conqueror any hors categorie climb, no matter what your age or what time it takes to finish. And to climb Alpe d?Huez on this day when all the world was watching gave all of us climbers an unforgettable lift.
Many orthopods are cyclists for very good reasons. Numerous are ex athletes who know a lot about their own bodies under stress and challenge. Scores are former marathoners who have broken down from the miles of pounding long distance runners endure. Lots are former college or high school athletes. Some are ex basketballers or footballers who find the bike soothing to broken joints and challenging in a refreshing, renewing way. Others get interested in the technology of the cycling gear. Countless have dealt with broken bodies and know what heals them. Of all the medical specialties, only emergency room docs rival orthopods in interest and attainment on bikes. Eric Heiden comes to mind. After he took five gold medals in speed skating at the 1976 Olympics, he went on to medical school and picked up bicycling. He has biked as a professional in Europe and did very well in this second athletic endeavor. Today he bikes and is an orthopedic surgeon in Davis, California.
After a long lunch and a few naps, the Thomson Bike Tour peloton assembled just off the stage time trial finish line and waited to see how the pros handle the challenge we all knew too intimately. They did magnificently, and none so well as Lance. He made it up the mammoth climb in thirty nine minutes and pushed his rivals back into oblivion. None of us who had seen him many times over the years had ever seen him quite so dominant nor had we ever seen him look at the crowd. He knew he had his record sixth Tour de France win locked up and he seemed to want to look triumphantly about for crowd confirmation of his achievement.
We rode the energy of our mountain high the next day and left the throngs behind. Like a good tactical army we knew when to retreat and fled over to Switzerland, crossing Lake Geneva on a boat. It was good to be out of the madness that is the Tour de France. We could now don our favorite bike club jerseys. Out they came in all their colors. Tony and Channing rode together in their SPOKE jerseys. As I was to find out, SPOKE is a group of pediatric orthopedic surgeons who ride together at various conferences and meetings. SPOKE stands for Society of Pediatric Orthopedic Knowledge Enhancement and is a sub-group of the Pediatric Orthopedic Society of America.
Doctor Herring said Peter Thomson told him that the Col de la Marchairuz was a ?sweet little climb,? but Tony found himself struggling toward the top when he started to hear music. He wondered if he was finally losing it and exhaustion was really setting in a serious way. Then as he came around yet another bend and the forests gave way to stone walled fields, he saw the source of the music- dozens of red and white Swiss cows each with bells clanking in a great chorus.
Channing and Tony say the SPOKE name is a bit tongue is cheek. That may be true, but the effort the two put out at the 2004 Tour de France was very serious and not tongue in cheek at all. They had once again ridden the bike together and maybe even helped Lance a bit. What they did do for sure was to reaffirm a love for cycling, sound health and good friendship.
We ended the trip with a glorious stop in Paris and a final dinner at a grand Chateau. Within two weeks of returning to the States, Ron Kendig and another orthopod signed up for a repeat trip in 2005 to the Tour de France. Tony Herring started planning with his bunch of Texas colleagues to bring spouses back to Europe to temper the cycling effort and try to see the Giro next. This cycling and European travel seemed to be very good for orthopedic surgeons.