ON JULY 22, 2010, after pedaling 240 miles, I arrived at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. My team and I had completed our leg of a crosscountry, relay-style bike ride by scientists from throughout the U.S. to deliver a message to Congress to double government funding for research for Alzheimer’s disease. Our motivation was simple: Our lawmakers seemed blind to the tide of dementia that threatens more than 5-million lives today. And it will only get worse.
As an avid cyclist, I was asked to organize the segment of the ride from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. But 30 years ago, 192 miles into a double-century race, a crash put me into a coma and my bike in storage. So it was with some trepidation that I got back on that bike to get a team together. After some coaxing, my co-captain, postdoctoral fellow Eric Hayden, Ph.D., and other faculty from the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA – Karen Gylys, Ph.D., R.N.; Ed Teng, M.D., Ph.D.; Qiulan Ma, M.D., Ph.D.; and Greg Cole, Ph.D. – joined our team: the “L.A. Mindsavers.”
Our first training ride was catastrophic – Qiulan took a tumble on Topanga Canyon at 30 m.p.h., ending up concussed, with a skinned elbow and a broken wrist! Training rides up the Santa Monica Mountains into the sun and down through blankets of fog gave us hope, except for the 12.5-percent-grade hill along Stunt Road in Calabasas. Still, we kept at it, and here are some highlights of our ride.
Day 1: July 20
Eric, Karen and I started out in San Luis Obispo at 6 a.m., followed by two support vans. We had breakfast with the Stanford team who had ridden the first leg south from San Francisco. They intimidated us with stories of breakneck speeds while fighting against temperature swings from 55°C to 109°F that melted their tires.
Not us. We were spinning along on windless, flat terrain with perfect temperatures – somewhat embarrassed about how easy it was. Mesmerized by the unfamiliar fragrances released into the fog, our guilt turned to gratitude that this summer’s June gloom had extended into July. Then we hit our first hill, where my bottle cage dislodged and I lost my balance, falling into the path of an oncoming big-rig. I looked up to see the truck driver mouthing profanities at me. Eric looked back to see what had happened and crashed into a ditch, skinning his knee.
The highlight of that day, though, was riding through Vandenberg Air Force Base. A sweet, elderly lady stopped her car, explaining how frightened she was about being lost. With the help of local farmers, we got her directions and were humbly reminded why we were doing this ride.
Day 2: July 21
We all gasped upon learning the day was to start with a 19-mile climb. Eric, Ed, Greg and I went up the hill, and I sped up, reliving my past life as a cyclist swiftly conquering the steepest of mountains. There were some scary stretches on Highway 101 and more close calls with big-rigs. We were all pretty tired, except Greg, who kept speeding for miles and tearing down hills at 50 m.p.h. There was one unfortunate wrong turn in Santa Barbara, up a steep mile-long hill. Ed, riding a hybrid bike, wasn’t pleased, but by the end of the day he beat us all to our hotel in Ventura.
Day 3: July 22
Despite the breathtaking ocean views and the joyous sight of dolphins and surfers catching perfect waves, I was disappointed to see several hills still to conquer. Worse than the hills, though, was trash-pickup day in Malibu. There we dodged trash bins in the bike lane and maneuvered around parked cars when drivers opened their doors into our path.
The last treat was a final 9-percent hill in Beverly Hills. My derailer broke and I had to grab my chain and move it by hand to the small sprocket to make it up the steep incline.
We arrived at the Kodak Theatre frazzled and relieved to have survived the journey, but hearing one Alzheimer’s patient who spoke at the end of our ride made it all worthwhile. She spoke with eloquence, dignity and courage of her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and her faith in researchers to find a cure. And that is what our journey was all about.
Dr. Sally A. Frautschy is a professor of neurology in the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA.