The First Flight Society inducted NASA retired aeronautics engineer Richard Whitcomb, who made supersonic flight possible, into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National visitor’s center in Kill Devil Hills, NC, during celebration activities commemorating the 104th anniversary of flight on Dec. 17, 2007.

His portrait will be displayed in the flight room of the visitors’ center where it will join those of other aviation pioneers. The tradition began in 1966 with the portrait of the Wright brothers.

Whitcomb followed in the best tradition of the Wright brothers, who when confronted with the claim of experts that man could never fly, showed them that they were wrong.

Whitcomb was also faced with the claim that man could never fly faster than the speed of sound. Many in the aeronautical experts in the 1930s and 1940s believed in the existence of an invisible barrier in the sky that prevented aircraft from flying faster than the speed of sound, which was approximately 700 mph.

Government researchers at McCook Field in Dayton and others first identified the problem on aircraft propellers in the 1920s. When the tips of a whirling propeller approached the speed of sound, it lost efficiency because of a drastic loss of lift. They simply could not turn any faster.

The big problem seen by the experts was the problem of overcoming drag. Both the Wrights and Whitcomb used their intellect and wind tunnel tests to solve the problem of drag. Tom Crouch, senior curator at the Smithsonian’s air and Space Museum noted that “Whitcomb battled the enemy of drag and won.”

The problem of drag facing the designers of supersonic aircraft was the large increase in drag associated with the formation of shock waves that occurred at speeds just below and above the speed of sound (transonic speeds). An airplane can experience severe instability at these speeds.

When an aircraft moves at the speed of sound, shock waves build up in front of it creating a single, very large shock wave. During transonic flight, a plane must pass through this large shock wave as well as contending with the instability caused by air moving faster than sound over parts of the wing and slower in other parts. The phenomenon is explained by the Bernoulli principle.

One day late in 1951 Whitcomb relates that he was thinking about the problem and trying to visualize the air passing over a body at transonic speed when he came to the startling realization that the air passing over a body at transonic speed behaved in a different way than the experts thought. He concluded that what really caused transonic drag was not the diameter of the fuselage alone, rather it was the drag rise created by the total cross-sectional area of the fuselage, wings and tail.

Since wings added most to this area, drag could be reduced significantly by tucking in or narrowing the fuselage where the wings attached and then expanding the fuselage at their trailing edges. Using this configuration the air would be displaced less violently, the waves and drag would diminish, thus enabling an airplane to pass more easily through the transonic zone.

He concluded that the same amount of air had to be replaced to get out of the way to make room for the plane, but with the trimmed down “wasp waist,” the air would not be displaced in such violent shock patterns. The configuration became known as the “area rule.” It was shaped more like an old-fashioned soda bottle.

His discovery was particularly timely because at that moment virtually all military fighters aimed at sustained level supersonic flight was doomed to remain below Mach 1 because of the incapability of the jet engines of the time to overcome the tremendous drag rise.

On August 1954, his ideas were confirmed in practice when a Grumman F9F-9 successfully breezed through sonic speed in level flight without the use of an afterburner, the first time this had been done.

Whitcomb was awarded the prestigious Collier trophy for his achievement and many other awards.

He continued to refine and extend his basic concept for commercial jets and well as military planes.

In the 1960s he conceived the “supercritical airfoil,” an airfoil whose primary attribute was improved performance at high subsonic speeds.

In the 1970s he developed what is called “winglets.” These are devices placed at the wingtips, normal to the wingspar, extending both upward and downward. The devices reduce wingtip vortices and the induced drag such vortices create. The aerodynamic efficiency of the wing is improved and fuel consumption reduced as well.

Tom Crouch notes that “Dick Whitcomb’s intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today.”

Whitcomb’s personality was in many respects similar to that of the Wrights. He was a conservative and shy and didn’t like administrative duties. In the laboratory he was a creative radical and in some respects management didn’t know quite know how to deal with him, so they pretty much let him do what he wanted.

On the beautiful morning of June 21, 2004, some 100 years after the first flight of the Wright Flyer, SpaceShipOne flew a short flight of less than 90 minutes into space 62 miles above the earth. It was one giant step for the entrepreneur spirit.

In 1903, the thought of people traveling in the air from city to city seemed impossible. Today space exploration, both private and public, is still just getting off the ground.

Rutan said, “today’s flight marks a critical turning point in the history of aerospace. We have redefined travel, as we know it. Our success proves without question that manned space does not require mammoth expenditures. It can be done by a small company with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.”

Rutan, 61, a college educated aeronautical engineer, founded Scaled Composites in the early 1900s. He has a reputation for his innovative approach to aircraft design. His genius seems to lie in his ability to combine a number of unrelated innovations into one design.

His interest in airplanes started at an early age. He was a competition aero modeler as a teenager. Many people first heard of him when one of his designs, the Voyager, flew around the world nonstop on a 9-day flight. Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother piloted the plane in 1986.

SpaceShipOne started its flight attached underneath the belly of another one of Rutan’s unique planes he developed from scratch, named the White Knight.

Using a mother ship reduces the expense and danger of a rocket launch from the ground.

The White Night took off from a normal runway witnessed by thousands of spectators who lined the grounds of the Mojave Desert Airport. The two vehicles joined together looked like something out of a Buck Rodgers comic book.

The twin turbo-fan powered White Knight carried the SpaceShipOne up to approximately 50,000-feet altitude to start the space flight. At that altitude they are through about 85% of the earth’s atmosphere. (Note: Cruising altitudes for some jets is 35,000-feet).

The pilot of SpaceShipOne was Michael Melvill. Melvill was born in South Africa and later became an U.S. citizen. He has worked for Rutan for 26 years and has flown all kinds of airplanes.

When SpaceShipOne disconnected from the mother ship, it glided for about 10-seconds while Melvill trimmed the craft ready for the rocket boost. He then threw a switch that fired the rocket motor capable of generating 17,000-pounds of thrust that accelerated the craft to twice the speed of sound.

This unique rocket motor was designed from scratch by Rutan’s design team. They had never made a rocket motor before just as the Wright brothers designed and built their own original 12-hp engine for the Flyer.

The rocket fuel consisted of tire rubber as the fuel and laughing gas as the oxidizer. The laughing gas self-pressures at room temperature, eliminating the need for the complicated systems of pumps and pipes typical in rocket engines. This saves money and weight.

When the rocket motor fired, Melvill immediately commenced a pullout maneuver to point the nose vertically in order to fly straight up to sub-orbital space. The craft continued to accelerate straight-out for a minute or so until the rocket burned out at about 150,000-feet. At this point the craft was going twice the speed of sound, straight out and coasting. The pilot felt about 3-4 g’s.

From there it coasted another some 150,000-feet until it reached apogee, about 62-miles above sea level.

Unfortunately, during this phase a control problem developed. The Wright brothers also encountered control problems on December 17, 1903. They had great difficulty maintaining pitch control.

After motor ignition, Melvill’s craft rolled to the left and then rolled to the right and experienced trim problems as the craft hit horizontal wind shear. To make matters worse, he experienced a temporary failure of the left stabilizer trim motor. The failure was caused by the trim motor reaching the stop and blowing its circuit breaker, which automatically reset itself in 3 seconds.

He had to fight to stabilize the craft. He said later “It never ever did that before.” He said he thought, “he was going to be a squashed bug.”

He briefly considered aborting or trying a high-risk bailout. He quickly dismissed that thought because a bailout would have destroyed the craft.

Fortunately, the craft had built-in backup controls. He switched to them and was able to regain mastery of the controls.

Because of the control problem, the craft varied from its planned trajectory and the apogee occurred at 328,491-feet instead of 360,000-feet. It was still good enough to reach the threshold of space of 62-miles.

Just before apogee, the craft was reconfigured for the next phase. Melvill flipped a switch that started a very unusual and clever procedure. The switch activated pneumatic actuators that moved the tail and back half of the wing and reconfigured the craft into a “jack-knifed position” for re-entry into the atmosphere.

The transformation took 15-seconds and the back half of the craft moved up 65 degrees.

In this configuration the craft acts as a stable badminton shuttlecock as it follows a ballistic trajectory through the apogee and starts its fall back to earth. At this point the pilot has no control.

This hinged or “feathering” wing configuration is the most innovative feature of the craft’s aerodynamic design. It provided a rock-solid stability at supersonic speed.

As the craft passed through the apogee, it picked up speed from zero as it fell back into the atmosphere. Melvill experienced weightlessness for about 3 1/2 minutes.

He had smuggled a package of “M and Ms” on board. He opened the package and let them go. “They stayed there spinning like little satellites.”

The craft fell towards earth into denser and denser air. The “jack knifed” craft presents to the atmosphere its full whole belly and the tremendous drag it created slowed the craft as it fell.

He experienced about 5 – 6 g’s during the deceleration. Only an experienced pilot, like Melvill, could remain conscious at these g’s.

Melvill experienced another potential problem. He heard some disconcerting loud rumbling noises in the engine area and shaking during this phase.

During the fall, only moderate heat was generated from the graphite-epoxy composite materials of the craft. Some hotter sections were treated with trowel-on ablative thermal protection. The insulation material worked as designed to protect the craft from the 1,100-degree temperatures of reentry.

As Melvill neared 50,000-feet, he flipped a switch and the craft turned back into the normal configuration with a tail.

He dived out of that maneuver and began a peaceful ride, flying the craft as a normal glider. He was back at the airport for a perfect three-point landing in 10 to 15 minutes.

When Melvill got off the plane he said, “It was like nothing I’ve seen before. You really do get the feeling that you’ve touched the face of God.”

He wore a good luck charm in the shape of a horseshoe on the left side of his spacesuit. He had given it to his future wife when she was still a teenager. She gives it back to him to wear for every flight.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin of Apollo fame greeted him with “you have joined the club.” The FAA presented him with the first commercial astronaut wings.

SpaceShipOne is designed for sub-orbital flight that begins at 62-miles altitude. It holds three people, has a wingspan of 16.4-feet and is 28-feet long. The aspect ratio of the wings is 1.7. It utilizes elevons, which is a combination of ailerons and elevators, for control. The craft is less than ¼ the size of the Space Shuttle.

The craft uses its tail and wings to fly like an airplane during the ascent stage after horizontal launch from the mother ship and again during the gliding approaches and landing.

It cost $20 million dollars to build. Rutan claims that is about what it costs NASA to make a paper study. Investor and philanthropist billionaire Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is the major investor.

Samuel Langley had a government contract for $50,000 in addition to use of the resources of the Smithsonian and failed when his Great Aerodrome crashed twice on takeoff in 1903. The Wright brothers were successful a few days later using only $1,200 of their own money.

Rutan’s group will win $10 million if they can win the “X Prize.” To do that they must fly into space twice with the same craft within a two-week period carrying three people or equivalent.

There are 26 other ventures from seven countries that are also vying for the prize. One other team is reportedly close to attempting their first space flight.

The prize was established eight years ago for purpose of encouraging development of commercial space flight. A St. Louis group sponsors the prize. Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh that flew from New York to Paris in 1927, is part of the group. SpaceShipOne’s flight is somewhat akin to Lindbergh’s pioneering flight that won the $25,000 Orteig prize.

The problems uncovered during the test program have been diagnosed and fixed. Rutan says they plan to fly again on September 29th followed by a second flight as early as October 4th.

One of the first commercial uses of SpaceShipOne will be for tourism. At first it will cost between $30,000-50,000 to experience the exciting ride and spectacular view. Melvill says it is a “mind-blowing experience.”

Rutan expects the cost to come down to around $12,000 with 5-6 passengers within about 15 years.

When the Wright brothers flew, there were few people who could imagine the impact that their flight would have on the 20th century. The commercial airplane industry and intercontinental flight seemed far-fetched. Even the brothers thought that governments would be their main customers because they were the only ones that could afford to buy their airplanes.

Rutan expects his efforts will spark the imagination of a new generation of explorers and new industry of privately funded manned spacecraft just as Orville and Wilbur opened the door to flight itself. The incentive of commerce will eventually lead to cheap access to space.

Up Date: Northrop Grumman buys SpaceShipOne Maker. A spokesman for Northrop Grumman said that Scaled will continue in its current operating model as a separate entity within Northrop Grumman and that Rutan and Scaled management will remain in place. The partner ship between Scaled and the Virgin Group, which seeks to begin  suborbital tourist flights in 2009, remains unchanged.

First Female Space Tourist

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

Anousheh Ansari, 40, has purchased her $20 million ticket and rode the Russian Soyuz TMA-9 spaceship to the international Space Station on September 18, 2006. with her were Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and Spanish-born U.S. astronaut Lopez-Alegria.

She is the fourth tourist to visit the space station.

Ansari, born in Iran, is an American entrepreneur millionaire from Plano, Texas.

As a young girl in Iran, she used to gaze at the stars and dream of some day flying into space. Her opportunity came when the Russians began selling tickets to the International Space Station in 2001 to raise money for their space program.

A Virginia based company, Space Adventures, brokers the tickets for the Russians. She has spent the last few months training for the trip at the NASA’s Johnson Space Center and at Star City outside Moscow.

Ansari is no stranger to space adventures. In 2001, she and her brother-in-law contributed most of the $10 million X-Prize whose objective was to spur commercial space travel. Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won the prize in 2004.

Ansari can afford the steep ticket price. In 1993, she and her husband, Hamid, quit their jobs at MCI and started their own telecommunications company. They took a big gamble at the time. They cashed out their retirement funds of $50,000 to start the new company. Seven years later they sold the company for $750, 000.

She emigrated to the United Stated in 1984 at the age of 16. The Shah had been overthrown and as a woman she would have no opportunity to study science at an Iranian university. In America she received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at George Mason University and a master’s degree from George Washington University.

Ansari was listed in Fortune’s Magazine’s “40 under 40” in 2001 and honored by Working Woman Magazine as the winner of the year 2000 National Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.

While in the space station for eight days, she will be conducting blood and muscular experiments for the European Space Agency. She believes that entrepreneurial minds and money will speed innovation. She hopes that her example will spur others to explore space for the future of mankind.

She returned safely on Sept 29 in Kazakhstan.

Kitty Hawk Flyer Almost Lost in Flood

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

The Kitty Hawk Flyer was in storage behind the bicycle shop when a horrendous flood enveloped Dayton including the Flyer, threatening its survival.

The hard rain began on Easter Sunday March 23, 1913. Most citizens were unconcerned even though Dayton had experienced flooding six times in its past because of its location at the confluence of the Miami, Stillwater and Mad Rivers.

The next day, March 24th, the rain became a deluge. The Miami River was rising rapidly at a rate of over 6-inches per hour. Milton Wright, 84, had a premonition that the rain was worse this time and could cause trouble. He wrote in his diary, “I apprehended a flood. Felt the danger of it.” His prescience would turn out to be right.

The next morning on Tuesday, the 25th, Orville and Katharine were late rising because they had just returned from a trip to Europe six days before. Unaware of the impending danger, they hurried off to keep an appointment leaving the Bishop home alone.

At 7 a.m. that morning an earthen dam collapsed upstream at Loramie Reservoir sending a wall of water towards Dayton. Factories blew warning whistles and church bells rang but most people didn’t know the reason for the noise and ignored it.

At 4 p.m. the levies protecting Dayton gave way to the roaring water. A wall of water 5-feet deep poured into Dayton. Observers say that more water poured into the city than over Niagara Falls. The water level climbed 12 to 14 feet in the downtown area.

Orville and Katharine were on high ground and safe, but they couldn’t return home. Electricity was out so there was no telephone service. They were greatly concerned about their father’s safety.

They were unaware at the time, but their next door neighbor rescued Milton by canoe and had taken him to safety at a house on Williams St. They had cause to be concerned because there was some eight feet of water at their home on Hawthorn St.

Fifteen square miles of the Dayton area now lay under 6 to 20 feet of water.

People scrambled to upper floors, rooftops and trees to escape the water. Some 15,000 people, nearly one-half of the city’s population had no shelter and were forced to endure rain and later sleet without shelter or drink. There was little food or drinking water. Swirling water, the consistency of pea soap, was contaminated from some 4,000 privies.

My father, then 12 years old, and my grandparents scrambled to their second floor.

A family at the corner of Herman and Taylor St. used a railing from a wooden bedstead as a battering ram to punch a hole through the 2nd floor ceiling into the attic. They then piled mattresses on a bed and placed a chair on top of that to climb into the attic. They then punched a hole in the roof to escape onto the roof.

All through the night the stranded people heard the firing of guns, shrieks and cries for help, some drowned, and buildings were tipping over. The floodwaters crested around midnight. The rain continued all night and it turned colder in the morning.

Orville posted signs asking for anyone who had news about Milton, to contact him. He and Katharine were relieved when they received word that he was safe.

Orville had new worries.

The terror of fire supplanted that of water. All over the city fires erupted from escaping gas. Some buildings blew up. The sky was filled with clouds of smoke. The entire business district was in danger of burning down. Orville could see buildings on fire hear his bicycle shop and believed it would all go up in flames.

The disassembled 1903 airplane was packed in crates in a shed behind the shop. Letters, diaries and their records of their glider trials, wind tunnel and propeller experiments were stored on the second floor of the bike shop.

On a shelf in a shed behind their house on Hawthorn St were stored the irreplaceable photograph negatives of their Kitty Hawk and Huffman Prairie flights, including the famous picture of the first flight.

Local government ceased to function. Into the breach stepped John H. Patterson, the president of the National Cash Register Company (NCR) and a friend of the Wrights. When he observed what was happening he converted the NCR, that was on higher ground and not flooded, to making flat bottom boats. The employees made some 275 boats at the rate of one every 15 minutes. Thousands of people were rescued by the boats from rooftops and windows.

The NCR buildings and a hastily built tent city on the surrounding ground were used to house and care for the refugees. Each person received a cot, pillow and blanket. The tents had wooden floors. They also received dry clothes, hot meals and medical attention.

Ohio Governor Cox sent National Guards Soldiers to Dayton and placed the troops under the command of Patterson who was given the rank of Colonel.

The NCR with 7,100 employees spent almost $2 million, 2/3rds of their company profit for the year, on the rescue. Patterson sought no reimbursement or tax deduction for the expenditure.

Orville wrote, “I do not suppose there has ever been a similar calamity where relief was so promptly afforded with so little waste. Dayton was very fortunate in having a man with the ability of Patterson to take this work in hand.”

The waters receded on March 30. It had been 5 days of hell and everywhere there was ruin, waste, destruction and mud. It was estimated that 371 people died and there was close to $1 million property damaged including 14,000 homes destroyed or damaged.

There was wreckage piled almost to the roofs of houses, animals were stranded on roof tops, overturned street cars, wrecked grand pianos, 1400 dead horses, waste lumber, asphalt rolled into huge bales like carpet, horrible filth and pungent smell. Men waded through mud above their knees.

The Northwest Tower of Steele High School where Katharine had been a teacher collapsed under the pressure of the water.

Orville and Katharine returned home to happily find that their home and the bike shop survived. The records had little damage. The glass plate negatives had some water damage but were not a total loss. The famous photograph of the first flight was slightly damaged on the lower left corner.

The shed behind the bike shop survived intact and the Flyer was partially protected by a layer of mud. Orville cleaned off the top of the crates and put them back in the shed.

Orville wrote, “My personal loss has been slight, somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. Hundreds of families and merchants in the city lost practically everything they had. This is probably the greatest calamity that has ever happened to an American city, as insurance policies do not provide coverage for damage by flood.”

Milton returned home on April 4th after the house was cleaned. He recorded in his diary; “I walked home after dinner. Found Orville drying his bonds.”

Tough Cycling

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

Orville and Wilbur Wright not only manufactured bicycles, they were active cyclists who took long rides and participated in bicycle races. Wilbur describes one fun ride around the Dayton area of 31 miles. Orville won races and medals.

My son Don, is an aeronautical engineer who works for the FAA, enjoys riding bicycles and belongs to a racing team in Seattle.

This year he journeyed to Europe to participate in the 2006 Tour De France pre-race over the Alps. Some 8,000 cyclists took advantage of the opportunity. The route included three beyond category climbs, and one 1st category climb over a 104-mile ride including the leg killing combination of ascents and descents of the massive Galibier and Le Telegraph passes.

The official start of the race was at the bottom of the L’ Alpe d’Huez. As I am wrote this, I watched the Tours 15th stage in which Floyd Landis won the Yellow Jersey on this mountain. The 13.8-kilometer ride to the top includes 21 hairpin switchbacks. An estimated 1 million spectators watched.

Floyd Landis went on to win the yellow jersey in Paris for the Tour.

Here is the story in Don’s words:

“Whoo, I made it! Three beyond category climbs, a 1st category climb and 104 miles – more difficult than any single stage in the Tour. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve concluded that a 39×27 is not a low enough gear for 16,000+ feet of climbing at grades of 7-11% for miles on end. A compact crank, or at least 38 x 28, would have definitely helped.

The start was pretty disorganized. I stayed in a hotel at the top of the Alpe d’ Huez. The start was in Bourg d’Oisan, at the base of the Alpe at 7:15 AM. We had been told that there was a free shuttle if you sign up in advance, but none of the people I talked to knew anything about it. That turned out not to be a big deal as it gave me the opportunity to descend the Alpe, something I had only done previously in a driving thunderstorm.

I flew down the switchbacks, passing plenty of other riders and a few cars, and was having a great time. It had taken me a little over an hour to go up it a couple of years ago; it only took 15-18 minutes to go down it.

The start was supposed to be in waves of a thousand every fifteen minutes or so. With a number of 3726, I figured that I would be starting around 8 AM. They directed all the riders down this side road into a big disorganized mass. At one point there was a diversion for numbers higher than 600. (There were more than 8,000 riders registered for this insanity.)

I saw a number of riders less than 600 take that lane, as it was not backed up like the main lane was. We progressed forward very slowly, then finally were able to get on our bikes and ride forward, still very slowly. At one point, the lane for the riders with numbers greater than 6,000 re-merged with the main lane – all the riders who went down that lane actually got a shortcut!

Suddenly, I was riding under what looked to be the start banner and realized that I had just started! Sure enough, it was around 8 AM.

We had about 10-15 miles of flat road before the first climb. People were generally going pretty slow, so I spent a lot of time trying to find my way around and through large groups of cyclists. We went by a couple of intersections with median strips where they had a policeman waving yellow triangular flags over their heads like at the Tour de France. Pretty cool.

When we started up, my plan was to take it easy up the first two climbs, hopefully saving something for the Galibier and the finish up Alpe d’Huez. Even though I was trying to go easy, I was steadily passing scores (hundreds) of riders who were basically spread across the entire width of the narrow road. Motorcycles with the race kept going up the left side of the road, trying to maintain a little space over there for any traffic that might be foolish enough to be coming the other way.

At the top of the Col du Glandon (which we did instead of Col de la Croix Fer because of road maintenance), things came to a halt. I followed some other cyclists who had gotten off their bikes and were hiking over the Glandon on foot above the road. There was a water stop at the top of the mountain, and I thought that was what had caused the jam-up. When we got back to the road on the other side of the mountain, there were police blocking the road.

The descent off of Glandon is very steep and tricky, with a sheer drop-off on one side. The police said that there had been an accident involving 5 cyclists. I never heard what had happened or how the cyclists were.

I ended up being delayed over an hour. I later heard a number of cyclists called it quits at that point and turned around. I was worried about how they would start us going again, and did not relish the thought of descending the Glandon with thousands of other cyclists at the same time. Fortunately, they let us off in small groups. As on Alpe d’Huez, I was not impressed with the descending skills of the other cyclists. I flew down that thing, again passing hundreds of cyclists on the long descent. The switchbacks were tight and unforgiving, but they were easy to see and slow down for.

On the flats between the Glandon and the Col du Telegraph, I again could not find a group going the speed I wanted to go. I couldn’t even find a group that was maintaining 20 mph. Finally, after passing a lot of groups, one group latched on to me, then some of their guys took some pulls. (Most of the riders were content to let anyone pull forever.) One guy finally came up and pulled for the last few miles at 25 mph – just what I was looking for. And he didn’t mind staying up there. At one point, I went up alongside him and told him we were doing a great job –- he just said that he flats.

At the base of the Telegraph, I was out of water, so I stopped at a bar to get some. It took me about 10-15 minutes just to get a water bottle filled. I started up the Telegraph, thinking that it was the shortest and easiest of the climbs, again passing other cyclists at a good clip. After a little bit, I came upon a sign that said 10k to the summit. I was hoping it was going to be more like 5k at that point, as I was starting to feel it. At 3k to go, I was really running low on energy, and for the first time, although I was still passing a good number of cyclists, I was also being passed by several groups.

Finally, the summit, and another good, though much shorter descent before the next climb, the monster Galibier (above 9,000 feet in elevation). I knew I was in need of some solid food (gels and Power Bars just weren’t cutting it at that point). I stopped at a little kind of drive-in food stand that was selling sandwiches and pizza. Pizza sounded good to me, so I ordered one. When it came, I didn’t realize how big it was going to be. I wolfed down half of it, then offered the rest to the other emaciated riders waiting in line for food. Then it was time to start the Galibier.

I remembered the Galibier from having ridden it a few years ago as very long, but not very steep. However, with the amount of energy I’d already expended, and the heat, which was making it very difficult to stay hydrated, it seemed a lot harder this time. It was here that I decided that my gear selection was inadequate – my normal cadence in my lowest gear resulted in a speed of about 7 mph, 6 mph was okay, but I was starting to get bogged down. 5 mph was a really slow cadence, and if I was under 5 mph, I felt like it was time to stop.

All those people I’d been passing had lower gears that would allow a higher cadence at lower speeds, saving their legs a bit for the distance. I ended up having to stop 2 or 3 times on the way up the Galibier. It was at this point that I started wondering if I was going to complete the ride. (Actually, I’d been wondering that since the day before when I took a little recon ride that my legs didn’t like too much, and started wondering about my gearing.) At the top, I took a quick stop for more water and some orange and banana slices that they had. I knew that it would be pretty much all downhill from there until Alpe d’Huez.

Again, the descent was loads of fun. The first part is more technical (and more exposed). I remember that the other time I’d done it, I thought I would never want to do it in a race because of the exposure – if you missed a turn on some of those turns, it was a long way down. But this time, maybe knowing what to expect, I didn’t think it was bad at all. The descents were definitely the most fun part of the whole event and well worth the price of admission by themselves.

I was again passing large number of riders, but when the road finally straightened out a bit, a group latched onto me and we started riding together. It was a good thing, too, because it was a headwind the whole way back. Even though it was downhill, when the grade lessened, the headwind was making it a bit difficult to go it alone. After a slight uphill that detached a number of in our group, five of us finally started riding in a continuously rotating paceline, which was necessary due to the wind.

We all stopped at the final food stop at the base of Alpe d’Huez. It was about 4:15 PM. If I hadn’t been delayed an hour at the Col du Glandon, I would have still had a shot at a gold medal if I could get up the Alpe in about an hour. Well, I could do that on fresh legs, but not on toasted ones like I now had. I was kind of glad that I didn’t have a shot at that because all I wanted to think about now was surviving.

It took me about a ½ hour to eat, drink, fill water bottles, and convince myself that I had better get started. I knew that the first 4 switchbacks were the hardest, at grades over 11%, so I set a goal of making it to switchback 17 before thinking about stopping (The numbers get smaller as you ride up the Alpe).

I didn’t make it. I had to stop at 18. Then I started having some chain skipping problems, so I had to stop a couple more times to deal with that. The places that I had remembered it as being less steep were still very difficult. What had taken me over an hour a few years ago (when I was not trying to go real hard) took me nearly 2 hours (1:45 to 1:50) this time, including about 3 or 4 stops. Some riders were walking their bikes, but most had those infuriating low gears that they could continue to ride in even though they were going just slightly faster than a walking pace. It was sure faster than I was going while I was stopped, though!

It eases off in the last couple of kilometers as you go through the alpine village at the top. The last kilometer really eases off, then it goes a little downhill through a roundabout, then around a left hand to an uphill finish. I was waiting for that and really kicked it up for the finish, jumping to the big ring for the little downhill and sprinting past some riders on the finishing uphill.

It was kind of cool in that they had the final 1 k blocked off with the Tour de France type fencing, and there was a grandstand set up with people cheering you on. There wasn’t any 1 k kite or banner, but the finish banner was pretty neat.

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I stopped and bent over my bike. Then I noticed that the place where your timing chip actually recorded your finish was a few feet further on, and all the people I had just passed were going by me to the electronic finishing lanes.

Oh well, what else? I rolled forward to the electronic finish and got my official time – 10 hours and 33 minutes – good enough for a silver medal (which you had to purchase).

Well, that’s it for my excellent adventure (for the old guy from Newcastle, Washington).”

Comment: I would say so! For a guy in his late 40s, his performance was simply amazing.