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September 30, 2002

Letters from the saddle

Woody Hunter is interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs

During the summer of 2001, my wife Susan and I began to ride bicycles for more than just a short pedal around the block. I found cycling to be an excellent substitute for running, which had become a problem because of an aching knee, and we both wanted to get into shape for a planned biking vacation in Ireland.

That vacation turned out to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated—there are lots of hills and steep climbs in Connemara, and it rains all the time—but it also was great fun. One thing led to another, and soon enough we were on good road bikes and learning how to do longer distances.

Meanwhile, I became interim provost and began to learn more about all the great research that is going on at Emory. I knew a good deal about the work being done in the Rollins School of Public Health, in the School of Medicine, and in the hospitals on AIDS. I also was familiar with the new drugs being developed in the labs of people such as Dennis Liotta and Ray Schinazi, but I only learned last year of the pathbreaking work being done at the Emory Vaccine Center by Harriet Robinson and others.

In the late fall of 2001, Susan and I were invited to a holiday party at the medical school. It was a chilly day, and we had just finished a 76-mile ride before we arrived at the party. Before we had a chance to eat anything—but after a glass of wine—Phil Hills,
a senior development officer in Health Sciences, said to us, “I understand you ride bikes. How about doing the AIDS bike ride this summer from Amsterdam to Paris to benefit the Emory Vaccine Center?”

That sounded like fun (and it seemed that the route from Amsterdam to Paris would be much easier than the hills and mountains of western Ireland), so we both said, “Sure, sign us up.”

Next thing I know, we are in serious training, we have an Emory team of nine riders, and we are lugging bike boxes to the airport to fly to Amsterdam. What follows are excerpts from the letter Susan and I wrote to those wonderful people who sponsored us by making donations to the Emory Vaccine Center:

“Yes, we did it! We and our seven fellow cyclists of Team Emory Vaccine rode from Amsterdam to Paris—540 surprisingly hilly miles. And yes, it was difficult—even more difficult than we had imagined. We had rain, headwinds, flat tires, flooded campgrounds, heavy traffic—and a wonderful time! Along with more than 600 cyclists from across America, supported by 300 non-riding but extraordinarily hard-working crew members, including three additional members of money for AIDS vaccine research.

Now for the details of our adventure: We had anticipated that the ride would be a challenging physical effort, and it was indeed that. But our training prepared us well for the long daily miles. What we were not prepared for was the almost daily rain, headwinds, flooded campgrounds and flat tires (those scenic cobble-and-brick Dutch bike paths required heavy-duty Dutch bikes, not lightweight road bikes!). Changing a flat tire in 40-degree weather and rain is not fun, but by the 11th flat, our tire-changing skills had improved dramatically. And, oh yes, it was sleet that whipped our faces as we rounded a turn on Day 2.

The route planners actually managed to find a steep (but, thankfully, short) hill in Holland, but by the time we got to the Ardennes region of Belgium, it seemed they had sought out the steepest and longest climbs. And of course any climb feels hard with wind and rain blowing in your face.

But we persevered, as did every member of Team Emory, three of whom succeeded in riding every mile on every day, truly a major accomplishment given the long mileage and nasty weather. We were not among those three, but we came very close.

On the day of sleet and multiple flat tires, we were “swept” by the SAG bus—so named because its job was to sweep up tired riders who’d begun “sagging” behind—still 30 miles from the finish when the route was closed due to rain, cold and darkness. Susan was swept another day, 15 miles from the finish, when sidelined by an unfixable flat, and she admits—with a certain amount of pride in maintaining her sanity—to boarding the SAG bus at mile 70 of Day 4, while I climbed four miles of 11 percent grade in driving rain and ferocious truck traffic. (The Tour de France rates a climb of more than 8 percent grade as “Beyond Category.”)

It also was very satisfying to have finished pain- and injury-free, unlike many younger riders who thought that youth and a moderate degree of physical fitness would see them through, but who later discovered that the only effective way to train for an endurance ride of this kind was with many, many miles in the saddle.

So how does it feel to have ridden all those miles and to have lived in mildewing clothes for a week? The answer is thrilling. And not just because we met the physical challenge; equally thrilling was being with a group of so many dedicated people, each of whom had raised a minimum of $5,000 plus expenses just to be there.

The experience of sharing this adventure with so many, of knowing that we were united for a common goal, is something Susan and I will never forget. We are not yet sure how it has changed our lives, but we know it has. We also know that we will continue to be dedicated to supporting the work of our Emory researchers at the Vaccine Center as they get up every day and work long hours searching for ways to defeat disease and improve the human condition.”

The wonderful members of Team Emory Vaccine who rode with us were: Joe Miller, team captain and a Vaccine Center researcher; Krista Fajman, ’02C; Mike Peters, ’02C (Mike and Krista are Joe’s lab assistants); Teresa Rivero, ’87B, ’93MPH; Carol Fuzzard, ’93T; Clara Hagens, ’02MPH; and Noel Hagens, Clara’s mother. Our ground crew consisted of Phil Hills from Institutional Advancement, Dave Hanson from Goizueta Business School, and Nancy Seideman from Public Affairs.

Thanks—and congratulations—to all who participated.