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Vol. LIX, No. 16
August 10, 2007

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NCI's Mittelstadt Is Maryland Cycling Champion

  Dr. Paul Mittelstadt races bikes in his spare time.  
  Dr. Paul Mittelstadt races bikes in his spare time.  
The last two weekends in June were kind to Dr. Paul Mittelstadt, a cancer researcher in Bldg. 37 who races bikes in his spare time. On June 24, he won the 50+ race at the Reston Town Center Grand Prix. Six days later he won the Maryland state championship for his age group in a 50-mile road race in Smithsburg, Md., near Hagerstown. And on May 20, he won the Leonardtown Criterium.

The soft-spoken Ph.D. has been racing bicycles since he was a teenager in San Francisco, but only lately has come into his own as an event winner.

"I must be figuring something out," he said.

What amazes his NIH cycling peers, with whom Mittelstadt trains during noon-hour rides from campus to Potomac and back, is how well he does for a person who doesn't ride professionally.

At the Maryland championships, "He beat a substantial field of extremely competitive local riders, most of whom practice an average of more than 250 miles a week at extremely intense levels," said Dr. Ad Bax, an NIDDK spectroscopist who has also been successful as a rower and runner.

A staff scientist in NCI's Laboratory of Immune Cell Biology, Mittelstadt, 50, only averages 10 hours a week training, chiefly the lunchtime 25-milers with fellow NIH'ers (who on July 12 were joined by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose brother belongs to DC Velo, Mittelstadt's local club) and a Saturday morning 35-miler out Clara Barton Parkway, which he knocks out in less than 2 hours.

  Mittelstadt competes in a recent road race; he has been remarkably successful since turning age 50.
  Mittelstadt competes in a recent road race; he has been remarkably
successful since turning age 50.

He hasn't a clue of what his state-title-winning time was in Smithsburg, noting only that he won by "a bike length."

Though he admits that many of his fellow racers profit from weightlifting sessions and hours of work aboard stationary bikes, Mittelstadt has little use for either. "I have some dumbbells at home that I use occasionally. And my teammates all use a stationary bike, but I don't." Too boring, he says.

His secret training weapon is "trying to keep up with the young local riders-that's always a challenge."

Born in Florida but reared in San Francisco, Mittelstadt had some success as a "junior" rider. While in his early twenties, he was a district champ in Northern California ("But California is a big state," he qualifies, humbly), specializing in the 1-kilometer time trial and match sprints, which are head-to-head races against one other rider.

Competing off and on as an adult, he once viewed age 40 as the ceiling of his cycling career. "Then when I reached 40, I thought 50 was too ridiculous." Though he didn't perform especially well at the USA Cycling National Festival at Seven Springs, Pa., in early July (he placed 44th in his age group), he noticed that the field "was pretty large" for men 60+ and 70+, and thus plans to race indefinitely.

Today he is sponsored by the energy-trading company Clean Currents and by Don Beyer Volvo, which pay his race-entry fees and other nominal expenses. When Mittelstadt wins a race and earns a cash prize, the money goes toward supporting the promising younger riders at DC Velo. He enters fewer than 20 contests a year, choosing some simply because of the beautiful terrain, as in September's Green Mountain Race in Vermont, which he terms "a spectacular course.

"It's kind of an addicting thing that we do," he says of racing. "It's better than some other addictions."

A 10-year NIH veteran who converted to a staff scientist position after completing postdoctoral work here, Mittelstadt studies T cells and how they activate proteins involved in carcinogenesis. Naturally, he bikes the 1.5 miles to work each day, and wishes more NIH'ers would form the habit, although he concedes that he's broken three bike frames on the way to work, and once rammed a motorized wheelchair by accident, leaving the occupant uninjured but totaling his bike.

  Though relaxing here at the Bldg. 40 outdoor cafe, Mittelstadt rides during his lunch hour most days at NIH.
  Though relaxing here at the Bldg. 40 outdoor cafe, Mittelstadt rides during his lunch hour most days at NIH.

Luckily, the bike wasn't his Orbea, a Spanish-made 18-speed that cost somewhere north of $4,000.

"Something's always going to get you if you're not paying attention," he chuckles. He has broken his wrist, collarbone and pelvis, which required surgical reconstruction, but is heartened by the fact that fellow riders with artificial knees and replaced hips have done remarkably well in bike racing.

"That's the thing about cycling-if you have some sort of orthopedic problem, it's usually not made any worse by biking."

As you might expect for a scientist, Mittelstadt says, "I sort of know how many calories a ride consumes" (about 2,200 during a 50-mile race) and, like many riders, has a power meter on his handlebar that measures his energy output in watts. Cruising along the flat sections at his average pace of 23 m.p.h. in the Smithsburg race probably cost him 250 watts, 600 on the "bumps" (biker lingo for hills) and maybe over 1,000 for the final sprint.

The scientific mind is also an advantage in planning race strategy: "We're always looking for technical challenges, things that will separate the pack. You need things to break up the bunching. Hills are the best thing, side winds are another. Also aggressive riding."

Mittelstadt likes to "go out fast, and manipulate whoever I'm with into doing more work," which can be accomplished by tactics such as drafting behind a racer, then overtaking him in a sprint.

Though encouraged by his recent string of victories, Mittelstadt, who only won one 40+ event last year, seems disinclined to attribute his success to any personal virtue. "I think I'm winning because I've gotten over my allergies- the tree pollen this spring was especially bad. And being 50 years old in a 50-60-year-old group is probably the biggest factor. The downward curve may be getting steeper in this age range. In a couple of years I'll start drifting to the back of the pack."

And lest you think he's above such common activities as parking in front of the television set, he admits to enjoying Tour de France coverage on TV. "I Tivo the race every day and watch it at night after work."

See? Human after all. NIH Record Icon

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