The competitive spirit bike racing is generating along the Wasatch Front during the Tour of Utah this week is helping local dermatologists determine how much damaging UV exposure racers are getting.
Pro cyclists Dave Zabriskie and Jeff Louder wore quarter-sized "dosimeters," designed to record details about sun exposure, on their helmets during the 85-mile first leg of the race Wednesday.
Dr. Christopher Hull, a dermatologist at the University of Utah and a bike racer himself, said he came up with the idea after working with a local bike-shop owner to raise money for skin-cancer research by enlisting friends in the 1,000 Warriors racing event Saturday.
"I was looking for a way to put an academic spin on it and remembered reading about the dosimeters," Hull said. "They're small discs that we attached to the top of their helmets. I contacted Louder a month ago to see if he would be willing to wear it."
Hull took the dosimeters to the recent Cascade Classic in Oregon to collect data on UV rays in that race, as well. "It's a way for us to quantify the exposure," which changes in each race based on weather, the time of year and the altitude, he said.
By gathering the information, which has to be read by the device manufacturer in Europe, he hopes researchers may be able to develop a clinical monitor for use with their skin-cancer patients. There is a wristwatch model now under development by the director of the melanoma program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, he said.
"We'd like people with a high risk for melanoma to wear them … We'd like to have them here and make them widely available."
Gary Bywater, a former professional racer who now works as an officiator and lives in Utah, said he welcomes the news. He began racing at age 16 in 1962 and stayed with it for nearly 30 years.
Two years ago, at a racing event, he happened to bend over and a dermatologist saw a dark spot on his balding head.
"I want you in my office tomorrow," he told Bywater, who was diagnosed with melanoma that day.
"I had never even given (skin cancer) a second thought. The spot had been with me for some time. It started just as a little dark spot that got bigger and bigger." Even after the spot was removed, it continued to return, and eventually, Bywater was hospitalized.
Doctors at LDS Hospital told him the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes on either side of his neck, which were surgically removed, along with a large section of skin from his scalp.
A recent check showed the cancer has not returned, and Bywater is now an advocate for bike helmets, sunblock and zinc oxide for the noses of bikers and others who spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun.
"I'm looking at everybody's heads and arms now. I've seen a lot of people around that have spots and haven't done anything with them – marks on their nose or cheekbones, on their arms or the back of their hands. I talked to them and asked them to have it looked at."
Zabriskie said he was happy to wear the dosimeter for Wednesday's race. He's not naive to the possibility of melanoma, he said.
"I've been racing professionally now for nine or 10 years, and I've always been conscious of the sun. I've had a few bad sunburns. I read somewhere a long time ago that it produces a lot of free radicals in your body," he said.
He does use sunblock, though sometimes he forgets to put it on his back. "It can go through some of those jerseys, especially when you ride for seven hours."
He says he's never been told he's at risk for melanoma, and he's happy to have people within his sport talking about it.
"I know two European pros that have had skin cancer. One is even a Spanish guy who has a little darker skin." He doesn't see fellow racers lathering up with sunscreen, though he knows it's important.
"It's also good to have a little bit of a tan, but you get that anyway. It's good to wear it. The sun is not a bad source of vitamin D if you're going out for the short ride, but with long-term exposure, you need to wear it."