The Best Buddies Challenge, Hearst Castle

The Best Buddies Challenge, Hearst Castle

Cycling has become a vehicle for acts of good. From the MS150s to the AIDS Lifecycle rides, cycling has been used to raise billions dollars for a variety of different causes. Name a medical need or a disadvantaged group and you can likely find a ride meant to help raise funds to help. That observation isn’t meant to make light of plight, but to demonstrate the far-ranging appeal and success these rides enjoy. Of course, to us, there’s no mystery why. Going for a bike ride is way better fun than doing a walk in some stadium, no matter how great the cause is.

Over the years I’ve been impressed by the way the MS150 rides have taken on education of riders in an effort to ensure they have an enjoyable and successful ride. They’ve evolved from simply show up and ride to include training rides and how-to clinics. The effort has allowed the rides to avoid the spectacular saline -drip flameouts by newbie riders that were a regular part of the Tanqueray AIDS rides, and turned one-event riders who hung up the bike after returning home into dedicated cyclists.


I’ve often wondered how to take these riders from doing group rides where everyone rides single file and never closer than about 10 feet apart into the completely rad experience of riding in a paceline. For everyone who has experienced it, the whoosh of a paceline is an exponent added, fun squared or perhaps delight cubed. What if you were to make the event itself an education in that fun?

That’s the question my friend Richard Fries undertook when he joined Best Buddies and began shepherding people through the rides.


I’m all for doing good just for the sake of doing good, but there are dozens of causes to rope in those with a charitable heart. While there might be someone in your life who has suffered with multiple sclerosis, the buddies you roped into doing the ride with you might not, and next year, your sales pitch might be the only thing getting them to consider the ride again.

But what if they remembered the ride as the most fun they’d ever had on the bike?


That’s a tall order, Herman Munster tall. But that’s precisely what Richard aims to accomplish with as many riders as possible. For the Hearst Castle ride he put together a group of riders he called the “welders.” They were meant to help put the group back together when things started to break apart. Honestly, nearly every other ride in my life has operated with the opposite goal—to shell as many people as possible as quickly as possible. The exceptions have been those small groups of friends where the ride was more about the company than the ride. The welders included 1990 US Pro Champion Kurt Stockton and 2011 National Road Race Champion Robin Farina, who also happens to be the head of the Women’s Cycling Association, and me.

George Hincapie and ex-teammate Dylan Casey put something like the hammer down within the first couple of miles and a group of 100+ riders moved clear, and once they were away, that’s when Richard went to work, even before we reached Highway 1, beginning to gather riders into a small, but growing group.


Our targets were weren’t just titans of industry. Certainly, there were some Fortune 500 CEOs present, but anyone unaccustomed to riding two abreast in a paceline was eligible. Richard’s goal was to give people a new experience, to increase their skill and comfort and deliver them to the finish at a pace they previously thought a fantasy. What I’m talking about is an experience that is probably beneath the skill and fitness level of most RKP readers, so the day I had might not be that attractive to some of you.

On the other hand, very few organized rides take in the stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and Hearst Castle. Big Sur is beautiful, but also isolated, so it’s nearly impossible to make a loop of it unless you’re willing to start in the dark and finish in it, too.


Richard’s approach carried with it a couple of ancillary benefits. We spent the day shepherding Anthony Kennedy Shriver, the founder and chairman of Best Buddies. He’s a remarkably fit guy, with with a bit of help from the welders, the plan was to help him finish the ride in six hours, while also meeting and riding with as many of the participants as possible. By gluing a group together around him, it gave him a chance to interact with those who had come together for the Best Buddies cause.

It struck me as a pretty genius plan.


Richard told me of previous rides where he’d tell someone to get on his wheel and he’d take them up to 20 mph and they’d drop off the pace, not because they were spent, but because they didn’t think they were capable.

There were four rest stops and each was a surprise. I’ve done so many centuries and other rides over the years that were stocked with M&Ms and Oreos that I’ve taken to rolling out with a fair amount of food in case what’s on offer is crap. Richard swore to me I wouldn’t need anything (I still took two gels), but it turned out he was right. Each rest stop was stocked with foods made from recipes in Allen Lim and Biju Thomas’ book “Feedzone Portables.”


With more than 600 riders present, the majority of riders, I have to admit, never knew what we were up to. But we’d give riders a push on the hills, encourage them to get on our wheels over the top and tow them to the next rest stop. I’m sure we encountered at least 100 riders and it may have been upward of 150.

I don’t want to overstate our effort. I’ve never been a good host for a party because I don’t want to miss the good time; I don’t spend enough energy focusing on everyone else’s needs. The ride I did wasn’t a sacrifice. I had a great time riding around with new faces and sitting on the front riding at a nice tempo. We rolled in a bit over six hours after the start, and while I’ve ridden much faster centuries, there was a nice satisfaction that we’d helped a number of riders complete their first sub-eight or even sub-nine-hour century.


The mission of Best Buddies is to foster one-to-one friendships, employment and development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Down’s Syndrome is a common feature among the buddies, which makes them easy to pick out. They were at each of the rest stops as well as at the finish. Their presence was a powerful reminder of the cause behind the ride, something driven home by the hugs they gave out to the finishers.

I’ve never had an experience quite like the Best Buddies Challenge. The issue here isn’t that this ride was better organized than any other ride, but it was well done. No, it got me to thinking about how I can share the experience with others and what an event could potentially do to give its participants a rewarding and memorable experience. What if more events had welders on the course to ride with participants rather than blow them off their wheels? There’s nothing wrong with laying out a fantastic buffet and leaving guests to try stuff, but I’ll try more different foods and think more highly of what’s present when someone circulates through the crowd with a plate and says, “You’ve got to try this!”

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  1. Tom

    One of the reasons I’m trying clipless pedals for the first time at age 54, after having resumed riding less than 10 years ago, is The No Drop Zone, which made a great case for them. And for group rides and pacelines, something I’ve never done. The idea of participating in an event after years of mostly riding solo, with the chance to learn how to ride in a paceline, but maybe with less pressure than joining a group ride for the first time, holds all sorts of appeal.

  2. Aar

    When I’m fit (which I am not at the moment), the way I get a good workout from a ride that is well within my fitness is “welding” the group together by going back for those who can not keep the pace and towing them up to the group. I find it the best way I know to maintain my welcome in those groups while still getting in a good endurance ride. Most of the people I go back for really appreciate the consideration and effort.

  3. Full Monte

    This is a most interesting — and democratic, encompassing — approach to a big group ride. Having done a few week-long rides with masses of riders, I learned to avoid most pace lines (or more accurately, pace clumps). I’d see a few starting to form up, kinda look promising, only to see the whole thing accordion in and out on itself and occasionally, result in carnage. No thanks. I quickly learned to only form up with people I knew and trusted. Or try to grab on the back of a train of obviously superior riders and hang on as long as possible. Otherwise, I’d ride solo or in manageable two’s and three’s.

    But this is a pretty cool approach. Turn those accordion-making wheel- and stem-watchers and line-wanderers into better riders. Send them home learning how a pace line works, and how to work in it. An exercise in good humor and patience, I imagine.


    I think you could sell that concept to every sponsorship ride in America — makes each one safer, more fun, educational. Start a website with available “welders” (experienced riders) in every state, willing to come help charity rides in their area. Bring in five or six, who’d ride gratas, and serve as rolling bike educators. I like it Padraig. This has legs.

  4. where's my torch

    Just returned from cyclos la quebecoise in beautiful Quebec City. In conjunction with the UCI pro tour event in QC, this was a unique 150k group ride where the “peloton” was controlled at a 30kph average pace. The result was a pro tour sized group of 150 riders riding in a group for 5 hours, a great pace and a great place to be, unique amongst the many fondo’s I’ve ridden. A group of 150 working together allows police, medical and mechanical support to operate effectively and gives the local communities a real spectacle.

    Very different and much more enjoyable than listening to those describing how much pain they inflicted on their “friends”. This is how cycling will grow.

    We need more welders, pass the torch!

  5. Dan

    I experienced the phenomenon of self-doubt slowing you down while introducing my dad to cycling at 58. He had the power, but if there wasn’t someone behind him in the line to give him a gentle push now and again he’d just start drifting backwards and be unable to catch back on. I think it helped me to become a stronger rider, not just because I spent a lot of time in the wind pulling him back to the group, but because it forced me to change my riding style. I stopped being the guy who took the really hard pulls on the front all the time and instead worked on keeping the bunch together. And I have to say that some of the nicest people I’ve met through cycling are the ones who I might otherwise have dismissed as old and slow and dropped in a heartbeat. There are some real characters chilling at the back.


    This one hits me on several levels. First, I am a cyclist and have always loved the mysterious calculus of riding in groups even if they are small. Second and more importantly, I am Sarah’s dad and she has Downs. The reality is that she is a welder, in life with her joy and availability, with her directness and authenticity she is constantly bringing things and people together and enhancing the whole of existence in the process. Maybe its not a coincidence that the whole notion of ‘better together’ grew out of a ride where those ‘benefiting’ were kids with cognitive and developmental delays who live life like Sarah.

  7. Author

    Everyone, thanks for your comments. As gorgeous as this ride was, my favorite part wasn’t even the course and that was a surprise. I’m really pleased to see that Richard’s idea about welders resonated with you; that’s really terrific.

    Rides.In.Banner-Elk: Thanks for sharing that. My best to you and Sarah.

    Another thought to share—Richard is full of pithy sayings. He’s a communicator, and a good one at that. One of the things he said to me just as we rolled out was, “A good rider can ride the front. It takes a great rider to ride from the back.”

    Funny, but that’s given me a new goal as a cyclist.

  8. David

    I’m lucky to be associated with am event that takes 50 riders on a 1600km adventure over 8 days. We ride together in a rotating paceline at all times, apart from major climbs and descents. Riders come into this event as strangers and with widely varying abilities of skill and experience. By the end of eight days this group is welded together so tight that life long friendships are formed. There’s something magic about working to keep the group together and over 8 days even the strongest riders will ride through some dark moments. I’m almost 50, I ride for the beauty and peace that cycling brings into my life. To ride with like minded cyclists is a life affirming experience. Long live the welders!

  9. Rich

    “Good ride leaders lead from the back” I was told that many years ago by the club pres. I put together a few rides in the area now and then. There is always someone fast & experienced to ride the front to make sure the correct turns and stops are made. Some one needs to ride the back to encourage the slower riders, make sure they make the turns, give them a pull and couch them.

  10. Jon

    As a Best Buddies employee, and a student of Richard and this concept, I am more than blown away by all your comments. It is super encouraging. I hope this type of riding can spread to all types of organized rides and at least encourage people that cycling doesn’t need to be a dreadful exercise chore, but a unified, engaging, exploration that you’ll talk about for days.

    Thanks for all this, PB you are the man.

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