When I looked back over my shoulder what I saw were five riders spinning in my draft. My look back was too brief to see their smiles in that moment, but when we slowed to pull into the first rest stop of the day, I could see the grins. It wasn’t until we climbed off our bikes that it occurred to me that we might have been the least-likely paceline I’d ever led. All I could have told you in the moment was that I was having the time of my life.
We pulled into the stop, dismounted, hung bikes, and headed for the Easy Ups. I grabbed a can of pineapple juice and a grape tomato speared to a nugget of buffalo mozzarella. I followed that with some prosciutto and a few M&Ms for good measure. Somewhere in there one of our newly minted clan offered, “You know, you don’t have to hang with us. You can go ride with the fast people.”
“I’m exactly where I want to be.” I was riding with the most amazing bunch of people. Gail is an affable mom who racers would look past, but she’s a 12-year veteran of the ride who wears a tiara on her helmet and I was playfully instructed that she was “Princess Gail.” There was Noreen, a training partner of Gail’s who was doing the ride for the second time. She has a smile like a searchlight. Then there was Suzy, a widow whose husband had volunteered for the ride when she would ride. She rode with a toy cone attached to her handlebar bag; her husband was known for goofing with them in the rest stops he worked. With her red hair pulled into two braids, she was the stately, athletic outcome of Pipi Longstocking. Dave added another dollop of charm and easygoing. The three women had an affinity for each other that transcended the bike and just being around them was like sitting next to a fire pit on a chilly night. Suzy, Gail and Dave were all on Team Billy. And then there was Ashley, new to the ride, new to all of us, and at least somewhat new to cycling. She had smiles the way the produce aisle has apples.
Suzy, Princess Gail, Dave and Noreen (l-r) on 17-Mile Drive wait for me to resume my duties as draft horse.
I told myself I was late to the party. Cycling doesn’t get better than this.
So yeah, last week, I spent eight days riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles with 200 other people on a charity ride for the Arthritis Foundation. It was notable for two obvious reasons. I’d never actually ridden from San Francisco to Los Angeles before. A glaring omission in my cycling experiences. Also, it had been ages since I’d done any sort of multi-day charity ride.
In the 1990s, when there were so many charity rides of different flavors we began to differentiate between the “charity events” and the “disease rides,” they were a steady part of my cycling diet. I rode some MS 150 rides with a fanny pack full of tools and did roadside repairs. I wrote about the Tanqueray AIDS Ride to Washington D.C. for bicyclist. I did any number of charity rides just for the fun of it. Then I didn’t do (m)any for a good 15 years. That made me curious about what the Arthritis Foundation was doing with the California Coast Classic to make it successful enough for this to be the event’s 19th edition.
My original plan was to join the event for the first four of the eight-day ride, thinking I’d have the gist of it at the half-way mark. That would get me into Cambria and through Big Sur, so I’d have seen the most beautiful part of the ride. That was the plan. But sometimes plans … well, I’ll get to that.
Day Two’s honoree was eight-year-old Claire Charley who was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis while still a toddler.
The California Coast Classic is as smart a way to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles as I’ve seen. Seven days is really pushing it for most riders. If you take 500 miles as about the shortest possible distance between the two cities, that works out to 71 miles a day, which many of us can do for three, maybe four days, but after that, the fatigue will become a real issue. But at eight days the total drops to 62.5 miles, which is still a stretch, but less so.
Riders raise $3500 at minimum ($3300 for returning riders) to participate, and in return they receive a really memorable experience. That experience includes, a place to camp (you can get a hotel room if you want), catered breakfast and dinner, well-stocked rest stops, a jersey, a windbreaker, a T-shirt, full mechanical support including roaming vans and a population small enough that you can meet a broad cross-section of people doing the ride because it is capped at 250 riders.
Most folks camp out, but they always make sure to stay near a hotel or motel so those who really want a nice bed to sleep in, that option is available. I went the proper bed option, mostly because I needed some time to write each night. There was a charging station in camp so folks could power up phones, lights and computers. And for those who wanted to camp but recoiled in horror at the idea of packing their tent every morning, there was a concierge service that would pitch their tent and tear it down the next morning. All they had to do was pack their bag. They’d even deliver bags to the pre-pitched tent.
Those are the basics, but they are not the ride.
The point people for the Arthritis Foundation who really are responsible for the event: Philip, Shannon and Amanda have created something that defies my usual compliments. This event felt loose enough to not feel overly managed, yet it ran almost perfectly on time. It was big enough to have a real diversity of people, yet it remained surprisingly intimate. Most of all, they made the connection between the fundraising the riders had done and arthritis sufferers immediate thanks to people who told their story each night of the tour. It was here that I learned just what a scourge childhood arthritis is. I had no idea.
And medication. I remember receiving a prescription for a brand new antihistamine many years ago, and it made my life so much better, I bragged about it. I heard people talk about Enbrel and other medications in far more hallowed tones. They spoke with a reverence I’d never heard anyone use in conjunction with a pharmaceutical—of any sort—and I heard any number of people speak of Enbrel and other treatments with the same pious respect. That alone gave me a fresh window into how arthritis can affect one’s life.
The group sat in rapt attention each night as people made presentations each evening before dinner introduced our group to arthritis sufferers.
The reason the Tanqueray AIDS Rides ended was due to backlash from the outrage people felt when they found out so little of the money raised for the rides was actually going to anyone suffering from the syndrome. There had also been a general perception that the money was going to research, when in fact it was going to things like food banks that helped feed AIDS sufferers, a fine endeavor indeed, but other than what people thought the endpoint was.
The California Coast Classic has a number of sponsors, the lead among which is Amgen, and Amgen is the maker of Enbrel, so it’s fair to say they have a vested interest in the arthritis community. It is these sponsors who underwrite the cost of the tour so that 100 percent of the money raised actually goes to research (plus some other outlets, like a kids’ camp) to find a cure for arthritis. I know there is a cynical view here that Amgen spends a little bit of money and spins that into a great deal more money to research the formulation of new drugs, and if that’s the lens someone chooses to look through, I can’t stop them. What I saw last week was something much more human, much warmer, rooted in a desire to decrease others’ suffering. This was the social contract at work, people coming together in a united effort to help a community.
Many of the people on the ride band together under various teams. Often there is an arthritis sufferer to unite them, but there are also corporate teams like the one from Amgen. And to give you some idea of how tight-knit these groups are, the Amgen team featured at least one former employee who had changed career paths.
I’ve ridden down 17-Mile Drive a couple dozen times, but every occasion was marked by such speed that I missed a lot.
As a journalist covering the ride, I felt like something of an interloper. All of these people had reached deep into their communities to raise money to be on the ride. Raising the minimum of $3500 was, so far as I could tell with this bunch, a distinction no one wanted to be tagged with. There were people on the ride who’d raised north of $40,000. And that was just this year. The introductory question is always, “Is this your first year on the ride?” Why that is, I’m not quite sure. It seemed that everyone who’d been there at least once before knew everyone else, so asking seemed a formality, just the polite thing to do, but with a population of roughly 200 riders and then a couple dozen staff and volunteers, there’s a fair chance you’re going to at least bump into everyone before the ride is over.
So as people asked about my participation in the ride, I confess that I felt out of place due to the fact that I had no skin in the game. That was a new sensation for me; one I didn’t exactly care for. But as with so many things in life, the discomfort was all my own. No one ever chastised me for not raising money. No, they only had one other question, and they pressed, “Will you be back next year?” I have to admit, I struggled to know how to answer, given that I was there based on an invitation.
It was on our second day, as we rode from Santa Cruz to Monterey, that I bumped into some riders who I thought might enjoy having a draft horse to sit on. It didn’t occur to me until the last day that this was my way to give something to the tour. I just thought it would be nice to make someone else’s ride easier. It was the single best decision I made the entire week.
Julie (right) who is part of the PR team, chats with another rider.
Our first day saw us ride out of a Boudin restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, where our breakfast was hosted, before we began pedaling south through the city. A tour company, Sentio, provided all the vans to support us and marked the course both on the road and with yellow arrows zip-tied to signs. With a few minor exceptions, getting lost was only possible if you were completely blissed out and staring up the road, which I’ll admit was certainly doable.
Our route hugged the coast whenever permissable, through the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Fort Funston, down to Pacifica, overlooking Maverick’s in Half Moon Bay and on to Santa Cruz. It was a hilly course, with more 5000 feet of climbing over 85 miles. I’ll admit that because I didn’t know a soul other than my friends at the PR agency, I tended to ride fast and then stop for longer periods of time in the rest stops. That seemed a better chance to chat with people than on the road, where riding single file was generally the best plan.
Running the tour in late September is the veritable master stroke of the event. Though I heard plenty about how last year’s edition was hot, our trip down the Peninsula could only be criticized for humidity. The breeze was light as the voice of my mother and just warm enough not to chill as I pedaled.
I’m a bike guy, so I look at what people ride. And what I saw encouraged me. These are the riders who will float a shop if they are looked after. Care for them, educate them, don’t condescend to them and make them part of a shop’s family, and they’ll be loyal customers. For every bike I saw with Shimano’s 105 group, I saw two with Ultegra or Dura-Ace Di2. I saw Zipp wheels. And I saw plenty of tires between 27 and 35mm wide. Every now and then I saw something especially cool, like the rider with the Rapha Grand Tour shoes, which remain one of the finest pairs of cycling shoes I’ve ever worn. I saw frames from Seven, Serotta and even a McGovern. Disc brakes were common, as well. For all the chasing of the go-fast racer set (of which I was a card-carrying member for a couple of decades) most shops do, this is the population that could grow, grow, grow. If ever there was an objective correlative for not criticizing a book from the front, this bunch was it.
Day Two took us from Santa Cruz to Monterey, a ride I didn’t think would be all that great, but because of Sentio’s route design if the coast was a table, our route was its tablecloth. At any given moment all I had to do was look right and I could see the ocean.
The day where everything really clicked for me was Day Three, when our path took us from Monterey into Big Sur. We slipped through town early, found our way to 17-Mile drive and spun through light fog and views of lazy sea otters to one side and houses that commanded two digits before the first comma on our other. Because our route was a manageable 47-miles, we were afforded plenty of time to stop for group photos and selfies. I can’t help but think about how much we’d have struggled to record doing the ride before our pocket computers. Memory simply isn’t that complete.