Above: Princess Gail, Suzy, Noreen, yours truly, Ashley and Dave.
[For Part I, click here.]
The trio of Noreen, Gail and Suzy were a delight. I was informed Suzy was the best climber, and she had a lovely, fluid spin with a light cadence. Gail was the strongest, and the best descender, but took her time on the climbs. Noreen praised the other two without reserve but if given a wheel to follow chased it like a toddler after a soap bubble. They each had their own perspective on their weaknesses vs. the strengths of their friends. From what I gathered, they each thought more of their friends as riders than they did of themselves. Perspectives like that are the stuff of lifelong friendships, amiright?
On the flats, I’d lead Princess Gail, Noreen and anyone else who wanted to join us, and then on the climbs I’d gear down and just talk folks through, reminding them that as long as they were moving they were doing fine. I’ve been at this so long that I can’t claim to know intimidation the way these riders do. When cycling is new and unknown, it’s easy to wonder if you’ll get over that hill without stopping or walking. To lend someone confidence or belief when the top of the hill is not yet in sight, well, it’s not always easy; they have to be ready to hear that, to believe, and that’s where I found my challenge.
Amit, who had ridden a bicycle fewer than two dozen times. What a fresh flavor of badass.
The route that had everyone most worried was that of Day Four, when we’d pass through the most remote part of Big Sur, crossing Bixby Bridge and then ascending the Two Sisters, the two big climbs that come before Hwy 1 begins to flatten on its run into Cambria. In doing the Best Buddies Challenge, I knew the two climbs in question and have helped riders over them, sometimes going as far as to give someone a push when either their legs or faith flagged. I can report there was nary a push on that day.
What made the day so special for me was hearing someone talk about how frightened they were of those climbs, how badly they’d suffered the year before due to heat, and how taking it easy and chatting the whole way up made the climb just “fly by.” I have to be careful here; what I’m relating here is fodder for the humblebrag, a thing I detest, but I want to sincerely relate just how much I enjoyed riding with these folks and what a pleasure it was to offer them a draft and a steady pace.
We made a late lunch stop once in Big Sur and that was my chance to chat with two Indian men on the ride, Vish and Amit. They were modest to the point of self-effacing and had a compliment for everyone at the table. Then Amit revealed something that blew my mind. He wasn’t just new to cycling. He was cycling’s equivalent to waiting for the paint to dry. That day, three into the event, was his 13th ride. Ever. And somehow he was smiling and enjoying himself. He was one of the most astounding new cyclists I’ve ever met and because of his slim physique and comfort on the bike, if someone had told me he’d been riding for five years, I’d never have harbored a suspicion otherwise.
Big Sur’s iconic Bixby Bridge in serious mist. No one complained about the cool day.
Rides ended with us arriving in camp to see the faster riders and earlier starters setting up their tents. For anyone with a taste for people watching, this was good entertainment. There was always an out of place pole or a fly that had a twist in it, something that required a retreat and regroup and the conversations were funny; I never heard anyone get cross.
A few Easy Ups would stand near the luggage drop and they’d sport some snacks, protein drinks, sodas and whatever else was handy. Happy hour, where beer and wine would be served, ran from 4:00 to 6:00 and then was promptly and thoroughly curtailed. Partying unto hours of wee was not a thing.
At 6:00 each evening announcements would begin. The head of Sentio Cycling, Eli, would walk us through the next day’s route. Then there was some form of award to be given to riders and/or volunteers. Each evening there was a different award and honestly, there were any number of riders who stood before us each evening to be lauded for their fundraising. This is just the sort of thing a cynical heart would see like so many participation ribbons at a little league game, but the difference was really evident. Each day’s ride taxed most of the riders and it was easy to see how there was a need to celebrate the people who raised the money to make the entire shebang go. This is where the two women most responsible for the ride, Shannon and her right hand Amanda, deserve credit for acting as ace emcees. Their upbeat spirits made these rituals an integral part of the experience and it gave those biggest fundraisers a platform to share how they’d hit the milestones they did.
Big Sur is remote, but worth the effort.
As with anything, some of the riders got competitive—with their fundraising. Sure, there was recognition for being the biggest fundraiser, but it was evident in my conversations with people that they each had someone in their life who had suffered from arthritis. One of the top fundraisers, Oren, who is also a Sonoma County resident, put it all in perspective for me when he said, “I want to raise $40,000 and be the person who raised the least amount of money on this ride. Nothing would make me happier.” It was inspiring to see the competitive spirit both in force and taking a back seat to the bigger picture. I almost never encounter that.
It was after those awards that the evening’s honoree would speak. There was a steady drum beat over the week about how hard juvenile arthritis is and how much it can help a child to find peers suffering the same challenges. In the cases where a child was the honoree, mom would do most of the talking, giving a parent’s-eye view of the first symptoms, the diagnosis journey, beginning treatment and where they are today. The kids didn’t usually contribute a lot, but they did speak.
Megan Payer speaking before the group. The only way she won’t inspire is if someone’s heart is made of cornflakes.
The honoree who helped me see this disease first-hand was Megan Payer. In her mid-20s she began having an array of life-curtailing symptoms: fatigue, chronic pain and nausea. Just after starting a PhD program in 2013, she was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. The combination of the stress of the disease and being new to her graduate program took an additional toll: she fell into depression.
With the help of the Arthritis Foundation she struck upon a regimen of yoga, diet change and meditation to manage her symptoms, especially her chronic pain. She was so inspired by her success that she became a counselor at Camp Esperanza, which is a teen leadership camp organized by the Arthritis Foundation. Payer spoke with a calm and clear demeanor, weaving a narrative that used the disparate threads of disease, community and service to create a tapestry that I found not just inspiring, but even enviable. What a remarkable achievement.
We fell into a routine of ride a mile or two and stop for a photo because Big Sur.
Our ride on Day 4 from Cambria to Oceano began with our coastal theme but then ventured inland, taking us through San Luis Obispo before ending near Arroyo Grande in Oceano. It was on our inland dog leg that we got a taste of the heat that would wash over the group on Day 5. We had some winds as well, but at 54 miles, it was a pretty manageable day.
That was supposed to be my final day of the ride. I was supposed to head home with enough fodder for my story. The community I’d immersed myself in captivated me. There was a special sauce here, something I’d never seen in a charity ride before, even on a multi-day one. So I talked to Shannon, the event director, about how we might figure out the logistics so that I could stick around to the end. We figured out the post-event transportation only to realize I needed a place to sleep. That was when Cap’n Pete stepped up and said he had a spare bed for the next three nights and he’d like for me to stay with him.
Cap’n Pete and his ebike from Haibike. He knees were grateful, he told me.
This wasn’t problem solved, this was a win.
Pete hails from LA’s Inland Empire and leads training rides for the SoCal-based participants. He’s a big man with a personality and generosity to match. Liking people is as much a part of his personality as music is for Paul McCartney. Some years back Pete had done the ride when my Paceline co-host Selene Yeager joined the tour. He and a couple of other people shared accommodations one night and a buddy of Pete’s took pity on Selene’s bike and cleaned it when she wasn’t looking. I think they got more out of making her bike sparkle than she did. He struggled to comprehend how such an elite athlete could be so down-to-earth and pleasant to talk with. “That’s just who she is,” I told him.