03 June 2011

Idle Musings of a Would Be Super Randonneur

This is a trip that has been long coming, I suspect. I didn’t start out riding with the randonneurs with the hope of ever completing a complete brevet series. It was all so very, very simple.

October, 2003. Riding along the Burke Gilman Trail having recently returned from our second 3-week vacation in Italy where I had become enamored with the bicycles of the north, I began to hatch a plan. I wondered what it would be like to fly into Milan, buy a bike and ride it across the country to Naples or Sorrento, or even all the way to Sersale, where Mimi has several cousins. It was a romantic idea, I suppose, and quite an undertaking for a guy in his 50’s who had never ridden a bike more than a hundred miles before.

Sitting there astride my saddle, I began to hatch a “training plan” that I thought might work. I really didn’t know anything about training. I just like to ride a bicycle, but thought that if this was something I was going to do, I needed to become much stronger, especially riding up into the mountains. There simply is no way to ride across Italy without some pretty substantial climbing of long, sustained grades.

Western Washington, it turns out, is a pretty good training grounds, and while I had ridden the annual Seattle to Portland (STP) ride several times, I’d never done anything with a lot of uphill. With three knee surgeries behind me, my legs simply weren’t very strong, and on even moderate climbs, I found myself aching for days afterwards. I decided to take on a climber’s ride. I had read about R.A.M.R.O.D. before, and had a few friends who had ridden this one-day ride around Mt. Rainier. This 154 mile, 10,000’ of vertical event happens every July, and is limited to 800 riders. I’d heard about how tough it was to get a ticket, and part of my plan was to weasel my way into the good graces of the host club and see if I could talk my way into a ticket.

I visited the website for Redmond Cycling Club . I looked around their website and saw, in addition to their section for R.A.M.R.O.D., a listing of club members, including one Greg Sneed. Now, I knew a Greg Sneed from the insurance industry. A large guy, he had never struck me as the health nut sort who might go out and ride a bike around a mountain, but asked myself how many Greg Sneeds could there possibly be in the Seattle area? So I browsed through my business card pile in my desk until I found a card he’d given me (along with a bucket of Red Vines) a year or so before and called him.

“So, is this the Greg Sneed who is a member of Redmond Cycling Club?”

“That’s me, partner,” he said.

I was amazed to find out that he and his wife rode over 6,000 miles every year, had done this ride many times and led club rides. Greg invited me to the club meeting, offering to buy me dinner the first time. Hmmmm…….

As a recovering addict, I am well aware of that old “The first one’s free” line.

I wasn’t able to make the next club meeting but the day after Christmas, my secretary’s father (OK, already my ADMINISTRATIVE PROFESSIONAL’S father) John Keyser was in town and had brought his lovely Masi race bike along so we could go for a short, flat ride along the Burke Gilman Trail. I wanted to take him to Recycled Cycles since he loves old bikes, bike parts and pawing through bike junk. My kind of guy!

We showed up at Log Boom Park and there was a gang of folks getting ready for a ride. Suddenly, as we’re getting ready to roll out west, Greg and Ruth (Lovey, to her friends) went riding by on their lovely green and gold Erickson tandem. Greg stopped me to chat, inviting us to join the club. He said they were doing about the same thing John and I were, just in the other direction. We tagged on. Little did we know that the same thing we were doing only in the other direction was not quite accurate. Sure, 12 miles east instead of west, but then they turned up and off the trail onto a road that looked like it went straight up to the pearly gates to me.

After doing a couple thousand feet of climbing over some steep rolling hills, we dropped down into Kirkland where we all stopped to chat over coffee. Greg started introducing me to the guys and gals of Redmond Cycling Club and another club I’d never heard of. He told me about this guy who had done “PBP” and another guy who was a “super randonewer” and that Lovey was the first woman to ever do Cannonball. Well, I was too proud to ask what PBP, randonewer and Cannonball were, so I just nodded, acted totally in awe of these people and then Greg announced that I wanted to “come over to the dark side.”

Everybody chuckled and warned me to be careful.

Obviously, I was not nearly careful enough.

I went home and typed in r-a-n-d-o-n-e-w-e-r into a google search and it said “Do you mean Randonneur? Why YES! That’s exactly what I meant.

Like I said, obviously, I was not nearly careful enough.

In April, 2004, I had completed a “Populaire” of 100 kilometers, a 200k “brevet” and was involved in a team “fleche” as a member of Team Chaos. Five machines, 24 hours, no sleep and operating under this weird, arcane set of rules made up by a bunch of Frenchies who fancy themselves knowing something about cycling and how it should be done.

I’d met several people in the local Seattle International Randonneurs group and they were all very encouraging. Unlike racing cyclists, all these men and women just wanted to see everybody succeed at their endeavors. My plan was coming along nicely.

I felt a lot stronger. I had learned to work in a pace line. I had learned to climb a little better without hurting myself and I’d learned how to ride faster, longer and stronger, without aching for days afterwards. My knees were still a problem.

Then Hurricane Charley hit Florida. I went away. I fell away from my cycling routine, though I managed to find time to rent a bike in Orlando and do a little bit. Then Hurricane Frances hit Florida. I went away again, and now it looked like a long term assignment. Then came Hurricanes Jeanne and Ivan. I pretty much didn’t see home from early August, 2004 until mid-2005. And in August, along came Hurricane Katrina.

My plans for Italy were to work hard for two or three years and then take a trip. I needed to take some language classes, too. With my work load, though, I found little time to spend on the bike or in classes.

Fast forward to late February, 2007. I found myself sitting on the ferry on my way yet again to Port Angeles to meet a pawn shop owner who had sustained a serious water damage loss. I’d met with him a few times already and didn’t much like him. I had dealt with dozens of pawn shops after all the hurricanes, and found their owners to be a real mixed bag. This guy, though, was one of what I perceived to be the sleaziest individuals I’d ever met. He owned a pawn shop and the local check cashing facility, and it always seemed like he was taking advantage of the hardest up of the hard up in our society. I dreaded the meeting. My cell phone rang. It was Col. James M. Martin, USMC Ret.

Jim is responsible for my being in the insurance industry. He gave me my start and helped me to become an adjuster, even when I didn’t want to do so. He paid me well, took care of me, gave me the tools I needed and encouraged me to continue to work my way up. On this day, I found out he was retiring. For good, this time. He had left our company to go to work as a staff adjuster in Inland Marine claims. I didn’t know anything about it. But he suggested it might be a good fit for me, and though I had retreated from any and all job leads previously, liking my company very much, I found myself drawn to this. A move away from field work. 7 miles from home. I could ride my bike to work.

On April 2, 2007 my whole world changed. I went to work in tall buildings. I found myself chained to a desk all day, every day. I had little freedom. I no longer had a private office. I had joined cubicle America for the first time in my life, and I wasn’t so sure I’d made the right choice. The trade off? I got to ride my bicycle to work almost every day. At the end of the day, I shut off the computer and went for a bike ride. SWEET!

My cycling took a huge upturn. In September of that year, I returned to Italy again, and my dream started to take shape again. Maybe I could do this.

And along came Pansy……

…..but that’s a story for a different day.

Late in 2007, my co-worker and friend Mark Jackson told me that Peter Beeson had convinced him he ought to try for an “R-12”. This involves riding a sanctioned 200 kilometer or more ride every month for 12 consecutive months. In October we did a 200k ride. We missed November and on December 3, 2007, we hit it again. I did a ride in January, but Mark missed out. We rode together again in February, but he missed March. By April, I had five months in, and all I was doing was trying to support him. I’d also gone to Oregon and ridden a 300k brevet for the first time and finished in just over 14 hours drafting off of a couple of tandems all day. I found I was starting to like the randonneuring style of riding. There is so much that is satisfying about it, and it isn’t nearly as hard on my body as a lot of other things I’ve done.

My knees were getting stronger. I found I could climb well, stand for long periods without hurting myself and make it to the tops of mountain passes in a reasonable time.

In December, 2008 I was at my desk, in my little cubicle supposed to be working. I had an alarm set for 10:00 a.m. I had the links all set up with a half dozen browser windows set for Active.com. I was determined to register for Death Ride. This was the big test I needed to complete for myself if I was REALLY going to be strong enough to get across Italy by myself. At 10:25 am, I got through. I was in. That meant I had to train.

On January 1, 2009 I did my first ever New Year’s Day century. That month, I rode over a thousand miles. By the time the Populaire came along, I had over 2000 miles in and was in mid-season form. I had finished my R-12 challenge and was riding strong and with confidence. I could do a 125 mile ride without feeling like I was dying the next day. Life was good. My friend Jennifer Chang had signed up to do the Seattle Randonneur’s spring 400k. I’d never done one before. I was walking into my office building one morning and a guy asked me if I was training for STP. I said that STP was nothing. If it was today, I was ready. I walked away thinking I sounded pretty cocky, and decided I should probably put up or shut up. So I signed up for the 400k. Three mountain passes in one day. Good training for Death Ride, I thought. The day started cold, got hot very fast and very hot before it was over, cooling down eventually as the evening turned to night. I finished just before midnight and felt like I’d really accomplished something.

The next day I could hardly walk. Mimi and I rode downtown and she said that she’d finally found out what it took for me to tire myself out to be able to ride with her, suggesting I should do a 400k every weekend. I thought not. It took a few days to recover and I knew I’d finally found a “challenge level” to cycling.

Death Ride, while hard, was not anywhere near the killer I dreamed it would be. I took that as a sign that I was probably physically ready for Italy.

In 2010 I decided to “take a year off” and reduced my cycling – but just a little bit. I still rode almost every day, completed 200k’s every month and started to volunteer a little more with the Randonneurs. It was time to give back a little bit.

And that brings me to 2011. I was asked about my goals for the year. Generally, they were:

* Ride up Mt. Tamalpias with Pansy
* Complete a Brevet Series
* Ride solo across Italy.

There are some others, but those were the really big ones and the others were pretty much just there to help get me to these three.

Life gets in the way sometimes, and so does death. Nancy Jean Fish, aka Pansy Palmetto had become a dear, dear friend over the past 4 years and on January 18th she passed away after a 7-1/2 year war with cancer that she won every day that she drew a breath. She won because she knew the cancer was going to kill her but she refused to let it defeat her. She rode over 8,000 miles in 2008 in a life challenge. For 24 consecutive years she competed in Eppie’s Great Race, despite the cancer that continued to ravage her body. As she lived, others around her were inspired by her strength and courage. As she participated fully in life, she was a support and friend to everyone she met. I was privileged to have gotten to share a few brief moments of life with her, and she gave me a gift that I will carry the rest of my days.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to ride Mt. Tam together. Another day, dear, another day.

And so, I was left with my brevet series. And Italy. The brevet series is mostly to keep myself conditioned to climbing and riding long and strong. A means to an end.

Life gets in the way sometimes.

Cancer is a devastating disease. I get very angry sometimes when I think of how it took my father away. And my father-in-law. And Pansy.

As I was preparing for the longer brevets, I started a regimen of deep massage designed to improve posture, undo a lot of the quirks my body gets from sitting long hours, riding a bike and all the other things that happen as we age. It is an 11-session routine.

In late March, I was on appointment #7 and Daniel started talking about things while he dug into my body – digging into my psyche at the same time. He asked me what made me angry. He asked me what I was lonely for in life. He asked me what I hungered for in life. He asked me what I was really tired of in my life and what I wanted to change. Then came the big one. He asked me what I was doing to be an elder in my community. I didn’t have a n answer that made me very comfortable.

Less than an hour later, I was on the phone returning a call from my sister in law. Carol had called me while I was on the bike riding up the hill to my appointment and I let it go to voice mail. When she answered, I knew something was terribly wrong. I thought first of my older brother. But it would prove to be something much more emotionally draining. My 25-year old niece, Megan had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lynphoma.

Before the weekend was over, I knew what that was. I knew it was totally treatable, but that she was going to be going through an incredibly difficult next 6 months. She was married in October. In January both she and her new husband both lost their jobs on the same day with the same employer and in a time of terrible economic times, especially in places like Boise. And now, this.

I rode home that night and the decision was not difficult. Italy is out. I want to stay closer to home. I still need to kep myself strong, but I want to keep more of my vacation and more of my money and more of my time and energy closer to family this year. Italy will be there. But I can’t give up on all my goals. If I do, I’ll find myself moping about, frustrated and depressed, and it is crucial that I stay focused, physically active and clearly in the driver’s seat with my own health if I’m going to be a helper to my family.

I had ridden the 200k and finished in (for me) very fast time. The same happened on the 300k and even though I rode through 150 miles of rain on the 400k I did, I felt very strong, very fit and very pleased with myself all day and all night. I was ready for the 600k.

I started to look around for what I wanted to do. This would be my first ever, and perhaps the only time I’ll ever go for it. I looked first to the Oregon Randonneurs, since I really like how they organize their brevets. Scheduling was not right. Then I looked to Seattle Randonneurs. Timing was again not the best, but maybe I could do the early one the first weekend of June. Damn! The Men’s Retreat is the following week. I pretty much ruled that out, and looked to the later one…..wait, isn’t that Father’s Day? Owel. Maybe it was just a pipe dream anyway.

Then Mike Sturgill invited me to come to Arizona. C’mon down. Use one of my bikes. I’ll meet you at the airport. Stay at my house. Carpool to the start line. We’ll ride together. What could be easier. I looked at the ride. Grand Canyon????? I’m all over this. And the plan was hatched.

The bike was packed. It was shipped. It arrived finally and was all set-up for me when I got here. Now I just need you to pump me full of caffeine, point me to the start line and sit on my bike for something like 32-40 hours.

And so, I sit here, about 18 hours away from the start line. There is a wild fire 5 miles west of Flagstaff. Looks like we might be riding through a little bit of smoky haze. Maybe that will make for even more beautiful sunrise and sunsets? Who knows?

Tomorrow and Sunday, I’ll be spending a lot of time astraddle the saddle, contemplating how fortunate I am in life. I’ll be thinking of my desire to ride Mt. Tam with Pansy and how that will never happen. I’ll feel her on my shoulder. I’ll be thinking of Megan and the chemotherapy she is going through, and offering up prayers of healing. I’ll be thinking some of my friend Bob H. from Seattle who was such a great role model when I started out on the path to recovery. I’ll be thinking a lot about guys like Greg Sneed and Peter Beeson and Mark Thomas and Chris and Will and Pam and Dave and Joe and Dan and Ian and Geoff and Narayan and Mark Jackson and Greg Cox and Ward and Death Ride Bob and Don/Elaine and Team Chaos and Ralph/Carol and Jim/Ann, all the other randonneurs I’ve learned so much from over the past several years.

I don’t ride for my health, although by riding I’ve become healthier. I don’t ride for strength, though by cycling I’ve become stronger. I ride mosly because I love to ride. I love the feel of the wind in my face. I love the challenge of me and my machine against the elements. I love to push myself to the edge of my capabilities and feel the way my body reacts and recovers. I love the friendships. I love the solitude of being by myself in early morning and at sunset, listening to the whir of gears and songs of the birds. I love the smell of bacon frying as I ride past an isolated country home.

And yet, there is this gnawing inside…….can I do it? Am I good enough, strong enough, fast enough…..

I know the answer is yes, but there is always that doubt that I live with.

Life gets in the way sometimes. Every day, though, the celebration of life is worthy of pausing to breathe in and out and cherish. Ride to the top of that mountain and appreciate the vista. Accept that challenge and see if you can make it happen. Help a stranger and watch how others will reach out to help you.

Life is!