Thursday, December 03, 2009

Story - Saint Jude's Bikeathon

I spent a lot of my formative years living in Holland. With a certain amount of isolation - not being comfortable speaking Dutch, going to an American school, and having friends who lived far away - I spent a lot of time "pretending".

There were lots of reminders of World War 2 in the area - abandoned bunkers in now-park-forests, a (Sherman) tank and a two-man sub at the local zoo, barb wire everywhere, and even movies about the area ("A Bridge Too Far", a superb movie even now, filled to the brim with stars left and right).

Modern times didn't change this environment too much. The Cold War seemed at its peak, and terrorists regularly stopped commuter trains. Bombs went off in other countries, like Germany or England or Ireland, but in Holland the bad guys seemed content to take trains hostage. It seemed somewhat normal to turn on the news and see one of the ubiquitous yellow trains sitting in the middle of a deserted stretch of track.

F-16s made regular passes overhead. A lot of schoolmates had parents in "government", and they went to the "PX" and bought exotic foods and such. When I got to visit the US military base, I got to see an jet fighter, kind of up close.

A pilot did this a slow, sharp turn over the crowd in a then-exotic F-15 and waved to us. I excitedly waved back of course, and I couldn't contain my glee over seeing an F-15. I think I even reduced the stature of the availability of Bubble Yum (a hot grey market item in my elementary school) behind that of the jet doing the flyby on the tip of its left wing.

My school bus rides to and from school, about 45 minutes each way, ended up prime time for living out fantasies of flying jets over Europe, protecting the country from the various terrorists that were hijacking trains left and right while I lived there. A friend Paul (he was Canadian) and I would sit together in a pair of deep cushioned tour bus seats (the buses were initially old tour buses and were later nice tinted window, velvet seat, air conditioned buses) and pretend we were in jets, patrolling the European skies.

I realize now that our side-by-side seating arrangement meant we were probably in F-111s. That was appropriate since we were big fans of swing wing jets and regularly "fixed the swing wing" (by "climbing onto it"). Fortunately, the F-111 has these wings, making our pretend a bit more accurate that not. On the other hand, you may debate the effectiveness of climbing onto the wing to fix it while at tens of thousands of feet of altitude and flying along at Mach 2 or so.

Anyway, without too much TV (there were two government controlled channels, came on at about 4 pm, and shut down at about midnight) or toys, I spent a lot of time perusing the toy sections of the Sears catalog from home, dreamed about the slot car sets in there, and playing "pretend" all over the place.

When I returned to the US, I still played pretend. I started thinking about bike racing all the time, reading stories of domestiques, of the helpers, and started thinking in terms of "a team". A fellow cycling fan Aaron and I got bikes and started "training" together. It wasn't really too much training, except we figured out that we could draft each other. We'd report when the wind changed sound, maybe 3 or so feet behind one another. Side to side I think we got closer than 2 or 3 feet only by accident, but nonetheless it was a start.

When a local shop had a flyer on a Saint Jude's Bikeathon, I decided it might be a lot of fun to ride. I had no idea what Saint Jude's did - the logo had a little kid in it so I figured it helped kids who were in an orphanage or something.

A Good Cause, in other words.

The route was straightforward - start at the town library, go down a dead-end half mile road, go around the dead end loop, and return into the library.

I thought this an ideal bikeathon course - water and bathrooms at the library, a short walk if I flatted so no need for carrying anything, and a good way for pacers to recover.


Yes, pacers.

Aaron wasn't interested in riding for the four hours the bikeathon had the course, nor raising any money, but he perked up when we talked about him working for me, pacing me. He committed to doing a lot of pacing as part of a team effort. We would go out and ride and prepare for this. This consisted me me practicing sitting on his wheel while he rode as hard as he could.

At the time I had a relatively long wheelbase Dawes Lightning, and he had a racing geometry Motobecane.

Aaron's bike, the awesomest bike possible. Well, at the time. For me.

Cheap, too, $255. Skinniest seat stays ever. Outdoes the Cervelo, SuperSix, and who knows what else.

We figured out which gears would work better, decided that he should go all out until he was tired, then sit out a lap, rest, and then return into the fray. We figured out some other stuff I'm sure, like how to hand bottles to one another, but I forget now exactly what we planned now.

I realized some time deep into our planning that a bikeathon meant raising money. I didn't know what to do, but I knew that kids would occasionally walk up to our house door to ask for money. My mom suggested that I do the same thing.

So I hit up the local houses. I quickly learned to ask for a fixed amount (rather than ask for x dollars or cents per mile), and most adults seemed to prefer to give me the money up front. My standard request became $5, with some generous folks pitching in $10 or $20.

Of course this scrawny looking kid asking for money for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital... who could tell if I was one of the kids the hospital helped?

I started expanding my terrain after hitting up pretty much everyone on my street. I ended up literally miles away, on totally foreign (to me) roads, ringing doorbells. I did a lot of riding, and at some point my mom volunteered to drive me around. Apparently my little sister, about 4 or 5 at the time, had to tag along, because she couldn't stay at home alone. And of course she wanted to see what her big brother was doing so she tagged along while I rang doorbells.

Think about that. You an adult, at home, doing housework, and the doorbell rings. You open the door to the image of a scrawny 14 year old kid with his 4 year old sister in tow, asking for money to benefit poor, helpless kids. The little girl had the big round eyes that works so well for kids' charities, and the boy was obviously on a mission.

Hard to resist.

I managed to raise $528 in the weeks leading up to the bikeathon. I'd talk to Aaron regularly, and we'd practice, looking forward to the big day.

I had no idea what was going to happen, and naturally this led to some feelings of trepidation. I got really nervous, hoping that I could ride for 4 hours. I didn't want to be too slow, I was worried about dealing with older riders (you know, adults), and I was just plain scared of the unknown.

The day dawned perfect. It was reasonably warm, I got down to the library, and prepared.

The lot seemed strangely deserted.

Maybe it was the wrong day?

My insecurities worked on me. But then someone showed up with a chair. The person sat at the entrance of the library driveway - this was our "marshal". With a dead end to the right, there'd be no traffic whatsoever, except 16 year olds looking for a quiet dead end road where they could drive with their worried parents.

I prepared what I could, but really, everything was prepared. I'd pumped up my tires with my trusty Zefal HPX frame pump. I had all my gear. It seemed anticlimactic, this whole thing.

I asked the marshal if I could start riding. The marshal nodded. (I can't even remember if it was a man or a woman, but I think the marshal was a woman).

Aaron wasn't around, but I set off anyway. I tried to go easier than hard, trying to "pace myself". I had, after all, 4 hard hours ahead of me.

After a couple minutes I was zipping into the library parking lot. I took the turn fast, carefully following a good line. I looped around, flashed past the marshal, and set off on another lap.

Maybe an hour later I eased, trotted into the library, and got more water. I shoved my bottle back into the cage and hopped on the bike.

"You're still riding?"

The marshal was probably getting ready to leave, her job done.

"Yeah, there's 3 hours left!" I exclaimed, like, didn't you know?

She sighed and sat back down.

At about hour 3 Aaron showed up. Something had happened, but he showed up to help out. We ripped out a few laps and Aaron looked like he was going to collapse. I don't know if he started smoking at that age but it occurred to me later that he probably had - it would explain his red faced gasping.

The poor marshal had long given up on getting me to quit, and watched me lap after lap.

"Don't you get bored?"

Bored? Compared to what? I'm Van Impe! I'm a domestique! I'm chasing Eddy Merckx! How could I get bored when I'm riding my bike?

I felt better, started coming around. I kept going, trying to get 18 laps in each hour. 18 mph. Insane.

My calves started going, I had to push big gears, and my legs withered under the relentless pressure. The corners seemed automatic, rote. I felt like if I got on my bike tomorrow I'd just turn right, go a few hundred yards, bear right a bit, then loop around the circle, then come back. I swear I could ride the course while asleep.

The time started winding down and I made a final push, trying to get in just another lap.

Finally the time ran out. 72 miles. 72 laps. The poor marshal got up stiffly, and begrudgingly said something like, "You rode a lot."

My mom came by to pick me up. I was tired, hungry, and just wanted my normal post-ride food - a lot of pasta, a lot of spaghetti sauce, and a lot of tea with tons of sugar and a touch of milk. Oh, and maybe, if I was lucky, there'd be pork chops or chicken thighs in the sauce, instead of just ground beef.

I had a week or two to collect whatever uncollected money out there, and man, it was a real pain. A real, real pain. But I got it done. It just had to be done, it didn't count unless I collected and mailed in the money. If you want to compare this whole experience to bike racing, getting the money is like promoting a bike race. You just slog through it, try to get it done earlier than later.

Some point later the local shop, where I got my Schwinn Traveller III, called me up. I'd "won" the bikeathon and the grand prize - a 5 speed Schwinn. When would I like to come by and pick it up?

Well now.

I went there with my mom, and they presented me with a bike. Honestly it was a let down - a 26" (road, mountain bikes weren't really around yet) 5 speed, super heavy bike. But it was a bike, it was new, and it was mine!

I posed for a picture, and it ended up in the paper.

I gave the bike to my little brother. Aaron stopped riding shortly thereafter.

I went on a two week bike tour. And a few months after the bike tour, I bought a race bike.

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