Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gushing About Bike MS

Bike MS is unlike any other event ride.  Take it from me, I’ve participated in almost every event ride offered in Oregon, and even many in Washington.  Those other rides are great, but that’s all they are – rides.  Bike MS is so much more than just a bike ride.

In early August this year, a sea of moving vans and volunteers transformed Monmouth’s Western Oregon University into “Rider Village”.  The college campus - our home for the next few days – really did feel like a village; a community gathering spot for a special group of people.  Everyone received red carpet treatment, no matter what their fundraising level. 

It was easy to learn about Multiple Sclerosis and how effective Bike MS funds are in helping researchers fight it.  Smartly placed banners throughout the main stage area educated us on how different MS symptoms are for each individual.  Small placards with a question were strategically posted on the outside of each porta-potty, with the corresponding answer inside.  Finally, someone actually found a way to make port-a-potties fun!

Right from the start, there was a carnival-like atmosphere.  Instead of carnies, we had crazily decorated team booths with anything from Hawaiian d├ęcor to strangely funny mascots.  A high energy band was cranking out tons of music from different eras.  auGi hopped up on stage with his usual charismatic, and hysterically funny, patter.  I even had the privilege of standing up behind the microphone and outlining the safety guidelines for riders. 

What about folks who weren’t riding?  Sit around all day and wait for everyone else to get back?  Nosirree.  There were three field trips to choose from, including berry picking at a local farm and wine tasting at a fancy winery nearby.  Plus, there was a pool, a fitness center, and even yoga!
The buzz at the start/finish line was, well, buzzy!  As riders lined up to start with their teams, Amy, who was wearing feathery orange antennaes, was up there cheering people on with a megaphone.  And she wasn’t along – there was a small army of volunteers clad in adorable “Me Stomp MS” t-shirts ringing cowbells.

I had the honor of acting as ride marshal.  We were instructed in advance to help riders in three ways.  The first two were the typical, expected requirements: medical help and mechanical help.  The third requirement embodies just how the folks from the National MS Society think.  Emotional support.  That’s right, ride marshals are guided to really be there for the riders.  We should change the name from ride marshal to hug patrol.

Saturday morning started early, but as ride marshal, I rolled out late.  I’ve never ridden “sweep” on a century ride before and felt a little nervous.  I knew that beyond being helpful, my mission was to stay behind the last riders and to inform rest stop volunteers that seeing me meant the course was closed.  It felt like that Steven King story, The Langoliers, where giant meatball-like monsters (the timekeepers of eternity) clean up what is left of the past by eating it.  Ok, that’s a little dramatic, but it was a long and tiring day. 
The climb up to Silver Falls is pretty tough, but the views at the top make it all worth it.  The rest stop was perfectly located at a viewpoint.  I ate enough snack mix to feed a horse.  Volunteers gave us medals for climbing the hill, which made me wonder why I ever ride my bike without this level of support. 

On the way up the first big hill, I met a really cool dude, rider #619 from Klamath Falls, who had set a tough goal for himself.  His first century, and not an easy one.  He had a very uplifting attitude and it was easy to ride along with him and encourage him.  He ended up taking the SAG wagon back to the finish, or “abandoning”, as they call it on the Tour de France.  I was so proud of him for making it through all of the climbing, and descending, before he respected his body and accepted a ride home.  We had a great chat later, where he confessed that he felt bad for failing.  I hope I convinced him that failing a hard goal is much more meaningful than succeeding at easy ones.

Much later in the day, I felt tired and wanted to rush to the finish.  I’ll admit it, I felt impatient. Then my eyes fixed on the blue bib number flapping in the wind on the bike in front of me.  Suddenly, it hit me.  I work for these riders!  I’m here for them!  It’s my job, and my privilege, to support them.  I dropped back, giving these last riders more space, and enjoyed the rest of the ride.  There’s always potential of character development on any ride and this was mine.
The rest stops blew my mind.  Of course, the Superhero Stop was a favorite.  Everyone was wearing capes and had their own superhero identity.  All of the volunteers were chipper, even though it was late in the day.  By the end of the ride, they had all blurred together into one giant buffet of delicious food and friendly kindnesses. 
Crossing back under the giant inflated orange finish line archway, the energy was super high.  Great music, folks waving pom-poms, volunteers with medals for us.  It was a very festive feeling.  The volunteers worked as hard (or harder) than the riders – standing around in the hot sun, running back and forth filling up coolers with ice and lemonade, smiling for so long their faces probably hurt.

Once back inside the white picket fence area, near the main stage, the party was totally happening.  A banquet of picnicky foods that would please every palette, along with free-flowing beer and wine, was welcome after a long day in the saddle. 

There were lots of teams, and lots of individuals too.  Some teams had their own tent with tables and chairs in the shade near the stage area.  Prime real estate for the weekend!  Those without a team certainly weren’t alone.  It was like a big family gathering with a spot for everyone.
Regrouping with my fellow ride marshals, who’d all finished earlier than me and had already showered, we reminisced about the day’s events as if they happened longer ago.  One marshal saw a bunch of riders turn the wrong way out of a water stop and chased them down, all the way to Salem, creating a one hundred and twenty mile day for himself.  We were all new to ride marshaling, but everyone had a great experience and good stories to tell about the riders they met.

That evening, we enjoyed an obscene amount of candy and popcorn while watching everyone’s old favorite, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  It was the perfect entertainment for the evening - each scene is amusing all on its own.

Soon it was time to head back to the tents and get some sleep for Sunday.  The routes offered on Sunday were completely different than the Saturday ones.  As a ride planner myself, I know what a tremendous amount of work goes into planning each and every route.  So, I was especially impressed that riders could pick any combination and be assured they wouldn’t be re-riding a route, like watching an old Three’s Company rerun.  No one wants that.

Adair Village is a favorite place to ride through and I enjoyed the shorter distance and the beautiful, mostly flat, terrain we covered.  I stopped for blackberries and met Eric from team Broken Spokes.  He’d just purchased his bike and this was his first ride.  People like him blow my mind.  Heck, everyone out there blew my mind in one way or another.  The generosity I witnessed in the way teams worked together, volunteers supported riders, riders thanked volunteers was pretty amazing.  

My friends at the National MS Society have asked me to be the ride marshal lead for next year, and to share the Western Bikeworks shop rides with all of the Bike MS riders as training rides.  Stay tuned in 2015 for more!  And, until then, keep riding bikes.  And keep helping Bike MS succeed at their ambitious, important fundraising goals.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Alley Cat Racing

There's always a lot of uncertainty, loneliness, messiness, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed with life.  Then there are days like Saturday when I wake up with a clear vision of my mission, secure in my place in the world and what I need to do.  Which, of course, is to ride my bike, or, even better, race it!
The first race, The Dirty Dozen, was a follow up to last year's Kuchen Rennen (cake run), and the fifth year in a row an OBRA team has stepped into the gooey gutter that is alley cat racing.  Teams of five started out sharing a dozen donuts each.  Hell, it was free breakfast.  Team Messerschmidt finished eating first and took off in formation for the furthest out checkpoint at the Lumberyard.

Each stop had a unique, or not so unique, task for us to complete.  Most of them involved some variation on squats, which certain bloggers with bad backs were incapable of doing.  Team alley cats are new for me, and can be tough as routing decisions are made by consensus instead of gut.  But, more brains are better, and we created a tight efficient pack, staying together for most of the race.

The hard part for me was being left behind at the final checkpoint when three of our five were suddenly competitive and shot ahead without two of us.  We didn't see them again til the finish line, where we were presented with the terrible news that we were disqualified for skipping a checkpoint.

While we waited for the other teams to come in, I felt itchy to leave and ride the couple of miles to the missed checkpoint, but the team was dissolving quicker than an electrolyte tab in a water bottle, so that was a no go.  My first ever DNF for an alley cat race: a very sad feeling.
Beer Mongers Cycling Club won, and they sure deserved it.  They were all in full kit, and really demonstrated true teamwork and sportsmanship.  Plus, they ate four dozen donuts.  The prizes outnumbered the racers, which is always a good ratio.  As a fundraiser for the Oregon Food Bank, this was also a good thing, as many folks invested a few bucks for a fist full of raffle tickets.

After drinking much of my raffle winnings, I jetted off to the next race, the 40Cat.  This race was put on by genuine bike messengers and is a spin off from the West Side Invite, which has been going on for a dozen or so years.  The first alley cat race I did in Portland back in '03 was part of this great culture created by messengers and the West Side Invite organizers.

Two hours after our meet time, we were given our manifests.  I quickly scanned mine and picked out the three west side destinations, and more importantly, my first stop: Montgomery Park.  I'd figure out the east side stops later.  The map in my brain was activated and hot.  I clipped in and looked up.
Then, the strangest thing happened.  The organizer gave everyone time, like twenty minutes of time, to map their route on their smart phones.  Not only was I twice the age of most of the kids there, but I was realizing what a curmudgeon I'd become in my idea of what alley cat racing is.  I was really putting the old in old school.

Back (way back) in my messenger days, alley cats were a ready-set-go scramble where racers read their manifests and charted their course on the bike.  Races were an all comers contest of speed, compromising laws safely, thinking on your feet, and knowing all the right short cuts.  In the dozens of races I organized or raced in, not a single one gave racers time to plan their route.  But, alas, those were the old days and the next generation will do what they will.  I'm just glad they're still putting on races.

We all sprinted off together toward Montgomery Park, where racers had to gather ten stones to carry with them.  By the end of the race, I'd have thirty stones total in my jersey pockets.  I kept seeing racers everywhere, even way over on the east side near the now-demolished Lafayette train bridge.

Racers were equipped with trash bags and latex gloves so they could gather road kill to win the CARCASS bonus.  I didn't see any roadkill, but I was happy to have the gloves when told to grab a huge prickly thistle plant by the roots and carry it to the finish line.  Due to the aforementioned bad back, I had mounted a rack and pannier for carrying stuff and was really happy to have that thistle there instead of on my back, with its flyaways flying off behind me.

Finally back to the Fremont Bridge, I was the second lady in.  Of two ladies.  But it was still good to finish, to not win the DFL award, or get another dreaded DNF.  By the time I got home, my odometer read 67.  67 miles of urban riding, most at breakneck speed.  A good day with lots of lessons learned.
The innermost ingredient to my cycling identity comes from those long passed messenger days, which can be recaptured on a day like last Saturday.  These unsanctioned street races, or alley cat races, light up that part of me and renew my instincts on the road.  They remind me who I am and where I came from.  The alley cat scene is alive and well in Portland, and so am I.