In 2002, I embarked on an eight-state, 1,650-mile bicycling journey from Boone, North Carolina, to Austin, Texas. Raising money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation was certainly part of my trip, but the discoveries of what makes America tick and of myself were priceless.
I am a survivor.
Only four simple words, yet a powerful and profound statement for those who have battled cancer and won. It was the overriding theme, and frankly the only one that mattered, at the sixth annual Ride for the Roses weekend in Austin, Texas.
One of the nation's premier cycling events, it drew thousands of people together for three days to celebrate life by enjoying the present. In addition, it brought awareness to the mission of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is to enhance the quality of life for those living with, through, and beyond cancer.
I am also a survivor, but not in the same sense as the 9 million Americans who have beaten the disease. My minuscule battle entailed pedaling nearly 1,650 miles on a bicycle from Boone, North Carolina, to the Texas capital. Lance Armstrong's best-selling book inspired me to even contemplate the eight-state journey and, in part, raise funds for his foundation. Its title, "It's Not About the Bike," might best describe my own personal discoveries and victories that occurred before, during, and after the 24-day trek.
Can I do it?
Plans for my March-April trip and subsequent participation in the foundation's 2002 Peloton Project, which is comprised of cyclists, cancer survivors and other individuals who want to make a difference in the cancer community, began to take shape in August of 2000.
Along with the primary objective of collecting money to help people manage and survive cancer, I was motivated by other reasons. Being 49 years old, I wanted to see if I could withstand the challenge of getting on my bike day after day and cranking out anywhere from 70 to 90 miles during a five- to six-hour period. Extensive training prior to the trip and establishing nutritional goals also became part of the equation.
Furthermore, I had always considered my previous long-distance cycling experience — in Europe in 1982 — as being an uncompleted ride. Personal decisions made along the way and the fact that I was run over by a truck in London, and spent two months in the hospital, had always left me with the feeling that I had failed to finish that particular journey.
So, being older and hopefully wiser, I established a new challenge. And as I prepared to jump on my saddle in Boone on a foggy, rainy morning of March 20, every emotion one could possibly imagine was stirring around inside me — elation that the moment had finally arrived, nervousness over the unknowns that lay ahead, fear regarding the traffic, but also the certain knowledge that this time I would indeed cross the finish line.
My send-off from Boone was special due to the efforts of Alicia Orlando, who runs the Best Western motel where I stayed and is herself a cancer survivor. From the banner hanging in the lobby welcoming me and proclaiming my ride, to arranging a newspaper interview and police escort to the city limits, she could not have done more to ensure such a positive start.
Miles Tager, the staff writer with The Mountain Times who wrote the article about my trip, informed me the small college town of Boone had five bicycle shops and the local population was crazy about cycling. He added, "it really went nuts around here after Lance wrote about Boone in his book."
So, as I left the bicycling mecca tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina — and with a police cruiser and its flashing lights accompanying me — I quietly rejoiced over the fact that I had selected this place to begin my long-awaited journey. It was special knowing full well that I was climbing and descending some of the very same hills that Lance had done several years prior during a training session in the Tar Heel state.
Speaking of hills, they were the order of the day — along with rain — during the first two days, with some peaks ranging between 3,000 and 3,400 feet. In fact, once I maneuvered through that part of North Carolina, I did not encounter any other serious climbing terrain until I reached the Texas Hill Country.
My support team
Joining me on the trek was my mother, Mary Gabrion. She lives in Ithaca, Michigan, where I grew up, and cheerfully volunteered to serve as my support team after I asked her if she was free of any obligations during a six-week time span in early 2002.
Although we had never done anything like this together — in fact, I had not spent a long period of time with my parents since leaving home in the early 1970s — we quickly united on a daily routine that carried us through the entire trip.
Most days would begin with the alarm going off at 6:30 a.m., which was usually followed by a quick peek out of the window by either one of us to observe the weather conditions. Many times I was thankful for packing every piece of cycling gear I owned — from rain jackets to booties to skullcap — because I ended up using every bit of it.
The first order of business was to perform stretching exercises, followed by eating breakfast and giving myself enough time to let it digest before hopping on the bike. Most mornings I would have orange juice, cold cereal, oatmeal or the Southern version called grits, a banana, muffins and toast. My mother was in charge of grabbing extra fruit, bread, and jam that I would later eat during breaks along the route. She got pretty good at stuffing all that food into her purse.
Once back in the motel room, we would pack up her vehicle — which by the way was a Chevrolet Blazer — and make sandwiches and drinks for the day. I would prepare six water bottles, two with just water, two with Powerade, and two with a combination of water, Powerade and a powder called Endurox R4, which is a performance recovery drink. All the bottles contained ice, and those not in immediate use were placed in a cooler.
Also in my jersey pockets at all times were Clif bars and a bag of roasted almonds.
Before departing for the day, which was usually between 9 and 9:30, we would review the maps for that day's route, hit the bathroom one last time, and off we'd go.
Our method of keeping track of each other involved kind of a leap-frog technique. I would begin cycling while my mother waited behind for a half-hour or so, thus giving her time to delve into the morning newspaper. She would then pass me and travel five to 10 miles ahead and wait. I would then ride by her location, usually whistling to let her know of my arrival, and the process would begin again. If we were in an area that consisted of several changes of direction in a short time span, we kept closer taps on each other.
I would normally take a break every couple of hours to rest and eat more food. The timeout also gave my mother and I a chance to talk about what we had observed along the way, whether it be the sand hills in North Carolina, the turkey vultures in Georgia, the less-than-courteous drivers, meaning toward cyclists, in Louisiana, or the big ranches in Texas.
By late afternoon, when my feet would usually start to feel sore, we'd make our way toward that night's lodging, check in, and unpack the vehicle. While I was toting the luggage and taking a shower, my mother would hook up the laptop to check our e-mail, clean out the water bottles, and use the sink to wash my cycling jersey and shorts.
After checking in with family and friends — by way of e-mail or telephone — and giving my daily trip update to the newspaper, we would make our way to a restaurant and enjoy a well-deserved meal.