The Lonely Road
Now that I’m back from the JDRF Sonoma ride, I’m not only unpacking my clothes but also the memories. There’s so much I could write about…the unique weather, my flat, the JDRF cyclists, the coaches…Instead, I want to share a story that involves a lonely road, a family, and 15-miles out of 100.
Around noon that day, I reached the 20-mile extension (mile 54) that enabled riders to complete a century. I’d missed the cutoff time but was hoping that as a coach, I’d be allowed to continue. A ride official shot down that idea. I sat there for a moment to plan my next move.
My role that weekend was to be a pace leader for a group of riders. Due to complications on my end (like my flat!) Patrick, the coach I was assisting, continued helping our group reach the extension. Prior to my arrival there, he texted that they had made it in time and were on the loop.
A plan came to mind. I’m the type that likes to finish what I started so I texted him that I’d ride to the end of the loop and head the opposite direction until we connected. I could also assist any riders along the way; I knew this section was going to be challenging.
The loop greeted me with a long climb that led to sun-bleached pastures. The heat was more intense in this valley and I wondered if having half a bottle of water and skipping lunch (in an effort to get to the cutoff in time) was a wise move. I was also getting “hot foot” in my left foot and was doing what I could to alleviate the discomfort.
Aside from a few JDRF cyclists coming in the opposite direction, who let me know I was going the wrong way, it was a lonely, hot stretch of road. An occasional ranch sprung up here and there; trees were minimal and when I passed beneath their shade, I caught the scent of what smelled like eucalyptus, which was refreshing.
I met Patrick around mile 70. He had stopped to help a teenage girl who was a type one (T1) athlete. I didn’t see our pace group so I assumed they had continued since per JDRF protocol, a coach must help any stopped rider.
Patrick advised me to continue on my “wrong-way-Jay” route to assist the last riders on the loop. After passing a handful of cyclists, I spotted a rider approaching whose speed and body language told me he was having a tough time.
“How’s it going,” I asked as I pulled alongside. I typically get a “Doing great, coach!” even when we both know it’s a lie. His answer was direct:
I sized him up, my role now that of counselor, life coach and medic. He looked to be in his 40’s, seemed to have his wits about him but occasionally stretched his back due to discomfort.
“Do you need ibuprofen for your back?” As coaches, we carry a small first aid kit. He shook his head.
“Do you have a headache?” I wanted to rule out dehydration or that he was close to having a hypoglycemic reaction (what we cyclists call bonking.)
“No. I’m fine.”
I took his answer with a grain of salt as we made small talk. He was from northern California and hadn’t trained much because temperatures had been around 100°. He added that he was riding with his teenage daughter, a T1 athlete, who dreamed of doing this ride for a long time; it was her first attempt at a century. Since she wasn’t with him, I put two-and-two together and concluded she was the young girl Patrick was assisting.
At that moment, two coaches rolled by and informed me we were the last ones on the loop. This news made the area that much more barren.
“Okay,” I told the dad, “let’s take it easy and get you out of here.”
I took the lead and set the pace around 15MPH. I glanced back and saw he had dropped. I slowed down and he caught back up. I settled in at 12MPH but this was also too fast. I kept it around 9-10MPH but he continued to struggle.
After several miles of this, we pulled to the side of the road, neither of us saying a word yet each knowing what was coming. It was a rare moment in which two men–complete strangers–on a hot, deserted road were knitted together in a common struggle.
In an effort to help him make the decision so I wouldn’t have to pull the “coach card,” I reminded him of the climb several miles ahead. He let out a deep sigh and whatever remaining strength and hope he held escaped as well. I let the moment hang and then braved the question we had been tiptoeing around: “Do you want me to call SAG?”
The weight of the question dropped him over his handlebars. He stared at the ground, gave a slight nod and wept. Normally, this would be an awkward moment, one in which we’d brush it off or dismiss as trivial…weak…silly. This was different; unique; oddly intimate. I understood what he was feeling, or at least I thought I did. He wasn’t weeping because he failed to finish a course. These were the tears of a Dad who felt he’d let his daughter down.
My heart ached for him. I draped an arm over his shoulder and muttered something like “it’s okay” and “don’t feel bad; it’s not your fault.” It wasn’t much but I hoped he sensed I was being sincere.
I reached for my cell phone to call SAG when I noticed a parked truck 100-yards back up the road. It was one of our SAG vehicles! I can’t say enough about the JDRF support crew (SAG & medical.) They were AMAZING! I tapped my helmet, the signal that we needed help, and the truck roared to life.
The dad put his bike in the back of the pickup and I reassured him there’s nothing to be ashamed of. He climbed into the cab and I set off down the road, assuming my day with him was over.
It was only beginning.
A Phalanx of Four
I caught up with Patrick and the two coaches (they were from Idaho) who were resting in the rare shade of a big tree. In their midst was the man’s daughter who was sipping from her Camelback.
The SAG truck lumbered up and stopped beside us. The driver rolled down his window and said, “This SAG rider has a message for that young rider.”
All eyes were on the silhouette of the Dad in the cab. I don’t recall his exact words to his daughter, but they were something like, “Finish strong!”
No one said a word. No one needed to. The air was charged with electricity; with purpose. My fatigue and hunger were gone, replaced with the mission of escorting her to the next rest stop where her dad and mom would be. The truck sped off and Patrick put the plan in motion…
“Okay, let’s form a peloton around her!”
We formed a phalanx of four. The Idaho coaches took the point, I rode on her left and Patrick protected the rear.
As we spun along, I was impressed with her grit. She was a strong rider with a fluid cadence and at one point, the Idaho coaches had to pick up the pace so she wouldn’t clip their wheel.
We kept her spirits up by calling her “Rock Star” and telling her she was doing great, which was the truth! I added that it felt like we were protecting the Yellow Jersey on the way into Paris.
Somewhere in all of this, my emotions overwhelmed me. Maybe it was my fatigue or witnessing her dad’s tears and impassioned words or me tying all of these together while thinking of my own kids. Whatever the reason, tears filled my eyes. They were tears of joy, purpose, strength, and hope.
We started the climb and the road ahead of us looked like a scene from the movie Dunkirk: pods of cyclists were stopped along the road, the heat and climb too much for them. One by one, the coaches peeled off to help until I was her lone escort.
We continued to climb, her technique still strong and effortless so I made small talk. I’m not the chatty type when I ride; I do this to see how alert a cyclist is and since she was diabetic, I wanted to keep close tabs on her mental state.
We reached the summit and I led her down, weaving around potholes and rough patches that were everywhere, keeping a vigil eye on her to make sure she was pacing me.
When we reached Tomales Road, the end of the loop, traffic was heavy so I told her to lead and I’d follow. Personally, I like to sit on the rear of a rider to ward off approaching vehicles as well as being able to see how they are doing (body language.) Her pace was slower but she was still spinning well. We reached the next turn and were greeted with a JDRF sign: “Rest Stop 1-Mile.”
As we neared the rest stop, I spotted a minivan parked nearby and a woman cheering her on. Assuming this was her mom, we pulled in and when she came to a stop and knew she had made it, the tears rolled. Her dad emerged from the minivan and they consoled her. I rolled on, letting them have a family moment alone.
I refueled at the stop and was about to lead another group out when I spotted the mom on a bike beside her daughter. I was flabbergasted. I assumed this teen had called it quits but instead, she was determined to finish. Without a word, I followed them, their silent escort, vowing to get them through this.
Both were strong riders and were setting a good pace, even passing slower riders on the small climb. I merely watched, taking it all in, offering the occasional “Car back!” or “Clear” when they needed to turn left.
We hit the last big climb and the teen said, “I’m SO tired of hills!” I assumed she needed to stop; that this was too much to conquer. Instead, she dug in, accelerated, and spun past her mom!
“Boy,” I said with a smile to the mom as we watched her climb like a mountain goat, “get out of her way!” She laughed.
We reached the last stop and I peeled off as I spotted riders from my team and opted to help them get them to the finish. With a quick goodbye to the mom and daughter, I was off.
As we got closer to the finish, I spotted a stopped cyclist. I slowed to assist when I recognized him: it was her dad. He had driven ahead to get pictures of their Rock Star. I accelerated and we exchanged waves and smiles, simple gestures that expressed so much more.
At the finish, I spotted the parents congratulating their daughter on her accomplishment, and what an accomplishment it was. A deep sense of purpose filled me. I was honored to have been a part of their journey, a blip in an important chapter of their lives, tears and all.
15-miles out of 100. A short stretch and yet the miles I shared with this family was a gift, a blessing. Experiences like this are rare, as precious as discovering a pearl in a shell. I’ll cherish it forever, another gem to add to the many reasons why I love being a JDRF coach.