It was pouring down rain but we soldiered onward. A lot of people came out to wish us well, clapping, yelling, cheering and cowbelling. A bunch of families even set up tents in their front lawns to stay out of the rain but remain in shouting distance. Passing out BUTNZ! in the rain proved challenging, but I found if you gave them a Chinese-throwing-star action, they sailed farther. It was kind of cool to watch them flying through the air like something out of a Ridley Scott movie.
We arrived at the 70-100 mile route split and the race organizers said the 100 mile route was now closed. CLOSED! WHY? "There's lightning up on top of the mountain." Oh. That's a good reason. The bad news was we weren't going to get to ride 100 miles today. The good news is that instead of being 1/3 of the way done, we were now 1/2 way done.
There were a couple of guys that went up into 100 mile route, heading toward the hills. Kurt asked me if I would consider riding the 100 mile course unsupported. I said, "If something bad happens up there, you are alone. No help, probably no phone reception (it was spotty at best last year) and the hills all have switchbacks up and down them. I think 70 is plenty of riding today." He quickly agreed and off we went, with Sean, on the 70 mile course. The rain continued to pour down, but was getting lighter.
At one point Kurt, who is naturally gregarious, met a guy named Dana, who decided to ride with us. Dana was a good guy and we enjoyed riding with him the rest of the way. As we crested a hill, I looked and saw a long, slow, downhill ride ahead of me. I saw there was no shoulder to the right, and the right side of the road had been "repaired" by the local construction crews whose mandate was clearly, "Throw something in that hole; it's Miller Time."
All that to say I was riding about 2-3 feet into the road, which by Pennsylvania law is exactly where I should have been. I say that because suddenly there was a car behind me, honking. Urgently. There was no place for me to go, so I held me line, thinking this person would go around me, which they easily could have done as there was no traffic coming the other way. In short, I was being harassed because I had the temerity to ride a bike in a cancer event. Surely there must be something else going on. Finally, the Prius passed me and one of the fattest sausage-fingered hands came out of a rolled-down passenger-side window, and a single finger was extended. The Prius then rolled on ahead.
A woman cycled up next to me and said the car had been harassing people all the way down the mountain. I said, "I find they're often nicer when you catch up to them and let you know what you're doing" then dropped down a couple of gears and went up ahead. Sure enough, he was stuck behind another group of riders. I came up behind and said, "Sir, you know we're raising money for charity here, right?"
The guy rolled down the window, stuck his Duff Goldman-looking Fat-head out and launched into an expletive laced tirade about how we jam his roads up every year, how he pays taxes for these roads and we don't, how he's tired of people like me yada, yada, yada. Dude was pissed. I just looked at him and said, "Really? Really" Begin tirade two. We came to a crossroad and the car turned right. I'm glad it didn't escalate any farther, but I really don't understand how a Prius owner of all people could have a problem with cyclists. Really. I looked right behind me and Kurt was hanging next to me. He had seen the whole things and decided to get my back, riding up in support just in case. He looked at me and kind of laughed, but I know he was thinking, "Only the Irish guy can find trouble on a freaking charity ride." And, he's right. Note to Mrs. Fish - I never go looking for trouble, it just seems to find me. Honestly.
The rain had slowed a lot and we continued to ride. We came to yet another section of hills, with a sizable downhill. Volunteers at the top of the hill were telling people to slow down and take it VERY easy. I asked one of the volunteers, "What, no bombing the hill?"
"No," was all she said.
Of course, I was joking, having seen what happens when people overestimate their abilities and/or underestimate the treachery of the course. Neither of these scenarios appealed to me, so I pumped the brakes to make sure they were good and dry, then tilted myself down the hill.
Experienced riders lean their bicycles to steer. Inexperienced riders use their handlebars to steer. On a downhill, the difference is even more pronounced, because when you use the handlebars, the bike pitches to the side you are steering toward. Amateurs sense this pitching, this shift in weight of the bike, and it feels like they are going down. The natural response in this situation is to steer the opposite direction and brake. This is one case where the natural response is also the wrong response. The slowing down takes the energy out of your bike, the energy that is required to make the turn. And keep the bike upright. Which is why the guy directly in front of me went through this exact series of disastrous-ballet moves and went down in a heap right in front of me. In a way it was my fault, having not left enough room in the likely event this happened.
There is a promise that God gives that he will send his angels to protect us when we need them, and I believe this was (yet another) one for me. Everything slowed down to the proverbial slow motion. I saw him try to make the right turn, panic, overcorrect and fall to the left. I steered to the right so I didn't run him over and knew immediately I was going to clip the back end of his bike and go down. I unclipped my shoes from my pedals as the bike started too go down.
I yelled as loud as I could "CRASH CRASH CRASH!!!1!" so people behind us would know and avoid us. I flew over the handlebars, stepped down with my left foot right into his chainring teeth. My body pitched forward into a semi-pushup and my left hand got a rock stuck in it where it hit. I was so glad I went back to retrieve my gloves before the ride began.The whole thing took less than 2 seconds.
I did a self-inventory and realized nothing was broken. There was a terrible stinging in my left foot where his chainring had bitten into my leg, and now rain and sweat were mingling in the shark bite there. My second thought was immediately to see if the other guy was okay. He had, in effect, just laid the bike down, and was fine. He kept apologizing over and over and asking if I was okay, and except for the hand and leg, I was okay. Then I remembered: My BABY!!! I reluctantly looked at my ride and there she was, lying on her side in the rain. I picked her up, gingerly, checking the frame. Fine. The wheels? Fine. The brakes and shifters? Also good. My water bottle had tumbled 50 feet down the hill, my odometer had gone about 10 feet int he same direction. I gingerly hobbled down to get both, but mercifully, everything was fine.
Sean, Kurt and Dana kept asking if I was fine, but I realized the real test was going to be getting back on the bike. I did. It hurt. A lot, actually. I pedalled and took a quick physical inventory. The leg hurt, the hand too, my collarbones/shoulders were both sore and my lower back was tightening up a bit, but I had maintained my record of 43 years without a broken bone. In the pain I was feeling, I actually gave more than a passing thought to one of my own cycling heroes, Jens Voigt, a man among men in the professional peloton. He crashed spectacularly in this year's Tour de France but refused to quit (Amazing story and funny interview about that: CLICK HERE). If Jens could do that, I could surely finish this. I also thought about how hard cancer survivors have to fight every day, and I knew I could finish for them. My guys asked me one more time if I was okay.
"Yeah. I got this."
We rode the last 20 miles or so in good humor. The riding was getting things moving, and except for my lower back, everything else felt a little better. It was more of a blur this year, and the time went more quickly, I think in part due to the shortening of the course. I took the lead for Team Fish and rode in, Kurt, Sean and Dana riding in behind me. It's my favorite part of the ride for many reasons, but mostly for the remembrance of all the people who make up Team Fish, of those who are with us and those who are not. Some years it's just a little too much and this year was one of them; I finished with tears in my eyes this year thinking about all of the people who made up Team Fish, and for those who are no longer with us.
Thank you, Team Fish, for all of your thoughtful support over the past four years. Words cannot express the depth or breadth of my gratitude, and just how much it means to have you with me.