THIS PAST WEEKEND I DROVE FROM JACKSONVILLE down to Clearwater Beach, Florida to participate in a metric century, a 62 mile ride along the gulf coast of central Florida. The weather was forecast to be sunny, 56 degrees at the start and over 70 degrees by the afternoon—in my mind, that’s perfect cycling weather.
I enjoy getting in longer rides on the weekends. Century rides are normally my target, but this ride was special. I was going to be a Ride Marshal for the Ride to Defeat ALS, a one-day, fully-supported event that raises funds to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Safety is the priority
Ride Marshals are experienced cyclists who act as both goodwill and safety ambassadors along the ride course. Part of my job was to encourage safe cycling behavior, offer cycling advice when appropriate, and also perform the role of first responder at accident scenes along the route. Ride Marshals are also asked to provide basic assistance to riders who get flat tires or have other minor mechanical issues along the route. Above all, safety is our priority.
I had one other duty to perform. I was the “sweep”. The sweep is the rider who must keep track of the last riders in his group. It was my job to be sure all metric century riders were accounted for, and made it safely to the finish line before the ride course was officially closed. It was my job to ensure that no riders were lost, broken down, overly fatigued, or otherwise unable to finish.
Get ready for the ride of someone else’s life
That’s the slogan of The ALS Association. And it’s an appropriate one. There were several hundred riders on Saturday, each of whom had raised funds and were riding on behalf of a loved one. I arrived at the starting line early for orientation. I noticed it was colder than the weatherman had promised. My thermostat read 46 degrees. Well, I thought, it was still dark and would likely warm up soon. I grabbed a hot cup of coffee and stood in orientation shivering in my ride shorts, short sleeved base layer and long sleeve jersey. I was under-dressed, but I was confident the weather would improve.
It didn’t. By the time the first wave of riders took off, a little past daybreak, it was only 48 degrees and extremely overcast—not a ray of sun anywhere! I was glad to finally get cranking, because that’s the only way I was going to warm up. As I worked off my chill, I told myself it would get better as the ride progressed.
I rode along with some very nice people of every size, shape, age and ability. The metric century route took us from Largo, south to central St. Petersburg, up to Tarpon Springs, and back. We rode through lightly-travelled streets, beachside roads, paved trails, and residential areas featuring some of Tampa Bay’s most beautiful historic homes.
I rode along with a young woman from Tampa who was riding for her grandmother who died from ALS. Later I rode along with a veteran cyclist who rides cross country on his old-school bike, complete with mirrors, panniers and fenders. He told me how he recently completed a trip from Tampa Bay to Key West and back. On this day he was riding for his wife who is still struggling with this devastating disease. With only 18 miles to the finish, he was feeling as energized as he was at the beginning. He was 79 years old.
I rode along side of a young woman who wanted so badly to ride the metric century, but decided to turn off on the shorter route of 25 miles after the weather took a turn for the worse. Who could blame her? In the 20 miles of beach front road that paralleled the Gulf of Mexico, the temperature dropped a few degrees, fog rolled in and reduced visibility to half a mile, then it started spitting cold rain. My fingers were stiff with cold, but my biggest problem was keeping my glasses clean.
I still had many miles to go, and other riders to look after, so I kept crankin’ hoping I could keep warm. Rest stops were plentiful, well stocked, each offered mechanical assistance, and the volunteers were friendly and helpful.
The gulf coast of Florida offers a mostly flat ride, but we do have our bridges. Several bridges rising above the Intracoastal Waterway offered a repetitive test for many riders. The fog and drizzle made climbing the bridges more of a challenge.
Much of the ride was on the Pinellas Trail, a linear park and recreation trail currently extending from St. Petersburg, north to Tarpon Springs, over 45 miles in total. It was created along an abandoned railroad corridor and provides a unique, protected green space for cycling and other activities. At the north end of the course was the final rest stop. It was my key outpost for monitoring the riders who were still on the course. I sprinted up and down a two mile stretch near that part of the trail to discover several slower riders who were determined to ride the full 62 miles. After all, they were successful fundraisers; and they were riding on behalf of someone they knew who had ALS. It wasn’t in them to quit early. Each of them gave it everything they had and finished--exhausted, but satisfied. I was happy to cross that finish line with riders who were tired, but had a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
This past Saturday, I participated in a cycling activity that was new to me. I was a ride marshal. This Ride to Defeat ALS was a success. There were a couple of minor accidents. A mechanical issue that was easily resolved and a couple of lost riders who were quickly located. Despite the weather, I had a great time, and will gladly offer my services again.