The last rays of sunlight illuminated a craggy mountain in Death Valley as I steadily pedaled my bicycle toward the finish of a long ride this past weekend. At that moment, I’d ridden 120 miles, with 30 more to go.
I did a quick mental calculation. If I could finish 150 miles, it would be the same as leaving Pleasanton and riding my bike over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, then to Napa, on to Santa Rosa, and finally arriving in Ukiah.
I knew my wife Pam had probably finished her ride of 105 miles, along with our friend Jerry Pentin. And somewhere ahead of me three other friends—Bryan Gillette, Gary Boal, and Barry Schwartz—were attempting to ride a full 200 miles in a single day.
Back for our second year, we’d driven nine hours to Death Valley to participate with some 300 riders in a sport we enjoy, to test our endurance, to test our resolve, to enjoy the stunning beauty of Death Valley, and, for the six of us, to raise money for the “We the People” competition civics teams of Pleasanton’s two comprehensive high schools, and Amador High’s Mock Trial team.
The competition civics students need to raise more than $40,000 to travel back to Washington D.C. to represent Pleasanton and California in the national competition. For three years in a row, they won the state division, and in the past two years they took second in the nationals.
At one point as my bicycle and I climbed an almost relentless 3,300 feet from below sea level up to Salsberry Pass, I thought about the team of high school students. Only a few nights earlier I’d shaken their hands at a school board meeting, proud of their commitment to learn and debate about our constitution, proud of the commitment of their advisor, Brian Ladd.
But I was also proud to know that our team of riders had gathered donations from companies and individuals to help fund that long trip to Washington.
For my long trip through Death Valley, I was now reminded how every long bike ride comes with thoughts and thoughts and thoughts. With none of life’s common distractions, and aside from the occasional chatting with fellow riders or volunteers at the aid stations, 13 hours on a bicycle provides a generous supply of time to just sit and think.
So, here is a condensed version of my thoughts over 13 hours: I hope I don’t get a flat. Can I really ride this far? When’s the next aid station? Wow that’s a beautiful mountain. That guy has a cool bike. Look at those yellow desert flowers. I wonder how my wife is doing on her ride? I wish I could tell my kids I’m fine because they were worried about Dad riding so far. I wish my brother were here riding with me. Look at that long road ahead! What time is it now? Why do people do stuff like this? I love my wife. I love my kids. Look at that incredible view. Will this hill ever end? Here comes someone going the other way which means the turnaround point can’t be far. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m not feeling so good. I’m going to sleep well tonight. I hope they have cookies at the next aid station. I’m running low on water. What time is it? Why am I doing this? At age 51 should I really be doing this? Why can’t I be home reading? I love this. I love my kids. I miss my kids. I miss my wife. I love her so much. It’s getting dark, I’ll turn on my lights. I wish I was in that car that just went by. Only 20 more miles. I really miss my wife. Thank you, God, for all the blessings in my life and for the beauty of nature. I see the rear lights of a few riders ahead. Just 10 more miles. Wow it’s really dark now. I can’t believe I’ve been riding since 6 this morning. Maybe next year I’ll try to ride the whole 200 miles. Maybe next year I’ll just ride 105 miles with my wife. Maybe next year I'll go to a movie. I can’t wait to eat a sandwich. Hey there are the lights of the finish way in the distance. Just 3 more miles. Will I finish? Yes I’ll finish. I feel tired but wow do I feel great….
And then I pulled into the finish area and was greeted by my wife and Jerry and that wonderful feeling of getting off my bike and sitting in a real chair.
And in the same way this column just sort of ends, that’s how a long bike ride ends. All of a sudden, you’re finished.
But in a way, we’re not finished, because we’re still gathering donations for the civics students, who travel to Washington in May. We’re short of our goal to raise $10,000, and every dollar helps. So send me an email if you want to make a difference in the life of a student. Donations are tax deductible.
And as much as I love the amazing fulfillment when riding my bike, it’s always nice to come home.
All photos taken by Jerry Pentin. Thanks to the many individuals and the following sponsors for helping us raise funds: CyclePath, Big-O Tires of Pleasanton, ClubSport, UNCLE Credit Union, Spring Street Studios, and Hopyard Alehouse.