The alarms on our phone broke our slumber at 4:30 a.m. I took the pill that replaces the hormones my thyroid used to make before cancer took it from me. Jeff took the life-saving Imbruvica pill to fight leukemia. We started our normal routine 15 minutes earlier than we do on most mornings. Cancer has made the early morning pill taking a not-to-be-missed ritual. This is what we do every morning. This morning, however, was not like every other morning. This was the morning of the St. Louis Pedal the Cause bicycle ride.
I took my medication and let my head rest back on the pillows again. Jeff put his feet on the floor and opened the hotel room curtains: still dark. He made his way to the shower while I dozed for a few more precious minutes. Too soon, he was back at the bedside urging me to get up and get going.
I made my way to the shower while Jeff, the saint, went down to the hotel breakfast nook and retrieved coffee. The magic black brew awaited me when I exited the shower. I drank it as I dressed. Jeff also presented me with another, albeit more dubious, potion: beet juice drink. Beet juice allegedly enhances athletic performance and Jeff had bought it in a powdered form which he mixed into water for me to drink. I continued drinking the coffee. My plan was to sip a little beet juice mixture alternating it with the coffee. Jeff did not approve of my plan. He insisted I drink it all at once. “Down the hatch!” he shouted at me. I complied with his wishes. It wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t delicious. I think it would be better if mixed with pineapple juice or ginger ale. Definitely don’t drink it right after brushing your teeth.
I finished dressing, we gathered our belongings, and headed to the basement garage praying the car would start. If the car wouldn’t start, we would need to walk to the event. Our bikes were in the bike corral. We might not be able to take the shortcut through the mall because the mall might still be locked at this early hour. We held our breath as Jeff put the key in the ignition and turned it to the start position. It started. We exhaled. We left the parking garage and drove in the dark, early morning to the Pedal the Cause event.
Jeff drove me to the entrance then went to park the car in the Macy’s parking lot. I carried my gear into Ride Village. The event lighting was bright against the dark sky. I went to the hydration station and filled my water bottles then climbed the hill into the bike corral. I found our bikes and put my Cat 5 bag on the ground near them. I began putting items in my bike bag: sunscreen packets, individual packets of chamois cream, individual packets of Skratch electrolyte packets, etc. I changed from my sandals to socks and cycling shoes. I found my sunglasses and gloves. I felt good about the morning’s progress. Soon Jeff had joined me and was making his preparations. We took advantage of the gear check station and left our bags with a change of clothes with the volunteers. After checking our gear, we left the bike corral through the now open north gate and walked over to the food area. We enjoyed coffee from the Kaldi stand and breakfast from Whole Foods. Breakfast was served buffet style and consisted of bagels, melon, bananas, and various yogurts. The breakfast area was not busy yet and we easily made our way through the buffet and carried our trays to the nearby dining area. The nearby dining area consisted of several standard metal picnic tables and a grouping of tall, round tables each covered in a dark blue tablecloth and adorned with a bouquet of orange mums. It was a pretty sight in the soft light of sunrise. The sun began to lighten our surroundings as we ate our breakfast. As we were finishing our breakfast, the Century riders were called to the start line. They would begin at 7 a.m. to ride 100 miles. We finished breakfast just before the National Anthem began. We paused to face the enormous flag hanging over the starting line and listened to a member of our military sing the anthem superbly. After the anthem was sung, we cleared our table and headed back to the bike corral.
Back at the bike corral, we made our final preparations as the announcer began to call Metric Century riders to the start line. That was us. We would be riding 65 miles today. I made my final preparations and put on my left glove. Then I attempted to put on my right glove, but I couldn’t. I had 2 left gloves. Fortunately, I had packed 2 sets in my Cat 5 bag, but had pulled out 2 lefts. Feeling like a fool, I went to the gear-check station and asked for my bag. The volunteers cheerfully helped me and I returned to my bike with a correct set of gloves with plenty of time to make our 7:15 a.m. start.
We arrived at the start line in time to hear the safety talk. The course is approximately 62 miles with an additional loop for people wanting more of a challenge. Jay Indovino, the executive director of PTC, cautions us to ride within our abilities and to not try the Babler loop if we aren’t feeling strong. Jeff and I discuss it and plan on making it through the Babler loop. I state I will crawl up it if I must, but I will make it. I am feeling strong and feisty. Maybe it’s the beet juice.
After the announcements have finished, a countdown begins, the starting horn sounds and we are beginning the ride. The ride begins uphill. It is a foreshadowing of the ride ahead.
I managed to mount my bike efficiently and start well. We climbed the hill out of Ride Village, made a sharp right turn and then started a sweet descent. We road for several miles coasting downhill through the empty suburban streets of Chesterfield, Missouri. There was a strong, courteous police presence at the busiest intersections. There were also course marshals with bright orange flags holding traffic at other intersections. Everyone’s spirits were high, but I overheard several riders discussing Babler and the fact they won’t be riding it. I thought, “How bad is this Babler?”
I put thoughts of Babler out of my head and continued riding. We rode out of Chesterfield, behind the outlet mall, past the airport and up onto the bike trail. The bike trail is paved and atop the levy. It was a nice, traffic-free ride. We followed the trail passing a second outlet mall. We could see the store fronts to our left. A busy highway stood between us and the outlet mall. Jeff teased me about being so close to my favorite stores and not stopping to shop. We continued toward the river. Nearing the river, the trail began to lose elevation and make a left turn. We dropped down and rode under the big green bridge. We followed the bike path under the bridge, essentially making a U-turn and heading back toward the outlet mall on the other side of the highway. We had an uphill ramp to climb to make our way back on top of the levy. The outlet mall was still to our left, but we were winding our way around to its back side. We were leaving it behind and passing a pumpkin farm with several wagons of bright orange pumpkins below us. We continued along the bike path for several miles until we saw people with bright orange flags. We had reached the first rest stop.
We did make a short stop, top off our water bottles, eat an orange slice and make use of the necessary box. The volunteers were helpful, cheerful and friendly. The mosquitoes were vicious. We didn’t linger here for long.
The bike path was nicely paved except for the entry/exit which was a gravel lined inclined. We walked our bikes down the incline and then resumed riding on the smoothly paved road that took us through scenic country farms.
We were riding well and enjoying the day which was still cool. We rounded a curve and saw ahead of us a very steep hill. I was unsure I could climb it. I was relieved to see a flash of orange to my right. Two course marshals were waving us to turn into a road to our right: a flat road. I was happy to make the turn.
I didn’t pedal down the road for long before my legs begin to tell me I was moving uphill. I was doing well when suddenly the slope changed. The slope became very steep. I would later learn that it changed from 1% to 13% rapidly. At the time, I only knew that the pedaling was hard and my legs burned. I feared, I might lose my forward momentum and fall. The hill kept going and going. I pushed harder on the pedals. I focused on pulling up on the pedal as well as pushing down. I kept going. Eventually, I made it to the top. This was the first big hill we had encountered. It was not the much-feared Babler. How bad was this Babler going to be?
We topped the hill and rode a short plateau to an intersection where I stopped near a stop sign, caught my breath and drank some water. After a short pause, we continued our ride by turning right and beginning a steep descent. Although the descent was steep, the road surface was smooth, the route was straight and I could see the path ahead of me very well. I let the bike roll. Jeff later told me it was the most confident he has ever seen me on a descent. I hit my top speed of the ride: 38.5 mph.
I joyously continued my ride. The first hill had been challenging, but I had met the challenge and recovered quickly. We pedaled onward for a few more miles and entered the St. Albens Country Club. We rode on a smooth, paved, black asphalt road between the immaculately manicured grass of the St. Albens golf course. At the 18 mile mark, we enter rest stop #2 which was located in a parking lot of the country club.
We cruised into the rest stop, placed our bikes on one of the many bike racks. Next to the bike rack was a mobile bike shop. Several riders were taking advantage of the service and having their shifting tuned or their tires aired. Jeff was coveting the tools and admiring the neat, organized mobile tool shop. We left our bikes and found the snacks. Friendly volunteers offered us cookies, fruit and peanut butter sandwiches. I chose a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich and a giant chocolate chip cookie: delicious! We ate our snacks, downed and refilled our water bottles, then resumed our ride.
The ride away from the rest stop once again took us uphill. We rode some gentle rollers then rode up some deceptively steep, but short hills. We then had a short downhill over a creek. We rounded a curve. A small reservoir was to our right. It was a scenic, fun ride being marred by the fact I couldn’t clip in. Try as I might, my left foot would not clip into the pedal. Jeff suggested we stop. I didn’t want to stop, but agreed we should. We pulled off the road on a rare flat spot with a large, gravel, shoulder/parking area. I looked at my pedal. Nothing was amiss. I looked at my shoe and there was a large rock lodged into the cleat. I removed my shoe and balance on my right foot and handed the shoe to Jeff. Jeff used a tire tool and with much prying, he finally removed it. I returned my shoe to my foot and resumed my ride.
We resumed the ride for another half mile or so and then began climbing once again. First there were small rollers with plateaus, but the course was winding ever upward. We continued onward. Somewhere in the 2oth mile of the ride, we approached a bigger hill. I began my climb with courage. I was doing well seemingly approaching the top. The road curved and I realized this was not the top, but merely a short plateau. The hill continued upward and suddenly became steeper. Strava would later tell me the grade was 8.5%. I became panicky. I feared I might lose forward momentum. I pushed the pedal down and pulled it up. My glutes burned. My breath became short. I kept working. The hill continued upward. A couple of strong male riders slowly passed me. They shouted encouragement as they passed. They also made compliments on my pink hubs. It helped to detract from the pain in my legs and lungs. With much effort, I finally made it to the top.
At the top, I felt pride in myself. The climb had been nearly 2 miles long and I was fatigued. I kept pedaling as I recovered. My breath was coming back to me. My legs were forgiving me. I was tired, but triumphant. I continued pedaling.
We were now pedaling along a ridge line with small rolling hills. Always, there were hills. Not even at the top of this ridge was it flat. I was fatiguing and there were several miles left to pedal before we would reach the next rest stop. Just when I thought about making my own rest stop, we reached the descent of the ridge.
The descent brought a much needed rolling rest. I relaxed and let the bike roll, using the brakes a little to remain in control. It felt good to be rolling downhill for a change hitting speeds of 25 mph. All too soon, it was over. The end of our descent was the intersection of our road and a busy highway.
We paused at the stop sign and waited for a break in the traffic on the highway which happened to be famed Route 66. The traffic was heavier and moved faster than we had encountered up to this point; however, there was a wide shoulder on which to ride. We road along the shoulder for about a mile then we turned to the right and began riding away from the highway and into a forest.
The trees lining the road gave us shade as the road took us up yet another steep hill. I began the climb and tried to pedal through, but I was losing momentum. I felt I might lose all forward momentum and fall over. I panicked. I prayed. I was gasping for air; sucking wind. I wanted to give up, but I didn’t want to fall over. I pushed and pulled the pedals. I was moving slowly, but I was still moving. Strava would later inform me the grade was 12%, but my body was telling me in the moment it was running out of steam. I kept moving; kept pedaling; kept breathing. I made it to the top. I had pedaled all the way to the top. I had not fallen. Another small battle won in the war of this ride.
At the top, I pedaled onward drinking from my water bottle and catching my breath. We were now riding a ridge line and the riding was somewhat easier. Soon we came to an intersection. A man and a woman were waving orange flags alerting us that we were now at rest stop #3.
Rest stop #3 was located in Greensfelder Park. We rolled into the park and stopped in front of a shaded shelter. We had now ridden 29 very hilly miles. I was tired and ready for a rest. We placed our bikes on a bike stand and guzzled water. Jeff’s bike had been having some minor shifting problems. He spotted the mechanic’s tent at the rest stop, but there was a line of cyclists awaiting the mechanic’s services. We remained standing by the bikes guzzling water. After a moment’s rest, we headed to the snack table. Again, we enjoyed peanut butter sandwiches. They were delicious. As I was enjoying my refreshments and Jeff was making use of the indoor plumbing provided at this stop, a young woman began conversing with me. She was riding the 100 mile route and had lost her riding partner to the SAG vehicle. He had quit because of leg cramps, and now she was riding without him. She was debating whether or not she could continue the 100 mile route. At first, I was glad to listen to her, but after a short time it became clear she was having an internal circular debate out loud. After 29 hilly miles, my patience for chitter chatter was low. Jeff and I prepared to get back on the bike. The young woman stated she would probably ride with us even though we were not riding the same route. Neither Jeff nor I gave encouragement to this plan. Fortuitously, I noticed the mechanic’s tent was empty. I pointed this out and asked Jeff if he wanted the mechanic to look at his bike. He immediately started walking his bike to the mechanic’s tent. I followed him. The young woman resumed her ride.
Jeff and I made our way to the mechanic’s tent which was hosted by Billy Goat Bicycle Company. The mechanic was a nice young man with something of a hipster vibe. He talked with Jeff and wrenched on the bike. Jeff took the bike for a short test ride and the mechanic and I began to talk. He asked me about my ride and I shared with him my struggles. I stated that I might not be capable of doing the full route and might need to cut out Babler. The mechanic replied that there was no shame in opting out of Babler. I asked him how hard Babler was. He informed me that the Babler hills were not any tougher than the hills I had already done. He said the real challenge was there were three hills in close succession; the last one is named “the beast.” After talking with the mechanic, the thought of opting out of the Babler loop was seeming more logical. Soon Jeff returned, we said our goodbyes and thank-yous to the mechanic and resumed our ride.
We resumed our ride and bicycled through a few more rolling hills then made a fast, steep descent. At the end of the descent we took a sharp, left turn onto a park road. We began gradually gaining elevation. A very fit looking older man passed us and I watched him as he pedaled ahead of us. He was about a quarter of a mile ahead of us when he stopped, dismounted his bike and began walking it up the steep hill. If this muscular man had to walk, I didn’t think there was much hope for me. I lost my courage. When we arrived at the same spot, I stopped the bike and grabbed my water bottle. I did not want to ride up the hill. It is hard to make the legs pedal when the spirit isn’t willing. Jeff stopped beside me. I drank my water infused with Skratch labs lemon-lime electrolyte powder and then began whining about my fatigue, and my fears. He assured me I could do this hill. I told him I would try.
I decided to pedal up this hill. I started, but couldn’t get momentum. Unfortunately, I had stopped on an uphill. I coasted downhill a bit then did a U-turn and attacked the hill. Stronger riders passed me and offered encouragement. The pavement was painted with slogans:
You got this!
Shut Up Legs!
A picture of a smiley face
You know you are tackling a tough hill when the event organizers feel the need to give you written encouragement. I pedal. I huff. I puff. I am tired and I want to give up. I keep going. Another stronger rider passes me and shouts encouragement. He looks uphill and groans and states he wishes they had opened the gate. I don’t know what he is talking about. Soon, I look up and see a gate across the road. I assume that is the end of the hill. I can see a white church up to the left of the road. I think I am near the end of the hill and hope the next rest area is at the church. I am wrong on both accounts. As I near the gate, I see paint on the road directing me to the left. There is a narrow path around the gate. It is a tough turn off the road around the right side of the gate and to the left of a road sign. There was little margin for error. I was wobbly and would have preferred to walk my bike through, but Jeff was right behind me and another female cyclist was behind him. I knew I needed to keep going. I wobbled and frightened myself with my lack of control, but somehow I managed to maneuver through the obstacle. I was now on a short plateau looking at an even steeper incline ahead. I panic, unclip and dismount the bike. Jeff and the female cyclist pass me as I begin the walk of shame pushing my bike up the hill. The grade is 13%. It isn’t easy even walking. The white church is in my sight. I am sure the next rest stop is just over this incline. I make it to the top to discover there is no rest stop, just more road.
We continue riding along the road until we reach Route 66 once again. We pause briefly and then cross the famous highway. We continue along our route. It is quite hilly. We are losing elevation, but riding some steep inclines while doing so. At mile 40, I do a quick mental calculation and realize there are over 20 miles of the ride left. I do not want to ride them. I am done! I could quit right now. I am hot. I am tired. I am still pedaling. We climb a steep incline and find ourselves at an intersection with road marshalls guiding us to make a left turn. Now, we have a much needed downhill. I allow myself to coast. Soon the entrance to the Babler park comes into view. I ride into the park and quickly realize I’m on a false flat. Even the entryway to this park is uphill. I pedal slowly to the rest stop.
The rest stop is located at the entrance to the park. To the right are racks for bikes, porta potties, a snack tent, a first aid tent and a mechanic’s tent. All were in a line by the side of the road and in the bright sun. I dismounted the bike, and Jeff took it from me. While Jeff put the bikes on the bike rack, I staggered across the road to a shady spot. I noticed a man watching me with concern in his eyes. He was right to be concerned. I was near the danger zone of overheating and was not doing well at this point.
I made my way to the narrow strip of grass in the shade. I paced and gulped electrolyte water. Jeff soon joined me and asked what he could do for me. I had no answer. I didn’t know what I needed. I needed a moment to self-assess. I needed hydration. I needed to cool down. I needed to eat, but I wasn’t hungry. I paced and drank from my water bottle. Jeff went to get me food. He returned with peanut butter sandwiches and bananas. He also brought an ice cold wet bandana provided by the snack tent volunteers. They had these ready for all the hot, tired riders. It was heavenly. I longed to sit down. At every other rest stop there had been chairs provided for tired riders and I had eschewed them in fear of my legs becoming tight. Now, I would love to have a chair and there were none. I sat on the low curb. Basically, I was sitting in the gutter. I didn’t care.
I sat there in the gutter watching the park traffic. Campers drove in and out of the park. Cyclists flew down the hill and out of the park. Other cyclists rode into the park. Some dismounted their bikes and laid down on the hill behind the bike racks, some found their way to the snacks, some took advantage of the cold bandanas, but all looked hot and tired. As we sat on the curb, I saw the girl from the last rest stop fly past us. She had not only made it to the rest stop, but had completed the Babler loop and was now heading out of the park. I hope she made all 100 miles of her ride. We took a long rest and I noticed about half the riders were riding into the park while about half were opting out of the Babler loop.
After the much needed rest, I stood up, and we made our way across the road and refilled our water bottles. We stretched a little and then took our bikes off the bike racks. Slowly, we maneuvered them into the road, mounted them and rode back out of the park without attempting Babler.
As we left the Babler rest stop, I was dreading returning up the hills we had ridden to get to the Babler park. The hill we had coasted down to get to the Babler park now became an uphill obstacle to our way home. Even after the long rest, I was struggling.
I struggle and keep struggling up and up as the hills keep on coming. We are gaining elevation with steep climbs and short plateaus. We are passed by 2 male riders, one of average build and the other between 350 and 400 lbs. I was amazed at the riding ability of the larger man. He was riding quite well as he passed me. They were about 100 yards ahead of me when they began a steep climb. I caught them and Jeff was following me. The climb was steep, but I pushed myself to pedal. I was within 8 feet of the larger rider when he suddenly stopped and dismounted his bike. I managed to weave my way around him and stay on my bike as he walked his up the hill. I kept pedaling and soon caught his friend when he abruptly stopped in front of me. Again I swerved and made my way around him. I managed to pedal up the hill leaving the boys behind me to walk their bikes up the hill.
The hill leveled out and we found ourselves at an intersection where we were forced to stop for traffic. Our route took a right turn up a sharp incline. I found it difficult to start uphill, but with a great effort I managed to start and pedal up the hill. The walking boys were back on their bikes and overtook us. I pedaled slowly, but I kept going.
We kept going until we crested the hill and soon saw signs warning us the road ahead was a steep descent. I became nervous, but Jeff encouraged me. I took the descent with caution, but found it to be fun. Once at the bottom of the hill we were back on the road we had ridden on our outbound journey. Now, we were headed back toward rest stop #1 and the bike path. We encountered more rolling hills and I was exhausted. We were soon being passed by a group of friendly riders dressed in tuxedo riding kits: their riding jerseys were black and white with a tuxedo design and their riding shorts were black with a tuxedo design on them. We had seen them and talked with them at several stops throughout the ride. They seemed like a fun group. They shouted encouragement as they passed. Soon we were all at the next rest stop. Rest stop #1 now became rest stop #5. We had ridden over 50 miles.
We stopped on the shoulder of the road at rest stop #5. It was there where we met Jack. Jack approached us and asked us how we were doing. He was kind and friendly and genuinely interested in our ride. He was standing behind an official ride vehicle and unlike the riders was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. I discussed my struggles. Jack listened and encouraged me. He told me not to be discouraged for struggling because this course was designed to be very difficult. He said, “This isn’t your grandpa’s charity ride.” Jack was the creator of the ride route. I didn’t have the energy to strangle him, so I accepted his encouragement and then found another peanut butter sandwich.
After eating our snack, we remounted our bikes for the last leg of our ride. We began riding the trail on top of the levy. We followed the path into town that we rode out of town. The sun was hot and the wind was now stronger and in our faces. I rode at a good pace, but was growing tired. We made it to the exit point from the bike trail. Bike marshalls cheered us as we passed. We came to a busy intersection near the outlet malls and several strong riders joined us. We rode together in front of the outlet malls. The traffic is heavier now, but the road has a bike lane and we journey onward. I am wanting a rest, but there is none. We are passed by more riders. We are nearing the end of the ride, but the road once more turned uphill. The hill that was so much fun to ride down at the start of the ride was not fun to ride up at the end of the ride. We needed to gain over 570 feet of elevation to make it back to Ride Village at the Chesterfield Amphitheater.
I rode as hard as I could, but I was riding slow. I was making my way uphill when the unthinkable happened. The inner thigh of my left leg began to cramp. It was painful. I was afraid I would fall off the bike into traffic, but I willed myself to keep going. I prayed to make it up the hill. I didn’t make it up the hill, but I did make it to an intersection where the hill leveled for a few feet. I pulled into a drive for a gated residential area. I dismounted the bike, rested it against an iron fence and tried to stretch my leg. I leaned over the fence and caught my breath. A few more riders passed us. I told Jeff I would walk my bike to the top of the hill. I hoped I could ride the bike to the finish once I walk to the top of the hill. Once again, I was doing the walk of shame. We walked our bikes a short block. Jeff spoke of calling SAG. I did not want to SAG out of the ride. He was not convinced I could make it to the end. We had less than 2 miles to make it to the end. I couldn’t fight the voice inside my head urging me to quit and fight Jeff too. His judgement was better than mine and I told him so.
We stopped in a shady spot and Jeff called the SAG number. A couple of riders passed us. I could no longer hold back the tears. I stood on the side of the road and sobbed. I did not want to quit; and yet, I knew I could not tackle the two hills between me and the finish line. Jeff consoled me as the SAG vehicle arrived. The young man driving the SAG vehicle looked at me and said, “You need some AC! Get in the car.” So much for being a strong, independent woman. Now, I had two men bossing me. I knew they were right. The waterworks were turned off, but the frustration remained. I climbed into the bright blue station wagon while my bike was put on the bike carrier. Jeff asked me if I minded if he finished the ride. I didn’t. I was jealous, but I didn’t want him to quit just because I was weak.
Jeff continued the ride while I road in the air-conditioned SAG vehicle. The air conditioning was refreshing. The young man driving the SAG vehicle was a part-time employee of Big Shark Bicycles. We made conversation and I learned he had a degree in mathematics and was struggling to find a job in his field. He was about to start a new job and I wished him well. He was sympathetic to my disappointment in not finishing the ride. He told me I was the 11th person he had carried in the SAG vehicle. He then told me there were 6 vehicles rescuing riders. He hypothesized there were 60 to 70 people who rode SAG to the finish. The young mathematician pulled the SAG vehicle into a shady spot. I was somewhat confused because we were not back at Ride Village. He pointed to the corner and said, “The finish line is around the corner. If you would like to finish, I will let you out here and you can ride across the finish line. I won’t tell anyone.”
I took him up on his offer and thanked him. I remounted my bike as he pulled away. I coasted down the hill, around the corner and into the finishing shoot. I had to dodge a ladder and workers dismantling the finishing line, but I rolled through the finish line.
As I rolled through the finish line volunteers cheered and rang cowbells. They offered me water and I accepted. I left the volunteers and found Jeff at the bike corral. I may have accepted a little help, but I finished the hardest ride of my life. It was time to celebrate.