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Ride for The Roses

Published November 2, 2009

I started out writing about the actual Ride for the Roses—which has now evolved into the Livestrong Challenge. After observing the events of last weekend, I realized that “it’s not about the Ride.” The weekend is a “gathering of the tribe,” or in Lance’s words, “the army.”  This is Lance’s “Obligation of the Cure.” A conversation between Dr. Craig Nichols with his cancer patient (Lance) resulted in a meeting amongst five friends in a Z Tejas restaurant in Austin. Over 80 million yellow wristbands later, we have the Livestrong Challenge—events in four cities (Portland, Philadelphia, San Jose and Austin). Where 20,000 participants raised over $10 million this year.

The ride is the culmination of the weekend, of celebration and remembrance. Sometimes, it’s a weekend of mourning. I will miss Jim Owens, a cancer survivor (and fighter). We would meet once every year at the ride. Some years, he would need the assistance of a walker (which we enjoyed ‘customizing’ with ‘Shimano’ and ‘Dura Ace’ decals). Other years, he would join us on the ride. Unfortunately, Jim lost his most recent battle with cancer since our last meeting.

My weekend starts on Friday. It’s the ‘Welcome to Austin Dinner’ for the largest fundraisers, special guests and VIPs. It’s a small catered affair that grows every year. There’s plenty of food to eat—and I partake, justifying that I will burn it all off on Sunday. Lance and Doug Ulman (CEO of the foundation) greet the guests.

Saturday, there is a 5k run (or walk for some). I usually skip this part, as my running days were left back on my high school track team. I do use this day to pick up my bike and stock up on supplies at Mellow Johnny’s. I’d arranged for the folks at Felt to bring my bike to Austin—as they were going to be in town the same weekend.

Saturday night is the celebration dinner that honors the top fundraisers for the year. This has become a highly competitive event—even more so than the ride. In the past, I was simply amazed by the resourcefulness of individuals raising so much money. The most memorable part of the evening are the stories that people share. Their experiences fighting this terrible disease are what I will remember from this weekend.

My ride partner (domestique) for the ride is Will Swetnam—who calls himself “One Lung Low.” A cancer survivor, Will has lost use of most of one lung and half of his diaphragm to cancer. We’ve been riding together for six years. Others that have joined me over the years are: Davis Phinney, David Eng (my best friend from college and a neurosurgeon), and various employees of Shimano (that have fought cancer in their families). By the way, my definition of ‘domestique’ is someone responsible for getting me to the finish.

In the past, I have done the 45 and 65 mile rides. They’re really not that difficult – rest stops (‘power stations’) every 10-15 miles. The ride also includes rolling tech support, sag wagon, and on-course volunteers (for turns, cattle guards and water crossings). The 900 volunteers truly perform a fantastic job.

There is a plethora of bikes—everything from beach cruisers to time-trial bikes. Lance’s mom, Linda, is out there on a hybrid bike. She’ll complete the 20-mile ride. With all the extra effort required to propel that bike, I tell her that she could have ridden 45 miles. I figure Trek could design a high-performance, ‘comfortable’ bike for her. Everyone is enjoying the ride. There is a category for everybody—pro riders on down to people on their first ride.

This weekend, I’m doing 45 miles. Will has recently been involved in an accident that destroyed his bike. His back and hip are not up to the 65-mile ride. I think he was working too much—not enough riding. I tell him that there are easier ways to get out of doing a 65-mile ride. For me, I have plenty of time to ride—I have no excuse. At the turnaround point for the 45-mile ride, “One Lung Low” decides that 45 will be plenty for today. Now, it’s my turn to be a ‘domestique’—and to return the favor. Because of Will, I’m a much better rider compared to six years ago.

We laugh as the ‘tech support motorcycle’ comes up to us. He informs us that we have 30 minutes on Lance. The joke is that we’re doing 45 miles, while Lance is doing 90. Will Lance catch us by the finish?

Others take the ‘Challenge’ more seriously. Lance likes to ride at ‘his pace,’ so he rides with his ‘posse’ (‘College’, Knaggs, Stapleton, Taylor Phinney, etc.). People are teasing Taylor—he’s got to “improve on his silver medal from last year.” Then there are the older, ‘ex-racers’ (Wayne Stetina, Jim Ochowicz, Steve Johnson, Axel Merckx, etc.). They take part in what we call the “unofficial Masters Class World Championships.” Competing for ‘bragging rights’ until next year. Axel’s age is in between the two—maybe he’s riding with the ‘big boys’.

Many people have signs (“In Memory Of” / “In Honor Of” / “I am a Survivor”) pinned to their jerseys. For me, it’s “In Memory” of my two uncles (Keizo Shimano and Juro Shibayama), “In Honor” of an ‘unnamed cousin’ who wishes not to reveal his cancer, and Lynette Braunstein (close friend of my wife, Martha). Uncle Juro was born in Hawaii and fought in World War II. He was wounded and left for dead in a battlefield. Somehow, he survived. After that moment, he figured that every day in his life was a bonus. And, he lived his life that way—until cancer took his life. Uncle Keizo fought cancer with all his might, but lost. During his 2nd bout, he realized the ‘Obligation of the Cure.’ I didn’t quite understand it when he explained it to me—but, now I do. Keizo was about to retire from Shimano (while he was president) and devote himself to helping others fight this disease. He didn’t get that far. Hopefully, others might be able to continue that fight. And as for Lynette, life might not be considered fair. I met her as we moved into our neighborhood. She was a newlywed with a ‘mixed family.’ That’s life for you—getting married and getting cancer within the same year. Her cancer is now in remission, and she celebrates every ‘negative test result’ with her family.

Roses are handed out to cancer survivors as they finish the ride. I realize that the ride is many things to many people. Some use it as a reminder of battling cancer and surviving. Others use it to remember a loved one. I think of all the suffering that people (and their families) have gone through. Think about chemotherapy—they take you to the brink of death (to kill the cancer cells), and then bring you back. I can’t imagine the pain (physical and emotional) that these people go through. Maybe that’s how Lance handles the ‘pain and suffering’ of bike racing.

The weekend inspires me to be a better person—to be more philanthropic. A friend once told me about his outlook on life. “I’ve been blessed to experience the World. I now spend my time giving back (to others) to express my appreciation for what I have experienced.” Good words to live by. And, I try to live by those words.

Then there’s what Lance says. During the celebration dinner, he answers a question with “I do not fear cancer, but I respect its strength.” He often says, “I’m very glad to be here today” when he’s at an event. He says this because 13 years ago, Lance did not know how many “todays” there would be. So, he really means it when he says, “I’m very glad to be here today.” For me, I’m very glad to be part of this weekend.

Kozo Shimano with ride partner (domestique) and cancer survivor Will Swetnam. Our 'dueling Garmins' told us that he was burning more calories. It takes 'more energy' to move 'more mass.'



The highlight of the ride is the Mellow Johnny’s rest stop (complete with espresso machine and Landshark beer). This rest stop was only outdone by the last one (4 miles to go). It had a masseuse.


On Friday Mellow Johnny’s experienced their best day (in sales). Saturday surpassed that (600 percent of the average single day in sales). Maybe Lance should have more of these rides in town. I hope that Bicycle Sport Shop of Austin and Jack and Adams also experienced an uptick in sales over the weekend.

Photos by Will Swetnam

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