By Nicholas Robson – Contributing Writer
It was Saturday about 7 in the morning. The weather was drizzly and dismal with rain in the near forecast. My wife and in-laws accompanied me with coffee in hand where we would meet my father and I would eventually board a bus New York City-bound.
As we arrived and crossed the street with my father and bus, in view at Roswell Park, everyone’s facial expression portrayed happiness and joy. I kept quiet and walked with my family as I crossed the street in front of the main entrance, feeling a massive wave of emotion reliving these visits with mother not so long ago.
The man with the umbrella was my father. He was in his glory as the social butterfly while mingling with staff. I was quickly introduced to a few people and recognized a few of the riders from the Facebook group.
The intent is that a group of people from across the United States have registered for The Empire State Ride, a 500-plus mile journey on bicycles from New York City to Niagara Falls, July 30 to Aug. 6, in order to raise funds for cancer research at Roswell Park.
I made the decision to tackle this ride In late April, soon after the passing of my mother. She had her second battle with breast cancer over the past year and a half.
Other blogs from the road:
Read other blog posts from the ride:
- Admiring the Hudson, remembering a friend
- Ride hits its stride in the Catskills and beyond
- Yet another epic journey
- Ride builds bond between father and son
I humored the idea as an avid cyclist mostly motivated by fitness and fun surrounded by spin class, commuting, and single track mountain biking. However I lacked a few of the essentials: a road bike and the confidence to raise the funds for such an admirable cause. Optimism is my wife, Lindsay’s, dominant trait. When It rains, she sees fresh flowers growing, crops ripening, and looks for a rainbow. The fundraising component was in her wheel house. My mother-in-law and Lindsay quickly tackled this and eventually met and exceeded the minimum amount, upwards of around $5,800. All that was left up to me was to get a bike and continue training.
I purchased a bike and began riding a minimum of five days a week, whether it was a 65-mile ride or century ride. I became competitive with myself and began perfecting my form, times, monitoring heart rates, and cadence. I was committed and looked forward to my routine on two wheels. It was an escape … solitude … a time for me to reflect and accept … or at least I thought.
My family departed and we were quickly on our way to City College in New York City. After about 10 minutes on the shuttle, I realized that I was with a group of riders, some knowing one another, others coming with friends, and some in the same boat as I was: solo.
Either way, every person had the same goal in mind: ride bikes and raise money for the cause.
Throughout the trip into NYC, I conversed with a few folks discussing everything from sailing, to the rough ride, and the gas station lunch selection … never scratching the surface of why, why are you doing the ride? Why am I doing the ride?
After the stagecoach simulated ride to City College, we were directed to a college gymnasium with a woodchuck lookalike mascot painted on the wall. It was there where we would find our bikes and check in materials. After getting the essentials and confirming our bike status with Don, the head guru mechanic, I was quickly swept up by a part of the Roswell media staff, Tony. He was one of the essential components in documenting this journey and individual stories of the riders. He was quick to ask me for an interview and with the microphone in place he began asking questions.
I had no idea of what to expect. It all was happening so fast, so systematically, and with such fluidity. the questions started to flow, the answers came like a middle school rehearsed choral performance until I was faced with “Why are you doing this?” “What do you think?” and “What do you think your mother would say?” Among others.
Confidence in the beginning quickly becoming naivety. I didn’t want to show emotion but I think I may have choked a bit.
It was then I realized I was by myself, the usual Nicholas approach on dealing with life’s situations but this time it wasn’t OK. I had unsettled business. I was here to help, to make a difference.
Photos were taken and we were directed to our dorm rooms and given time for dinner. The dinner was catered by an amazing little company, Two Trees, serving up a fantastic cuisine. It was then and there we socialized. I plugged into a table with what appeared to be a group of folks that seemed comfortable to me. I peeked over my left shoulder scanning the clientele noticing two gentlemen I had exchanged words with previously on the FB page.
Once dinner wrapped up, we began mingling much like in the halls the first day of school where everyone finds their cliques. I introduced myself to several riders and was surprised at how welcoming and interested in one another everyone was. The two gentlemen I spoke to online – one coming from Chicago and the other making a flight from Florida – quickly recruited another rider from the Syracuse, area as well as a father son duo from the Western New York area.
We sat through our introduction session or orientation put on by BIKEternity. It was at this point I realized what the term “fully supported ride” meant.
The staff ranged from Sweet Sue, who was more like the mom of the event, from the two brothers that could tackle just about any problem we encountered, an amazing bike mechanic, a route marker, Ray the head honcho, luggage handler, a camp crew handling tent and accommodation setup, as well as Roswell Park support staff.
After the intro, we linked up with who we would want to leave out with in the morning. After the specifics were handled and celebratory beer, we made our way back to the dorms where we’d be staying for the evening. I was in route when I had met a woman, one of the riders, and began discussing our connection to being here. She was full of spirit, joy, and to my surprise was currently enduring treatment for her cancer. It was at that moment I realized this was nothing I had anticipated, although I wasn’t exactly sure of what to expect to begin with.
RIDE DAY ONE
Seven a.m. was coming quickly. The forecast didn’t look promising but we had a ride ahead of us in the near morning.
The dismal morning was lit full of elated faces ready to cruise out of the city over the George Washington Bridge, through Palisades park, into Nyack Beach State Park, along the coast through Piermont and eventually into Rockland County, where we would find camp for the evening. All of this while climbing 2,757 feet of elevation through torrential downpours.
The smiles, laughs, excitement, and drive were an umbrella to the weather we were experiencing. Our six-man team rode like seasoned vets, cautiously never leaving one another behind, calling out road obstructions, turns, speeds, and checking on others throughout our route. Along the route, we picked up another rider, this one from New Jersey. His connection was simple : “I am in good health and if I can help, I will.” Camp was wet but tents were dry and spirits were flying higher than the George Washington Bridge. That evening, we shared laughs, some cold brews, an amazing meal, and enjoyed a live band. Our nightly route meetings quickly became routine for the next six days. We discussed our travels for the upcoming morning. We settled into bed, tossing and turning filled with excitement and anticipation of what was to come.
The second day our small group left out after breakfast insisting to one another that we would take a “slow roll” out today. Leaving camp with a heavy climb, but legs got warm and we immediately took peloton formation taking turns pulling and switching off drafts keeping our pace from 15 mph to the mid 20s. The “slow roll” idea clearly went out the window. The rain persisted throughout the day, however the rolling hills along the Hudson Valley, crossing Bear Mountain Bridge and its climb, through the Dutchess Rail Trail, Mills Mansion, and the winding country roads never ceased to amaze us.
Fawns fed meadowside. Flocks of turkey pecked along roadsides. Bald eagles soared overhead.
The pleasant locals kept us company along the way. We climbed 3,548 feet until we hit camp in Stony Point for the evening. It was during this time we picked up yet another rider to our group while we passed him calling us “pansy asses” on our 20 mph peloton. How could we not slow down and add another component of humor to our group?
We were in for it. What an amazing man full of such heart. As a group, we shared more about one another, finding our connections to the ride, our cycling background, family, friends, careers and more.
One thing was for sure, we were having a blast – telling jokes, being amused by scenery, busting each other’s chops, and quickly recruiting another rider to our “not so slow roll” peloton.
It was throughout this day I began to think of my mother often and in some way comparing my story to other stories, other survivors, and others continuing treatment as we spoke.
I was having mechanical issues not allowing me to get into the gears I needed for climbs. Rather than back down, I pushed past the pain and muscle fatigue forcing the big ring pedal by pedal up to the third rest stop. It gave me a chance to view and converse with others along the way. It was motivating and inspiring to see people take such control of their lives and to be so deliberate with their intentions.
After recently testing positive for the BRCA 2 gene, and being in and around the age I’ve previously lost family members to cancer, I wondered if I could be in the same situation.
My wonder was easily inspired by having conversations with 65-year-old cyclists pushing though these hills and rain, or watching the girl power bond among a few female survivors, celebrating five years of being leukemia-free. There was a woman who never stopped smiling. One of the strongest women I now am proud to call a friend overcome a tragic loss of her husband, which occurred back home while she was on the ride the previous year. A young man scattered his friend’s ashes along the way. Several other riders were survivors – and forces to reckon with.
As every evening, I looked forward to hearing from my wife and how her day went, as well as what she was doing as a solo artist with two furry companions by her side back home. On that note, I called my father as I did every night and checked up on him. I was worried about him as I was not there by his side. I knew leaving for seven days wasn’t going to be easy for me – leaving my wife, the dogs, my father, brothers and in-laws. The anxiety set in just in time for bed but the excitement and inspiration I received from my fellow riders that I now call family had me eager for sunrise.
In the following days, our mornings began with protein-based breakfasts and bike p.m.s. Evenings followed with delicious cuisines full of salmon, curried chicken, cod, fish tacos, and steak with a variety of sides that included beans and rice and roasted brussel sprouts. They wrapped up with the decadence of strawberry shortcake or bountiful berry pie.
I, as well as the majority of people, enjoyed checking their Facebook status and viewing what their significant others had posted about them.
It was on Day Three traveling out of the Hudson, onto Shodack Island, into Albany past the Capitol building, winding up in Frosty Acres Campground in Duanesburg, N.Y. where something happened. This ride began to make more sense than anything ever had in my life.
We were running our usual 18 mph peloton when I saw a Cooper’s hawk. It wasn’t the first that sailed above, but I pointed it out to my “squad” (the locals deemed us that in Albany), quickly explaining that I was bird geek and that mother and grandmother loved birds, as well.
It was interesting how these hawks would remain with us along the way. It was then I became somewhat emotional, but as usual Nicholas practice, I wanted to just be alone as I don’t often talk about things that possibly upset me and would prefer to handle it on my own – knowing that it’s not always the best idea.
This resulted in a breakaway from the pack, ranging into the high 20s. After a few miles, I looked back and at quick glance my seven-man peloton was right on my wheel asking me humorously why I just flew away.
Eventually I tried to drop back and found them lagging behind with me. It was then I realized that I wasn’t going to be left alone, that they knew –knew better than I, as I carried the corsage I wore on the day of mother’s funeral in the middle of my jersey pocket daily – I wasn’t over anything. In fact it was just starting.
The fact is that up to this point I kept myself so busy with everyone else and their wellbeing that I didn’t want to feel it.
My new family of riders knew it and were there for me. They wanted me to go through this process with their support. In fact, we were there for one another no matter what terrain lay ahead.
That evening, we faced a grueling climb into camp, a beautiful but an epic feat. At this point, amp lye 4,047 feet in elevation. It was unbelievable the level of emotion, tears, and laughs that could be heard 500 yards away as you rode up the winding roads into camp. Being greeted with a big hug and yelling, “I can’t believe you did it!” followed, with a fellow member handing you a cold beer.
That evening, we waited as staff went out searching for the arrival of one of our riders pushing through the dusk into the dark eventually arriving being greeted by a parade of riders following him into camp on foot.
The evening was filled with tears, and a few laughs, as our group quickly became known for its sense of humor, and S’mores accompanied a bonfire. This is consistent with the days to follow, traveling from Albany to Utica along the Mohawk River, climbing 2,884 feet in elevation, taking a breezy ride on the flats along Oneida Lake, crossing the Seneca River, heading into Baldwinsville, and ending in River Forest Park in Weedsport.
It was on this day that the heat was a bit overwhelming. Although our group moved quickly, we took a few detours, stopping at local diners for 10-cent coffee, mingling with locals, and having a few frosty beverages a mile outside of camp, enjoying each other’s company.
That evening at dinner, the founder of our ride suggested we share out our feelings and thoughts thus far.
Sitting with my crew, as usual, I knew they were probably pondering the idea that I may get up. I caught them look at me occasionally. After listening to a few riders speak of their tragic loss of loved ones, or the positive vibes and connections of riders, it was at that moment I bowed my head and hunkered down.
I couldn’t do it … not without getting upset … and anyone who knows me knows it’s something I’m not comfortable doing in front of people. But who is, I guess.
At that moment, one of my fellow riders – family at this point – turned and helds onto me tightly, forcing my head into his shoulder for several minutes as another member placed his hand firmly on my back. Both of our shoulders got tear soaked. The rest of my family of riders bowed heads with emotion rolling strong.
I wish I could have said something but we all understood.
On the lighter side of things that evening, we rolled up to a local restaurant and bar inside the campgrounds, where we enjoyed the awkward jukebox playlist and the local company, which I’m sure were intrigued by having new life survey their town.
The next day, the “slow rollers” made their way through the trails along the Finger Lakes into the city of Rochester and Spencerport, concluding the evening at the Genesee Brew House for snacks and beverages, accompanied with some competitive games of Jenga and Corn Hole. We were quickly off to bed and surprised by an incredible storm filled with lightning, flood-status rain showers, and unreal winds.
THE LAST DAY: TO NIAGARA FALLS
The last day, our last ride together – although we made an agreement to stay in touch, to be a part of one another’s lives from here on out – was concluding rapidly.
We swore to slow roll out. That quickly ended with a 21-mph peloton for the first 10 miles or so … eventually kicking it down a notch.
It was then we came across some other riders and even more that were struggling along the way due to fatigue.
We decided to do a big pull, creating a two-by-two, slow-rolling line to break the wind and create easy drafts to follow. We had to finish together and to support one another.
We stopped for photos, coffee and slushies along the way.
The smiles were ear to ear and eventually the tears of joy flowed like the falls we would soon approach. We were greeted by the riders and Terry, the founder of this ride, with open arms, knowing I may have needed it repeated: “Ohh Nicholas, your mom is proud of you and she is looking down on you.” With our emotions flowing, I did need it.
At the staging point a few miles from the falls, we met as a group and configured our ride in. Of course, our eight-man squad stuck together. Survivors rode up front, and we held strong through it all.
I was so eager to see my wife, her smile, hear her laugh. The look of excitement was all I needed. My father and others were there holding signs that read, “NYC-NF,” “piece of cake,” “Welcome Home!” “You Did It!”, and “If Britney Spears can survive 2007 you can survive 500+ miles over 7 days.” My little brother showed proud as a peacock and ready for the stories.
To watch my fellow riders’ families greet them and to see how much we all missed each other was such a joy. Several of us rendezvoused at a local brewery that evening. My other brother showed up and several other family members joined in the festivities. More goodbyes were said, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before our paths crossed.
There were flats, crashes, mechanical issues, weather to be dealt with. Getting lost, hills to climb, feelings and emotions to accept. Stories to be shared, families formed. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I could not have gained from this trip what I did if it wasn’t for those I shared it with. They are essential components to the road in my life that lies ahead.
I look forward to sharing our rides as well everyday meanderings in our daily grind.
This ride encompasses inspiration, devotion, and closure.
After all, we laughed from our hearts, cried from our souls, and rode bikes in between.