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Empire State Ride mixes faith, purpose and power to face cancer

“Harmony is the inner cadence of contentment we feel when the melody of life is in tune.” - Sarah Bran Brethnach

By Nicholas Robson - Special to The News

Everything seems to move a bit slower on the Empire State Ride. The chirp of morning robins take on a whole new meaning in context, a sense of solitude accompanied with a humble pat on the back of accomplishment leaves an everlasting grin of joy and peace across your face. People are attracted to you, admire your being, and aspire to be more like you in some remarkable sense.

For the reserved, it’s shocking. For others, rewarding. For some, a level of inspiration clambers out, creating new beginnings and sustaining new family across the United States. The day-to-day monotony and all of its frivolous tasks seem to lose importance, placing a whole new meaning on your daily grind and intentions in life. You've decided to live a deliberate life, one of purpose. After all, why do it if doesn't have a purpose?

Your bags are unpacked, a week's worth of Lycra dangles across the clothesline in your back yard, leaving the neighbors humorously judging and questioning who you really are.

The grass is a bit too high, emails need to be checked, bills wait to be paid. Grocery shopping awaits, house needs a bit of cleaning. But the outlook is not one of a “Game of Catch Up,” rather one from the perspective: “It will get done in time.” Social media keeps a rhythmic beat of inspiration, reflections, and photographs from riders tagging one another in comments, quotes, and pictures. That steady flow is erratically interrupted with the Tweets and Instagram posts flowing like the Falls we recently approached.

Empire State Ride raises $500,000 for Roswell Park

The occasional text, phone call, and message keep you beaming with an attention deficit to focus on your daily routine. You rewind to that wink someone gave you across the dinner table during an emotional time, the high five and hug given at the top of a climb, or the conversation had riding along the evergreen saturated hillside in 90 degree temperatures. You may be a bit sore but never once ask yourself if it was worth it. The dust has not yet settled and it wont because … YOU ARE AN EMPIRE STATE RIDER. …YOU ARE FAMILY.

Nicholas Robson participated in his second Empire State Ride earlier this month.

In 2016, a ride of approximately 50 riders. A year later, it has evolved into a group of 100. Every rider had their reasons, with quite the variations. Some like to ride bikes and, with a cause as such, it was all more the reason. Others ride in memory of a loved one. Some are survivors, or celebrate a personal accomplishment. The catalyst instigated a fury to train, fund-raise, and bond in order to accomplish this 540-plus-mile journey across the Empire State all while raising $500,000 for cancer research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.

As a second-year rider, preparation was almost routine, knowing what to expect leading up to our departure … almost too routine after being questioned by my wife and support system a week out if  I had booked my shuttle, room at Wagner College, and arranged for my tent and towel service for the week. My reply.”No, I thought they just know!” wasn’t taken so lightly on her behalf.

Furthermore, you think I would know better being part of the steering committee. After a few calls it was all straightened away. I am still not sure why she was so worried. This ride was very different for me this year. …I wasn't upset mourning the loss of my mother that happened just prior to the 2016 ride. …I wasn't somber. …I wasn’t holding on to anything. …I wasn’t hurting. …I had this assertive positivity that I was an an integral component of something so much bigger, something that put it all into perspective.

I was excited to meet new riders, to mentor, to assist, to guide, to discover new meaning in their stories.

Shortly after last year’s ride, I was asked to be a part of the steering team by founder Terry Bourgeois, and registered for the 2017 ride. My wife, Lindsay, and mother-in-law, Susan, immediately tackled the fundraising idea, scheduling events, making, baskets, and sending out letters. Friendships continued to blossoms across the 2016 ESR rider family. The buoyant chatter across the riders previous to this was pure bliss, reflecting on our solidarity throughout the journey last year. None of us have lost touch, in fact most are like family.

Several training rides were hosted for the Western New York riders, meetings were held, happy hours had, fundraising events attended, and one thing was prevalent: Everyone was here for one another. The individual growth and strength of each rider was amazing to watch. Tackling 50-mile rides, to 14 percent grade climbs in the Boston, N.Y. area,  as well as 20-plus mph pace line cruising around Grand Island. Training sessions being slightly interrupted by the masses of riders’ texts and social media posts getting acclimated with the several models and obstacles accompanied with the use of a Garmin. The buzz and competitiveness of everyone giving “Kudos” on Garmin Connect or challenging one another on Strava was real. Tom’s Pro Bikes put on a clinic to familiarize riders with a good portion of the basics of cycling and the mechanics.

Other than packing and dropping our gear off … the riders were ready.

SETTING THE STAGES

The number of riders in this year's Empire State Ride stood at 100, twice the number of last year.

This year, we had the honor of welcoming 50 new members to this group, many of of whom we were able to meet at Roswell Park on July 29 while boarding the shuttle to Wagner College on Staten Island, where we would stay for our first night. That morning, I was greeted by all of the ear-to-ear smiles among my ESR family, accompanied by their caffeinated sarcastic comments continually busting each others chops. Even 7 a.m. doesn't stop them. My father stands there waiting to see me off, socializing with everyone, including the fury family members brought to say their farewells. My amazing wife, younger brother, mother-in-law and father-in-law are on stand by with coffee and breakfast chatting away with all the familiar people they have had the opportunity to get to know over the past year.

Hugs are given, smiles and good lucks exchanged, and the riders board the bus to New York City. In no time, we are at Wagner College navigating our way across campus finding our rooms, picking up registration materials, checking over bikes, and settling in for dinner and orientation. During this time, several of the riders that did not take the shuttle began milling around and introducing one another, matching faces with Facebook profile pictures. Soon enough, we had our cliques, however, as previous riders knew, this would soon change.

Empire State Ride 2016: Inspiration, devotion, and closure

Prior to our meeting, we feasted upon the carefully crafted, protein-packed cuisine by Two Trees Catering. With this crew, the meals are a major upside to the trip. I assure you, it is the only time you will burn 4,000-plus calories a day, seven days in a row, and yet still return home having gained weight. That evening, Shawn Decareaux and her amazing crew at BIKEternity gave us the rundown of what to expect and how to tackle the next seven days.

Rick, the route-marking machine, Martha, setting up rest stops and lunch stops, the luggage crew, and bike mechanics were just a few essential components of making this a successful trek. Greg Edwards spoke in regards to the amazing scenic route he had mapped across our beautiful state and the challenges that await. He has cycled across the diverse states of our country and pointed out that this particular route and New York itself is by far one of the most taxing but rewarding gauntlets to run. Greg left us with a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that he often reflects on: “A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” He also assured us that it wouldn't be the only thing stretched. That evening, we mingled, learning stories of one another, finding it difficult to touch base with each and every person. Soon after a brief recon mission to score some nightly beverages, living the life of college kids, more socialization occurred, anticipation rose, and we settled into for an evening of rest, dreaming of day one.

READY TO ROLL

The silver linings were many in the ride to raise money for cancer research, Nicholas Robson said.

Day one had us cruising by the Statue of Liberty and all her glory while riding the fairy into the city and eventually crossing the George Washington Bridge. Groups of riders looking out for one another calling out obstacles, holes, debris, slowing, and stopping … working like a well-oiled machine. Soon enough, a rest stop and then quickly into the brief descent and all of the climbs Palisades Park has to offer. Nyak and Piermont – the second a quaint little town along the Hudson scattered with classic cars and old Victorian-style homes – kept the eyes scanning. Cruising a cinder trail among the fishermen, families strolling along, and nature lovers running parallel with the banks of the Hudson was enough to keep you waiting for what day two would bring. Soon enough, we were at camp where the amazing crew from Comfy Campers would have our tents set up, towels, chairs, and hot showers ready to go daily.

The evenings would follow suit, with riders trickling into camp in groups from 2 to 6 p.m., with map meetings, dinner to follow, and cycling clinics put on by professional cycling coach Charlie Livermore. Charlie would not only touch base on a variety of topics each evening, ranging from momentum cycling, basic form, and nutrition, but he would also be riding with us daily throughout this 546-plus mile journey. It was that evening when people started to settle in, loosen up, and realize exactly what they had gotten themselves into.

The idea of getting through it alone wasn’t an option. It wasn't possible with both physical and mental challenges that lie ahead. The Empire State Rider family was going to make sure everyone made it. With our new ambassador rider program, there was support offered to riders in groups that would stick with them mile after mile, coaching, advising, and assuring the arrival to camp.

Day two through day seven flew by with excitement and the celebration of each others accomplishments. Bear Mountain was tackled, the 4-mile climb into frosty acres, better known as “The Dragon” was slayed, buzzing along the Hudson, onto Shodack Island, into Albany and up to the Capitol building. The excitement continued along the Mohawk River, into Utica, then flowed along the flats beside Oneida Lake,  then across the Seneca River, and  on to the trails that zig-zag across the Finger Lakes into Rochester. The terrain traveled was one of beauty, the weather cooperative for the most part, and spirits stayed high as no rider left another behind.

The rider groups formed and stayed consistent throughout the travels, always welcoming new people to the groups. Some began with eight riders and at times traveled with 30-plus people ranging in all cycling abilities. Whether a novice, a newbie, or a self-proclaimed pro, we were there for one another changing flat tires, pulling packs, and sweeping groups. Some traveled solo, some got lost scoring bonus miles, and others assisted the BIKEternity crew at rest stops and lunch.

One thing was for sure: We were all in it together and we were crossing that finish line with rubber to the road.

LOOKING BACK

Empire State riders stopped to experience the force of nature, but also impactful human experiences.

I've come to look at this ride as a challenge that is physically strenuous yet evolves into an emotional journey for all riders, their families and friends. One where a friend becomes a brother consoling the all too fresh loss of his wife, the tear-soaked shoulder at a rest stop being humbled at the reflection of another scattering ashes of a loved one a year previous at a pond passed along the way, having my previous story and loss inspiring riders and finding comfort, similarities, and hope to move forward and to strive to make a difference. Being comforted during a toast to my mother by my friends, when I thought I had it all together.  Someone telling you that they could not have done this without you. It’s the red-tailed hawk keeping the beat roadside looking down at me knowing it was “you” all along.  A team of riders led by a childhood friend of my mother’s, tackling this in his father’s and her name as well. Being told every morning by a gentleman, “We are kicking cancer’s ass kid … this one’s for mom!”

This ride is pulling a group into 30-plus mph headwinds, keeping everyone together, setting a pace, getting some reprieve from your brothers in the back, taking the lead but yet getting a simple tap out and a reply, “Take us home brother,” in that last mile, knowing how important it was to you. That simple wink from an amazing individual you've had the privilege to ride with two years in a row during a tough time at dinner and that simple comment, “That’s why we are here.” Your friends yelling from the back of a pace line if you are OK and need a break. Maybe it's Adam Benigni rolling up next to you after 30 miles of pulling a group saying, “They said you don't want a break but, please I am a day rider … let me do it out of courtesy.” Thanks Adam.

Perhaps it’s waking up every morning with the same group of guys insisting we would make a slow roll out, keeping it at a 15 mph pace, quickly evolving into 20 mph peloton, all while carrying on conversations, giving each other a hard time, stopping for photo ops, harassing the local livestock, getting coffee and breakfast, visiting landmarks, and arriving at camp with the biggest smiles on our faces and being greeted by the cheers of our fellow riders.

It's that emotional hug given at the staging point, accompanied with “It's another one down Nick!” It’s rolling onto Old Falls Street, celebrating with family and friends, as well as being honored by the mayor of Niagara Fall,s Paul Dyster, and the CEO of Roswell Park, Candace Johnson. It’s celebrating the union of a couple whose love carried them through this physically and emotionally demanding spiritual journey. Its knowing that this group isn't separate from my family, that they are part of who I am and my family alike.

 

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