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May 27, 2001, Mountains of Misery>>>
May 27, 2001
May 27, 2001, Mountains of Misery>>>

May 5, 2001


Can youthís magic be reclaimed? By the time May 2001 rolled around, my training plan called for fast, long-distance rides. The cheapest, least stressful way to do this was to enter organized bicycle tours. This is a story of one of those tours which Iíd planned out well in advance. However, I soon learned that when the day doesnít go as planned, it might mean God has something better in mind.

On May 5, 2001, I rode the Tour de Cure, a 100-mile bicycle tour from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Manteo, North Carolina. More than 500 riders gathered every year and rode this fund-raiser for diabetes. I didn't care about the charity; I just felt like riding. This year I needed an early start to accompany the fast riders. I wanted to make a race of it in preparation for the Tour de Okinawa. I arrived extra early for check-in because the organizers provided us breakfast. Unfortunately, the check-in lasted more than forty minutes, and all I had time to do was check in! I received no food and didn't even make the 8am start. Frustrated, I hastily rode out of the parking lot at 8:20am without breakfast. I was shooting for a fast time and passed all the early food stations that the organizers had set up on the course.

Approximately twenty-five miles out, I found myself riding on an interstate which had no shoulder and not a cyclist in sight. Either the organizers were smoking something other than Virginia-grown tobacco, or I was lost. By the time I found my way back, Iíd ridden an extra eighteen miles. I was already famished, and my arms and legs were tingling and clammy. I rode the wrong way on that interstate and finally found the turn Iíd missed an hour earlier. If it had been a seagull, it wouldíve crapped down the front of my jersey. When I made the sharp turn I was on the new Chesapeake Highway, and a 50x10 foot overhead flashing sign said, "WELCOME TOUR DE CURE RIDERS." Okay, so I don't normally look back when I ride. Iím also nearsighted.

At sixty miles I reached a food stop, and guess what they had? Chips and salsa, with plates! This was lousy cycling food, and I couldn't take it on the bicycle. I needed fast energy food! The "sports drink" was orange Kool Aid. I have haunting memories of Mommy making me drink that poison when I was a child and was having terrifying flashbacks of a six-foot pitcher of Kool Aid chasing me down the street. The hunger was getting to me. The Kool Aid was diluted and I thought, if I'm riding 100 miles, a few sugar calories would probably be a good thing, no? Ten miles further, and I found real food! However, the huge meat and cheese subs they provided werenít good cycling food either. They were too heavy to digest while riding, but I needed the protein.

I ate slowly, giving up hope of a fast time to take time on my food. Survival was my priority now. Nobody likes a dead finisher. With sixty miles in my legs and fifty-eight miles to go in a heavy head wind, my enthusiasm gone, my plans shot, I sank into the grass, defeated. And that's when God showed up.

Staring across the park, I spied a rider in a U.S. Postal Service racing jersey, standing in a small crowd. It was Kenny Labbe, holder of the national twelve-hour cycling distance record and teammate of Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong! Not one to be star struck, I sauntered over and only listened to the conversation. It was, "Lance this, Lance that, what's Lance doing? What's it like riding with Lance? Is Lance cool? Has he ever touched you? Where did he touch you? Did you like it? Blah, blah, blah..." I was thinking to myself, "I donít care about Lance; I'm looking at Kenny - what's he got?" His bicycle was exactly like mine, although this was simply a coincidence, and his conservative racing jersey contrasted with my garish, day-glow wear. "He must be in a group of fast riders", I thought. I was barely holding together, so I let him go without even saying hi. Speaking took too much energy at this point. I just wanted to be alone.

At the next food stop I found myself lounging in the grass and munching on a pair of apples, involuntarily sharing them with bees I'd attracted with my orange/yellow helmet. I wondered how Iíd finish. Eighty-eight miles done, I still had thirty to go, and was getting stomach cramps from that sandwich. It was likely a combination of the heat and hunger. Kenny Labbe was there too, and again he was the darling of the fans. In light of how badly my day was going, I didnít know if I wanted to admire him or kill him. He was just too happy. He was stopping at every single food station to mingle with the commoners, and was a very nice guy, like sunshine in spandex. I just wished I had his legs; I'd toss them in a dumpster and watch him try to jump in to get them on his knuckles.

Once I left that rest stop, having struggled for fifty miles, the pedals began turning over a little easier. I picked up some speed and started riding better. I skipped the next food stop because I was within twenty-five miles of the finish, and as I passed it, Kenny's group pulled out in front of me. I whipped around them and fell in right behind Kenny to watch him ride. They were riding very conservatively, so much so that I almost left them to ride faster. I thought, "Kenny is a pro-cyclist on the best team in the world. He could ride circles around me, that pig."

Hey that you and Angie aren't together can I ask her out?

We filed into Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a breezy, sandy, seaside town famously known as the birthplace of aviation. Folks seemed like they were still beaming from that event and cheerfully waved at our group as we zipped on by. Kenny, the public-relations dude, was waving, smiling, and giving thumbs-up to everyone. It was quite amusing. People honked and pointed. As I watched from the group, I grimaced and told myself, "I rode eighteen miles further than he did; thatís why heís so happy."

Kennyís group pulled into the next rest stop, and since I was interested in studying him, I stopped too. I quietly found an isolated log to sit on, and Kenny came over, sat next to me, and we spoke. We were alone, talking about life and very little about racing. I avoided that. I knew Kenny was a world-class cyclist. I wanted him to be human.

The last twelve miles of the ride were more interesting. After being with the group and having already ridden 106 miles on very little food, what looked like a day of disaster had me feeling spunky. At one point Kenny took over the pace making and led the line of fifteen riders, breaking the wind for us and letting us conserve a little energy. We rotated the leader so our group could ride faster. I always pushed a little harder than the others, show-off that I am, but when Kenny took the lead he split our group of fifteen riders. Half of them just couldnít keep up. I pulled out from the group and chased Kenny across the large gap that had already opened, followed closely by another rider who could only just ride in my wake. We caught him and tucked in behind him. Someone yelled from the behind that the group had broken up, so Kenny politely slowed and we regrouped.

Then Kenny took over the pace making again, and this time the three of us rode away together. I set the tempo for Kenny and the third guy for a few miles, but when Kenny led, he was a little faster. I observed his style, his cadence, his speed, and after he'd been in front for a while I asked if I could take over. I accelerated to match Kenny, and the third guy was in trouble. He could only follow in our wake. I could see Kenny was getting restless and I wanted to isolate him.

Thereís a phrase describing a loverís pursuit,"He chased her until she caught him." Iíd finally baited Kenny into action. Our trio was five miles from the finish when we turned onto the huge Washington Baum Bridge, two and a half miles long, arching steeply over Roanoke Sound and into Roanoke Island where the finish awaited us at Manteo. When the climb started, I surged again, like the gazelle luring the lion into his trap.

The third guy cracked, leaving just Kenny and me alone at the front. Hundreds of cyclists had seen and ridden with Kenny that day, but somehow, at the end, only I could match his pace, and I held it to my credit that I had never really taken the time to like him or be in awe of him. I just wanted to fight him. Now it was man against man, and the hillbilly side of my brain took over, telling me I could take this guy. I could hear dueling banjos playing faster and faster; it must have been the heat. At that moment, with deft precision, Kenny exploded and shot around me like a rifle bullet. Stomping on the pedals with everything I had, I accelerated, but being caught in the wrong gear with tired legs, my reprisal was no match for Kennyís focused attack. I was treated to the spectacle of a pro cyclist in full flight. Every ounce of energy, every movement he made pushed his bicycle just a little bit faster. For ten seconds I matched his pace, doing twenty-eight miles an hour up the steep incline with him. It was magic! He wasn't getting away!

Kenny graciously passes his banana

Kenny and Michael struggle to see who is a real Gorilla and who is just a Chimp

Then my legs turned to rubber, and I had to back off. I lost Kenny over the rise, but hammered with all my heart down the descent into Roanoke Island. I pursued him alone for five miles at ridiculous speeds through the streets of Manteo, blowing past groups of riders and startled motorists who had no idea who I was, only that I was chasing Kenny Labbe, and no one could catch either of us. I was King Kong in a despotic rage, searching for Fay Wray in the streets of New York City! Iíd pass a group of riders, see a U.S. Postal Service jersey, and when it wasnít Kenny Iíd be so furious Iíd want to toss them out of the way. I wanted Kenny!

It was a lousy ride, but what a finish! I found Kenny signing autographs and posing for photos. When he saw my drooling, panting, gasping body slumped over my bicycle, he broke into a sly smile and said, "Hey, Mike; Great ride!" Showoff! He handed me an autographed postcard with a personal note. When I first saw Kenny that day, I wasnít star struck, but now, Iíd been touched. I felt a little more world-class, and Kenny seemed a little more human. I never did tell him what I wanted to do with his legs.

When look back on that day in May, I see how misfortunes played out to put me in the exact position to challenge Kenny at the finish of this big ride. Had my plans worked out, I wouldíve had a good day, cruising to the finish in Manteo with those fast riders in less than five hours, proud of myself. Instead, I had a day I will never forget. How often does one get a chance to spar with a world-class athlete in their chosen sport? God knew what I had planned that day, but he knew he could do better. I prayed for success; he gave me magic.