by Chris Brewer
Let me get right to the point: I have been honored to have been a part of every Austin Ride for the Roses / LIVESTRONG Challenge since its inception in 1997, and I can assure you that this year’s edition was without question the best one to date. For those who are familiar with the weekend, the format hasn’t changed much in recent years. So what was the Big Difference? Balance. The LIVESTRONG Challenge team has really hit its stride, finding just the right mix of LAF mission, great events and venues, and appropriate ways to thank the great folks who help us to inspire and empower those affected by cancer. Here are some recollections from my weekend – and what a weekend it was:
Thursday – Picked up my friend and multi-year “yellow jersey” level fundraiser Wendy Chioji from the airport. She has perfected her Wear Yellow party idea so that it has become one of THE events of the social season in Orlando, and is looking to expand it so anyone can join in. That’s the true spirit of the Grassroots movement!
Friday ?¢?Ç¨?Äú just prior to the opening of the LIVESTRONG Village in the Austin Convention Center, I was honored to join LAF office manager Kim Barnett in leading 45 riders from the Palmetto Peloton Project into the downtown area on their final leg of biking here from South Carolina! They are a great group of folks and highly motivated. Not to be outdone were our friends from the Great White North as champion Irish hurling athlete Tony Griffin and company rode in later that day from Nova Scotia, some 2,650 miles away…
With thousands of folks streaming into Austin for the weekend, my job was to meet and greet Davis and Taylor Phinney. Cycling fans will know that Davis is the winningest professional cyclist in American history (328 wins, including multiple stages at the Tour de France!) and that his 18 year-old son Taylor is a true up-and-comer in the sport. Davis has been a long-time supporter of the LAF and is also fighting his own difficult battle as he was diagnosed in 2000 with Parkinson’s Disease. To say it was an honor to spend the weekend with these two great guys would be a true understatement…
That night we all headed down south to a no-kidding Texas landmark, the Salt Lick BBQ. The Challenge team always finds very unique ways to thank the people that support our mission, and this time for the top fundraisers it was really special. The evening started off with the opportunity to rope a (simulated) calf, sit atop a (real) Longhorn bull, play some horseshoes, and bid on some very exclusive silent auction items. Dinner was then served as only the Salt Lick can do, and everyone sat down to some very non-traditional pre-ride BBQ! There may be better BBQ out there somewhere, but I’ve yet to come across it.
After dinner LAF CEO Doug Ulman took to the stage to thank everyone for their great support, and then in an unexpected twist brought LIVESTRONG Challenge Director Renee Nicholas up to the podium. While this year was special for sure, Renee brought it home as she sported a shock-pink wig and thanked everyone for their support as she faces down her own personal battle with breast cancer. With emotions running high, what could possibly put it over the edge? How about a 90 minute concert with the legendary Willie Nelson? Willie, at the tender age of 75, went through every hit he has had over his amazing career, and then even broke out some new material to see how the crowd liked it. It was simply an awe-inspiring ending, and the weekend had just begun.
Saturday, while over 3,000 runners and walkers were at the Texas State Capitol downtown Austin for the LIVESTRONG Challenge 5K, I was helping building up Taylor and Davis’ bikes (no pressure there!). Taylor was joining Lance and couple of other friends for a training ride out to a shorter private ride for the top fundraisers, and he had to be at Lance’s house by 9am sharp (LA is not known for his ability to wait). With Taylor on his bike and out the door, David and I drove out to the ride area. First up were the Polka Dot jersey folks as they joined Lance, Davis, etc for an 8 mile scenic jaunt, plus some time to ride next to the 7-time Tour champ, tell a story or two, and get their photo taken. Afterwards the Yellow jersey squad came along and got their LA time before heading in to lunch.
I got the Phinneys and Jim “Och” Ochowicz back to where they were staying and made it home just in time to get cleaned up for a special tour of the new Lance Armstrong Facility over on the east side of Austin (6th and Robert Martinez Jr, should you ever be in the area). This “hardhat tour” was to show some of our supporters not only the progress so far, but where the facility was headed in the not-too-far future. This will not only be a fantastic place to work, but it’s super-eco friendly and will eventually house a cancer patient navigation center focusing on the underserved population of Austin’s east side.
With the new building in the rearview mirror, Taylor headed to the awards dinner with Lance while Davis and I had another important appointment. Over at the Austin Convention center 800+ people were honored for raising over $3,000 for the LIVESTRONG Challenge. Lance also presented the awards for the top fundraisers / recruiters, and then paid a special tribute my good friend Jim Owens, but more on Jim in a bit. Here’s the list of folks who were top of the proverbial heap for 2008, thank you!
Individual Champion – Zang Toi
Individual Messenger – Bradley Stratton
Team Champion- Team Toi
Team Messenger- Team Dell
Overall for 2008
Individual Champion- Zang Toi
Individual Messenger-Mike Levin
Team Champion- Team Toi
Team Messenger -Team Dell
And what of Davis and I? We headed downtown to dinner with the first ever reunion of the Tour of Hope riders and staff. Some of you will recall this was a project between 2003-2005 where teams of approximately 25 cancer survivors, doctors, nurses, and caregivers joined together to ride across America with Lance and promote the importance of Clinical Trials research. I was honored to ride with the team in 2003 and be on staff the other two years. And while catching up with long-lost friends was great, it was the arrival of a taxi cab mid-dinner that got everyone’s attention. We had an outdoor buffet at a local park, and so when a car drives literally into your midst that will get noticed. But when your 6-time brain cancer survivor / friend / teammate Jim Owens makes his way out of the back seat because he wouldn’t miss this for the world, that is something very special.
Currently having to use a walker as a result of his most recent treatments, Jim couldn’t really get around very well so the team quickly came over to him. As Davis and I steadied Jim his eyes lit up as he hugged everyone and traded memories and the latest news with his team. I could not help but note Jim’s courage and never-say-quit attitude, after all this was a man who just four years ago rode across America with Lance, and now here he was, yet again battling this disease. Jim could only stay for a short while as he needed to get back to the awards dinner, and after saying his goodbyes told Davis and me he needed to get back into the cab. The moment that stuck with us was that we simply expected this athlete to slowly make his way in and leave. But instead he looked us in the eye and said, “You’ll have to help me, please. I can’t turn around by myself…” – man, this disease sucks.
Sunday- when you have to be on the bike and ready to ride by 730am, the start line is 35 miles away and there are thousands of folks trying to do the same thing, it’s going to be an EARLY morning. Add in that I was still building bikes for folks till near midnight, and that 5am alarm was not a welcome sound. But no worries as some of us locals knew a “secret” southern route out to Dripping Springs and we were in place and on time for Lance’s arrival. Taylor and Davis and some more of Lance’s friends would lead the peloton, but their day would not be an easy one as Lance had already deemed that he wanted to ride the 90 mile route, and at a hard pace. Riders had the choice of 10, 45, 65, and 90 mile options, and with yet another great weather day on tap it was good to be out on the bike.
Davis opted to stay with Lance’s group for the first 20 miles or so, and then waited for LAF Board Member Jeff Garvey and me to ride in on the 45 mile course. I have done hundreds and hundreds of rides over the years, but some are just dead on special, today was one of them. We took our time and mixed in with various groups, just cruising, telling stories and talking cycling. We hit every rest stop, primarily to say thank you to the great volunteers for all their hard work, and just had an amazing ride in the hills southwest of Dripping Springs. It was one of those revitalizing rides that remind you why you started riding in the first place, and in my case just the tonic needed…
We rolled in to the cheers of the finish line crowd, a better welcome at any race, I think not and I got my yellow survivor’s rose from long-time LAF volunteer Sally Reed. She makes sure that every cancer survivor is made to feel amazingly special no matter what distance they rode. Add in that at the finish line was an incredible woman who recently had a brain aneurysm and was not cleared yet to ride on the road and so she rode 100 miles on a stationary trainer instead! The after-ride party was soon in full gear with plenty of food and drink and lots to do. Lance took the stage after he and Taylor came in first on the 90 mile ride (no surprise there) to not only thank the riders for all their hard work, but to also announce the dates of the 2009 LIVESTRONG Challenges. The party went on well into the afternoon, but I for one was done for the day and got the Phinneys back before finally heading for home. Many of the staff and riders would further celebrate downtown that night, some for their feeling of accomplishment on the bike and others for putting together an amazing weekend helping inspire and empower those affected by cancer.
Epilogue- I managed to rally and joined colleagues and friends downtown Sunday for a much needed celebratory night out. A little after midnight I received a text message from my Tour of Hope teammate Tony West. Tony had come back for the reunion but had only been on the ground for a couple of hours before he was told he needed to come home immediately to be with his wife who had recurrent breast cancer. The message was straight and to the point: Mary had just died, and he thanked us for all of our support. As I sat looking out at the Austin skyline with dozens of people around me celebrating what they had done that day in the fight against cancer, I realized just how much more work we had left to do. Rest in peace, Mary; you truly lived strong.