The Most Exhilarating Ride of My Life

57th St. Hill - Sioux Falls, SD

Saturday – June 25, 2011 – Sioux Falls, South Dakota – approximately 7:20 am.

Less than 15 minutes after leaving Yankton Trails Park and heading westbound on 57th Street, I was struggling to maintain momentum.  An image flashed through my mind of a T-shirt that I’d seen a month or so before during the Mayor’s Ride to Work Day in Orlando.  It read, “DLF > DNF > DNS – Dead Last Finish is greater than Did Not Finish which greatly trumps Did Not Start.”  We were barely out of the gate on the final 65 mile leg of the “Ride With Larry” and I was sucking wind.  They simply don’t make hills like this in Florida – and it wasn’t just one hill, it leveled off for a moment and then the angle steepened as it approached Minnesota Ave.  Up front, leading the pack and gliding effortlessly around the first turn was Larry Smith – a 62 year old, 20-year Parkinson’s survivor, who had already ridden over 240 miles over the past four days on his Catrike – and he’s moving along like his hair’s on fire!  The training that I’d undertaken back home simply didn’t prepare me for a hill of this size, especially without any advance warm-up.

So, I did one of the last things that I wanted to do – I put my foot down, dismounted, and pushed my bike the last 30 yards to the top of the hill.  At that point, I remounted, caught my breath, turned to my son, Brian, who was riding along with me and said, “Let’s Ride.”  Very motivational, until I glanced up Minnesota and realized that we had one more hill to conquer before the road flattened out.  It was going to be a looooooooong day!

For those who have read my postings before, you know that I love capturing every detail.  I’ve been told that my motto should be, “why use one word when five will do.”  I simply don’t want anyone to miss any part of a story.  And this day was quickly turning into one heck of an adventure.  I’ll try my best to “high point” my Ride With Larry experience, because – and this is called a “commitment” – I’ve realized that there were so many lessons learned both leading up to this day and all throughout it, that I will be writing a book to chronicle, process and synthesize this event.  For now, enjoy the “Cliff Notes” version.

John with Electra Townie 21-speed rental

The road did level off and Brian and I got into a pedaling rhythm.  We had rented bikes from Harlan’s Bike and Tour. They’d come highly recommended and with good reason – their staff are some of the most knowledgeable that I’ve ever encountered.  They made sure that our bikes fit us perfectly and that we were completely confident in the equipment.  Brian was riding  sleek Bianchi Iseo – whch he noted several times throughout the day as being “much nicer” than his bike at home.  In spite of several warnings from cycling friends, I had rented a 21-speed Electra Townie.  Why you ask?  Simply because that’s what I ride at home and it’s easier on my back and shoulders.  I know the limitations for climbing due to the bike’s weight and unique “flat foot technology” design, but I figured it was better to go with the beast that I knew than try to undertake this journey on something that I hadn’t ridden.

Brian with Biachi Iseo at SAG trailer

The goal for the day was to ride from Sioux Falls through Beresford (about 35 miles) and continue on to Vermillion (another 30 miles).  Larry and Betty Smith live in Vermillion and a celebration was planned for 1:00 pm sharp.  Everyone later agreed – even for most of the experienced cyclists – six hours to cover 65 miles was “aggressive.”  For a 59 year old, pleasingly plump rider on a less than ideal machine, it was going to be a “challenge.”  That led to my decision to humbly take advantage of a few SAG rides.  I later named the drivers of our support vehicles my “angels of mercy.”  I had broadcasted to the world that I was undertaking a 65 mile bike ride – a number that is impressive, in fact it would have more than qualified for a “metric century” since 62 miles equals 100 kilometers.  My last training ride in Florida I had completed 45 miles with 95 degree temperatures – thought this would be a piece of cake with the cooler weather.  Due to the time constraint and certainly wanting to take part in the final push into Vermillion, I accepted the SAG’s hospitality.  In fact, the rides gave me an opportunity to get to know Leland Smith (Larry and Betty’s son) and his girlfriend, Sarah – both of whom do great work with non-profits in Washington, DC; as well as get to know Emi from Hawaii – also known as the “fifth” Theiss sister (Betty’s family) who is President of a non-profit health support group.  Betty even rode with us at one point.  She’s a strong cyclist but as the primary organizer of this event, she had to stay ahead of the pack.  I had a very meaningful conversation with her about Larry’s DBS (deep brain stimulation surgery) – part of my networking effort to catalogue PD information that I may need one day.

For anyone that is now reading this that may be disappointed to find out that I didn’t have my “cinderella day” and stay in contact with the pedals for the full 65 miles, I extend an apology – but the sum total experience of the day made up for it.  I “offically” logged 34.68 of the toughest miles that I’ve ever ridden.  There were several more serious hills to climb throughout the day which I scaled without ever setting my foot down again.  The 8 – 10 mph breeze at the beginning of the day ramped up to 18 – 20 mph as we clawed our way into Vermillion proper along Highway 19.  I feel very pleased with my physical accomplishment and know that I could have done more time in the saddle given additional training (though I did log 150 miles in June in high Florida heat, but just not enough time on hills), a more appropriate bike, and sufficient time to complete the route.  But just like dealing with PD, you simply have to play the cards that you are dealt.

Bring up the Catrikes

A highlight of the day was when we met up with the lead group about five miles outside Beresford.  Many of the riders had stopped for a rest break.  When they started back up, Caroline (one of Betty’s sisters) called for me to ride to the front next to Larry.  We had a blast, just chatting away and joking – he’s a really funny guy.  After our “private moment” – difficult to have privacy with the documentary film crew driving ahead of us with the camera and microphone capturing our every word – we were joined by some of the other Parkinson’s patients.  One of those riding a trike was Wendall, who by the way is 95 years old!  He rode the whole route – other than a bit of an assist from one of his supporters who hooked up a rope to help him get up some of the hills by gently pulling him while Wendall continued to pedal.  Shortly after that moment, one of the guys send back the call, “Bring up the Catrikes” and all of the little three wheeled speed demons raced to the front.  They still had 40 miles to go and these guys were playing “dodge ’em” with these nimble little vehicles.  (Professor Steve from the Univesity of South Dakota told me later that he’s been clocked at 55 mph on his Catrike).  When they all moved forward like an attack squadron, I drifted back and swore that I could hear musical strains of “Flight of the Valkyries” playing across the South Dakota plains.

The group stopped briefly in Beresford and additional riders joined us.  In total there were about 80 – 100 cyclists altogher.  We picked up more hills south of town but I was mentally and physically prepared by that time.  Brian and I went screaming down one hill and I glanced at my bike computer displaying 22 mph at the bottom – a new record for me.  We virtually glided up the ensuing climb on the other side.  We passed Betty on the way down the hill and thought it was great that she’d stopped to cheer people on – turns out that she had a flat tire but since she’d already called for a replacement bike, she didn’t want anyone stopping to help her so she played cheerleader instead.

Note to self - clip out first before stopping

Shortly after that climb we crossed over a road and Brian realized that we’d missed a turn and asked me to stop.  I obliged and pressed on my brakes – forgetting one important thing, I was clipped in to my pedals.  I frantically tried to unclip, but started to sense that I was falling.  I only began using clipless pedals a few weeks ago and had been warned by many people that “you will fall over.”  Already having bad shoulders, I’d said that wasn’t an option.  But now it was happening to me.  I simply decided – rather quickly – to just “go with it” and completely relaxed.  I twisted enough that I “executed” a perfect stunt fall – landing first on my butt, then my back and finally my helmet tapped the ground but protected my head.  I did realize that I’d scraped my left calf (proudly brought home some South Dakota “road rash”), but otherwise felt fine.  I was actually rather amused by the whole situation.  Not so for poor Brian who had to helplessly watch this take place right before his eyes.  He was naturally concerned but I informed him that I was perfectly fine, wasn’t seeing stars and was ready to continue.  He said, “But your whole head is bleeding.”  Turns out that was a bit of an overstatement – the bridge of my nose had sustained a cut from my sunglasses and I was bleeding, but it was quite temporary and we were able to resume riding.

Back on the right road, we enjoyed about a half hour of virtually no wind, no cars, a fresh stretch of asphalt, and a slight downhill grade – pedaling effortlessly at a steady 18 mph.

Highway 19 shoulder

Then came Highway 19 – a major two-lane thoroughfare.  For my Cycling Savvy friends, this wasn’t a road where one “controlled the lane.”  Doing so would have almost immediately been met with eighteen wheels rolling up your back.  The traffic was screaming on that road 70+ mph.  We had a 6 – 8 foot section to ride in, but the strong headwinds combined with the wind gusts from passing vehicles made this a very slow, arduous portion of the journey.  To add insult to injury, there was “one more hill” to conquer as we approached Vermillion.  The slow grade down to it was pleasant, in spite of what I nicknamed the “mine field” – lots of rocks and pebbles in our lane due to spring rain runoff.  In the process of steering around the rocks, I had come to a full stop at the bottom, so had to start the climb with no momentum (shades of 57th St. all over again).  I worked my gears down to the second to the lowest – the first had me simply spinning and didn’t do any good.  I ended up naming that second gear the “Little Engine That Could” gear – because with every pedal stroke I was telling myself, “I think I can, I think I can.”  It was slow, it was gritty, but I made it!  Just after reaching the plateau, we saw Emi parked to the side of the road with her SAG truck.  Her one question was, “would you like a peanut bar?”  While I did manage my hydration and nutrition well throughout the day, my “fuel tank” was plumb empty at that point.  I think the first bite was half wrapper and half bar, but it tasted great.

We knew we were getting close and after crossing  major highway, we noticed many of the riders assembled in a parking lot.  As we rode in, a cheer went up from the group, signifying that we’d “done good.”  They’d held Larry back a ways, so he rode in with a police escort.  The group reassembled and prepared for the final trek into Vermillion.

Clock in Vermillion town square

The whole town must have come out with entire families lining the roadway with signs and flags.  As we passed one sign that said, “only 1 more mile to go” a combined sigh of relief and a groan went out from the riders.  Just fifty feet later, however, another lady had a sign that said, “only 2 more miles to go” – nice one!  The group turned down Main St. and hundreds more people were assembled to greet us.  A live band was playing, food stands were set up, and a crowd was waiting for Larry’s victorious return after his 300 mile adventure.  One of his good friends handed him a beer as he took to the stage and enjoyed the well deserved adulation of all gathered.  People talk about Ironman competitions, what Larry accomplished was simply mind boggling.

Brian and John - "Every Victory Counts"

I was so very proud of my son, Brian.  He watched over me like a hawk all day long.  When we decided to do this ride together, he didn’t even own a bike but got one a month out and was able to fit in a reasonable amount of advance training time out in California.  He encouraged me every step of the way.  I’m very sorry that I scared him when I fell, but I was emboldened to accomplish my ride by his love and support.  In addition, I could strongly sense the virtual good wishes coming my way from my wife, Laura; our daugher, Jen (soon to be “Mommy Jen” to Baby Lilly – July 13 due date!).  Thank you to Brian’s wife, Jessica, who shared him for several days to participate in my dream.

I appreciated all the advice from my team of cycling coaches (Anita, Lisa, Diana, Jason, Kittzie, Stix, Rodney, Mighk) and many other friends from around the world who offered support and encouragement on topics ranging from training plans to nutrition to hydration strategies.  Huge thank you to Keri Caffrey for creating Cycling Savvy, the best bike skills training program in the coutry – I used every one of the lessons on this ride and truly felt “empowered for unlimited travel.”  I’d very much like to thank all of the “virtual Cycling Savvy Riders” who contributed to my webpage over the past week.  The total is over $ 3,700 and still growing with proceeds going to the Davis Phinney Foundation and Parkinson’s Research Foundation.

John, Larry, and Brian at the finish line

I do now believe in the Davis Phinney Foundation’s motto – “Every Victory Counts” and the end result of this ride was a string of many progressive victories throughout the day.  After getting off my bike on 57th St., when all the other riders were out of sight, I could have just rolled back down to the parking lot.  But with Brian at my side I got back on my bike and kept moving.  It’s all about “just keep moving.”  This was the most exhilarating ride of my life, but far from my last.    A giant “group hug” to Larry, Betty, their families and all the other wonderful people that I met as part of this experience.

I may travel at “Bike Speed,” but look for me out there tooling around.  It’s my personal way of saying, “In Your FACE, Parkinson’s!”  Anyone care to go for a bike ride?

18 replies
  1. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    congratulations, John. I am so very proud of you. Your positive attitude is an inspiration to us all. Hang in there (but learn how to unlock your feet from the pedals faster!!)

  2. Debbie Nevins
    Debbie Nevins says:

    John, I knew Larry and Betty Smith back when they lived in Connecticut. Their son Leland was my son’s best friend in grade school. When they moved to South Dakota, my kid was devastated, not only for losing Leland, I think, but also for losing Larry. When I signed up to support the Ride With Larry event, I was assigned your name at random, but I’m glad I was. You and I are about the same age, and really enjoyed reading your story. Good for you for taking on that challenge and writing about it so honestly! I wish I had been there.

  3. Laura
    Laura says:

    John, I am so proud of you! I love your happy, positive and wonderful
    outlook on your life and how you deal with PD. I know that you will
    “keep moving” and stay active……maybe someday I’ll join you for a
    ride. You are an inspiration to me and many other people…
    you so…..

  4. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    John, it was so great to have you at the ride! We were so excited that you came out and crossed the finish line with Larry. We look forward to reading more of your great blog posts. All the best from Team Larry!

  5. Stix Cook
    Stix Cook says:

    Congratulations, John! This is a great report and I’m very excited that you and Brian had a good time. You have such a positive outlook at what ever you are doing and this just proves it again. Thank you for a great tale of the last day’s ride. I look forward to riding with again soon as soon as the weather get a bit cooler here in Florida!

  6. Ricardo
    Ricardo says:

    John, it was a pleasure meeting you and your son Brian during Ride With Larry. Thank you so much for sharing your great story and I’m glad to read this event has meant so much to you. I wish you all the best in life and keep that positive spirit going!

  7. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    John… Great article. Well written. I remember you from the ride and how hard you were working, yet always with a smile on your face. I didn’t realize you were from so far away. Congrats on a job well done. BTW… Kaas the retired cop doing escort duty on the Barley trike..

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Hi Glenn, Thanks for your kind comments. I definitely recall you as well – also for your smile and words of encouragement to all of the riders. Thanks for your support throughout the day and for keeping us all safe. The ride was so much fun, but you looked like you were really having fun on your Harley trike as well. You’ll have to bring it down to Daytona Beach for Bike Week sometime.

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Just figured out why the computer confused “Harley” with “Barley.” South Dakota is one of the major barley (as in the crop) producers in the United States. Nice to know, but a Harley is still a Harley! Ride ON!

  8. Dona
    Dona says:

    John- so enjoyed meeting you and Brian. Thank you so much for sharing your story of the ride and of your victory! Dona

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Dona – many thanks to you and all the great crew at Harlan’ Bike and Tour. You made certain that our rental bikes were properly fitted and checked out for the big ride. They were a joy to ride. I was really impressed by the fact that you broke out a brand new 21-speed Electra Townie for me when you discovered that you didn’t have one in your rental rotation. The color also match the RWL shirts perfectly too. Thanks again!

  9. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    John, Great story and personal accomplishment. We should have done the South Lake trail instead of West Orange. Them thar some hills, yessiree! Ride On.

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Rodney – bring it on! Well, not for a few more days anyway. I asked Larry if he was going to do the ride again next year. He said, “No!” – but I don’t believe it for a minute. After completing five days of riding close to 300 miles, at the end of the day he got back on his Catrike and rode the remaining five miles home. He’s one tough guy. South Lake Trail would be a piece of cake for him.

  10. Ally Ley @ the Davis Phinney Foundation
    Ally Ley @ the Davis Phinney Foundation says:


    Love this! Thanks for capturing not just the details but the essence of that wonderful day. You embody the “Every Victory Counts” spirit and it’s been a treat to get to know you through this.

    Thanks for your hard work and inspiration!

    Ally and the Davis Phinney Foundation

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