Again this April, I will jump on my trusty, rusty old bicycle and pedal from Houston to Austin in the BP MS 150, the biggest and most successful weekend charity ride in the world. Yeah, the world.
This year is going to be different, though. I'm actually going to train — for real — so I don't wake up crying with leg cramps the next week. (Ever get those? Man, they hurt.) The BP MS 150 is an amazing fundraising event. And it's fun, don't leave that out.
Over two days, 13,000 riders, all shapes, sizes and ages — from all across Texas — will form a two-wheel conga line to the state capital, raising money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. I said it's big and successful, right? Like $253 million since 1985 and counting. They're counting on $14 million more this year. It costs $120 to ride, and you have to promise to raise at least $400 in donations.
My first BP MS 150 was in 1998. One of the editors at the Houston Chronicle asked (ordered) me to write about the long-distance ride. Maxine Mesinger, the Chronicle's grand dame of Houston society back then, had Multiple Sclerosis, and the bosses liked her a lot more than they liked me. I said, "Sure, I'll do a column about the ride. In fact, I'll do the ride. I have a bike. How hard could it be?"
I pulled my bike out of the back of my garage. The tires were completely flat — that's how long it had been since I rode it. I showed up at the starting gate wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers. I was not properly dressed. I didn't know there was bicycle couture. Practically everybody had on Spandex shorts, skintight bicycle shirts and special clickety-clack shoes that lock into pedals on expensive bikes.
That outfit probably makes aerodynamic sense, but come on, fellas. No one needs to look at that.
I ran into a sports talk host who apparently had no friends — at least none who would tell him, "maybe Spandex isn't the right fabric for you." He looked like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. (He's still on the air. This afternoon, in fact.)
I did the entire ride, from Houston to La Grange on Saturday, and La Grange to Austin on Sunday...on a bike with no gears. I even did the long route, over torturous hills in Bastrop State Park. Some of those hills were like riding a bike straight up a wall. I didn't know there was an alternate route around the park. Now I know. I've never been back in that park.
There are three starting points on Saturday, and two routes on Sunday, so the ride can be as short as 121 miles, or as long as 165 miles. Which route do I take? Hey, I invented 121 miles.
Lunch on Saturday is at a school in Bellville. I tried that once. Then, I discovered that if you ride a couple of blocks past the school, there's a Dairy Queen, a bakery, and the Bellville Meat Market. If you listen to Doug Pike's fishin' and huntin' radio show on 790 AM, he talks about the Bellville Meat Market a lot. I don't fish, and I think hunting is killing, but the place makes really good sandwiches. My Sunday lunch spot is the Roadhouse in Bastrop. Their chocolate shakes are double fudgy. You can patch pot holes with them.
Saturday night, most of the riders sleep in tents at the Fayetteville County Fairgrounds. Not me. I'm a delicate flower. My friends and I stay in a motel in La Grange. It's not exactly the Four Seasons, but it has a TV, air conditioning, and a bathroom with a door and a lock. (I like my privacy.) One year, we must have gotten the honeymoon suite, because there was a large hot tub in the middle of the room. (That's odd.) Another year, I was in the shower and noticed a cigarette burn mark on the edge of the tub. (That's classy.) There was a year when my friend Jeff Minkoff decided to wash his underpants in the bathroom sink. He threw them in the microwave to dry out. Instead, steam from his wet, nasty underpants filled the room so it smelled like the boys' gym in middle school. I haven't used a hotel microwave to make popcorn since.
I've done the BP MS 150 with different friends over the years. One year, Austin Crossley got a flat tire. He told the rest of us to go on ahead. He'd wait for a rescue van to take him to the next rest stop where he could get his flat fixed. About an hour later, I noticed that Sean Pendergast, wasn't in our group. Where did he go? There was nothing wrong with his bike. We were eating cookies at the next rest stop when the rescue van pulled in. Austin spilled out, followed by Sean. Huh? What was Sean doing in there? "We had a flat tire," he said, pointing to Austin. "We?" It was the first reported case of a "sympathy" flat tire.
I noticed that many people wanted to ride the MS 150 but thought they needed to be part of a team . Not true. So I organized a team called “The Stragglers.” We had T-shirts made for about 150 lonesome riders. I leaned on I.W. Marks to sponsor a huge tent for our (their) overnight in La Grange, and Tony Vallone — that “Tony” — catered our dinner. The lobster lasagna as divine. Take that, you over-the-top corporate teams with your designer shirts and catered meals!
The last few years, I've done the BP MS 150 with Mark George, the famous business magnate. Because of him, I pedal much faster. He has a speaker on his handlebars and plays "Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits" and "The Best of Tony Orlando" and "Bing Crosby: the Early Years." You'd pedal faster to get away from that, too.
How difficult is it to ride the BP MS 150? Very difficult ... or really kind of easy. You don't have to be whippet-thin or have legs like pistons. I can't run around the block, but I can pedal a bicycle to Austin. Mind you, I don't set any speed records. I ride between 12 to 15 mph, depending on whether the wind is my face or at my back. I prefer at my back. I've been passed by children, women on roller skates, a man in a tuxedo on a unicycle, guys dragging wagons with loudspeakers, and one guy pulling a mini-refrigerator on wheels.
Making the finish line depends more on whether your rear end is used to rubbing on a bike seat for hours at a time. If you try to do it cold, like I did the first time, your butt will scream bloody murder. Bike seats can unleash excruciating pain, especially on guys. There’s a vein "down there" that gets crushed and sore. You can do some real damage if you ride on the wrong bike seat or a bike seat that's tilted too high or doesn't fit right. I once called a friend who owned a bike shop and asked, “Is there a bike seat that doesn't hurt, or destroy any chance of there being a Hoffy Jr.? He said, “Here’s what you do. Get a bunch of sandwich-size Baggies, fill them with mango Jell-O, and stick them in your shorts. But it has to be mango, other flavors don’t work.”
Seriously? “No, I’m kidding. There is no such thing as a comfortable bike seat. The only way it won’t hurt is if you ride a hundred miles a week and you develop ‘Bike Butt,’ which only means you've become conditioned or numb in that area." Nobody wants that. I embarked on a search for a painless bike seat. I tried seats with inflatable air pockets, seats with soft implants (calling Dr. Rose), seats covered in gel pads, seats without that phallic part in front, seats with holes in the middle for...you know. Nothing worked. I just endured the long ride and walked like Fred Sanford for a couple of days.
Then I heard about the "Green Carbon Comfort Bike Seat" from RideOut Technologies. It looks a little weird, but it’s "optimized for commuting and hybrid bikes, great for distance touring as well." My bike is a hybrid with upright handlebars, like Mary Poppins or Pee-Wee Herman's bicycle. It's nothing fancy, way too heavy, and cost about $200. The only adjustment I make for the BP MS 150 is having a bike shop put on skinny tires. I’ve been bouncing my butt on the "Green Carbon" seat for a few weeks...painlessly. (And yay for no numbness!) It’s available, $85, at rideouttech.com. If it doesn't work for you, or you don't like it, you can send it back.
So you won't be surprised, here's an after-effect of the BP MS 150. Pedaling to Austin builds up your appetite. I can't get my head out of the refrigerator when I get home Sunday night. I remember asking John Lopez, then a sports columnist, now a sports radio host, “I can’t stop eating. Is this normal?” He said, “I’m eating. I’ll call you when I’m done, maybe around Thursday.”
Yeah, it's normal.