Inspiration, Devotion and Closure…The Empire State Ride

At the beginning of this month, my husband took part in the Empire State Ride, a 532 mile cycling trek from New York City to Niagara Falls over 7 days.  The purpose of this ride was to raise funds for cancer research at Roswell Park.  This cause is especially near and dear to us now more than ever, since his mother passed away in April from breast cancer.  He wrote this essay detailing his ride experience, and I wanted to share it with all of you.  These are his words and photos. By: Guest Blogger Nicholas Robson

It was Saturday about 7 o’clock in the morning. The weather was drizzly and dismal with rain in the near forecast. My wife and in-laws accompanied me with coffee in hand where we would meet my father and I would eventually board a bus New York City bound. As we arrive and cross the street with the bus in view at Roswell Park, everyone’s facial expression portrayed happiness and joy. I keep quiet and walk with my family as I cross the street in front of the main entrance feeling a massive wave of emotion reliving these visits with mother not so long ago. The man with the umbrella is my father and he is in his glory being the social butterfly that he is mingling with staff. I am quickly introduced to a few people and recognize a few of the riders from the Facebook group. The intent is that a group of people from across the United States have registered for The Empire State Ride, a 500 + mile journey on bicycles from New York City to Niagara Falls in order to raise funds for cancer research at Roswell Park.

I made the decision to tackle this ride in late April of this year soon after the passing of my Mother. She had her second battle with breast cancer over the past year and a half. I humored the idea as an avid cyclist, mostly motivated by fitness and fun surrounded by spin class, commuting, and single track mountain biking. However, I lacked two of the essentials: a road bike and the confidence to raise the funds for such an admirable cause. Optimism is my wife, Lindsay’s, dominant trait- when it rains she sees fresh flowers growing, crops ripening, and looks for a rainbow. The fundraising component was in her wheel house. My mother-in-law and Lindsay quickly tackled this and eventually met and exceeded the minimum fundraising amount upwards of around $5,800.00. All that was left up to me was to get a bike and continue training. I purchased a bike and began riding a minimum of five days a week. Whether it was a 65 mile ride or century ride, I became competitive with myself and began perfecting my form, times, monitoring heart rates, and cadence. I was committed and looked forward to my routine on two wheels…it was an escape…it was solitude…and a time for me to reflect and accept…or at least I thought.

My family departed and we were quickly on our way to City College in New York City. After about 10 minutes on the shuttle I realized that I was with a group of riders, some knowing one another, others coming with friends, and some in the same boat as I was…solo. Either way, every person had the same goal in mind- ride bikes and raise money for the cause. Throughout the trip into NYC I conversed with a few folks discussing everything from sailing, to the rough ride, and the gas station lunch selection…never scratching the surface of why…why are you doing the ride? Why am I doing the ride? After the stagecoach simulated ride to City College we were directed to a college gymnasium with a woodchuck look-alike mascot painted on the wall. There where we would find our bikes and check-in materials. After getting the essentials and confirming our bike status with Don, the head guru mechanic, I was quickly swept up by a part of the Roswell media staff Tony. Tony was one of the essential components in documenting this journey and individual stories of the riders. He was quick to ask me for an interview and with the microphone in place he began asking questions. I had no idea of what to expect. It all was happening so fast, so systematically, and with such fluidity. The questions started to flow, and the answers came like a middle school rehearsed choral performance until I was faced with “Why are you doing this?”, “What do you think?” and “What do you think your mother would say?” Confident in the beginning, quickly becoming naive and not wanting to show emotion, I think I may have choked a bit. I realized I was by myself, the usual Nicholas approach on dealing with life’s situations, but this time it wasn’t ok…I had unsettled business…I was here to help, to make a difference. Photos were taken and we were directed to our dorm rooms and given time for dinner. The dinner was catered by an amazing little company, Two Trees, serving up a fantastic cuisine. There we socialized as I plugged into a table with what appeared to be a group of folks that seemed comfortable to me. I peeked over my left shoulder scanning the clientele noticing two gentlemen I had exchanged words with previously on the FB page. Once dinner wrapped up we began mingling, much like the halls the first day of school where everyone finds their cliques. I introduced myself to several riders and was surprised at how welcoming and interested in one another everyone was. The two gentlemen I spoke to online, one coming from Chicago and the other making a flight from Florida, quickly recruited another rider from the Syracuse area and as a father-son duo from Western New York. We sat through our introduction session or orientation put on by BIKEternity. I finally learned what the term “fully supported ride” meant. The staff ranged from Sweet Sue, who was more like the “Mom” of the event, to the two brothers that could tackle just about any problem we encountered, an amazing bike mechanic, a route marker, Ray the head honcho, the luggage handler, a camp crew handling tent and accommodation set up, and Roswell Park support staff. After the intro we linked up with who we would want to leave with in the morning. The specifics were handled and celebratory beer was had, and we made our way back to the dorms where we’d be staying for the evening. I was en route when I met a woman, one of the riders, and began discussing our connection for being here. She was full of spirit, joy, and to my surprise was currently enduring treatment for her cancer. I realized this was nothing I had anticipated, although I wasn’t exactly sure of what to expect to begin with. 7:00 am was coming quickly, the forecast didn’t look promising but we had a ride ahead of us in the near morning.

The dismal morning was lit full of elated faces ready to cruise out of the city over the George Washington bridge, through the Palisades Park, into Nyack Beach State Park, along the coast through Piermont and eventually into Rockland county where we would find camp for the evening. All of this while climbing 2,757 feet of elevation through torrential downpours. The smiles, laughs, excitement, and drive were an umbrella to the weather we were experiencing. Our six man team rode like seasoned vets, cautiously never leaving one another behind, calling out road obstructions, turns, speeds, and checking on others throughout our route. In route we picked up another rider, this one from New Jersey, and his connection was simple: “I am in good health and if I can help I will.” Camp was wet but tents were dry and spirits were flying higher than the George Washington Bridge we rode across earlier that day. That evening we shared laughs, some cold brews, an amazing meal, and enjoyed a live band. Our nightly route meetings quickly became routine for the next six days discussing our travels for the upcoming morning. We settled into bed tossing and turning filled with excitement and anticipation of what was to come.

The second day our small group left out after breakfast insisting to one another that we would take a “slow roll” out. Leaving camp was a heavy climb, but legs got warm and we immediately took peloton formation taking turns pulling and switching off drafts keeping our pace from 15mph to the mid 20’s. The “slow roll” idea clearly went out the window. The rain had to persist throughout the day, however, the rolling hills along the Hudson Valley, crossing Bear Mountain Bridge and its climb, through the Dutchess Rail Trail, Mills Mansion, and the winding country roads never ceased to amaze us. The fawns feeding meadow side, flocks of turkey pecking along road side, bald eagles soaring overhead, and the pleasant locals kept us company along the way, climbing an elevation of 3,548 feet until we hit camp in Stony Point for the evening. It was during this time we picked up yet another rider to our group while we passed him calling us “pansy asses” on our 20 mph peloton. How could we not slow down and add another component of humor to our group? We were in for it- what an amazing man full of such heart. As a group we shared more about one another finding our connections to the ride, our cycling background, family, friends, careers, and the list goes on. One thing was for sure, we were having a blast…telling jokes, being amused by scenery, busting each other’s chops, and quickly recruiting another rider to our “not so slow roll.” It was throughout this day I began to think of my mother often and in some way comparing my story to other stories, other survivors, and others continuing treatment. I was having mechanical issues not allowing me to get into the gears I needed for climbs, but rather than back down, I pushed past the pain and muscle fatigue forcing the big ring pedal by pedal up to the third rest stop. It gave me a chance to view and converse with others along the way. It was motivating and inspiring to see people take such control of their lives and to be so deliberate with their intentions. After recently testing positive for the BRCA 2 gene and currently being around the age I’ve previously lost family members to cancer from, I wondered if I could be in the same situation. My wonder was easily inspired by having conversations with 65 year old cyclists pushing though these hills and rain, watching the girl power bond among a few female survivors, a woman who was celebrating 5 years of being leukemia free and never stopped smiling, watching one of the strongest women I now am proud to call a friend overcome a tragic loss of her husband that occurred back home while she was on the ride the previous year, and a young man scattering his friend’s ashes along the way. Every evening I looked forward to hearing from my wife and how her day went, as well as what she was doing as a solo artist with two furry companions by her side back home. I called my father every night and checked up on him. I was worried about him as I was not there by his side. I knew leaving for seven days wasn’t going to be easy for me…leaving my wife, the dogs, my father, brothers, and in-laws. The anxiety set in just in time for bed but the excitement and inspiration I received from my fellow riders that I now call family had me eager for sunrise.

In the following days to come our mornings began with protein based breakfasts, bike PM’s, and evenings followed with delicious cuisines full of salmon, curried chicken, cod, fish tacos, and steak with a variety of sides stemming from beans and rice to roasted brussel sprouts wrapped up with the decadence of strawberry shortcake or the bountiful berry of a pie. I, as well as the majority of people, enjoyed checking their Facebook status and viewing what their significant others had posted about them. It was on day 3 traveling out of the Hudson, onto Shodack Island, into Albany past the Capitol building, winding up in frosty acres Camp Ground in Duanesburg, NY where something happened…this ride began to make more sense than anything ever had in my life. We were running our usual 18mph peloton when I saw a coopers hawk. It wasn’t the first that sailed above, but I pointed it out to my “squad” (the locals deemed us that in Albany), quickly explaining that I was bird geek and that mother and grandmother loved birds as well. It was interesting how these hawks would remain with us along the way. I became somewhat emotional, but as usual Nicholas practice I wanted to just be alone as I don’t often talk about things that possibly upset me and would prefer to handle it on my own knowing that it’s not always the best idea. This resulted in a break away from the pack ranging into the high 20’s. After a few miles I looked back and at quick glance my seven man peloton was right on my wheel asking me humorously why I just flew away. Eventually I tried to drop back and found them lagging behind with me. I realized that I wasn’t going to be left alone; they knew…they knew better than I, as I carried the corsage I wore on the day of mother’s funeral in the middle of my jersey pocket daily…I wasn’t over anything, In fact, it was just starting. Up to this point I kept myself so busy with everyone else and their wellbeing that I didn’t want to feel it. My new family of riders knew it and were there for me, they wanted me to go through this process with their support. We were there for one another no matter what terrain lay ahead. That evening we faced a grueling climb into camp, beautiful but an epic feat. Camp stood at 4,047 feet in elevation. It was unbelievable the level of emotion, tears, and laughs that could be heard 500 yards away as we rode up the winding roads into camp. Being greeted with a big hug and yelling “I can’t believe you did it!” followed with a fellow member handing you a cold beer. We waited as staff went out searching for the arrival of one of our riders pushing through the dusk into the dark eventually arriving being greeted by a parade of riders following him into camp on foot. That evening was filled with tears, and a few laughs as our group quickly became known for their sense of humor, and a bonfire accompanied with s’mores. This is consistent with the days to follow traveling from Albany to Utica along the Mohawk River climbing 2,884 feet in elevation- taking a breezy ride on the flats along Oneida Lake, crossing the Seneca River, heading into Baldwinsville, and ending in River Forest Park in Weedsport. The heat was a bit overwhelming and although our group moves quickly, we took a few detours stopping at local diners for 10 cent coffee, mingling with locals, and having a few frosty beverages a mile outside of camp enjoying each other’s company. That evening at dinner the founder of our ride suggested we share out our feelings and thoughts thus far…sitting with my crew as usual I knew they were probably pondering the idea that I may get up, catching them look at me occasionally. After listening to a few riders speak of their tragic loss of loved ones or the positive vibes and connections of riders, I bowed my head and hunkered down…I couldn’t do it…not without getting upset…and anyone that knows me knows it’s something I’m not comfortable doing in front of people, but who is. At that moment, one of my fellow riders, family at this point, turns and holds onto me tightly forcing my head into his shoulder for several minutes as another member placed his hand firmly on my back, both of our shoulders tear soaked, and the rest of my family of riders heads bowed with emotion rolling strong. I wish I could have said something, but we all knew. That evening we rolled up to a local restaurant and bar inside the campgrounds where we enjoyed the awkward jukebox play list ranging from R Kelly to Prince. I’m sure the local company was intrigued by having new life survey their town.

The next day the “slow rollers” made their way through the trails along the Finger Lakes into the city of Rochester into Spencerport, concluding the evening at the Genesee Brew House for snacks and beverages accompanied with some competitive games of Jenga and corn hole. We were quickly off to bed and surprised by an incredible storm filled with lightning, flood status rain showers, and unreal winds. This was our last day, our last ride together, and although we made an agreement to stay in touch, to be a part of one another’s lives from here on out, it was concluding rapidly. We swore to slow roll out and that quickly ended with a 21mph chase for the first 10 miles or so…eventually kicking it down a notch. We came across some other riders who were struggling along the way due to fatigue. We decided to do a big pull creating a two by two rolling line to break the wind and create easy drafts to follow. We had to finish together, and to support one another. We stopped for photos, coffee and slushies along the way. The smiles were ear to ear and eventually the tears of joy flowed like the Falls we were approaching, being greeted by the riders and Terry, the founder of this ride, with open arms knowing I may need it repeating, “Ohh Nicholas, Your mom is proud of you and she is looking down on you” with our emotions flowing. I needed it. At the staging point a few miles from the Falls we met as a group and configured our ride in, of course our eight man squad stuck together, survivors rode up front, and we held strong through it all. I was so eager to see my wife- her smile, laugh, and look of excitement was all I needed. My Father was there with my in-laws by his side holding signs “NYC-NF, piece of cake”,”Welcome Home!” , “You Did It!”, and “If Britney Spears can survive 2007 you can survive 500+ miles over 7 days”. My little brother showed up proud as a peacock and ready for the stories. To watch my fellow rider’s families greet them and to see how much we all missed each other was such a joy. Several of us rendezvous at a local brewery that evening where my other brother showed up and several other family members joined in the festivities. More goodbyes were said…knowing that it won’t be long before our paths cross.

There were flats, crashes, mechanical issues, weather to be dealt with, getting lost, hills to climb, feelings and emotions to accept, stories to be shared, and families formed, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I could not have gained from this trip what I did if it wasn’t for those I shared it with. They are essential components to the road in my life that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing our rides as well as everyday meanderings in our daily grind. This ride encompasses inspiration, devotion, and closure…after all we just laughed from our hearts, cried from our souls, and rode bikes in between.