So many of us find it hard to step out of the whirl and go beyond ourselves. In an age of Instagrams and streaming Twitter updates, people seem too busy to call even when something’s gone terribly wrong. They might text instead. It becomes harder to pause, and finding solace eludes us.
At least once a year, volunteers and riders in the Pass-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon break through this paradigm. During last weekend’s downpours and relative chill in the Bay State, they persevered again.
I spent the weekend with some of the PMC’s road crew and command staff traversing much of the 192-mile route. Some of their own backstories, their camaraderie, innovations and connections with riders to help fight cancer are apt to inspire you. PMCers set out to raise a record $40 million in its 35th year for a cumulative contribution to Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of more than $450 million.
These PMC volunteers continue to show up. They don’t make excuses. They’re never too busy. Giving up a weekend to offer their skills, they’ve got our backs.
A rider named Barry stood in a parking lot overlooking Onset Bay in the driving rain, bent over and clutching the back of his legs. For the third time Saturday he had a flat tire, his riding team was somewhere ahead, and during the past two hours the temperature had dropped perhaps 10 degrees to 60.
A slight tremor washed over the lean eight-year rider. He still could feel his fingers, but with his body temporarily not in motion, a few early signs of possible hypothermia were evident. Al Homer, a carpenter from Brockton and a PMC volunteer, pried the tube from the tire with his fingers, spotting the leak after pumping in a few blasts of air.
With only about three miles left to reach the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the ending point for the first day, there was no way that Barry, like most PMCers, was quitting. Within a couple of minutes Homer replaced the tube and re-mounted the wheel. Thanking Homer, the man walked his bike back to the road.
While the grit of more than 5,700 riders who pedal for loved ones and friends is celebrated each year – tested again by last weekend’s weather – less heralded is the commitment of the PMC’s legion of volunteers. Among these 3,700 are a hardy band of bike mechanics and EMTs who are seemingly omnipresent when riders need a hand along the routes, and a command staff coordinating logistics behind the scenes to make the iconic event hum even when faced with fresh challenges.
Plenty of those surfaced during Saturday’s rain. By late morning heavy showers began scouring stretches of the route from Rehoboth to Lakeville and beyond. Road crew veterans like Homer knew exactly what that would bring: more flats as road debris collects on the tires – and potentially worse. “Dehydration in the heat, hypothermia in the rain,” he said.
During the weekend 10 cyclists were transported to the hospital and 80 riders reported hypothermia, some declining medical treatment, while others donned thermal blankets or rested on warming mattresses brought in last minute to the gym on the academy campus. It was what founder and PMC executive director Billy Starr called the “coldest sustained rain” in the event’s 35–year history. Yet the conditions did not dampen most riders’ resolve – with a million miles covered during the weekend, only several dozen riders stopped early, with some picked up on buses or their family members at the final water stops.
Homer, 54, and his wife Janice are among a road crew and command center group who usually spend the weekend supporting the PMC. About 75 people make up the road crew while a few dozen others manage communications, logistics, and medical emergency responses in a command hub at the maritime academy.
The road crew itself is an eclectic bunch, stocked with professionals including a state tax collector and an EPA attorney who fix bikes on the side; some lithe first-time volunteers a few years out of college; paunchy, long-haired veterans like Ed Wallace, an HVAC contractor from Scituate, and Jeff, who discusses spit welding techniques and fabricating bike frames on board the bus to Sturbridge; joined by full-time EMTs, and a family of three helping out for the first time. They are led by a salesman at a Ford dealership in Winchester, Allan Eyden, a tall and unimposing guy whose perky humor is on display before sunrise Sunday beside the Bourne Bridge. Waving a can of bug spray as a long line of riders merge on to the bridge, he says to a couple of his volunteers, “Anybody want to get off?”
“It’s always been family for us.” — Al Homer, 24-year PMC Road Crew bike mechanic
By 5:15 a.m. the first day, Al Homer is in place parked on Fletcher Street in rural Northbridge, his white work truck stocked with tubes and tires, cables, spokes, a spare mountain bike, and a plethora of tools in a red box. This is 26 miles from the Sturbridge start, and after the first group cruises by at 6:38, he estimates when one-quarter of the swarms have passed, then begins following. After one incident – he helps a guy with a Cervelo from Connecticut whose chain was not switching between the small and big chain ring – things get temporarily slow. “This is like the Maytag repairman stop,” he cracks. Pretty soon though, Homer and the other mechanic-medical teams are fully engaged along the route.
Like nearly everyone involved in the PMC, Homer has his own good reasons. Cancer has been rampant in his large family – nine of his dad’s 12 siblings died of disease, and his mother-in-law passed five years ago. He used to repair bikes at a shop owned by a friend in his native Easton, and one day was asked to fix them at a former PMC water stop there. That was 26 years ago. “It’s always been family for us,” he says.
Janice Homer, who is a registered nurse, volunteers in the command center and for more than a decade teamed up with her husband driving along the route. They’ve spent several wedding anniversaries – theirs is Aug. 7 – rising at 3:45 a.m. to head out. When their sons were young, the Homers brought both along in the van during the weekend, and one, Chris, now volunteers on the road crew. Looking back at their interactions with riders in those years, Janice can both laugh and briefly tear up.
“I’m helping the broken people, he’s helping the broken bicycles,” she says. “While he fixed them, we’d hear some amazing stories.” Naturally, many riders find creative ways to reciprocate. One time, a few months after Al lent a woman a mountain bike with road tires, the couple received a large box in the mail. The rider had tracked them down and shipped a case of salsa and other organic products from a family business in New Hampshire.
Each year, the couple also donates to support one rider in her mom’s memory. This year, Janice wanted to help a co-worker, a first-year rider diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
Jeff Gilman is another road crew veteran (14 years) who sees his role as his “best way to add value to the event.” Like Homer, who is a friend of his, 41-year-old Gilman is an experienced mountain biker and former competitive cyclist. But on PMC weekend, he feels he does not need to be in the saddle to make a difference. The Braintree resident, who works as a manufacturing manager, says, “Knowing that there are so many people out here who this is physically a challenge for, to be able to be out here and help them is more satisfying to me than to ride myself … It also saves me from having to raise the funds,” he adds with a laugh.
His partner Lori Maver is a Brockton cop with medical training doing her fifth PMC. Gilman recruited her – they are cousins – and Maver has never looked back. Meeting riders lifts the 46-year-old each time.
“They are so unbelievably thankful,” she says. “Even if we stop to just say ‘Keep going, you’re doing great,’ they light up … they smile, they pump up a little, even if they are at the end and you can see they’re having a hard time.” Early Sunday afternoon, that’s exactly what Maver does as their van tracks a few last riders on back roads in Truro and on Route 6.
Near the Family Finish in Provincetown, while many riders begin their drive home or head for the ferry, the road crew gathers behind the old VFW. They load leftover supplies in bins on to a Penske truck as volunteers’ Chris and Maya Siano’s two young sons – who’ve been kicking a ball in the parking lot during the day – help organize the final haul. Accolades, more jokes, and some goodbyes are issued – most of the crew won’t see each other again until 2015.
“Every PMC weekend is the same as it was before,” Gilman says. “You see the same people.”
“You pick up where you left off the year before,” Maver adds.
“Friday night it’s like, ‘How was the year?’” her cousin says.
“And we find how out how small the world really is,” says Maver.
On a weekend when The New Yorker’s lead article, entitled “Aflame,” commented on the seemingly intractable crises raging throughout the world – and the absolutist views driving destruction from Israel to the Ukraine – there was something absolute about the commitment of these PMC volunteers. They offer us all hope.
Like Al Homer, Jeff Gilman and Lori Maver continue to show up. They don’t make excuses. They’re never too busy. Giving up a weekend to offer their skills, they’ve got our backs.
They’re already looking forward to doing it again in 2015.
Note: The author expects to ride the PMC again in 2015. Last summer Brack published his debut, Closer By The Mile, the story of the Pan-Mass Challenge, which is available on Amazon.