Tuesday, March 23, 2004

I do the Gator Ride!

On March 6th I did 45 miles (the "in between" distance) in the Gator Ride in Baytown, to benefit the Baytown YMCA. The Gator Ride t-shirt is pretty cool, with a big green gator on it; it came in handy on St. Patrick's Day, when I had to wear green. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For me the draw of the ride was that 1) it was on a Saturday; I would not have to miss going to Church; 2) it included a trip over the Fred Hartmann Bridge and the Lynchburg Ferry; and 3) it offered an intermediate length ride that I could handle.

I was still nervous before the ride. I had bought Saris Bones trunk rack for my car and this would be the first time I used it. I could just see myself tooling up Hwy 59 or IH 10 in the middle of Houston and have my bike fall off the back of my car, causing injury and destruction. The night before the race, I carefully put the rack on my trunk and tied it on pretty tight. I put my bike on and tied a rope from pedal to the front and back to keep the handle bars from rotating back and forth in traffic. I know from experience that the rattle and bumping of traveling on roads can loosen up the tightest bolt or knot (in one of my prior jobs we would send large water treatment pilots by truck to customer sites and they would arrive with all their nuts and bolts loose, even after being tightened at the factory).

Since I had had trouble on the West U Warmup with a low carb loading, my wife had gone to the store and bought Power Bars and Gatorade for me. I put those into the pack that I would carry on the back rack of my bike. I was all set and ready to ride.

The morning of the ride I got up at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., ate breakfast, and headed out. As I rode along the highways of Houston, watching my bike on the Saris rack, I became more comfortable when it did not go bouncing off at the first pothole (which, on Houston streets, was not far along the road!).

It had been a long time since I had been in Baytown proper. I grew up in Channelview, and when we were kids we went to Baytown to shop because there was nothing else anywhere close. Our Church was in Baytown, and my parents' friends were all in Baytown. My Dad worked for Exxon (Enjay Chemical when I was young), and his office was in Baytown, where did mechanical engineering projects at the refinery. But the last time I remember being in Baytown was for his funeral in 1979. So, the memories came flooding back to me that morning on the 6th of March as I drove into the rising sun to find a parking place in downtown Baytown, Texas.

I parked in the first spot I saw, which turned out to be the farthest parking lot from the action, in the Lee High School Annex parking lot. But the start times for the rides were staggered, and I had arrived plenty early, so I had lots of time to get my bike ready. Since I was a little off the beaten path I went ahead and took the trunk rack off the car and locked it inside so it would not disappear while I was gone.

I rode over to the starting line. There were a lot of people waiting for the 42 mile ride. The Mayor of Baytown talked to the crowd before the race and started us off at 8:30 a.m. It didn't take long before the Fred Hartmann Bridge loomed before us. Even that early on, there were quite a few bikers stopped with flat tires; most of them had road bikes with the tiny, thin tires. But I was surprised that so many flats happened so quickly. As we road up the access road to the bridge, people slowed, and some stopped and got off their bikes. The hill climbing that we had practiced in Kim's spinning class had prepared me well however, and I found myself passing other people on the uphill climb.

The people on this ride were a lot quieter (i.e. rude) than those on the West U Ride. Few people said anything as they passed on the left, and lots of people rode side-by-side, sometimes three or four across, making it difficult to pass. As we crested the bridge and headed downhill, most bikers stopped pedaling, but I kept it up as much as I could without running up other bikers backsides. My top speed downhill was 28 mph; I'm sure I could have gone faster if not for the crowds ahead of me.

After the bridge, we wound down and around the ramps leading from the bridge and settled into routes through refineries and chemical plants. There were odors aplenty. If not dead fish or crabs, it was olefins, thiols, aromatics, or other hydrocarbons wafting through the air. As a typical chemist would say "that's not an odor, that's the smell of money in the air!" There was lots of money in the air!

We approached the San Jacinto Monument and I had to get what I thought would be a great shot of it; well, as the photo shows, you can barely see it. It was much more impressive in person. It was great seeing it on the approach to the Lynchburg Ferry. On the way down to the ferry we passed at least one marker that indicated where the Texians had camped or fought during the Battle of San Jacinto.

When I got to the ferry I found a long line of bikers waiting to get on. The line curved around to the rest stop and back to the ferry landing, where groups of bikers were lead onto the boat. As I waited in line for about 30 min, the youth group from Westminster Presbyterian was passing around orange and banana halves; I dove into the Powerbars and Gatorade I had packed on my bike and stayed in line for the ferry.

I had some good discussions with fellow bikers while waiting for the ferry, and after getting on. The ride across the San Jacinto river was quick and uneventful. I was well rested during this first rest stop. We got off the on the other side and headed out to the Highlands, just across IH 10 from the ferry. The road leading from the ferry was pockmarked with what looked like craters from cruise missile hits. I nearly bounced my teeth out of my mouth. But we made it up the hill to the overpass over IH 10 and crossed. The next stretch was through Highlands that I vaguely remembered but had really changed from my youth. Thinking back, I remember our family's dentist was located somewhere in Highlands. Now, why would that come to me now?

The next rest stop came up pretty quickly. I ate lots of bananas and drank the Gatorade provided at the rest stop. I stretched and got a good rest, then headed out again, feeling pretty good. The carb loading really made a difference in my strength and endurance. We passed some nice houses on Wallisville Road, one with Azaleas that I tried to take a photo of but missed as I pedaled by. A big old oak tree got in the way.

The last stop was manned by a Boy Scout troop. Before getting there, about 100 bikers had to stop for a train that passed by, so I got some extra rest and had a peanut butter Powerbar (yummm!).

The last leg of the ride was through residential areas, then back to the shore of a bay or some body of water. The Fred Hartmann Bridge came back into view, so I knew I was close to the end of the ride. The last two or three miles I really dogged it. I was getting tired and the wheels did not want to turn as quickly. I got a little turned around when I arrived back into downtown Baytown and I never actually crossed the "finish line" so I asked a fellow biker I met in one of the parking lots to take a photo of me at the finish. I wandered around until I found someone who could point me in the right direction and I headed back to the parking lot for my car.

In all, 45 miles of distance. Not bad for my second official ride. I loaded up the bike and drove through McDonald's for my first official cheesburger from Mickey D's since I started the South Beach Diet on September 6th, 2003 (funny how I remember that date!). I figured a little carb and fat would not hurt me.

On the way back home, I stopped by Westminster Presbyterian on Bayway Drive. This trip to Baytown had brought up a lot of old memories, and I wanted to see if the brick monument sign that my Dad and I had helped build was still there. You see, not only was my father Ralph James Jr. a mechanical engineer; he was also a carpenter (he built our house twice, both before and after it burned); a welder; an aircraft pilot (during World War II he was a flight trainer for the Navy. When he died, he was building an experimental airplane, the Pietenpol Air Camper.), and a bricklayer. I have a memory of helping him lay the brick for the sign in front of the Church back when I was a young teenager. I helped by mixing the mortar using a hoe in the old concrete mixing tub we had. I was the typical bored young teenager, and didn't realize at the time how important that time with him would become thirty or so years later.

So, I drove up and parked in the Church parking lot. I got out and went over to the sign. I could not tell if it was the same one we had built or not. Nonetheless, I felt a strong compulsion to reach out and touch it reverently, as if in the touching I could somehow touch him again. It was a strange and unexpected feeling to have. The one touch left me sad and reflective of my memories of him.

No one but the janitor was at the Church, so I could not inquire as to how new the sign was, or if anyone remembered my Dad. I looked inside the building and it was virtually unchanged since I had last been there, at my father's funeral. I could still remember the hallways and the classrooms, and Sunday School classes I had taken, the many times I had passed down the halls.

Somehow, being in Baytown that day seemed like a journey home, like answering a call from my past that would help define my future. Who knew that the simple act of getting on a bike would eventually lead me to pass through this place?

I could not help but know that God knew.