Conversation: Cycling en Masse to Fight Multiple Sclerosis

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Tony and the team. Courtesy photo.

Tony and the team. Courtesy photo.

This Saturday, the year’s largest gathering of South Texas cyclists will leave the Wheatley Heights Sports Complex for a two-day bike ride and fundraising event, reaching New Braunfels on the first day, and returning to San Antonio the second day. Riders will choose among routes ranging from 130 to 170 miles.

The Bike MS: Valero 2013 Alamo Ride to the River, in the event’s 24th year, is on track to raise more than $1 million for MS research and treatment. Readers interested in making a donation, large or small, can click here for a secure online link. Robert Rivard, who will ride with the Third Street Grackles team for the eighth consecutive year, asked Tony Ralf, the regional vice president of development and the face of the MS Society in South Texas, to talk about the big event.

 

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

RR: Tony, most non-profit organizations hold a big annual gala to raise money. You guys get people to ride bikes a long ways, and in the process, recruit friends, family, neighbors, and business colleagues to donate funds on their behalf.Why the different approach?

Tony Ralf

Tony Ralf

TR: The Society hosts numerous  fundraising gatherings similar to galas around the country. Our bike events are designed to attract the athlete, the wanna be athlete, the weekend rider and the novice, and to raise funds by diversifying our reach.

RR: How well does it work?

TR: The National MS Society hosts 100 very successful Bike MS events each year, and we see cyclists return year after year. It’s a memorable experience for the participants and volunteers.

The San Antonio Bike MS: Valero Alamo Ride to the River, presented by H-E-B, is budgeted to raise $1.27 million this year. 

Tony Ralf watches cyclists leave the starting chute at the 2009 Alamo Ride to the River. Courtesy photo.

Tony Ralf watches cyclists leave the starting chute at the 2009 Alamo Ride to the River. Courtesy photo.

RR: You encourage a lot of friendly competition among the teams and individual riders on the fundraising front The most successful teams get VIP places in the starting chute. Individual fundraisers vie for Club 100 status, your website has scrolling updates on team and individuals, which a lot of cyclists are checking at work all day long when they should be doing other things.

TR: We look to have fun with our Bike MS constituents, to balance the training they need to put in so they’re ready for the ride weekend.  Over the years some good-natured rivalry has surfaced among the teams and our individual fundraisers, as all look to outdo the other either through total fundraising or team size. 

RR: What will it take to make Club 100 this year?

TR: Membership to the Club 100, our elite fundraising status, is calculated simply by aligning all individual fundraising in descending order and counting down 100 places. It’s really that simple. But to make it to the club requires hard work and creates some rivalry as fundraisers vie for the club, a low number and perks of membership each year, or seek to simply remain in the club! We’ve seen the number 100 rider raising between $1,500 to $1,800 over the years. Personally, I’d like to see that number rise to $2,000. Will that be this year?  We’ll have to wait and see.

RR: Isn’t the pre-event planning and the actual event itself an insanely crazy and compressed period of work and chaos? How many people are involved in this ride, the overnight stations and camps, the 10-mile rest stops, etc.?

TR: A good deal of planning goes into making the ride the successful fundraiser we need it to be, and a great deal of that success relies on or logistical approach to supporting the riders.  We begin preparing for the next year’s event the day after the current event is over, which will be Oct. 14 this year, even while we’re cleaning and putting up all of the coolers, ice chests, ice troughs, etc. next week.

We recruit an army of volunteers each year to help us with everything, and I mean everything.  We likely see several hundred volunteers work with us through varied assignments, as each assignment falls into place like a mosaic to make part of the event picture. 

Tony and the team. Courtesy photo.

Tony and the team. Courtesy photo.

An important feature of our volunteer response is our Bike Committee, made up of around 30 volunteers who, along with National MS Society staff, orchestrate every component of the bike event’s creation and execution.  Because of the complexity of the event, we even contract a logistics company to help us with the big stuff, like securing stages for entertainment, portable showers, untold portable toilets, dozens of small and large tents.

This logistics company also manages our specially secured event warehouse, where all the perishable supplies are housed and transferred to a fleet of trucks the weekend of the ride in order to stock Rest Stops along the route with snacks, fruit, sports drink and water… and lots of toilet paper!

RR: Valero has been your corporate sponsor for many years, and for as long as I’ve been involved; CEO Bill Klesse has actually participated, riding amid the large Valero peloton of riders. It’s sort of amazing to see a Fortune 50 CEO sweating it out with the rest of us on the road over two days.

Valero CEO Bill Klesse

Valero CEO Bill Klesse

TR: We are so fortunate that Bill rides with us each year, but it’s not a surprise!  We all see the philanthropy of this refining giant time and again around our community, and the volunteerism within the Valero workforce.  This all starts at the top, and Bill sets the example of what it means to give back to the community.  I’ve volunteered with Valero from time to time, and once found myself on a roof of a new home Valero was building, hammering nails into the roof right alongside Bill.  It was very inspiring.

RR. You have other major sponsors as well, what are their roles? How many other sponsors are involved? Of course, the Rivard Report is pro-community and pro-cycling and we are now a media sponsor, but seriously, it takes a lot of support to make this event a success.

TR: Our corporate partners are so very special, and the event relies on them to provide either cash donations or products to help us fund the event.  While Valero is our title sponsor, our home-grown grocery store H-E-B is our presenting sponsor.  They have supported our Bike MS event for over 15 years.  H-E-B donates snacks and water for every Rest Stop.  Our Rest Stops also are available for sponsorship. 

H-E-B is also a Rest Stop sponsor, and provides riders with a more substantial offering for this one location.  In addition, H-E-B provides us with a semi-trailer to haul riders’ luggage from the Start Line in San Antonio to the Overnight stop in New Braunfels, and then back again the next day to the Finish Line in San Antonio.

Joining or forming a team is an opportunity to conquer a challenge and share a great experience with friends, family members or co-workers. Every year, nearly 100 companies form teams to participate in and support Bike MS: Valero.

RR: Okay, there are more and more cyclists every day on the streets of San Antonio. Road bikes, townies, fixees, hand-me-downs, recumbents, parents hauling kids in mobile carriers. Why should all these mostly young riders care about your event and consider participating?

Tony Ralf grabs some water a Rest Stop during the 2008 Bike MS event. Courtesy photo.

Tony Ralf grabs some water a Rest Stop during the 2008 Bike MS event. Courtesy photo.

TR: Bike MS experience is the ride of a lifetime, especially for all those seeking a personal challenge, with the goal of contributing to our community in order to fund research towards a world free of MS.   Our ride will take you further than you’ve ever gone before. But it’s not the miles that matter, it’s the unforgettable journey; anticipation, camaraderie, personal accomplishment, and the knowledge that you’re changing lives, which makes every mile that much sweeter.

This is an opportunity for a great personal challenge and achievement, creating a weekend-long and lifelong opportunity to make a difference in your own life, and in the world.

RR: When I was young I didn’t have any friends or family who suffered from MS. As I grew older, I seem to know more and more people afflicted with the disease. Do you think that personal connection is what drives people to get involved, the opportunity to ride for someone who can’t ride and fundraise in their honor?

TR: I lost my sister, Pauline, to MS in 2008.  She had lived with this disease, for which there is no cure, for about 30 years.  I’m the driven man I am today as I honor her memory and work towards a day when no other sister, mother, aunts or niece will ever hear that horrible diagnosis: “You have MS!”

Like many riders, they first come to Bike MS for the challenge and the experience.  But the longer they ride with us they inevitably end up meeting someone living with MS, and a bond often begins at that point creating a greater sense of purpose in the cyclist for next year’s ride.  

RR: A lot of people are bit intimidated when they hear about riding 130 or more miles over two days. How long does it take to train for ride like that and be able to complete it without undue suffering, maybe even in a state of endorphin release and quiet joy?

TR: We recommend that you begin training immediately after you decide to ride in our next event.  Personally, I was challenged by my friends to ride the San Antonio event after my sister passed.  I had only 10 weeks to train, so I had to cram a good deal of saddle time, nutrition and hydration into a short period before the ride.  I made the event the full distance, but would recommend that training should be much longer than that. 

We recommend that people take up cycling as a recreational activity, and ride year round.  That way, when they are comfortable on their bike, they are comfortable on the road and can step up their training effort in order to enjoy the Bike MS.

The 2013 BIKE MS route map.

The 2013 BIKE MS route map.

RR: Newcomers and people of all shapes and sizes are out there every year, and those who fatigue or just need a little pick-me-up can jump into an MS sag wagon. Want to explain sag wagon to new prospects?

TR: Our SAG support consists of about 30 or so 15-passenger vehicles, equipped with HAM Radio operators, which patrol the bike route waiting to help a rider in need of a rest or mechanical support for their bike.  The SAG will transport them to the next Rest Stop for sustenance for themselves and TLC for their bicycle. We have bike mechanics at every Rest Stop, which are located every 10-12 miles along the route.  SAG stands for Support and Gear.

RR: The rest stops are really small community gatherings of locals serving food, drink, first aid, and bike mechanical support. Talk about how you organize those and how they contribute to helping me achieve a longer ride than an individual might do on a solo training ride.

TR: The two-day route totals 158 miles, depending on which routing you choose (see map above).  For example, on the first day some riders can call it a day at the Lunch stop in Seguin, and that will be a total of 47 miles. While the distance to the Finish Line at the Comal County Fairgrounds is 70 miles. But then there’s an option of riding 100 miles on the first day, the much-sought-after ‘Century’ challenge.  While cyclists have completed their commitment of training for the two-day ride, the National MS Society’s commitment is a fully supported ride; we stock Rest Stops with nutritional snacks and fruit, and hydration (sports drink and water) every 10-12 miles along the bike route. 

So, if you look at our event as merely a series of 10-12-mile rides, then the event mileage will go by quickly, especially if you’re either riding as a team or visiting with other riders at each Rest Stop.  But these Rest Stops take a good deal to organize, and volunteer-power!  We have from a dozen to as many as 30-plus volunteers organizing each Rest Stop.  Some of the volunteers will organize a theme among the volunteers to provide a little distraction and entertainment for the riders.  Many of these volunteer groups, some from the local communities we ride through, come back year after year.

RR: We obviously won’t ride up I-35 to New Braunfels and back. What’s the general route on Day One and Day Two?

TR: When we’re in the community recruiting riders, volunteers and even corporate sponsors, it’s not surprising when a little puzzlement surfaces in those conversations when we say the Day 1 route to New Braunfels is 70 miles long. Many of us drive to New Braunfels from time to time, and that trip is 30 miles.  But in order to provide event participants with a full two days of cycling, we route the event through lesser-traveled roads from San Antonio through La Vernia, New Berlin, up to Seguin and then the Day 1 finish at the Comal County Fairgrounds. Oh, not to forget the Century Route, which is an extra 30 miles around New Braunfels along the picturesque River Road. Our Day 2 route back to San Antonio takes a different route than Day 1, giving riders a different glimpse at what our countryside has to offer. We still head back through New Berlin and La Vernia, but using different roads so as not to overlap the Day 1 route.

RR: You’ve done some crazy, attention-getting things in your time as the local MS jefe, dyed your hair orange, shaved your head, rode the race. You have any tricks up your sleeve this year?

Tony Ralf: the red mohawk phase.

Tony Ralf: the red mohawk phase.

TR: Indeed, I’ve done some crazy things, causing my wife to shake her head in disbelief many times.  Actually, many heads seem to shake. But all that I do, I do for everyone living with MS, the National MS Society’s mission and to raise awareness.  I’ll do anything to help raise money to find a cure. 

As mentioned previously, my sister died several years ago from complications of MS.  When I arrived back from her funeral in Australia, a good number of my riding buddies suggested I should ride the event in her honor and to bring closure for me.  It was a wacky idea, since I hadn’t been on a bike for about 40 years, but I like wacky! I recruited riders to the team I created, Pauline’s Last Hurrah, trained hard for 10 weeks, supported by my colleagues and leadership volunteers taking up the slack from my work duties.

I raised $37,000, while our team total passed $132,000; I sobbed like a baby for 500 feet as I neared and crossed the Finish Line that year. 

The first time I dyed my hair, the color was chosen by the team or company that first reached $10,000.  Team Clear Channel won.  And so, about three weeks before the ride I had to dye my hair their corporate electric blue, keep it dyed so no black roots showed. They had the honor of shaving my head bald in front of several hundred cyclists.

Tony Ralf: the bald phase.

Tony Ralf: the bald phase.

Another year I colored it pink for the first team to reach $20,000, the pink was the favorite color of 9-year-old Mallory, a precious little girl I know in Lubbock, Texas, who filled the void in my heart once owned by my sister. 

Mallory is 11 years old today, I first met her when she was six, and she was diagnosed with MS at the age of three!  I’ve also colored my hair teal (along with my eyebrows) when Valero Energy Company won a $40,000 fundraising challenge that year.

Tony and Mallory.

Tony and Mallory.

 

Orange with a black Mohawk was the color of my hairdo to celebrate the National MS Society’s corporate-color change to orange with a black swoosh.  I’ve also worn a full-body orange ‘morph’ suite, just because, and visited the San Antonio Police Department to the pleasant surprise of Chief Bill McManus!  I think one of the driving forces behind my silliness is that I feel if a rider is laughing at me or with me then their mind is no longer on any aches they may be experiencing!

Tony visist SAPD Chief Wililam McManus in a full-body orange ‘morph’ suite – just because. Courtesy photo.

Tony visits SAPD Chief William McManus in a full-body orange ‘morph’ suite – just because. Courtesy photo.

RR: Talk about who will be riding this year. It’s a mix of corporate-sponsored teams, small social clubs and individuals. And, of course, there is the Third Street Grackles, the team I helped found and ride with. The teams are an interesting sub-culture in the city with their custom kits, their affiliations, their traditions, and their personalities.

TR: We will often recommend to individual riders that they look to join a team because the event experience is just so much more memorable, and the all-important fundraising will be easier, as teammates share their successful strategies.  Some teams actually come together to host group fundraising, like weekend car washes, group garage sales, fundraising BBQs, etc.  There is indeed a wonderful sense of team spirit and pride around town as these groups gather to hold training rides.

Brothers Matt (pictured) and TJ Kent photograph each other crossing Lake Red Rock in outside of Des Moines.

TJ Kent takes a photo of his brother taking a photo of him while on a ride earlier this year.

 

Interestingly, it doesn’t matter which team you’re on or what bike jersey you may be wearing, if you’re stopped by the side of the road most any other cyclist will look for a thumbs up from you to indicate you’re okay.  Or, if you’re changing a flat, someone will invariably stop to help you.  Given the distances these teams and solo riders travel they all know that it could be them at the side of the road with a flat in need of help the next time around.

RR: We’ll close by saying the traditional starting and finishing line this year has been moved from the familiar AT&T Center to the less familiar Wheatley Sports Complex a mile away. Is that going to add an element of confusion to the morning? Where should people park who drive to the event?

TR: Last word.  Indeed, we were forced to relocate our Start Line this year in order to avoid some serious, traffic-disruptive road construction on our traditional route from the AT&T Center.  We have been advertising heavily since then about the change, using our eNewsletters to riders and volunteers, event Facebook, our event website (www.bikemstexas.org) and even generating press releases to all media around town.  Also, the change took place just before our series of packet pickups, opportunities for riders to claim their rider numbers for the weekend ride, so we were able to continue the communication of the change to them in person. 

We encourage everyone to visit our directional links on our website that identify the Wheatley Heights Sports Complex. There’s a map that will help you, whether you’re coming from Fiesta Texas, Austin, Corpus Christi or Houston.  We recommend that everyone arrive early — 6 am is not  too early — in order to avoid long lines of traffic accessing  the sports complex. We’ll have plenty of breakfast items and Starbucks coffee! For those who have GPS devices, use: 100 Nobelwood Drive to identify the entrance to the sports complex. 

 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook. 

 

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