"In the end...we are only cyclists."
To describe this year's STIHL Tour des Trees in words is like trying to write about a color or describe a sound. It is often a challenge to equate in words the feelings, thoughts and emotions we experience while riding for so long with such amazing people. There are periods of effortless bliss, when legs feel light and the cycles roll fast. Bouts of mental agony when your brain asks the very appropriate question, "What the heck are you doing?!" There is time on the road when the only thing the mind can focus on is the effort that is being asked of our legs or wondering when the next break is. Then, within less than a half hour, the brain shifts gears and talks about how this ride should last forever. This experience, like many of its kind, offers the whole spectrum of the human experience; camaraderie, endurance, commitment, joy, accomplishment, service, community, pain, relief and love to name a few. I think that's why we all come away with such a tremendous feeling of gratitude. I think that's why so many of us come back.
I had so many great conversations, so many great rides. After riding through the picturesque countryside from Madison to The Dells, the remainder of the week was fast and steady, filled with more of Wisconsin's beautiful pastures and forests.
On Wednesday morning, we had what was probably the best riding of my life. Tour Director Paul Wood of Black Bear Adventures had told us that morning there was a section of roller coaster style roads with beautiful scenery. He said it was his favorite section of the route. We had no idea how fast and smooth the roads would be that morning, but we were oh so grateful for the edification. It was one of my favorite sections of the trip. We stopped for educational events with Professor Elwood Pricklethorn and consumed great lunches provided by the Wandering Fork throughout the rest of the week. And along the way, we got to know each other a little better.
I have found that in every Tour, connections start on the road, on the bike, with your fellow riders. The communications start with an ability to coordinate the pace line, staying close to each other and creating a symbiosis that turns six riders into one. Or perhaps you've fallen flat and have found yourself alone on the road, as I did on mile 110 of our 120-mile day. Then some angel rider appears and says, "Hop on, I'll pull you in." In these simple words there is much more than meets the eye. There is an underlying and often unspoken empathy that we gain through this experience of riding our bikes and raising awareness for the TREE Fund. This empathy is born from inspiration, solidified through perspiration and reinforced by our sense of accomplishment. We made it! Not only did we ride more than 585 miles, we touched people, we inspired them and we helped them realize that they can have an impact as well.
Thursday night, Tom Kraak hosted us in his hometown. Tom is a long time Tour supporter and organizer. He has run logistics support for 15 Tours. He is always there with a smile or sarcastic comment to keep you moving. For the past two Tours, Tom has been joined by his daughter Amy, and they both have devoted their time to supporting us on our journey. I think I speak for all of us when I express gratitude for their efforts and the efforts of all the support staff. That night, Tom's restaurant, Brussels Diner, catered dinner. The liquids flowed plentifully and the food was divine. We ate, drank and enjoyed each other's company. Tom introduced us to his friends from the annual haunted house-scary-and to local music, a polka band. What a night!
Last year, two support staff members, Maggie Harthoorn and Amy Kraak, and I had a dance off. I lost horribly and found out afterward that Amy is a trained dancer-no fair! So this year, the ladies wanted the opportunity to quell my ego once more. And if you knew these young women, you'd know that there is no denying their smiles. At least this year, my friend and fellow rider Warren Hoselton joined me. We were optimistic in the beginning, providing the dance floor with flash (not really). But in an instant, we were defeated once more. The crowd roared for Maggie and Amy, and actually booed Warren and me. Our egos were bruised, but we carried on and justified our loss by saying we had never danced to polka before and who listens to polka anyway.
The next day was the longest of the Tour, 120 miles to Port Washington. Once again we rode at a staggering pace. Most everyone was able to finish the entire 120 miles, and we ended the day with coffees, ice cream, and some with beers while watching a thunderstorm unleash on the quaint town of Port Washington. That night at the final dinner of the Tour, we shared laughs and tears as we heard stories of personal triumph and listened to the yearly awards being given out. We couldn't believe another event had flown by. Just yesterday we were begging the wind to abate and give us free passage. Now our thoughts started wandering to our other lives at home.
On our final day, we would ride a mere 40 miles into Milwaukee, to Mount Mary University and the International Society of Arboriculture's tree climbing championships. For our final two miles, two pretty impressive Harley Davidson police motorcycles escorted us. At the event, we were greeted with cheers, smiles, hoots and hollers. What a feeling. I'm never quite sure what the cheering is for, the fact that we rode so far, or the fact that we raised so much money. It's probably for both and with good reason. I wouldn't say it's easy to raise $3,500 and ride almost 600 miles in support of the TREE Fund, but it's not an impossible challenge. I would say it's definitely worth it. You have to come. You have to experience this. You won't be disappointed. You will meet friends for a lifetime- there is no material measure for that!
Fundraising continues through August; you can donate to the TREE Fund's mission via www.stihltourdestrees.org or www.treefund.org.