Monday, May 9, 2011

Beyond the Sport of Cycling

Memories from October 2010

Team HTC-Columbia (now HTC-Highroad) lured me to the rolling hills and happy cows of Central California for the SLO GranFondo on October 23rd. Having crowded around the HTC bus at races like the Tour of California, I was hoping for a hometown glimpse of this exciting American team. What I got was an inspiring reminder of how cycling leads to ideas and experiences beyond the sport.

That giant inflatable gorilla wearing a white HTC kit is the first to greet me in Mission Plaza. About 20 feet tall with burly arms raised in victory, he signals the presence of San Luis Obispo’s winning home team. Team HTC is based in this cozy town of about 43,000 tucked among small farms and wineries. The landscape often resembles the French countryside, where the team has consistently crushed the competition and added to the world’s most winning record in 2010.

I volunteered to help out with the race and get busy checking in riders, who gather before sunrise. Over 600 amateurs join five HTC pros for this one-day race that starts and ends in front of the mission. Men and women, aged 8 to 75, roll up to the start line. The cyclists pin on their race numbers, secure time chips to their shoes, and make last-minute pit stops. Volunteers are focused on serving hot coffee, distributing route maps, and answering questions about rest stops and raffle tickets. The plaza is buzzing on this quiet, misty morning.

The riders have come from as far away as New York and Tennessee, a full 85% from outside the county, say the organizers. They came to ride the picturesque route and meet the HTC players. Today, the pros include Tejay Van Garderen, who finished third at the Dauphine in June and made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta last month. He is joined by Kim Anderson, Lucas Euser, German Road Champion Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, and US Time Trial Champion Evelyn Stevens. I later hear that Stevens had a wisdom tooth pulled just six days ago, but she is all smiles.

Soon, the riders are off on the Gran Fondo—100 miles, Medio Fondo—45 miles, or Piccolo Fondo—25 miles. They ride out of town, past the small fishing boats in Morro Bay to the long flats of Highway 1. Rolling between green hillsides, they reach the oceanfront cliffs of San Simeon, at the foot of Hearst Castle, then turn south for the road back home. At rest points along the way, volunteers hand out home-baked cookies and other food for refueling. One stop is the HTC headquarters, a few non-descript buildings between farms. The neighbor’s three large brown cows look on as the cyclists roll by.

With the riders on the road, the activity continues at the start/finish line, where the afternoon entertainment is being set up. As we set up another booth, I learn from one of the other volunteers that she is here because of Alpha, the non-profit organization benefiting from the race. Then another volunteer starts talking about Alpha, then another. Turns out, most of the 212 volunteers are here for Alpha. They tell me about the services Alpha provides as a pregnancy and parenting support center—counseling for post-partum depression, breastfeeding classes, donated maternity and baby clothes, other projects. They have 85 women on their waiting list for donated cribs. The group has supported over 700 women so far this year, most of them low income. The SLO GranFondo will bring in about $40,000 for this 30-year-old organization that has an annual budget of just $140,000. I begin to wonder how this little non-profit got hooked up with one of the world’s most prestigious cycling teams.

As the riders start to roll in, the banjo music starts, and silent auction bids grow for a helmet worn by Mark Cavendish. The cyclists are pleased with the race and surprised that it was organized by a non-profit focused on mothers and babies. They drink iced tea in the afternoon sun and talk about the route. Chatting with the volunteers, I learn that one board member—Tess—is somehow connected to the team, helping launch the race last year and expand it this time around.

Tess Stapleton & Evelyn Stevens
This is Tess Stapleton, a retired maternal and child nurse. Her husband is Bob Stapleton, owner of HTC. As riders keep crossing the finish, Tess tells me about her passion—helping mothers and babies. She joined the board of Alpha several years ago and is hands-on with several classes on pregnancy and parenting. The bike race came up when the board was brainstorming ideas to establish an endowment for Alpha. Tess greets Evie Stevens as she passes under the finish line balloons, as well as family in town for the race. Her husband is also greeting friends and neighbors.

Now I get it. Helping babies is Tess’s passion, as it is for the other volunteers. A California bike race with pro riders can fund that passion. Cycling is a great sport and a fun pastime. It can also lead to new experiences off the bike. I came to see San Luis Obispo’s hometown team, and next time, I will be back with a friend’s crib to donate for that long waiting list.

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