Let me start by making certain you understand this is neither Chris nor Matt writing this posting. I am Chris’ father-in-law, Bob Kuckuck. I wouldn’t want you to be reading along and become puzzled by the sudden lack of eloquence in content and style of this amazing blog. Chris honored me with status as a “guest blogger” early on, but having seen the wonderful articles these two guyswere posting, I have been hesitant to expose my lesser talents. However, it has now been more than three weeks since we watched them ride off into their eating frenzy across sweltering Iowa (we handed them off in Sioux Center at the beginning of RAGBRAI), and I have had time to reflect upon (and greatly miss) the daily role Marilyn and I played as SAG Wagon drivers. I feel it is time for me to at least once, show my respect for the honorific title of “guest blogger.”
When I originally volunteered to drive the SAG Wagon I had only a loose idea as to what my responsibilities would be, and as it turned out, an even lesser understanding of what a long-distance bicycle ride across the country really entails. I did know that people debated what the SAG in SAG Wagon means, some considering it an acronym for Supplies And Grub, or Support And Gear, etc., with the purpose of supplying and supporting the riders. Others said that SAG really comes from the word sag and was first used in England when long-distance bicycle riding resumed again after WWII, and a car trailed the group to pick up sagging riders. This concept of sweeping up slow riders was introduced in the 1910 Tour de France when a “Broom Car” (Voiture Balai) was used for that purpose. Of course, the English could not use the same name as the French, so apparently they chose Sag wagon for their name. It is also interesting that apparently only the Americans capitalize all three letters in SAG. Marilyn thought that SAG referred somehow to the bodies of aging drivers and was initially insulted to be offered the role.
We caught up with “Team Fat Guys” in Jackson Hole, WY, on their 12th day of riding, arriving within a few minutes of each other, we in an air-conditioned car, and they on their bicycles after a 91-mile ride over the Teton Pass through the Grand Teton Mountains at an elevation of 8431 feet. We immediately recognized that this was no simple ride-in-the-park.
The first thing that impressed us was the energy of these guys. Only a couple of hours after their grueling ride, they were already busy working online with their computers, then Chris began writing the blog posting and Matt prepared dinner, and in between they were watching the Tour de France on the internet – it was as if they had just had a short ride around Danville instead of a grind over the mountains from Idaho Falls. After dinner they worked on their bikes (they actually carry a bike stand in the SAG Wagon), and began planning and preparing for the next day’s ride. They were sort of “Eveready Bunnies” in Spandex. In the subsequent two-and-one-half weeks of riding with them I learned how they acquire and sustain this energy. They are very knowledgeable and professional about conditioning their bodies for this 60-day endurance trial. They first spent months beforehand preparing, with long rides and core training. They understand fueling, carbo-loading, and electrolyte balancing. Each night they prepare their water for the next day by adding electrolytes and then storing the bottles in a cooler that will be carried in the SAG Wagon. It was impressive to see them rise very early every day, have an quick breakfast and be on the road by ~6:30 AM or so, ride their planned route in the planned time, spend the afternoon and evening working and preparing for the next day, and then doing it all over again the following morning – day after day. Very professional! Very committed! And tiring just to watch. But never a complaint or a whine (that’s with an “h,” plenty of it without the “h”).
I was also impressed by their use of technology. This was significantly different than the first cross-country bicycle ride by Thomas Stevens on a high-wheeler (you know, one big wheel in front of a tiny rear one) in 1884, which by-the-way, also went from San Francisco to Boston through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, etc. Stevens was only half as fast as Matt and Chris, riding wagon trails and railroad tracks, and he probably couldn’t find as many motels with WiFi either. But he did build upon this “first leg” to subsequently go on and complete a 2 ½ year ride around the world. No pressure intended here for the Fat Guys, just sayin…!
Back to the high tech part. Of course, the bicycles Chris and Matt are riding are these amazing carbon fiber creations of modern engineering – strong, reliable and almost weightless. They have more gear ratios than Congress has critics. How else could they hold a constant cadence of 80 strokes-per-minute whether climbing a 10 degree mountain or crossing a flat plain? See Chis’ technical data on the blog. Now, if those engineers could just do something about those damn seats!
And as for fixing flat tires today by popping in a new tube you carry with you and pumping it up with a small cartridge of compressed gas – amazing! I remember getting a flat as a kid in WVa. I would take the tube out of the tire, pump it up a bit with my clumsy, heavy, hand pump, submerge it in the bathtub and look for the bubbles, then dry and scrape the rubber surface around the leak with a metal grating that came with the patch kit. Then, I would peel the patch from its backing – this was the hardest part because it took long, sharp fingernails to separate the materials, and I always bit my fingernails into stubs. Then I would apply the glue and hold the patch against the tube until the glue dried. Then came the hard part, stuffing the tube back into the tire and putting them both back onto the rim without pinching the tube and causing another leak. Finally, I would attach my standup hand pump and refill the tire. Life was hell for a little boy in those days. I also walked three miles through the snow to school and back, uphill both ways.
In addition to the high-tech bicycles, today’s communication technology also shaped this endeavor in ways unimaginable to one from my generation. First-of-all, the internet! Information about preparing for and carrying out such an adventure is abundant – physical conditioning and training, route planning, fueling and electrolytic balance, new and innovative equipment and gadgets, blogs and chat sites offering experience from others who have gone before. Smart phones, laptops and WiFi allows the guys to carry their “offices” in their backpacks and conduct daily business from remote, dusty towns bordered by miles and miles of corn, soybeans and sagebrush on all sides.
GPS technology mounted on the bicycle allows all of us to track their minute-by-minute progress through the most remote corners of nowhere – and allows the immediate summoning of emergency services if needed. And perhaps most important, the guys are able to meet (at least to some extent) their spousal obligations by ‘checking in’ with a phone call each evening by curfew time.
One of the problems facing SAG Drivers is eating. These bike riders are burning several thousand extra calories every day, 9000+ on one day that I remember, and they relish in replenishing them. They start a typical morning with coffee and at least a pastry (referred to as B1), after which they proceed with the ride, often stopping for a full breakfast a couple of hours later (referred to as B2). Either later in the ride, or upon arriving at their destination they have lunch (referred to as lunch). In addition, there is the tradition of finding the best milkshake in town when they arrive (referred to TBMIT). Of course, there is a little wine in the room while they work, and finally, a full dinner with beer or margaritas or both (referred to as ridiculous overeating!). The SAG Drivers are of course under no obligation to engage in all this eating with the riders – but they often do. The result for the Drivers is obvious (referred to as obesity).
Traveling with bicycle riders is an interesting adventure. First, you must realize that you are actually driving across the US at the rate of 80 miles-per-day, which typically takes about 80 minutes. This is the secret and wonderful byproduct of being a SAG Driver — lots of time to explore the nooks and crannies of America. The people we met in these tiny towns of the Midwest are literally the salt of the earth. There was the soldier who came home to literally nowhere in Wyoming to take care of his mother and now serves as the virtual backbone of the lodge we stayed in – handyman, cook, desk clerk, animal tender – working sixteen hours each day. Smiling and happy, he makes wonderful flapjacks the size of Frisbees. There was the well-educated and articulate lady from the Chamber of Commerce of a small Wyoming town who had graduated from San Diego State and married an ex-soldier with a law degree from Stanford. He was practicing law in San Diego and felt he “wanted to make a difference,” so he joined the State Department and went to Iraq to help establish a legal system. He was killed by a terrorist bomb. Left alone, she then returned to the ranch she was raised on in Wyoming to care for her aging parents and was volunteering at the virtually-deserted Chamber of Commerce. No complaints, or appeals for sympathy, just simply answering my questions about what brought her there. And there was the group of teenage volunteers from throughout the east and south that had come to Wyoming to spend a couple of weeks painting and fixing fences. Granted, they weren’t from the Midwest, but with their attitudes and values they fit in quite nicely. Every town, no matter how small, has a well-kept senior citizens center. And there did seem to be a lot of senior citizens. Probably little desire to leave those towns when everything they ever knew is still there. American flags were as plentiful as buffalo. And when we had a car problem in a small town on an Indian reservation in Montana on our way home, these people were there for us as well – and refused to be paid. I believe an eighty-mile-per-day drive across our nation’s midsection should be on a lot of peoples’ bucket lists.
However, traveling with bicycle riders can also have its moments. In a tough place like Ten Sleep, WY, you can imagine the challenge of walking into a cowboy saloon for dinner with two guys who came into town wearing spandex with no underwear, who use butt cream, and admit they are from near San Francisco. This usually bordered on provocative behavior in those parts and I always tried to separate myself with a bit of spitting, scratching my crotch, and saying something like, “…so damn hot outside, even them deer and them antelope ain’t playing today.” I don’t think they got that.
The slow pace offered us other opportunities. A surprising number of these tiny towns have nine-hole golf courses. As Marilyn and I would roll into town ahead of Team Spandex, usually around noon or so, we often had time to play nine. We had been smart enough to bring our clubs. In spite of the drought, these courses were in fairly good shape. The problems were the heat (over 100) and the bugs. In Valentine, NE, they insisted we lather with bug deterrent and of course, had shelves full of it to sell. The courses were interesting and in Valentine’s case, pretty difficult. They were so unused to strangers coming to play their course that they ceremoniously inserted us into the middle of a kids’ tournament that was underway. It was a little embarrassing, but it was impressive to see the number of kids in this tiny prairie town that were interested in golf. And at a pretty young age. It was even more impressive to see the adults who were willing to spend their time in the hot sun and constant clouds of bugs to coach the kids. America is indeed, as the song says, beautiful!
So, what did I learn from this experience? Perhaps most importantly, I confirmed something I pretty much knew before we even started – the fine character of these two men, and the depth and sincerity of their friendship. Their positive, caring, and can-do attitude could overwhelm literally any challenge that could possibly be encountered in a mere cross-continent bicycle ride, and even more so, will surely continue to serve them well in their future endeavors — as it has done so well thus far.
Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark would have been proud!
Congratulations, Chris and Matt! And thank you for the opportunity. It was an honor to be a tiny part of your accomplishment. As they say, “it was a great ride.”
Bob and Marilyn