If you live in Southwest Florida, or other parts of the East Coast, you’re probably a Comcast customer. In some areas, they’re still the only option for digital television and broadband Internet. Here in Naples, that was basically the case until last year, when I started to notice commercial vans bearing CenturyLink’s insignia parked in front of homes every so often.
Not long ago, a CenturyLink rep, a baby-faced college grad, was going door-to-door in our neighborhood, offering a free 30 day CenturyLink Prism trial. For $10 less per month than Comcast, he said we could get more HD channels, wireless set-top boxes, and more consistent and reliable broadband Internet. We figured, sure — it’s a free trial, why not? We signed up.
Knowing that our neighborhood did not yet have fiber, I was aware that we were buying an ADSL service, which is an older technology. On paper, it can’t even come close to the throughput of Comcasts’ fiber-backed coaxial cable network. As a full-time software engineer who works from home, I didn’t take this lightly. Reliable Internet service is critical for my work. It doesn’t have to be blazingly fast, but it has to work 99.9% of the time.
CenturyLink offered us a 25/1Mbps service with a professional installation (an $89 fee that we could elect to split over 6 billing cycles). The fee would be waived if we discontinued service after the 30 day trial. For us, the installation involved running a brand new CAT6 line from the street to our home, and then into our home where it was patched into the ADSL modem. The alternative would have been to use a 20 year old phone jack, guaranteeing only 10Mbps service.
During our install, the technician did us a solid. Neither of our two televisions were reachable from the ADSL modem via CAT6 or coax that met CenturyLink’s standards. CenturyLink offers wireless set-top boxes, but every home is still required to have at least 1 wired box which serves as the mothership to the wireless ones. Rather than charging us for 3 boxes, he “ghosted” the wired DVR box in their system, so that we are not charged for its use. This was a tremendous help — no need to run any new wires in the home. In fact, with the wireless set-top boxes, we were actually able to eliminate a ton of bulky coax. Between the higher quality of service and the help in selecting and installing the right equipment, the professional installation was $89 well spent.
CenturyLink’s equipment itself is more modern and attractive than what Comcast is recycling throughout its customer base, too. The set-top boxes are small, roughly half the size of Comcast’s. They have more connectivity options, including ethernet, which is great for people who have CAT6 runs in their house. The remotes are more ergonomic and modern looking. And the ADSL modem is a quality part, complete with a wireless chip that rivals our Apple Airport Extreme and a 4-port ethernet switch. All in all, their equipment feels 10 years newer than Comcast’s — probably because it is.
As for the service, so far, we have no complaints. The television picture is clear — as good as Comcast’s. We picked up a few channels (BBC World News HD, thank you very much!). The built-in guide software is leaps and bounds more attractive and intuitive than Comcast’s. It packs more information on the screen without overwhelming you, while making navigation smooth and fast. Recording a show in one room and watching it in another works like a charm.
And as for the Internet, so far it’s been quite adequate and very solid. I’ve got the guaranteed 25/1Mbps via SpeedTest.net every time I’ve tested it, day or night. For typical use (searches, streaming video, social media and casual 3D FPS gaming), it’s not perceivably slower than Comcast. Downloading large files at 25Mbps, you’re not likely to see a difference with Comcast, either. Uploading large files is another story: this is probably the only use case where Comcast’s 10Mbps uplink leaves ADSL behind. For off-site backup and certain software development tasks, this is less than ideal, but it’s not a showstopper. Overall, I’m satisfied with the service; perhaps more than I thought I’d be.
So much so that yesterday, just 3 days into our 30 day trial, I called Comcast to cancel our service, and returned their dated, bulky equipment. We’re now CenturyLink customers.
It’s no secret that Sprint’s network coverage is the poorest among the major carriers. But that’s not necessarily reason to avoid them. If you live in an area where their service is satisfactory and rarely travel, Sprint is the most affordable of the Big Three. This, however, is my account of their customer service in handling a 3+ year account holder with multiple devices and lines, and it might give you pause.
In February of 2010, I was living in the Boston area, and my contract with ATT had expired. I was tired of being overcharged for their sub-par network coverage, and while Sprint’s coverage wasn’t any better, it was notably cheaper. So I became a Sprint customer for about 3.5 years, and tho my service in Boston wasn’t as good as those who had Verizon, it was acceptable as long as I didn’t roam outside of the I-495 belt.
That all changed when I moved to Florida in September 2012. Where I live, in East Naples, Sprint coverage is abysmal; to the point where I could not place or receive calls from my house. In fact, I would have to drive a few blocks away to discover that I had missed calls. To illustrate that I don’t live in the boonies, here’s a map:
Not exactly the middle of nowhere, right? But that’s Sprint coverage for you. And as I work from home regularly, not having an open line of communication to the outside world was stressful and frustrating.
Now, before moving to Florida, I had also brought my wife, a former ATT customer like me, over to Sprint in order to consolidate our phone bills. Interestingly, her iPhone 4 worked ever so slightly better than my HTC Evo 4G in that she was occasionally able to take calls at our house, with 0-2 bars of service. In late August, I decided that my 2+ year old Evo was due for an upgrade, and hoped that a newer device would bring some baseline of service to our home. I purchased another HTC product, the One, for $200 with a 2 year contract.
Unfortunately, it didn’t. Surprisingly, the HTC One actually had arguably less signal than the 3 year old Evo in our house. While the Evo would tease me with at least the carrier name, the HTC One sat in a state of perpetual No Service while home. Disappointing to say the least, but the phone was very attractive and fast and worked well once I ventured out to areas of Naples that Sprint cares to cover (basically north of Pine Ridge Road, if you’re curious).
Fast forward four weeks. My wife and I were returning from a visit to Boston when I powered down my HTC One in accordance with FAA regulations as our flight departed. When we landed, I attempted to power the phone back on only to discover that it was dead. Weird, since it had a full charge when we left Boston. But I crossed my fingers and hoped that plugging it in for a day would solve the problem. It didn’t, of course. My 30+ day old HTC One was dead for no apparent reason. How annoying!
The following day, I visited a Sprint store in Naples where I was told that because the phone was over 14 days old and I did not carry any additional coverage on the device, I was on my own. But the Sprint rep assured me that if I contacted HTC, they would ship a replacement out overnight while I sent my phone in for them to refurbish. Fat chance. HTC told me that I could send them the phone and, if the defect were found to be within their warranty, they would fix it for free in about 2 weeks time. Having rooted the phone to purge Sprint’s horrible bastardization of Android Jelly Bean, I knew that I was out of warranty.
Great. 2 weeks without a phone — totally acceptable for any technology-bound professional, right? False. It was at this point that I decided that I had to leave Sprint: their laughable network coverage is only out-failed by their customer service. But this is only when my nightmare began.
I had accepted that, in leaving Sprint, the $200 I spent on the HTC One was my loss, and at this point I wasn’t even bitter towards Sprint yet. After all, if they can’t afford to put up towers in my area, or if their strategy is to offer lesser service at a value-based price, that’s their prerogative. It suited me well enough for a few years, and while receiving no help on a 30+ day old phone was a slap in the face, I would have been fine if we parted ways at that.
Shortly after porting our lines out to Verizon, I was contacted by a Sprint representative to inform me that I would be charged $450 for an early termination fee. I found this very unfair, considering that I had only purchased a new device, and thus a new contract, to attempt to receive better service — a plan which had backfired. And at this point in time, I was barely a month into this new contract. I hadn’t even been billed for the HTC One yet. Surely there was some grace period with new contracts, or consideration given to customers who move out of the service area.
At first, I was very diplomatic in how I tried dealing with Sprint, and to some extent, they were as well. But as I escalated my case up the chain of command, in search of a human with a conscience, it became very apparent to me how their customer service department operates. In fact, the last two representatives I spoke with were outright condescending, bordering on argumentative. All they were prepared to offer me is Monday-morning-quarterback advice on how I “should have raised the poor service issues earlier,” or how I “should have opted for the additional device insurance on my plan.” And of course, my favorite oft-repeated line was that “There’s nothing I can do about the early termination fee.”
Really, Sprint? Your billing system has reached autonomy and no human can intervene? Or you outsourced Accounts Receivable to Skynet, and the only way we could conceivably reverse your $450 transgression is to send someone back to 1995 to assassinate John Connor?
No. Either of those would actually be really impressive. But the sad, true reason is that Sprint customer service reps are only allowed to be dicks. That job must be absolutely horrible, but I’m sure Dan Hesse doesn’t give a shit about his employees — he clearly doesn’t even give one about his customers.
So after two weeks of stress-inducing conversations with various Sprint employees, bound by their employer to refute reason and ignore their own judgement, I had to concede that Sprint would charge me $450 for jumping ship. $450 atop a $200 failed experiment to receive a service which I was already paying for.
Yup, nearly $900 to Sprint between September and October. So consider this a warning: the “most affordable” major carrier in the market also boasts the worst coverage, and pairs it with despicable customer service. They are a company completely void of discretion and empathy, and they would rather bully their way into your pocket than earn it.
As an aside, I would like to mention how pleasant our experience was joining Verizon. From the free iPhone 4S my wife and I each received, to the exceptional customer service at our local store, to their vastly superior customer website portal, and to the rock-solid coverage we now enjoy throughout Naples, Verizon has mopped the floor with Sprint. There’s really no comparison. We’re now very happy Verizon customers.
2013 will be my third year riding the Pan-Mass Challenge to raise money for cancer treatment and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The PMC is a 2-day bike-a-thon and the most successful athletic fundraiser in the country. Last year, through the generosity of over 70 sponsors, Kelly and I raised $6,120. If you like, you can read about our 2012 PMC journey here:
While I rode last August, Kelly volunteered with the PMC Medical Staff and made up her mind to ride in 2013. We decided we’d tackle the ride on a tandem bike, as a team. At the time, Kelly’s mother Beth was battling ovarian cancer — her second recurrence in nearly 10 years. We found out that Beth was terminal just after Thanksgiving. She passed away on March 2nd. She was 54.
Room for Mom is a tribute to the memory of my mother, Elizabeth A. O’Brien, who lost her long battle with ovarian cancer in March. Before she died, we talked one last time about the PMC. Knowing that she wouldn’t be able to see Jay and I ride this year, she asked me to save room for her on our tandem.
Beth received years of treatment at Dana-Farber; years that she would not have had without their state-of-the-art care. Beth’s first bout with the disease was won on account of an experimental treatment available nowhere else. Watching the staff at DFCI try to save her, I came to fully appreciate the importance of the PMC: this ride gives families more time, and there is no greater gift in life.
In late July, Kelly and I will load our tandem onto the roof of our car and drive 26 hours from Naples, Florida to Massachusetts for a 2-week visit centered around the PMC. Our route is a 2-day, 180 mile ride starting in Sturbridge, down to Bourne, and then back to Wellesley for the Family Finish. Between now and then, we are training 2-3 days per week, logging as many miles as possible so that we’re physically up to the challenge. You can follow us on Strava to make sure we’re not slacking.
Since 1980, the PMC has given almost $380M to Dana-Farber. This year’s goal is $38M, of which Kelly and I are hoping to raise $10K. 100% of every rider-raised dollar goes directly to DFCI through The Jimmy Fund. If you’d like to sponsor us, please click the link below to view our PMC Team Page:
We are extremely excited to ride this year, to see our families and friends in Massachusetts, to remember Beth, and to help families who face their own struggles with cancer. With the PMC just two months away, we need your help to make our effort count. To all of you who will donate, we thank you from the bottoms of our hearts.
If you have not yet sponsored us and would like to, please click here.
You want to try tandem road biking without spending $3,000 on a Santana or $4,000 on a Co-Motion. Not that those products aren’t worth it, but that’s a big chunk of change to try something you or your riding companion might not like. You’ve seen the Giordano Viaggio on Amazon for as little as $500 shipped, but it has to be too good to be true.. What are you really getting for 1/6th the price of the real tandems? Is it the Huffy of tandem bikes?
Last year, my wife and I were in this exact predicament: I’m an experienced cyclist, she was a newbie. But for very personal reasons, she committed to riding a lot of miles this year. A tandem seemed like a great way to close the gap in our experience levels and enjoy the sport together. But good luck getting your feet wet for $1000. Enter the Giordano Viaggio from Kent Bicycles..
We were fortunate enough to find ours on craigslist, brand new, listed for $300. A woman had purchased it for she and her tween daughter to ride, but the daughter wasn’t feeling it. I figured, for that price, we couldn’t go wrong, so we shot over to the woman’s house to take it for a test ride. Now, when I’m not on the Viaggio, I ride a 2005 Felt F4C with Ultegra wheels and Dura Ace components — so I know what a proper road bike feels and rides like. Not to my surprise, my introductory ride on the Viaggio felt ..pretty awful. Out of the box, this bike is very heavy and slow, the saddles are modeled from some medieval torture machine, and the brakes feel like they’re made of wood.
Whatever, for a $280 initial investment, we decided to see just what we could get out of this thing..
As it turns out, for a total investment of about $1100 ($1300 if you pay MSRP for the bike), and a couple weekends of playing mechanic, you can get a lot. A word of warning, much of what I list here will require you to have special bicycle tools like cone wrenches, a freewheel socket, a chain whip, etc. And, as an entry-level tandem, the Viaggio will require mechanical attention a little more often than a high-end bike. Park Tools makes a great starter kit that I recommend picking up if you purchase this bike.
Here’s our list of upgrades and must-do’s to make this bike a competent road tandem for couples who want to log a few thousand miles per season:
Do not trust any of the bearing assemblies in this bike from the factory. They are often under-lubricated and over-tightened. I would recommend re-packing all bearings yourself with a high-grade grease. At the very least, pop the chain off and make sure the bottom brackets rotate smoothly. Cost: $4
Wheel manufacturing debris. The wheels on this bike are terrible, but I’ll get to that later on. What you need to know before you even think of taking this bike for a ride is that the stock wheels come full of metal shavings from where the valve stem holes were drilled. Remove the tires and tubes, blow out the wheels and reinstall. Failure to do this will result in numerous flats — be proactive and save yourself the headache. Cost: $0
Brake pads. The stock brake pads on this bike are a joke. Actually, that’s not accurate. There’s nothing funny about it. Replace the stock pads with something significantly better if you want to be able to stop. This is a safety issue, so I’m filing it under Assembly and not Performance. Cost: $12
Saddles. The stock saddles on this bike are about the size of a fist, and unless you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll want to change these out before your first real ride. You don’t have to spend a fortune; literally anything would be an upgrade. Ask your LBS if they have takeoffs from high-end bikes they’ve sold lately. They often have a whole box of these and will readily part with them. Cost: $50+
Pilot stem. Maybe Kent‘s test riders are chimpanzees, but if you’re a human with somewhat normal proportions, you’ll find the pilot stem on this bike far too low, and comically too long. For me, the bike was essentially unridable without an adjustable stem. Fortunately, the stock brake and shifter cables are lengthy enough to reach almost any adjustable stem you can find. Cost: $24
Sprung stoker seatpost. This is a common upgrade even on high-end tandems, because tandem geometry typically transfers a lot of upward road force directly into the toosh of the stoker (that’s what she said). Unless you’re riding on perfect surfaces 100% of the time, spend a few dollars on such a seatpost for your stoker. The stoker post is the standard 27.2mm diameter, while the pilot post is 25.4mm. Cost: $13
Padded bar tape. The bars on the Viaggio are of small diameter, and the stock tape is thin. After a few rides, even with padded cycling gloves, you’ll find yourself combing over the bar tape options at your LBS in search of something softer. The good news is, any aftermarket tape you buy will be much better than the stock stuff. You could even splurge on gel bar padding, tho I think that stuff is overpriced. Cost: $34
Clip-in pedals. Losing the pedals with your feet when communication breaks down is frustrating for both riders. You can avoid that and get more power out of your pedal stroke by installing clip-in pedals for each of you. The Shimano SPD-SL is a very popular, affordable pedal that even comes in white to match the Viaggio. Cost: $84
Tires. The stock tires on this bike are 32mm with a trail-friendly tread. Great for a beach cruiser, not so much for a road tandem. The quality of the stock tires is also questionable; ours had some deformations in the center tread line. Replace them with Gatorskins from Continental, because these things are bulletproof. 700c x 28mm will fit the stock wheels while shaving contact area, rolling resistance and rotating mass. Cost: $80
While you’re replacing your tires, go ahead and install high-end rim strips to minimize flats, and convert your wheels from Shrader to Presta tubes with a pair of these adapters. Cost: $20
With Kool Stop or comparable brake pads installed, you’ve probably managed to make your Viaggio stop. But the stock brakes are the same single-pivot garbage you’ll find on any Wal*Mart bike, and they lack a quick-release mechanism. Upgrading to a set of TekTro R539‘s is a tremendous improvement and an easy job. You may need to shorten the rear brake cable housing, so be sure you have access to cable cutters too. Cost: $50
Wheels. This is a big-ticket item, so if you’re unsure, hold off on this one. In fact, ride the spokes off the stock wheels to be sure you like the sport. They lasted about 500 miles for us, with frequent truing. When it’s time, upgrading to wheels from Handspun with Shimano Velocity DYAD rims and tandem hubs will completely transform your Viaggio. It’s like riding a whole new bike. The spacings for the Viaggio are 145mm rear, and 100mm front. I recommend purchasing from Tree Fort Bikes and taking advantage of their free shipping. Cost: $455
And there you have it. These are the modifications and upgrades we’ve made to our Viaggio, which we just logged 75 miles on this weekend. Overall, we are very satisfied with our budget tandem. It’s comfortable, and while we’re not keeping up with the local Cat 3 crowd, we’re able to complete long rides in reasonable times with minimal mechanical failures. What’s more important, we’re enjoying cycling together without breaking the bank.
I wanted to acknowledge another rider’s review of the Viaggio that I found helpful when spec’ing out some of our upgrades. For a second opinion, please check out John McCutcheon’s review Great Budget Tandem.
Update, October 2013
Kelly and I completed the 2013 Pan Mass Challenge — a 2-day, 200 mile ride across the state of Massachusetts — on our Viaggio back in August. We had a fantastic weekend, with no mechanical issues, and averaged a respectable 17mph for the duration of the ride: sufficient proof that this bike can be made into a serious road platform with a little effort and incremental upgrades along the way. Here are some further changes we made leading up to the PMC:
Chains. When our factory chains were up for replacement, upgrading to the lighter weight and higher quality Shimano XT HG91 series proved well worth it. The bike shifted smoother and pedaled a little easier. The synch chain can be made by joining two of your standard 110 link chains, so you’ll need 3 chains and a chain tool in order to complete the job. Cost: $90
Cables. It turns out that the rear derailluer cable on the Viaggio is actually a brake cable; meaning it is heavier than it has to be. Its housing is of relatively low quality, too, meaning that you’ll likely adjust the derailluer all day long and still not get consistent shifting performance from it — especially if the stock cable has seen a few rainy days. We replaced the cable with a proper coated shifter cable and our Viaggio now shifts like a dream. Cost: $40.
Thudbusters from Cane Creek. Kelly’s $13 sprung seat post helped take the bite off of short rides, but we were both still uncomfortable on any ride over 30 miles. We decided to “spring” for the top-of-the-line Thudbuster posts from Cane Creek, which finally gave us the comfort and stamina to tackle 60+ mile rides. As the stoker, she has a long-travel 27.2mm model, and I’m on the short-travel 25.4mm version up front.Cost: $320
Our total investment in our Giordano Viaggio from Kent Bicycles now stands around $2000 — 4 times MSRP, yet still cheaper than a Santana or Co-Motion! Unreal. As an upgrade-ready platform, the Viaggio gave us an opportunity to ease into the sport, ramping up our investment as our experience and love for tandem riding grew. Our bike is a complete joy to ride, it’s been reliable, and easy to repair. It passed our grueling PMC test with flying colors. With over 2000 miles logged on ours, I wholeheartedly recommend this bike to other aspiring tandem teams.
Update, May 2014
With our Viaggio still rolling strong, Kelly and I are gearing up for another Pan-Massachusetts Challenge ride to raise money for cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And due to the influx of comments this post has received, I decided to put together an Amazon Wish List containing nearly all the parts needed to transform your Viaggio into an asphalt-shredding steed:
Remember to sort the list by priority, and add a healthy can or two of elbow grease. Lastly, while the Handspun wheels are available through a handful of vendors on Amazon, you really can’t beat the price and service over at Tree Fort Bikes. If you’re going all-in on the wheelset, let them sort you out, and mention this page when you place your order!
I hadn’t recorded in a very long time, so that’s partially where the title for this one comes from. The music also spans quite a long period of time (for house); about 7 years. I hope that, somewhere in the middle, you find yourself moved. And by the end, maybe you’re bobbing along to the beat in your chair.
Derek Howell – Make a Run For It (Chris Fortier’s Melody Tool)
If you have not yet sponsored us and would like to, please click here.
As the emotional high of 2012’s PMC journey gives way to cherished memories and renewed hope, my thoughts hang on the friendships I’ve gained or strengthened through this year’s PMC effort and the woman for whom I rode, Kelly’s mother Beth O’Brien.
I made a promise to our sponsors this year that if we met our fundraising goal of $5,000, I would start my ride a day early at the New York state border. As the event drew closer, I was touched and relieved that our sponsors had come through. And weeks before the ride, my friend Scott called me to share some news: he wanted to ride Day 0 with me. Scott didn’t own a road bike and, by his own admission, he was not physically ready for a 93 mile ride that packed in over 4000ft of climbing. He knew that he would be seriously tested to finish the ride, but that didn’t phase him.
Scott and I have been friends for over 10 years, but it’s rare that we spend time together 1-on-1. Without many words, he made it clear that the goals of the Pan-Mass Challenge had resonated with him. As I made our lodging arrangements for the overnight stay in West Stockbridge, I realized that our friendship was deepening through the PMC. Kelly and I picked him up the Thursday before the PMC as we made our way west to start the following morning. Scott’s signature blend of optimism, enthusiasm and humor was, like always, a welcome addition to the weekend.
Friday, Day 0
Just after sunrise, my dad and his wife scouted out a breakfast diner near the NY border and flagged us down. They had driven out with us and stayed overnight so that my dad could see me off on this trek. It was pretty special to give him a hug and hear him say that he was proud of me before we rolled out. Not that my dad is shy with that sort of thing, but it did confirm for me, on every level, that I was doing something worthwhile. At 7:00, we snapped a picture under the Welcome to New York sign and PMC2012 was underway. Briefly.
Barely 7 miles in, a rear wheel I had been nursing along through a foolish series of partial rebuilds finally cried “Uncle!” A spoke snapped, sending the wheel horribly out of true. It wouldn’t even rotate through the rear stays of the frame — my bike was unridable. What were we going to do? We were riding these first 93 miles unsupported. My dad and Kelly were already miles down I-90 at this point. Who could repair my bike in Stockbridge at 7:30 in the morning? A toxic mix of disbelief and frustration began to set in. I had momentarily forgotten that this was the Pan-Mass Challenge; that my duty was to “commit, and figure it out.”
And that’s when a key lesson about the PMC so justly punched me in the face: do your part selflessly, and others will have your back. 20 minutes after my bike called it quits, a fellow PMC rider who would join me in Sturbridge the following morning recognized our situation and came to our aid. He drove us 7 miles to the local bicycle shop, making himself late for work in the process. And what were the odds that, when we arrived at the LBS, a manager of Berkshire Bike & Board in Great Barrington was there early and willing to help us? In no time I was back on the road with a brand new rear wheel — a $500 part loaned to me for no more than a promise to send it back when I was done, and best wishes for the 3 day ride ahead. Our 93 miles for the day had just become an even 100, but our spirits were high once more.
Friday’s ride would include more trying moments, especially for Scott. Jacob’s Ladder on Rt 20 and the 3-mile 6% grade at the beginning of Rt 66 got the better of him. But when I asked if he wanted to call it off, he protested vehemently. The slower pace we kept wore on me too; it meant hours of extra saddle time in 90° heat and peak sun. I knew that I’d feel these effects for two more days, which made me anxious. When we reached a grueling hill on Rt 20 in Brimfield, I took off. Scott assumed I had abandoned him, but we shared a happy moment when he found me 1 mile before the finish, waiting so that we would arrive together. After a meal, a couple of beers and a few introductions, Scott left the Sturbridge Host for home. I hope that he’ll be back next year.
Saturday, Day 1
Friday night was hectic, as riders from 9 different countries poured into the Host hotel for their registration packets and to watch the opening ceremonies. Kelly and I were so busy preparing logistically for my ride and her volunteering that we unfortunately didn’t get to see them. We finally made it to bed just after 10pm, alarm clocks set for 3:45am. I got to be lazy and sleep in until 4:30. An hour later, the event she and I had been preparing for since April officially began. As I pushed towards the front of the pack during the first 20 miles, looking for Ornoth, I felt shaky. I had skipped breakfast. My heart rate was unjustifiably high and I was sweating too much. I would have to pace myself, hydrate rigorously and ride smartly. I couldn’t afford to blow up.
I eventually found Orny, and we rode about 30 miles together on Saturday. The highlight of Day 1 was Cherry St in Wrentham, affectionately referred to as The Smile Mile. The street is known for its supportive residents who line the road with signs, live musical performances, refreshments and cheering kids. As Orny and I cruised down their shaded lane, hands in the air to clap for these families, their gestures of gratitude and support made me temporarily forget the oppressive heat and humidity. I high-fived a group of boys who were eagerly offering to anyone who take them up on it. Awesome.
The remainder of Saturday’s ride was hot but, because of the hard work of the rest stop volunteers, manageable. At the Lakeville stop, my personal favorite, Kelly’s father Joe was waiting to welcome me and cheer me on. He had driven down that morning from Quincy to see the riders and volunteers he’d listened to me talk about for almost a year. It was great to see a familiar face, and I could see in his that he was touched by the sheer scale and combined good will of the event. He got a kick out of watching me recline on the massive bags of ice set aside for just that purpose, too.
Sunday, Day 2
Throughout the evening on Saturday, I had been dealing with mild heat stroke and dehydration. When I couldn’t fall asleep by 10pm, Kelly set out from our tent and returned with bags of ice to pack me in. That worked, and I finally got some sleep. We awoke at 3:45 to break down our tent and haul our gear to the road crew van that Kelly was assigned to. After seeing her off, I returned to the main tent for some breakfast, which I ate while seated atop a manhole cover — it was the only dry seating to be had. There is no mass send-off for Day 2, so when I had finished breakfast, I found my bike and cautiously pedaled in darkness towards the Bourne bridge. By the time I reached the far side, the sun was up and the ride was on!
Like Saturday, Sunday morning was shaky for me as well. More elevated heart rate, more unjustifiable perspiration, irregular breathing. It was not my strongest start, but after 15 miles or so I settled into a rhythm. I made a quick stop at one of the medical vans early on to tape my nipples up, as they had started to chafe somethin’ fierce from the humidity. Ornoth rolled by just in time to witness my mummification, which he found amusing. But this was perfect: my body felt capable, the weather looked favorable, and my good friend had just arrived to finish this journey with me. This was going to be a day to remember.
The Barnstable rest stop is known for its popsicles, which really do hit the spot — odd for 7am, but I refuse to question it. Shortly thereafter, I was treated to a sun shower like I hadn’t seen in years. Gentle rain fell despite almost blinding morning sunshine and blue skies. As I rode through rolling sand dunes and sea grass, I took stock of how lucky I was to be there at that moment, healthy and active. This had to mean something. I thought to myself, maybe we’re closing in on a cure. It was time to start thinking about Beth. She would occupy my thoughts for the rest of the ride. This was for her.
I don’t always have the courage to hit back in life. But when cancer threatens someone you care about, you hit back, and that’s what the PMC is — it’s hitting back with everything we have. Our sponsors pack the real punches, but as Sunday’s ride drew to a close, it was my turn to hit. Through the hilly, wind-swept dunes of Race Point, I pushed until my legs burned, and then I pushed harder. Tucked in the drops, I ramped my cadence up with each breath. A few cheers from fellow riders spurred me from the saddle, and I sprinted for the final mile. Of the 2500 miles I rode this season, I know that it was my finest. At the turn for the Provincetown Inn, I sat up and waited for Ornoth so that we could cross the finish line together.
2012 was not my strongest year as a cyclist. A late start to my season so that I could finish a project long overdue put me well behind the prior 2 years. Planning our move to Florida took away more riding opportunities. And, ironically, several good biking weekends were spent in my living room, writing fundraising emails for the very ride that would test me the most. So I have to thank my good friend Paul Demers for kicking my ass to the summit of Wachusett Mountain on no less than 6 century rides this summer. Every time I asked him to come be my motivator, he showed up at my doorstep with a smile on his face and more energy in his legs than I had. I have no doubt that my PMC would have fringed on failure without Paul’s consistent support. Yea buddy!
It’s hard to say if I would have found the Pan-Mass Challenge before this year if it weren’t for Ornoth. I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have volunteered in 2010 or ridden in it last year if not for my quirky pal. In fact, Orny has had more positive influences on my life than he probably realizes. I’m saddened to know that, in moving away, I won’t have my oldest cycling companion to shred asphalt with in 2013. But I won’t soon forget closing out a 300 mile epic trek across Massachusetts wheel-to-wheel with him.
Finally, we are so thankful to each one of our sponsors who helped us not only reach our fundraising goal, but exceed it by over $1,000 — a total of $6,120. Through their generosity and compassion, our 3-day effort held significance. And with continued support like theirs to all of the families who face cancer, we will conquer this disease.
If you have not yet sponsored us and would like to, please click here.
On August 4th, at 5:00am, 5500 cyclists and hundreds of volunteers will flood the Sturbridge Host Hotel parking lot and lobby to kick off the 2012 Pan- Massachusetts Challenge. For those not familiar with the PMC, it’s the most successful athletic fundraiser in the country, benefiting Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through The Jimmy Fund. It accounts for half of The Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue ($35 million last year). The event itself is a 2-day, 192 mile bicycle ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown.
On August 5th, I will complete my second Pan-Mass Challenge in honor of Beth O’Brien, who is battling ovarian cancer for the 3rd time. Her daughter, Kelly O’Brien, my fiancé, is volunteering with the PMC Medical Team.
I became involved with the PMC in 2010 through my close friend Ornoth Liscomb. Orny was training for his 10th Pan-Mass that year. To mark the achievement, he was starting a day early at the New York border, and riding 93 rugged miles to the Sturbridge start. This would make it a “true Pan-Mass,” he reasoned. Fellow PMC’er Paul Demers and I decided to go with him on his Day 0 ride, and I registered to volunteer for breakfast duty in Sturbridge the following morning. I thought this would be a good way to see what the event was all about, and it was. During the opening ceremonies, I promised myself that I would ride in 2011.
If there’s one particular image in my mind that captures what the PMC is all about, it came to me on August 7th 2011 (Day 2), at around 8am. A storm had blown in overnight. Having slept in a tent, I was soaked to the bone before getting on my bike at 4:50am to cross the Bourne Bridge. Rain continued to fall as daylight broke. The course was no longer lined with cheering supporters. Somewhere between Eastham and Wellfleet, the second long day in the saddle started to wear on me and I began to feel a little sorry for myself. As I approached a hill, my heart sank. My legs hurt, I was cold, hungry, tired, filthy..
About 1/3 of the way up the hill, I noticed another rider ahead of me. He was in his 40’s, riding a tandem bicycle by himself. A picture of a child’s face was on the back of his jersey. The child must have been his son. He was riding in his memory. Alone on this stretch of road, I watched him labor to pull the heavy bike up the hill. I’d never felt so humbled, so full of purpose, so determined to put myself to good use and finish this ride, to earn the gifts my sponsors had given. As I completed my first PMC later that morning, an unshakable sense of peace took hold of me. This was the best thing I had done in my entire life.
I’m hopeful that, in our lifetime, we will be able to prevent or cure all types of cancer. But that isn’t going to happen without institutions like Dana-Farber, which is leading the world in cancer research and treatment. And Dana-Farber couldn’t exist as it does today without the PMC. Kelly and I have set a fundraising goal of $5000 for 2012, and we need your help to reach it.
So here’s the deal: I’m promising to all who donate that if we meet our fundraising goal before the PMC on August 4th, I will start at the New York border on August 3rd and ride those 93 rugged miles again. That’s 3 days, nearly 300 miles, 24 hours of saddle time, about 15 peanut butter sandwiches, 9 bananas, 30 gummy worms, 6 gallons of Gatorade and water, at least a dozen hugs, a few tears, and 1 really sore ass.
I’m asking for your support. 100% of your donation goes directly to Dana-Farber. You can sponsor Kelly and I online via our PMC Profile page:
Today my friend Ornoth and I cycled some 70 miles around Jay Peak, Vermont. The route included both of Jay’s highest peaks: Big Jay and North Jay, and at our highest point, we were 2300ft above sea level. With over 6100ft of climbing in total, and two Category 2 ascents, it was in some ways the most challenging ride I’ve ever done. It was also the closest I’ve come to riding in a foreign country; at times we were less than one mile from the Canadian border!
Our ride started and stopped in the town of Newport, Vermont, which sits at the southern end of Lake Memphremagog. The weather today was less than ideal: low 60’s with dense cloud cover and a stiff 17mph easterly wind during the good parts, and low 50’s and wind-blown downpours during the bad. Still, we both had an excellent time and enjoyed the scenery, challenges, and fresh air that northern Vermont offered.
We started out heading south / southwest from Newport towards Big Jay. We must have passed a dozen dairy farms, and by mile 18 we were turning onto the road that would take us to the summit of Jay’s largest peak. That first climb was a serious test, and the most difficult ascent I had completed to date. A false summit approximately 85% up the mountain made for a heartbreaking realization: the last 0.6 miles to the real summit pitched up to a 13% grade. Some raindrops began to fall as I reached the top and waited for Orny to make his way up.
Due the the cloud cover, there wasn’t much of a view from the top, but it was still very satisfying to reflect on the climb and talk about the impending descent. The next 5.5 miles were going to be a free ride at 40mph+. As we clipped in to begin our way down, the skies opened up and a steady rain quickly developed — adding an increased element of danger to our high-speed departure from Big Jay.
Just a half mile into the rainy descent, I encountered my first ever wild black bear. He was standing in the middle of the road, on all fours, about 200 yards downhill from me. Between my nerves, high rate of speed, and the wet pavement, a controlled stop was a pretty ambitious goal. I locked my rear wheel at least once; the thought running through my mind, “If you go down, you’re going to be a bear snack.” Luckily, I managed to stop upright, and the subsequent “Holy shit!” that escaped my mouth sent the bear lumbering into the woods along the side of the road. I only saw him for 10-15 seconds, but I’ll probably never forget that encounter.
At mile 28, we were out of Jay State Forest and arrived in the town of Montgomery. Freezing cold from the long, wet, brisk and bumpy descent, hot coffee from the general store was well-deserved and totally hit the spot. We were out of the rain, for the time being, and began the most enjoyable stretch of the ride along routes 118 and 105. Gentle rollers with river views, smooth surface, and a strong tail wind were welcome rewards. Our average speed increased to 18mph for this section of the ride, and we were able to do a little drafting work while sharing our observations on the scenery. Then came climb #2..
On mile 42, the rollers we had been enjoying for the last 14 miles were swallowed by a massive 6% grade furnished with some terribly neglected surface. It was the first leg of North Jay, that would prove to be the more difficult of the two major ascents we undertook today: 7.5 miles in total, 1900ft of vertical climbing, and an average grade of 6.5%. What really surprised me about this climb, aside from the duration, was the consistency of it. The last 5 miles had absolutely no breaks, rests, etc.. nothing shy of a 5.5% reprieve from the 7-9% norm. Too long to sit the entire time, and not quite steep enough to warrant being out of the saddle, this was a marathon and a definite test of stamina. The summit offered no scenic view, no visitors center, not even a porta-potty. A small dirt turnaround on the side of the road, huddled in low clouds, marked our achievement. We were less than a mile from the Canadian border. My phone picked up an international tower and prompted me to select roaming rates, as confirmation.
Just like the descent from Big Jay, once we started down the back side of North Jay, the rain moved in once again — much heavier this time, too. For the first mile, we were shrouded in clouds and fog and had only a couple hundred feet of visibility. I actually had a blast, having conquered my fear of descending at 40mph on wet, unfamiliar roads. But I think Ornoth didn’t enjoy it as much; I finished the descent several minutes ahead of him. Completely drenched and in the middle of nowhere, we joked about our decision to do the ride in the first place as we turned onto Rt 101 North with about 16 miles to go.
The final leg of the ride was unfortunately not as enjoyable as the previous sections. No major hills or rough surfaces challenged our spirits, but a steady rain and a stiff head wind made for a slow, cold slog back to Newport. The rain did subside as we crossed the Newport town line, and the final 1.5 miles around the southwestern shore of Lake Memphremagog were dry and scenic. Arriving back at my truck parked at the waterfront, we happily changed out of our wet kits and into some dry street clothes. Ride complete, bikes in tact, riders tired but uninjured. Success!
I will ride Vermont again next weekend in the Harpoon B2B, but I’m really glad we made the trip to Stowe and conquered Jay Peak.