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Cancer is a problem. Too many people are getting it. It costs too much to treat. The disease is vicious. The treatment is worse. In an instant, your life narrows to a thin edge of nerves, medical appointments, germ-avoidance and white envelopes with your medical insurer’s logo in the upper left hand corner.
When cancer strikes a child, an entire family and its social ecosystem are thrown into a strange gravitational field. Everything gets real gnarly, real fast. When my wife, Jo Ann, and I heard the words, “Pablo has cancer,” we fell into a freefall for what seemed like an hour. In reality, it was probably 30 seconds. When we re-entered our bodies, we looked at our son sleeping and in half the time it took to inhale, we became cancer advocates.
Words: Jeff Castelaz
Images: Michael Crook & Pablove Foundation
The original idea was simple: get Pablo healthy, get him into kindergarten, and then ride across the United States as a show of strength—to remind the world that kids get cancer, and kids beat cancer. I knew that fundraising for The Pablove Foundation would happen. It was, “Brother, can you spare a dime” mixed with a problem from this end of the millennium: cancer.
Pablove Across America (PAA) is a mission within a mission. Each day, we wake in different city. We make a video dedication to a child fighting cancer and post it on YouTube before pulling out of the hotel parking lot. This proclamation galvanizes our daily purpose. Each day, we dedicate tens of thousands of pedal strokes to kids fighting cancer, others who are living in the survivorship phase, and others who, like Pablo, died at the hands of the disease. No matter what, the objective is always the same: fly the Pablove flag for 100 miles, have fun, be safe, and make it to the next town.
The first two years of PAA covered 5,000 miles. I can’t tell you how many pedal strokes that is or how many kilojoules I consumed and then burned off doing it. What I can tell you is this: even the hardest day on the bike, in the harshest heat, wind or rain is nothing compared to what cancer kids, their siblings and parents go through.
In our version of the Depression-era dime-beggin’-bum, we’d ride super light carbon fiber bikes from town to town, pleading for bucks over Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and my blog, The Pablog. Instead of red handkerchiefs tied around the end of a stick, we’d have red Volvo station wagons adorned with SRAM Neutral Race Support graphics keeping us safe on the road.
The way it turned out, Pablove Across America wasn’t a victory lap. It was a rally cry. Pablo passed away on June 27, 2009, and our maiden voyage rolled out of St. Augustine, Florida, on October 11. So Pablo was with me for 3,500 miles of beautiful and crazy American road in 2009, and for another 1,500 miles in 2010. The way it turned out, everywhere I went, Pablo was there. As we rolled from state to state, children’s hospital to children’s hospital, Pablo was with me. I would have preferred to have Pablo behind me on his trail bike, which he called the “connect bike.”
It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t think about it. Waking up in a different town every day for 5,000 miles. The outside world fades away easily. Life narrows to a small priority list involving food, sleep, the profile for tomorrow’s stage and avoiding post-dinner stimulation so that winding down for the night is easy.
I bring my own pillow and alarm clock. An iPhone app called SleepStream helps lull me to sleep on tough nights or when the long-haul truck driver in the next room is snoring. First thing I do every morning is meditate. Then the iPhone gets dropped into my JBL dock and music carries me into the day.
The goal is to get a great lyric and rhythm into my head first thing. It always comes back to me on the road. A Smashing Pumpkins drumbeat from 7 a.m. comes to the surface at mile 80 and becomes a cadence pattern. An Ed Vedder lyric I’m obsessed with gets stuck between my teeth, and fuels me over 5,000 feet of coastal inlets. I am easily obsessed, so this plays well for me.
Journey With a Purpose. Why do I do it? My purpose is simple. It’s the motivation to put that purpose in motion that’s complicated.
In 2009, I literally had to fly somewhere far away, and make my way back home to LA. For a start, I had to consider what home meant to me after Pablo’s death. I was a shell of a person at that time. My bike didn’t want anything from me. It had all the potential in the world. It never judges me, and it carries me wherever I want to go. I have never found an object with a greater power for catharsis than my bike. In order to unleash that potential, I have to get on it and do the work. For many years my life has been defined by one simple question: how far will I go to get out of the pain I’m in?
Some days I stay tucked behind the group, letting everyone rotate into the pace line in front of me. I enjoy being the Lanterne Rouge when the emotional quotient is too much for me. Asking for help is impossible for some of us. When you’re doing a century every day, asking for help isn’t an issue. You can’t sit on the front all the time. When I’m feeling good, I like to hammer. I’m not going to lie. It’s fucking fun. Unending rollers, sharp climbs, sprints (not my strong suit) all feel like butter with a thousand miles in my legs.
PAA is about many things. One of them is getting away from it all, finding yourself—like, who you really are—as you roll through some of the most incredible territory on a pair of 23c tires.
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Brad Roe, Publisher, Move Press/peloton magazine
When I’m out there with my friends and we’re rolling for hours and hours in omnidirectional crosswinds we all know one thing: we’re having the time of our lives. The term “peak life experience” had never entered my life until PAA 2009. I had it, my friend and coach, Rick Babington, had it, as did many of our friends who flew out and joined us for bits of the journey. I’ve seen guys shattered on day three of a week stint with us, then fly like a motherfucker the next two days. I had a great time witnessing the growth of my friend Janice Eirich, a racer from Atlanta, who blew through her $5,000 fundraising goal, and then blew through her ceiling on the road.
A bunch of things happened in 2010: John Bennett from Seattle bought his first road bike and got instantly addicted to riding after seeing a ride dedication from PAA 2009. He found us on October 21, 2009—the night his son Brock was diagnosed with Wilms’ Tumor at Seattle Children’s Hospital. When John joined us on the road from Seattle to Portland, he’d only been riding for five months. This shocked us as we hammered the flat first 100 miles. Another Seattle cancer dad, Alex Weinert, joined us on his fully-rigged 32-pound Kona Sutra touring bike. Alex not only stayed the course, but pulled a great deal of the way between Seattle and Portland.
As we pass through each town, it’s exhilarating—and sad. I want it to last forever. Both years we’ve done PAA, the end is the saddest part. I want to keep riding. I want to continue the journey of oddball signs, racing for town signs, communal meals, and, you know, the feeling of accomplishment we feel after rolling 80, 90, 100 miles a day.
The best part of PAA is seeing my friends—some of whom are riding buddies from Los Angeles, and others are new friends who find us on the Internet—witness their own breakthroughs. Some of this happens on the bike. A guy starts to feel at one with his bike. Or, someone comes to visit kids at a hospital with me—that’s as close to the flame of PAA as you can get.
No matter where we go, Pablo is with me. The freedom, the wind, the speed—my little man loved it all. He’s been gone nearly two years, and I can still hear him screaming from behind me on his trail bike.
Two gears govern our lives: fast as hell and temporary hibernation. Although we’re not racing, doing back-to-back centuries for days on end is no joke. You have no idea what you are capable of until you do this. The physical toll is immense. I am constantly amazed at what my body can do in this strange ultra-endurance bubble.
People see us and smile. They see our matching kits and the SRAM NRS cars. They want to know what we’re up to. Everyone who asks gets a Pablove postcard. It contains our mission and the website. During the first few days of PAA 2009, the crew called the Pablove office and had them FedEx postcards. Far easier to hand someone a well-designed card than explaining our mission to someone at a gas station in Huoma, Louisiana while we’re trying to outrun a tornado (true story).
Cycling is doing something. Endless hours of pistoning legs. Calories ingested, kilojoules expended. Miles swallowed up in gobs. When you’re chipping away at 1,500 miles, tranches of 10, 20 miles fly by like paragraphs, the same way hours drip away when your kid is getting a blood transfusion or a chemo treatment.
Your bike handling improves. It has to: motherfuckers will call you out for sitting up at the front and opening a ProBar. The holy grail of real cycling—drafting—is where the spiritual experience kicks in. Riding a wheel is like floating on air. It’s like having wings. Flying through the redwoods in northern California’s Avenue of the Giants at 40 miles per hour is something I’ll never forget.
The Journey. The mission doesn’t end when we get off our bikes at the hotel. All the drafting and flying from town to town is just a means to get to children’s hospitals with our crate of Pablove stuff and the Oscar Litvak Foundation’s medical crash carts transformed into play chests. The kids are our Great Why. The cycling crap is a far second. It’s a means of getting from children’s hospital to children’s hospital.
On PAA 2010, we visited four children’s hospitals: Seattle, Portland, Palo Alto and Los Angeles. The kids and the parents are why we get up before the sun and pummel ourselves for five or six hours. Most of them look quizzically at my bike and the space age Zipp 404 carbon clinchers that it rolls in on. Most kids love looking at the bike. And the parents look at us like we’re crazy, asking lots of questions about how in the world we do it.
Whenever I walk into a hospital, I believe Pablo is with me. I feel him standing next to me as I talk to a 12-year-old boy with a surgery scar down the side of his skull. I see him in the all kids I meet. The eyes of a child with cancer. They fucking see you. I see them looking at me—right into my eyes—and I feel comforted. I know that stare. Pablo had it. My brother Scott, who died from cancer in 2004, had it. It’s a look humans have when they fear nothing and nothing stands in the way for them.
Action. Pablove Across America is a lot of work for all involved. Both years we’ve done it, I’ve descended into a deep post-ride depression. Every day, I grapple with spiritual questions. I have no choice. I miss Pablo in a way that’s difficult to convey to someone who has never lost a child. Most of the answers—which end up feeling more like cosmic bargains—are found on the bike. To feel Pablo’s presence with me, in me, around me, I need to hack away the detritus of my normal life—phones, email, back-to-back meetings and conference calls—and nothing does that better than the bike. The longer I ride, the freer I become. In that freedom, I find Pablo. This is the personal win-win for me.
The Road Ahead. PAA 2015 will roll out on October 5. This year, we’ll start in Los Angeles, and finish our journey in San Francisco. More information available at pablove.org.
This piece originally ran in Issue 03 of peloton.