150 miles to Austin
BP MS150 makes the dash to Austin
by Jake Erickson
What motivates 9,000 people to pedal from Houston to Austin? Could it be greed, lust, power or money? Well, not exactly. It has to do with the generosity of the human spirit and the attitude of never giving up in the face of adversity or enormous odds. Through the efforts of these people – corporate vice presidents, small-business owners, entrepreneurs, housewives, teen-agers and senior citizens – the BP MS 150 bike ride from Houston to Austin has become the largest sporting event of its kind in the nation and has raised, since its inception in 1985, a phenomenal $20 million to battle the devastating effects of multiple sclerosis.
Ask anyone in Houston about the “bike” (as it is affectionately known) and you’ll get as many stories as riders who participate. Almost everyone has a friend, co-worker or relative who rides. It’s a fraternity of cyclists who share a willingness to endure two days of backbreaking hills, headwinds and spring showers. The riders come from 35 states and four countries (United States, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom). Unlike the marathon that passes though Houston’s inner city and surrounding neighborhoods, the BP MS 150 takes off from west Houston and disappears from sight. What we don’t see is the enormous “machine” that drives this tour and the thousands of volunteers who man the many break points and maintain the safety and comfort of riders along the way.
The MS 150 has experienced stellar growth in recent years, from 3,000 in 1998 to more than 9,000 in 2001, creating new logistic challenges for the “bike team.” Added support crews and phenomenal cooperation from city and state police and sheriff departments have been essential in providing a safe, well-orchestrated event. With rider numbers already up 40 percent for 2002, the improvement in support and communications will once again prove to be the linchpin in the success of this ride.
The BP MS 150 snakes across miles of Texas highway and features an overnight stay in La Grange that doubles the local population to 18,000. It is indeed a spectacle to see as friends and well-wishers line the road dotted with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes and field poppies to cheer on the riders from Industry to Bastrop and then into the state capital. The cyclists alone are an impressive sight adorned in day-glow bike jerseys enhanced by grins as big as the Texas sky. Add to that the more than 3,000 volunteers who man SAG (support and gear) vehicles, break points and medical tents, and the result is a virtual city on wheels.
From the starting point in Houston on Saturday to the finish in Austin on Sunday, the BP MS 150 sprawls across seven counties and travels 175 miles of roadway. Participants range in age from 6 to 82 and ride to support their friends and loved ones who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Others participate as a fun way to spend the weekend or as members of corporate-sponsored teams, while many take part on an individual basis. There are no strangers among the ranks of riders, and everyone from first-time riders to BP MS 150 veterans quickly finds friends with whom to ride. While the BP MS 150 is not a race, the competition comes in various shapes and forms, including from top fundraisers jousting for No. 1 status. The competition for top jersey also is a fierce one, with some teams involving professional designers to create the most original and eye-catching outerwear.
Preparing for the ride is not unlike training for a marathon. It takes serious physical conditioning. Yet, every year there are a number of participants who dust off their bikes, and away they go. For others, local bike shops and athletic clubs offer training rides and tips. Getting in shape involves at least 12 weeks of training. The MS Society hosts training rides beginning in January and offers explicit tips for beginners on its Web site. While your body does not get the pounding associated with running 26 miles, riding for 175 miles makes other parts of your body just as sore. Bumped and scraped knees and sunburn account for the majority of the maladies for riders, representing an inconvenience for some and a badge of honor for others.
After spending the first day passing through bucolic Bellville and New Ulm, riders arrive at the day’s conclusion, where they spend the night at the Fayette County Fairgrounds in La Grange. It’s there that Texas meets Woodstock, and the party lasts well into the night. Bands play continually, and riders look forward to a hot meal and a cold beer. The 50-acre fairground is packed with individual and corporate tents, and just about anything goes. As cyclists enter the fairgrounds, their bikes are sent to the bike corral for the evening, leaving riders free to roam the grounds and meet up with friends and family. It’s at the overnight that stories are swapped around fire pits and barbecue grills to catch up on the day’s news. It’s also here that the competition to outdo fellow teams really heats up. Many teams such as BP, Anadarko, Halliburton, Dow, ExxonMobil, Team Sun & Ski and Continental Airlines have upwards of 200 riders. Title sponsor British Petroleum is the nations’ largest MS 150 team with 500 riders, raising $500,000 in 2001. In La Grange, team members relax in large tents, complete with masseurs, catered meals and, in the case of Team Schlumberger, a hot tub. The next morning before saddling up again, riders are treated to a pancake breakfast catered by the local Knights of Columbus members. In 2001, more than 12,000 pancakes were flipped.
The second day really tests the mettle of the riders. The momentum that propels them from the starting line has been replaced with determination to finish the grueling event. Grinding down the gears as they head into the most difficult portion of the ride, Bastrop and Buscher State Park, is what sets the tone for this leg. For miles, riders are challenged by the steep hills and winding roads that crisscross the parks. Emerging on the other side, riders are met by whoops of joy and encouragement from bystanders who line the park exit. From this point and after a quick lunch in Bastrop, rider’s head out for the last break points that separate them from the finish line. Sore muscles, sunburned noses and cramped toes are almost forgotten as riders surge toward the end of the trail.
At this juncture, the event becomes bittersweet, for it’s at the finish that family and friends await the riders. It is often here that riders embrace the reality that brave men and women suffer the unpredictability of MS every day of their lives. These individuals – the sufferers of MS – are the true champions of the MS 150. The strength they show in the face of this disease is what propels riders year after year. When you see the admiration and respect that both riders and MS patients extend to each other, that’s when you know this is why they ride.