Making A Difference Through The Miles: The 2018 California Coast Classic

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Photo courtesy of Rebecca Eckland’s private collection

The idea that a long journey can be transformative is an old one; there’s something about traveling a long distance and its inherent hardship(s) that changes a person. This idea surfaces in the work of Joseph Campbell in his descriptions of myth and the hero’s journey. For me, it was a much more contemporary (and less well known work) of author Ron McLarty who, in his debut novel The Memory of Running describes what happens when a sympathetic (but all means pathetic) character is compelled to become a better person by bike. This isn’t a book review, but there is a scene in which this character participates in a ride much like the 525-mile California Coast Classic: he rides long distances each day, meeting new people who are as compelled to ride long distances… for something greater than themselves.

Granted, cycling as a sport has veered off whatever moral compass it had once, leading the charge with all things it was never about (cheating, fame, scandal, etc.) And yet, for the countless cyclists not competing in the professional arena: what has the last decade or so done to our sport? As someone who rides—and occasionally races—herself, I have watched the tone of the sport change from the optimism of possibility—what a person might achieve from a hard day in the saddle— to something more like jaded skepticism. And it’s not only on the race course; with the fast pace of contemporary society, cyclists just seem to get in the way.

Yet, cycling, at its core, was hardly ever about other people, or fame or money; instead, it circled around this search for the absolute capacity in one’s self, and what you find in the silence of wind and distance. After all, bikes offer a sort of freedom a car never can, and even as a young person, I relished the way in which the bike and I could disappear into the world, some cocoon of our former selves, somewhat better for the invisible miles we traced along lonely country roads, sailing along a winding river of pavement.

In a recent conversation with a poet-cyclist-friend, Arian Katsimbras, confirms something of this feeling. For him, too, the bike carries similar connotations: freedom to, freedom from— a strange becoming.

The beauty in cycling, for me…. is delicate and poetic. The cyclist and the bike are always in perfect conversation with the landscape. It’s a dance of unadulterated possibility in the cyclist’s time and movement…the careening flats bending the horizon in impossible ways for hundreds of miles ahead, I feel I oscillate between internal and external possibilities. For me, this is what cycling is and what it coaxes from us: Possibility.

Perhaps it was some similar rumination that, in 2001, led founders of the California Coast Classic— a fundraising event for the Arthritis Foundation—to conceive of a multi-day cycling event to raise awareness for a disease that doesn’t get the press time it should.

Today, nearly 50 million adults and 300,000 children suffer from some form of arthritis— that’s nearly 1 in 4 people. It’s no wonder, then, that arthritis is the leading cause of disabilities for Americans. With over 100 forms of arthritis and related diseases, listing them would provide a strange litany of synonyms for pain. Instead, what drew me to this event—and this topic— was something, I believe, a lot of cyclists experience, and why they keep coming back to the bike: within the discomfort, within the thin shell surrounding consciousness of the body’s motion, rests a place that is, if not free from pain, then a form of freedom itself.

It is no accident that the ride— which will take place on September 22-29 this year and will cover 525 miles down the California Coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles—calls California Highway 1 its home. The event’s iconic route has, since its inception in 1912, taken cyclists and motorists alike on adventures next to the wild Pacific shore where the breathtaking vistas, wildlife and salt-soaked breeze transport even the most jaded person to admit it’s pretty damn spectacular.

This, then, is the backdrop for that spirit of possibility that comes up again and again, as though it’s stuck to wheel of a bicycle rolling along highway 1: of the 250 cyclists who complete this ride every year, there are more than half who suffer from arthritis. There are participants who, due to the severity of their condition cannot stand or walk, but who can ride a bicycle. And, they do, raising money and awareness so that others can experience the kind of joy cycling can bring.

Event Director Shannon Marang Cox was an event participant in 2014; the ride and the spirit of community brought her back to the ride as Event Director which is no small task. Calling the ride “an organized circus” might seem a bit harsh, but when you consider the 250 riders, 525 miles they cover, the 8 days on the road made possible by the contributions of 20 sponsors and over 75 permits; the ride takes over 8 campsites, 15 hotels, and creates 32 rest stops (1-4 per day) with staff and supplies, not to mention the coordination of several hundred volunteers— it does, at least in this respect, sound something like a circus.

But, “big” is what the event is after: not for the cycling itself, but rather, it is awareness writ large. The starting line in San Francisco takes riders across the Golden Gate Bridge, a grand entrance that makes a statement about what people are willing to do for their families, friends, communities and even strangers— it’s the power and the secret of sports like cycling, but a power and a responsibility that is shared by every participant and volunteer.

Many participants return year after year, most compelled by the Arthritis Foundation’s cause: to raise awareness and to fund research to find a cure for arthritis. Some riders, remarkably, complete the event as an affirmation of their own ability to overcome the debilitating effects of the disease while raising awareness of the condition they battle. Their letters to donors describe the physical challenges they face. Participant Yvonne Makosz, who is registered to complete the ride this coming September, remarks that: “… I have been lucky to have found a drug combination that finally works and unlucky in that I have lost both strength and mobility in both my feet and hands. …[Despite] these limitations, I have maintained my ability to ride a bike… I will train hard all summer and have no doubts I can complete this ride.”

There are also teams formed in honor of an arthritis sufferer; for example, Team Carter: a team comprised of 20 cyclists who fundraise and will complete the ride in honor of 7-year old Carter who has juvenile arthritis. Officially diagnosed with Juvenile Ankylosing Spondylitits at the age of three, the disease manifested itself by bouts of unexplained pain. The goal of Team Carter is to raise funds for better treatments, to raise awareness and to help find a cure so Carter and other children will not live their entire lives with this condition.

Peggy Ehling— a CCC rider since 2009—dedicated each year of her participation to others who suffer from arthritis. In her 6th year of riding the California Coast Classic, however, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Yet, due to the support of the annual cycling event, her diagnosis was—in her own words— “much less scary.”   She’s now in her 11th year of participating in the California Coast Classic, and shows no signs of stopping. And that’s what I circle back to, this strange world of cycling that is individual yet communal, a challenge—but not an impossible one.

Perhaps it isn’t by accident that the Arthritis Foundation’s most popular event is one that includes a bicycle: the vehicle that enabled the suffrage movement in the United States by giving women a way to leave their homes and neighborhoods (when they had no other option) is the same vehicle that enables a person who can’t initiate a long journey in the conventional way (who can’t walk it) to nonetheless pursue the mystery embedded in the miles.

Due to the fundraising efforts of participants, volunteers, Arthritis Foundation members and the general public, the annual event raises more than 1 million dollars to fund research, access to care and (most importantly) awareness. However, you don’t have to be a cyclist to donate to the cause: donations can be made to individuals, teams or to the Arthritis Foundation itself. “We also are always in need of volunteers,” Shannon Cox, Event Director, said. “You can volunteer at one of the many rest stops or camping locations, or volunteers can follow the event for all 8 days, traveling down the California Coast along with the riders.”

The highlight of this year’s event is a return to the traditional route which was closed due to an extensive damage caused by heavy winter storms in 2017 that compromised the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur, and a subsequent Mud Creek landslide. This means a return to a rest stop that is a favorite among veteran riders: the River Inn in Big Sur where Adirondack chairs and a cool, fresh water creek offer cyclists a pleasant respite after three days and 183 miles of cycling, where time might stop, at least for a little while.

I come back to McLarty’s novel, and the scene where cyclists gather around a friendly campfire at night after a long day in the saddle of a multi-day event, exchanging life stories. It’s a strange thing to come to mind, nearly a decade later, but here it is: and I think part of it is the idea of the transformative journey. Can 525 miles, sleeping in a tent and disconnecting for 8 solid days change not only your life, but several?

Every night, CCC participants are treated to the stories of “honorees,” people who suffer from variations of the disease but who, through the efforts of the foundation, have led (and continue to lead) fulfilling lives. But, it’s deeper than that: deeper than the simplicity of fireside stories by night, deeper than the lack of distractions by cell phones or the bell-tone of the dryer, insisting you empty it of clothes. Instead, it’s elemental: it’s the sense that possibility can hang in the air around something as simple as a bike ride. You just have to know where to look for it. The California Coast Classic seems like a good place to start.

To donate to the Arthritis Foundation: Click HERE

To volunteer for the 2018 event: Click HERE

To learn more about Arthritis: Click HERE