Why I PMC - Michael O'Brien - Community and Belief

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Bill Alfano

Why I PMC - Michael O'Brien - Community and Belief

Community and Belief – Why I Love PMC

Guest Blog by Michael O'Brien 

It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t head over heels for cycling.  Pulled by a sense of freedom and adventure dating back to my youth and strengthened through the years, my passion has never been enriched like it was recently over 192 inspirational, cold, and wet miles. 

I approached my 4th Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) with much anticipation and emotion.  My association with PMC started in typical fashion. It was always meant to be a bucket-list event. But after one year I was hooked, and its mission brought me back the next year to ride with my daughter as part of her bat mitzvah project and to share the roads with Lance (pre Oprah). This year, our company’s Team Flo brought together 44 vintage and newly-minted cyclists all to support Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s research efforts. 

Team Flo was united not only by the commitment to help find a cure, but also to the company I had just announced my retirement from after 18 years. Past that, our team was as diverse as they come.  In our ranks we had a Cat 2 rocket and those who just recently invested in a bike, shoes, helmet, and other gear.  We had an exuberant teenager and cyclists in their late 50s with the wisdom that only time in the saddle provides.  We had the “I got this” and “I’m nervous and not sure if I can do this”, and everyone in between. 

Since this was going to be one of my last corporate activities, I had a vision for PMC 2014. It was going to be sunny, but not too hot, with low humidity, and we would be assisted by a gentle tailwind. Our team would come prepared. We would all be fit and road mechanicals would be the concern of others. In essence, I wished a low-maintenance easy ride.  Well, we all got something completely different, and it enhanced my love for, and hooked others on, our sport. 

Helmet ornaments at PMC are a common practice. They serve as a micro-link to teammates within the 5,800 cyclists that comprise the PMC peloton.  Our mascot happens to be a duck that turned out to be apropos.  Let’s start with the weather.  Remember that wish of sun, low humidity, and an ideal temperature?  Well, we got 1 out 3 which isn’t bad if you play for the Red Sox. Cool temperatures and rain, better measured with buckets than inches, was the forecast. 

At Friday night’s opening ceremonies, the energetic and inspirational Billy Star, PMC Founder, was confident that we would get wet. As we gathered in Sturbridge, MA for our 109 miles on Saturday, we spent as much time looking up at the sky as we did doing our final inspection of the tires, gears, and brakes, and debating the value of starting in rain gear or not.  The optimists were convinced that the rain would come at the end of the day. 

This was not to be. It started to drizzle as soon as we turned up the road and headed towards our first rest stop, but Mother Nature was kind enough to give us a period of dryness mid-way through our trek to Bourne, MA. However, her kindness was short lived as the skies soon opened up to produce many bike-swallowing puddles, and the coldest, wettest PMC on record.  And although our ducks served as our co-pilots, we were not prepared for this as few trained in this type of weather. The ride officially became difficult.  That easy, low maintenance ride was quickly turning into a ride of persistence, grit, and hypothermic worry. 

As things grew more difficult, the positive attributes of our flock emerged. Being that cyclists, volunteers, and contributors, were all stronger together.  In a world of solo morning training rides, individual commutes by bike, competitive timed gran-fondo sections, and the leader board mentality of common training tools; it’s easy to lose perspective that cycling is a sport of community.  It takes cooperation with motorists who share the road, with family and friends who support our training, and with other members of our peloton who inspire us to continue.  Cycling is not a solo endeavor. This year’s PMC underscored the value of community, and that some of our greatest gifts come from our hardest rides. 

Saturday was an epic day for all who rode, and for some of our team members, along with other PMC cyclists, it was possibly the greatest physical and emotional accomplishment in their life.  Many hammered by “I don’t know if I can” into “I have this” and ignored “you’ve done well, the conditions are horrible, get in the van” whispers of the sag wagon to deliver gritty and determined rides.  But for most, we were not done.  Sunday’s start was just a few hours away. 

Our 4 a.m. alarm was the first test as we assessed soreness and the weather outside. We woke to gray skies and a hint of rain.  With the basics of BFC (i.e., bagels, fruit and coffee) onboard we approached our first climb, the Bourne Bridge, which would take us onto Cape Cod and the rest of our 70-plus miles.   The bridge was blanketed by early morning fog and mist. However this beautiful sight couldn’t be totally appreciated because Saturday was already taking a toll on some of our team members.  Today was going to be hard, and, like our ducks, we would navigate together. 

As we rolled out of rest stops #1 and #2, the day’s dampness eased and there were moments of sun that gave strength to the “I know I can. I got this” belief and began to silence the “I’m not strong enough” voice that we all hear from time to time. However, we still had 30-plus miles to ride that included more rolling hills and the potential winds that usually welcome riders as we enter Provincetown. 

In much the same way that can’t predict when our hills, dips, and turns appear in life. A course only reveals itself once it’s been ridden. As we continued the question “Is this the last hill?” became a refrain, and it was a question best not answered for fear of erring and providing a false sense of relief.  The cresting of each hill, as little or as big as perceived, was a demonstration that when the mind believes the body can follow. 

Over those miles, the best cycling event volunteers, the supporters lining the road, the motorists on Route 6 thanking us for riding, the group flat-fixing efforts, and the figurative and literal assistance up those final climbs, reinforced the value of community.  In the end, all members of Team Flo finished with smiles on their faces. Tired? Yes. Because together we accomplished something that couldn’t have been done alone. 

This year’s PMC certainly didn’t follow the script, but sometimes the best rides and life events don’t.  It was a great reminder that the unexpected can certainly be more joyous and rewarding.