— By JUDY SHERIDAN
When cyclists assemble on the Aledo ISD main campus for the 11th annual Moritz Ride for Heroes April 20, some will have more on their minds than wildflowers and the first blush of spring.
They will be competing — hard — to be an early finisher in one of the ride’s longest routes, pitting their athleticism and survival strategies against others who also view the 64-mile trek — roughly 100k — as more of a race than a ride.
“The people in the front of the pack think it’s a race and treat it so,” Chris Watson, a perennial cyclist in the event, said. “It’s their world championship up there.”
The Ride for Heroes — billed as a ride, not a race — benefits Parker County fire departments, the Parker County Sheriff’s Reserve and the East Parker County Center of Hope.
Watson, however, who has finished among the top 10 “once or twice” in the five years he has taken part, understands the mindset of the competitor.
The knot of eager cyclists clustered at the front surges forward “all connected,” he said, but eventually thins, with every rolling hill and S-curve, to a select handful of bike buddies who know each other from other cycling events.
“It’s more nerve-wracking at the beginning,” he said. “Everybody is frisky and can pedal hard for a few miles. They’re jockeying for position, and you tend to want to stick close to people you know and trust.
“After an hour, it’s no longer frenetic. The sorting has taken place, and there is a sense of sharing and community after it’s boiled down to a manageable group.”
Bike racing is complex, like playing chess, Watson said. It’s not about who can pedal harder.
“There are other riders to contend with, but also the weather and the lay of the land,” he said. “When you mix all that into a stew, it isn’t easy to succeed. It takes time to get good at the craft.”
Bicycles have been a huge part of the 54-year-old Watson’s life. The Houston native won his first bike race when he was 13, worked at bike shops through high school and college at Berkeley, and then took his first full-time job with a bicycle importer.
At one time, he was racing in some 30 events annually; now, with a growing business and a home remodeling project under way, it’s about five, but still a hobby.
Watson and David Bradfield co-own Arundel Bicycle Company, in Fort Worth. The business designs bike accessories that are manufactured in several factories and sold to bike shops in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
In fact, Arundel’s water bottle cages for racing bikes are used in every major event in cycling, Watson said, including the world championships, Tour de France and Olympic Games.
“It’s very rewarding to see [the bottles] in the Olympics,” he said. “You think, ‘There’s a guy from Kazakhstan; how did he get that?’”
The company has donated items for a raffle to benefit Ride for Heroes: saddle bags for behind the bike seat, handlebar tape.
In this month’s Ride, Watson will pilot a stainless steel bike he made himself, one of some 50 prototypes he and Bradfield are experimenting with.
“It’s on the weird side,” he said. “Carbon fiber is the popular choice. Bike nerds will be drawn to it, because the top brands don’t offer stainless steel.”
Those willing to pay about $300 should be able to buy a bike they can enjoy at most cycling events, Watson said. The average price for bikes dueling it out at the front of Ride for Heroes, however, is about $4,000.
“It’s like grand pianos or wristwatches,” he said. “The levels have no limits. Sometimes people even have bike frames made by a particular guy. You pay in advance and hope he doesn’t die.”
The top models now have electronic shifting, he said, and disc brakes will be common within five years.
“They’re here, but in small quantities,” he said.
In addition to a good bike, Watson said, a cyclist should spring for a good pair of bike shorts.
“They can make or break your day,” he said. “The padding has to be designed to meet the curves of the bike seat and an infinite number of differently shaped bottoms. They can easily go past $100.”
Watson’s winning strategy is to stay close to the front if resources allow, rather than move to the side to face either a ditch or oncoming traffic.
Going to the back increases the risk of being caught in a tangle, he said, and may result in not having the strength to pedal fast enough to catch up.
“The faster the group in the front goes, the more energy is being expended,” he said. “It may be a 20 percent increase to go from 25 mph to 30 mph, but it’s a 50 percent increase in effort.”
The serious competitors don’t stop at any of the rest stops, Watson said. They finish in about two-and-one-half hours.
“The good etiquette is to avoid celebration; that’s bad form,” he said. “You shake hands and say, ‘Good ride.’ There’s a sense of community.”
Watson said the bike events he has participated in have all raised money for non-profits.
“[On the Ride for Heroes] it just got to me that the money goes straight to the fire departments and is not lost to bureaucracy,” he said. “The citizens of Parker County absolutely benefit.”
The county is changing from rural to urban, Watson noted, making it more difficult for bike riders, who are often seen as being “in the way.”
“We need to be able to strike a balance between everybody’s right to the road,” he said. “We used to encounter ranchers, who would just wave, but the face of the driving population’s changed.
“My guess is that at some point during this ride, motorists will be inconvenienced, and the risks involved can be dangerous.
“Ask [your readers] if it’s worth it to have the Parker County fire guys get money out of the deal,” he said.
One of the fire departments was able to buy a brush truck with the Ride’s proceeds, Watson said, then had a chance to use it almost immediately.
“I’m guessing the person who benefited from that is going to say, ‘Just let them have the day,’” he said.
For more information, go to www.rideforheroes.org.