Snapshots from the MS 150

Sunday’s post on the MS 150 didn’t do justice to all the little occurrences that happen during such a big event. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that I saw:

By far, the coolest celebration of the ride was in the small town of Fayetteville (pop. 291). It seemed everyone turned out to cheer on the riders. Lots of loud music blaring from big speakers, and a bubble machine on almost every corner! Lots of places didn’t notice we were there, but Fayetteville really came through.

Spectators cheer and ring cowbells in front of the Red & White store (built 1835) in Fayetteville. Photo courtesy Mike Boudreaux.

Ramon H.

Saturday night in La Grange, I was walking through the fairgrounds looking at all the tents and people when I saw someone I thought I recognized. I took a chance. “Excuse me, is your name Ramon?” I asked.

He looked at me. “Yes,” he said.

“Ramon H____?”

His eyes widened and he did a double take. “I know you!” he exclaimed.

We laughed and shook hands. Ramon is a regular reader and sometimes commenter on Bike Noob. I remembered running his picture with a guest post he did a year ago. Funny how these things just happen.


After sleeping poorly Friday night, I was concerned I wouldn’t have much energy for a 100-mile ride Saturday. I needn’t have worried. From the time we left Houston until crossing the line in La Grange, I had plenty of go power. Even late in the ride, I turned on the gas a time or two to pick up the pace. Same thing happened last year. And after only a couple hours’ sleep Saturday night, I did it again on Sunday. Adrenaline? Conditioning? (Not conditioning.)


My cot in the team tent Saturday night was next to a woman named Laurie. We met near the finish line Sunday and exchanged pleasantries about the ride. Talk turned to all the snoring in our tent the night before.

“We had a meeting to decide what to do about it,” she said.

“A meeting?” I replied. “It must have been during the little time I was asleep.”

“It was me, and ___, and a couple others. We couldn’t take it anymore.”

“What did you decide to do?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she answered.


As I refilled my water bottles at one rest stop, I thanked a volunteer for being there. He thanked me instead. “You’re doing the hard work,” he said. I don’t think I agree with that.


Sunday, climbing up yet another long hill, I called out the usual warning to a slow biker: “On your left.”                                                                                                                          He puffed hard, mashed his pedals, and shot me a sideways glance.  “On your left?” he gasped. “Going UPHILL???”

The MS 150 — What a Terrific Weekend!

The weather gods must have been smiling. Despite ominous forecasts for heavy rain, the wetness was only temporary, and I now have a full two-day BP MS 150 under my belt.

I woke up in Houston early Saturday morning, feeling the effects of too little sleep. I always get wound up in anticipation of a big event, and this was no exception. But my riding partner Bob joined me for breakfast, then in organizing our gear, getting our luggage dropped off at the luggage truck, and collecting our bikes.

The morning dawned overcast and gloomy, but about 13,000 riders were on hand for the largest fundraising event in the United States. Teams started according to the amount of money their members raised. My team, Team St. David’s (a large health care concern in  Austin), started fourth.

Team St. David's lines up for the MS 150 start.

About a mile into the ride, the skies opened up and it started raining. But the rain wasn’t hard, and there was no wind to speak of to make it difficult to contend with. Within a half hour, the rain stopped. The skies stayed overcast, but it looked like we would stay dry.

The first day of the ride goes from Houston to La Grange, Texas, and covers 100 miles. Considering how far they had to travel, the bikers moved along at a good clip, with the occasional paceline speeding things up, provided you could hang on if you jumped on the back. With so many in the event, the roads are never clear of cyclists.

About 30 miles west of Houston.

A piece of cardboard helped a bit - but only for a little while.The morning’s rain did make things challenging at the rest stops. Porta potties were lined up in a grassy area away from the food and drink tents. But the rain turned the fields to mud, making it challenging for cyclists to keep their shoes in semi-usable shape. This one was particularly bad right after the morning rain, but throughout the weekend, rest stop crowds had to contend with mud that clogged cleats and made it difficult to get clipped back into the pedals.

With so many riders, rest stops are always crowded on the MS 150. The Saturday lunch stop in Bellville was especially so. Cyclists surrounded an old octagonal school building on the county fairgrounds, as well as the fairgrounds themselves, to take a break and eat sandwiches, fruit cups and other food.

The no longer used octagonal school house at the lunch stop.

As the day wore on, there seemed to be more and more crashes along the way. Some were serious. In two cases, we saw ambulance crews place injured cyclists on back boards. Mostly, they were riders who suffered road rash after hitting the asphalt. And within one mile of the finish line in La Grange, two crashes injured cyclists — including one of the back board cases.

It was good to finally reach La Grange. We covered 101.5 miles at an average speed of 16 mph. I felt good, but the picture Bob took soon after we crossed the finish line shows that the day took its toll.

I look pretty fried.

When 13,000 people converge on one spot, problems can arise. After a long, warm, sweaty day, riders wanted to get clean. Shower trucks were a popular spot. So popular that the lines were unbearably long. I waited almost an hour and a half to finally get under the spray.

Just part of the long lines for the shower trucks.

Most teams and their riders stay in large tents at the county fairgrounds. This is one of the reasons for joining a team. They provide the tent, the evening meal (barbecue), cots, and massages.

A look at our tent in early evening, before cots were moved to the center area.

But there were concerns at our tent. The forecast called for heavy rain overnight, which could easily result in flooding. We nixed a proposal to move to another tent in a less flood-prone area, and bet that we wouldn’t face any real problems. Instead, we put all the cots together at the center of the tent — got really cozy with our teammates — and at 10 p.m., lights went out.

It wasn’t quiet, though. Not only did several of the guys snore loudly and continuously, but whenever you changed position on the tightly-stretched cots, they emitted a sound like the popping of bubble wrap. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop vied with the snoring to make the night a restless one for me.

The rain came, but fell far short of the deluge that had been predicted. Of greater concern was a cloudburst that hit around 6 a.m., while we were in the breakfast pavillion. However, by the time the ride was to start at 7 a.m., that rain had stopped too.

Thousands of cyclists lined up at 7 a.m. for the start of Day 2.

Bob and I were in line at 6:45. We finally got out on the road at 8:15. Another long wait at the MS 150. But except for some dangerously rough chip seal on the Highway 71 shoulder for the first several miles, the Sunday ride went off without a hitch. We rolled across the finish line in downtown Austin at about 3 p.m. Our Day 2 stats: 66 miles at 14.7 mph.

Bob Gilbert and Ray Niekamp (Bike Noob) at the finish. (Bob is wearing the team's 2010 jersey - I have the 2008 version.)

It’ll take a couple of days for my butt to get back to normal, but other wise, it was a great ride for a great cause. I recommend you try an MS 150 ride sometime.

MS 150 Weekend

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I leave for Houston to ride in the MS 150 Houston-to-Austin ride this weekend. (It’s actually 177 miles, but we won’t quibble with the MS Society’s brand.)

I did it last year, but the first day was rained out, so I only got to ride the 77-mile leg of the second day. This year, the weather forecast is dicey as well: 30 percent chance of rain Saturday, and 60 percent on Sunday. Oh, well.  I’m pretty much a fair weather rider. In fact, my last bad crash was in the rain. So the goal this year is to complete both days of the ride, and stay upright while doing it.

My friend Bob, who rides with me in our cycling club, will share transportation and a hotel room with me. At least two other members of the club are riding too, that I know about. And this year, lots of other folks I’ve met through social media — including this blog — are going to ride as well. If we can all get together for a massive meetup, that should be a lot of fun.

I thought I might be less stoked for the ride this year, because of my previous experience with it, but I’m not. In fact, I might be even more excited about it this year. Despite the rain, there is still a good prospect of getting in both days of the ride, so I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be a good test for my new riding position. And, as the largest fundraising bike ride there is, it’s one heck of an event.

I’ll be back in this spot as usual Sunday evening, with a full report of the ride.

MS 150 Day Two: Success!

(For an account of Day One, see the previous post.)

Jared and I got up at 3:45 a.m. to dress, pack, and head for breakfast. The buses would load at the ride headquarters hotel, and head for LaGrange at 5:30. We were disappointed to find that they weren’t the airline-like tour buses of Friday, but garden variety school buses. Still, they did get the job done, and got us to LaGrange on time.

And lo and behold, everything came together they way it was supposed to. Our bikes were easy to find. We organized our kit, and put our luggage on the truck for the trip to Austin. We had just enough time to top off the air in the tires and take our places in the crowd for the mass start.

cthseThe courthouse square in LaGrange was a picturesque place for the ride to start.

I was interested to see whether the ride would suffer a large defection from riders who were disappointed in the first day’s cancellation. It soon became evident that if there were dropouts, they didn’t make an appreciable impact.

lagThis is just the crowd on my side of the courthouse. Riders extended out of sight to the left, and behind the courthouse on the other side of the square.

Ride organizers cap the MS150 at 13,000 riders. More than that is too hard to handle. This year’s ride filled up within six hours. It’s the largest MS 150 ride in the nation. I’m not much for making crowd estimates, but it looked to this untrained eye that most of those who signed up made it to the event.

Plans to have the top fundraising teams from the previous year lead off the ride were scratched, because of scrambling to re-plan the ride. Instead, groups of about 25 were started in waves. The morning was sunny, temperature in the mid-60sF, and everyone seemed excited to finally get the ride going.

Riders had a choice of two routes to the lunch break in Bastrop, about 45 miles away. They could take the “Lunch Express” route, which had them ride the shoulder of Texas 71, a four-lane divided highway, or they could take the “Challenge” route, which rode less-traveled farm-to-market roads, and wound through two state parks. The parks featured some tough hills. I took the Challenge route.

pipesA bagpiper serenaded riders just miles into the day’s journey.

The Bastrop area is known as the “Lost Pines” of Texas, because it’s the site of the farthest west stand of pines in the state. The trip through the state parks was scenic and shaded much of the time. My bike was performing well, and I was surprised to see how many breakdowns were happening along the route.

parkThis is a flat section of the parks. I chose not to stop on the hills to take pictures.

Texas is flat in the Houston area, so Houston riders don’t get much chance to train on hills. The hills in the state parks were mostly steep, but short. Riders had to deal with the incline-challenged suddenly coming to a dead stop in the middle of a climb, and bailing out to walk the rest of the way. Shouts of, “Move out of the road,” became common. Since I include hills in about half my rides, I found these to be challenging, but doable.

Once we left the parks, the terrain morphed to long, gentle hills. We got a break in Bastrop, where the rest stop was also a lunch stop.

lunchRiders were treated to turkey or veggie sandwiches from Subway, potato chips, a small apple, and a bottle of energy drink.

To feed thousands of riders is no small feat, and the efficiency of the volunteers during my lunch stop amazed me. Here was also where one of the odd happenings of the day took place. I wound up seated across from four women from the Dow Chemical team. I put my helmet with my number, 1520, on the table, and found that one of the women’s helmets carried number 1521. Out of 13,000 riders, we thought that was a fun coincidence.

We’d been dealing with a moderate northwest headwind for the whole trip, but out of Bastrop, the route turned more to the north, and the wind became tougher. As we slogged along, a rider pulled up beside me.

“Are you the blogger?” he asked.

Stunned, I could only reply, “What?”

“Are you the blogger known as the Bike Noob?” he asked.

His name was Randy, and he’s a regular reader. How did he find me?

“All day long, I’ve been looking for a blue Specialized with torn bar tape,” he said. “When I saw your bike, I knew it had to be you.”

I had wrapped black electrical tape over the ruined part, but he figured it was a bar tape bandage. We rode together for awhile and had an enjoyable chat. After the next rest stop, I didn’t see him again.

Usually, on organized rides of 1,000 to 1,500 riders, the crowd thins out after the first rest stop, and you often see only a handful of others on the road with you. Not so with the MS 150. All day long, a line of cyclists stretched as far as the eye could see, both ahead of you and behind you. Often, they took the entire right lane, holding up motor traffic that stumbled onto the same road.

lineThe police were out in force, and did a nice job of controlling traffic. It appeared that they had decided to give cyclists priority this day. As the ride entered Austin, riders became even more bunched up because of heavier traffic and the requirement to actually stop for some red lights.

As we approached the finish, the crowd lining the streets exploded. They yelled and cheered, used noisemakers and drums, and competed with the loudspeakers that boomed rock music at the highest volume I’ve ever heard. Mrs. Noob found me within a few minutes in the milling throng, and we got everything together for the ride home.

noobRide’s end. Barely room to get a picture with so many people around.

A good ride, marred only by the loss of day one from Houston to LaGrange. That would have been roughly a full century. My cyclocomputer said I covered 74.8 miles today. The ride organizers pegged it at 77 miles. Average speed, only 13.2 mph. The headwind and slow riding in the crowd kept the speed down.

I did the ride for the challenge, and to support two people who are living with MS: my cousin Nancy, and our friend Mary in Minneapolis. I’ll always have the memory of the riders with jerseys that read, “I have MS, that’s why I ride,” and the spectators along the course who held up signs reading, “Thank you for saving my life.” It chokes me up just to think about them. If you haven’t done one of the many MS 150s around the country, I heartily recommend you give it a shot.

MS 150 Day One: Washout

We probably could have seen it coming.  It had rained lightly in Austin all day Friday, and when I went downtown to load my bike on the truck and myself on the bus, it was still raining.  


The check-in tent for MS 150 riders on a gloomy, drizzly afternoon.

When the bus pulled away for the ride to Houston, the skies opened up.  The farther east we got, the heavier the rain became.  Some areas along the ride route recorded 11 inches of rain.  I snapped a poor photo from the bus, but I think it shows the extent of the problem caused by the downpour.

fieldThat’s not a river or a lake — it’s farmland.  Shortly after I took the picture, some other riders on the bus started getting updates on their cell phones: the first day of the MS 150 was indeed cancelled.

My hotel roomie, Jared of Just Another Nerd…, got to Houston and checked into our hotel, which was about a mile from the main ride headquarters hotel.  The ride organizers said there would be an update at 10 that night, so we made it a point to be present for the announcement.

meetingMost of the crowd were good-natured about the circumstances of the cancellation.  Parts of Saturday’s route were under water, and the county fairgrounds in LaGrange, where we were to spend our first night, was a quagmire.  On top of that, so much rain had fallen that it had collapsed some of the team tents.  

The new plan was to shuttle Austin-based riders who had paid for transportation to Houston from Houston to LaGrange at 5:30 a.m. Sunday.  Our bikes, which went to Houston by truck, would be taken to LaGrange by those same trucks.  The ride would begin promptly at 8 a.m. Sunday.

When we woke up Saturday morning, the correctness of the decision to cancel the ride was obvious.  It was pouring.  I would have been content to get a cheap paperback from the hotel gift shop and curl up with it in the room all day.  But Jared had other ideas.  He rented a car, and we drove over to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

museumThe Bike Noob with the Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Museum of Natural Science.

We spent hours there.  Every so often, one of us would look outside, where it seemed to be raining harder than ever.  We began to steel ourselves to the possibility that the second day of the ride would be cancelled, too.

But during supper Saturday night, we learned through text messages and the ride’s web site that Sunday was a go.  The food was dispensed with quickly, and we went back to the hotel to get packed and turn in early for an extremely early wakeup call the next morning.

Time for the MS 150

bpms150Tomorrow’s the day. I’ll take off work early, head home and pack up my bike and stuff. I’ll drive to downtown Austin, where I’ll rendezvous with a bus for Houston. The bike goes on a separate truck, which will take it to the starting line in Houston and secure it overnight. Then, I’ll meet up with my biking and blogging buddy Jared, and we’ll hop the bus for the three-to-four hour ride.

In Houston, there’ll be lots to do. We’ll check into our hotel. We’ll head over to the ride headquarters hotel and take in the bike expo. Our team is hosting a hospitality suite, and it will be our first chance to meet most of the other team members. And we’ll chow down on a spaghetti dinner.

Early to bed, because it’s up at 4 a.m. Saturday. We have to pack our bags and tote them over to the headquarters hotel, where they’ll be put in a team truck for delivery to our halfway stop in LaGrange, Texas. A shuttle bus will run us across I-10 to Tully Stadium, where the ride begins. With luck, we’ll be able to snarf down some breakfast tacos at Tully.

Our team was one of the top fund raising teams last year, so we get the fourth team starting spot. The start is at 6:45 a.m., so we’ll have to be on the bikes and ready to go at that time. It’ll be interesting to see just how the ride organizers herd everyone through the start and keep bikers from crashing into each other left and right.

We’re going to get wet. Depending on which forecast you read, the chance of rain is between 50-80 percent. I hate riding in the rain. But the rest of the day should be nice, with partly cloudy skies and a high in the mid-70sF.

I’m really looking forward to the ride, but I’m feeling some concern about it, too. I haven’t done nearly the prep miles I should have. But I do have that century under my belt, so I’m confident I know how to approach this endeavor. I’ll make it a point to draft more than I did in October, to make my ride a bit easier to handle. And when my bottom starts rebelling during the afternoon, I’ll know how to baby it to get it to the halfway point. First day’s ride is 99.6 miles, according to the ride map. I’ll pedal around the block to get that extra four-tenths of a mile.

I’m counting on being tired enough that night that sleep on a collapsible cot in a sleeping bag under a large group tent shouldn’t be an issue.

On Sunday, the hilly route into Bastrop awaits — I hope. Then it’s another 25 miles to Austin, where Mrs. Noob will be waiting — I hope. I’ll try to post a ride report Sunday evening. I’m pumped.

By the way, I am still soliciting donations to support my ride. It is to raise funds to fight multiple sclerosis, after all. If you’re interested, click here and follow the instructions. Or, you can wait to see if I finish the ride without having to sag in. If I do, you can donate then, if you like. The MS Society will take money for an additional month.

Planning the MS 150

bpms150_09bnAs you know, I’m getting ready for the MS 150 Houston-to-Austin ride next month. I’ll ride along with 13,000 other riders, and pedal about 98-99 miles the first day, overnight in LaGrange, Texas, then go about 80 miles the second day into Austin.

Organizing a ride like that is a massive undertaking, and I’ve been as interested in seeing what the plans are as in training for the ride itself.

Transportation: First of all, since it’s a one-way ride, we Austin-based riders have to get to Houston somehow. My wife suggested we drive over there, then she would drive our car back on Saturday, the first day of the ride. But she might not be able to get off from work on Friday. The ride organizers have a better solution. Buses will leave Austin every half hour most of the day Friday, and take riders and their bikes to Houston. The riders will be dropped at the Omni Hotel along the Katy Freeway (I-10), which is the ride headquarters. The bikes will go to Tully Stadium, just south of I-10 a few blocks from the hotel, where the ride will start. The bikes will be secured overnight at the stadium. At the Omni, riders can go to a bike expo, and gorge on a pre-ride pasta meal.

Accomodation: Unfortunately for me, the Omni was booked when I tried to make room reservations. I was surprised to find that rooms at other area hotels were still available, and got one at the Hilton Garden Inn, also within easy walking distance of Tully Stadium. It looks like one of my biking buddies will be able to share the room costs.

Packet pickup: Most organized rides have a packet pickup the week of the ride. The MS 150 has about a dozen of them, starting almost a month before the ride. You must pick up a packet, because it has the waiver form and the bike numbers — numbers for the handlebars, the bike frame, the front of your helmet, and your jersey. There’s also a wrist bracelet that gets you into meals on Saturday and Sunday.

Bike inspections: On a ride with such a large field, over such a long distance, breakdowns are bound to occur. They want to keep them to a minimum, so all riders must get their bikes inspected before the ride. Ride-approved bike shops will do it for free up until a week before the ride. Good timing — my bike needs some minor adjustments.

Luggage: Riders can also download packing lists for the weekend, one for what you bring on the bike, one for your luggage. Each rider is allowed two pieces of luggage, no more than 25 pounds each. Trucks will transport the luggage from Houston to the halfway stop in LaGrange, then on to Austin on Sunday.

The overnight: Teams can do a group camp thing in LaGrange. Showers are available, and ride veterans tell me many riders wash their team jersey in the shower along with themselves, so they can wear it again the next day. My team is making cots available to team members to use in the team tent. They’ve also got massage therapists, beer, changing areas, and overnight bike storage.

On Sunday, riders can choose from two routes to the lunch stop in Bastrop. One route tackles hills. The other is relatively easy. The challenge will be for 13,000 riders to all start from the same place. I’m told many riders get up at 4 a.m. just to get a place near the front!

By the time the ride gets to Austin, the cyclists will be done in. Shower trucks will line the streets near the State Capitol so folks can clean up.

The thought of such a massive ride fills me with anticipation and excitement. They’ve been doing it for a long time — this the 25th anniversary year — so I expect it will all be rather smooth. I’m looking forward to it.

By the way, I’m still soliciting donations to support my ride. You can follow this link to my personal MS 150 page. Click the “Donate to Ray!” link and follow the instructions. It’s easy to do, and I will be most appreciative.