Rwanda Race

Why I Ride: Rwanda

By Michael Pierson

It clings to the line on a singletrack like the fog on your glasses. The reason. The purpose. You can’t say to yourself, “There’s no reason for me to be here.” Your mind doesn’t meditate for a nanosecond upon a purpose for the gear you shifted from into the gear you’re shifting to. Yet there you are zipping down a rutted, gritty, pocked and potted trail at 30 miles an hour with all reason left at the peak you sweated a bucket to crest, just so you could get onto this particular downhill, this unique singletrack that will try very hard to shake your body to peanut butter.

Bob and me

Bob and me


I get this a lot: “You’re 68, why did you choose to ride a mountain bike?” And this: “Most of the guys I know who retire go play golf.”

The people who do those things that retired people are supposed to do, well, they did it for a reason; I personally can’t say to what purpose, but there must have been one. I started mountain biking when I retired because no one my age starts doing that when they retire. I mean, how many guys would spend as much on a bicycle as they probably did for their first car? Oh, I’m sure there are a lot of reasons: cardio, calories, physical conditioning, yadda yadda. But that was my reason, to literally take the road less traveled; besides, I didn’t like golf.

The Rwanda 50 Mile Ride was something one of my friends had done- several times. He told me about it and what a challenge it had been and, even though I had only been riding about six months when he told me about it, he said I should do it, too. And the reason he said I should do it sort of took on a life of its own. I should do it because I could, he said. It wasn’t that he said he thought I could do it. He had come to know me well enough to just simply say I should do it.

Which brings me to another point: I’ve found an awful lot of friendships since I started riding. I had some friends before, mostly colleagues with whom I shared classrooms and a lunch hour. We’d talk about some student who should be put against a wall and… how are we going to tackle this new curriculum… standard… schedule. Nothing ever came before or went beyond the lunchroom. It was as if I and each of these friends popped up behind our desks in the morning and disappeared at 3:00, only to pop up again the next morning. Sure, we’d meet spouses and significant others at semi-annual after-school functions but when the night was done it had been pop-ups all along. Maybe some of that is my fault, or maybe there is no fault; it just was. Since I’ve retired I’ve seen all of these colleagues several times. It’s not awkward or anything, but once the “how’s it going” and “how many of your kids got through the exit exam,” there’s just not an awful lot to say.

And we’re best friends because he introduced me to mountain biking before I knew I would love it. That’s what friendship is all about; it’s what separates friends from the people you just have lunch with. We went camping together with our wives and rode in places I never dreamed.Michael Pierson
And the only reason I get together with them at all is because my best friend Bob teaches there, so I go to see him and, serendipitously, they happen to be there, too. And we’re best friends because he introduced me to mountain biking before I knew I would love it. That’s what friendship is all about; it’s what separates friends from the people you just have lunch with. We went camping together with our wives and rode in places I never dreamed. Some I look at now and say, “Jeez, why did I slam on the brakes for this little jump.” Others, well, I won’t be going back to those places. But still, he saw a place in my life that needed purpose and meaning, a place filled up then with making lesson plans and working with students, but would become nothing but a hazy mist the moment I cleaned out my desk that June. And, through him, I met others, and my wife and I met their wives, sometime before, sometimes after we rode. And as I rode on one trail or another I met others, and we would ride, and our wives would read books or knit while we chased up and down the hills of San Diego or Santa Barbara, Laguna or Anaheim Hills. It was on one of those trips, I forget where, that Dave told me about Rwanda. I’d have never met Dave if it hadn’t been for Bob, and I’d never have ridden Rwanda if it hadn’t been for Dave.

There are really three Rwanda rides; they always happen in late April. There’s a 10 mile family-friendly ride. Some hills but none so bad that a kid on a single-speed can’t do it. Then there’s the 25. Like the 10 and the 50, it starts at Oakley headquarters in south Orange County, winds through O’Niell Park, and loops back to Oakley. About a third is fire trails, then a periodic short transition on paved highway, but the balance is singletrack. I knew there was no way I could get in shape mentally or physically for a 50 mile ride in six months but, sure, the 25… sure.

About the time I heard about Rwanda, I met Howard; we ended up doing our first Rwanda-the 25 mile ride- together. Friendships happen; my wife had enrolled us in a gourmet cooking class for our anniversary and that’s where I met Howard. We started talking. He rode mountain and he only lived a few blocks away. Santiago Oaks Regional Park is literally at the end of our street. The Oaks is to mountain biking what Huntington Beach is to surfing- constantly challenging and consistently consistent. We started riding together. He’d only been riding a little longer than I so we developed our skills and endurance together. While there is the illusion of a lot of time between November and April. It flies by when you have to be at such-and-such a level by such-and-such a date. That April came, the day came, we rode, and we finished.

It rained the night before. I felt really bad for the guys doing the 50 mile ride; they left an hour before us. They had to carve out the new lines and trails through the muck; all we did was follow their tracks. It was still a slog but we finished. I knew when I crossed the finish line that morning that I’d be doing the 50 next year. Not only did it loop through the 25 miles of O’Niell, it looped its way south into the Caspers Regional Park for another 25.

So we did it, and the journey we had to take to get there was what it was all about.Michael Pierson
So we did it, and the journey we had to take to get there was what it was all about. If I went to Strava I could probably tell you how many feet we ascended and how many miles we rode; all my rides are on Strava. I crashed sometimes and so did he. By this January we could do four or five thousand feet of climbing and 45 miles and by March we had done that a couple of time so we felt ready. Once again, April came, the day came, and we rode. It rained again, but this time during the ride. We were wet and layered in mud by the time we got back to Oakley. I was cold and every muscle in my body screamed for mercy, but we finished.

The reason I rode it is because I had to prove to me that I could, to eliminate the stab of doubt I might have felt but Dave hadn’t; the purpose became part of the reason. I rode 50 miles on a mountain bike because it’s more fun than golf and more exciting than a rocking chair. I’m 68, and that’s why I ride.

©2015 Michael Pierson


We were honored to have such an amazing story submitted to our site by a really great guy. Michael was featured on our second podcast. You can find that podcast HERE. Thank You Mike.


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