We had one job: escort JJ Eizik as he attempted to bike 175 miles in under 48 hours.
JJ lost his leg to cancer at the age of 17, so he hand cycles. He was a camper at Camp Simcha, the camp that is funded by Chai Lifeline. Bike4Chai is a fundraising event for Chai Lifeline. This two-day event helped to raise $9.5 million this year to send Jewish children with life-threatening diseases to summer camp and various other programs that support Jewish families.
Cyclists ride 106 miles on day one. They get up the next morning and ride for another 65 miles.
As someone who has finished five Ironman triathlons, I will tell you, Bike4Chai is harder. It’s like the Tour de France for Jews in spandex.
We cycled for 21 hours…in the space of 33 hours. There were 12 of us as JJ’s crew.
We are called the Knight Riders, because over the last three years, JJ has finished at night, hours after the other 500 riders have finished day one.
On day one, there were five of us riding with JJ.
We changed positions around JJ, like a B17 with a fighter escort.
For the first hour, we were alone. Then, it started, first a few cyclists went by, all calling out, “JJ!” They passed us and there was silence. Soon, there was a distant rumbling, like the ocean rushing in. A swarm of cyclists, all dressed in blue Bike4Chai bike jerseys, enveloped us, wishing JJ well as they passed us. To many, the fact that JJ beat cancer five times is itself a source of strength. To others, it is the fact that year after year, JJ attempts the impossible: hand cycle a challenging bike course. After two hours of being passed by our cycling brethren, we were alone again. JJ, Nasanel Gold, Donny and Yoel Weinraub and me…and our Support And Gear (SAG) vehicle, driven by Yitzy Gluck.
We were always shadowed by our SAG vehicle. Just as Tour de France cyclists have SAG vehicles for drinks and spare tires, so do Bike4Chai cyclists.
For the next three hours, the five of us told stories, sang negunim and shared personal information.
We averaged 10 mph, for the first 40 miles.
Then the hills became harder and the sun became stronger.
By lunch time we were at mile 50.
Lunch was at mile 75.
We pedaled on.
It became clear that we were going to miss lunch.
For an endurance athlete, a meal is a review of ninth-grade biology class. Calories in become glucose, which becomes fuel. No meal = no food = no fuel. I suggested that we have our SAG driver find us food.
Think it’s hard to go fast on a bicycle? It takes twice as much energy to go slower.
By 5:30, I was spent. While the rest the team took a bathroom break, I lay down on the grass and took a power nap.
With just water and Gatorade in my gut, I “bonked,” or as it’s sometimes called, I “hit the wall.”
With the air temp around 88, it was just brutal. The SAG had drink, but no food.
We reached the lunch area at 6 p.m., but all the food was gone. It was like a bad sci-fi movie where we raced to the next outpost only to find it barren of food. Our driver came back with “Smucker’s Uncrustables Sandwiches.” Not the best thing to eat, but it was a lifesaver.
By 6:30 we still had not had a real dinner. We dispatched our support vehicle to grab some food from base camp. We ate dinner at 7 p.m.
After hours of Gatorade and energy bars, it was a real treat to eat cooked food, even if it was room temperature. This was an opportunity for the other members of the Knight Riders to meet up with us.
By that point the air temp had dropped four degrees. Eighty-four was a world of difference. No longer was the sweat running down our backs, our hands and onto the gear shifters and brake handles.
Want to feel fear? Try climbing a seven percent hill when everything on your bike is soaked in your sweat.
By 10 p.m. we were rolling down Long Pond Road toward our hotel for the night.
Since there were no street lamps, Donny, our resident Schnitzel Guy, outfitted us with glow sticks like a bunch of 12 year olds at a bat mitzvah party. (Ironic, since The Shnitzel Guys perform at bat mitzvahs.) There we were, 12 men, in spandex, with tzitzit, on bicycles, with bat mitzvah apparel hanging from our necks. That’s Bike4Chai.
We rolled into the day one finish line at 10:15 to thunderous applause and hot food.
We rolled out at 7, 90 minutes ahead of the official start time.
Sunlight cut through the thick fog of mountain morning air.
We only had 60 miles to go on this day, but we weren’t taking any chances with our nutrition. If there was a rest stop, we stopped for food, drink and yes, pickles. Pickles are a cyclist’s friend.
This time when the tight pack of cyclists came around, JJ went on the attack. He caught up to them and passed them.
Physics was on his side. As a hand cyclist, he’s closer to the ground. Like an Olympic bobsledder, JJ tucked his head and let Sir Isaac Newton go to work. Twenty minutes later we were then joined by Tour De France winner Cadell Evans. Then it was a series of rolling hills.
JJ would climb slowly, his arms mashing down like it was a 17th-century press.
Then he would crest the hill and we would chase after him again.
By this point, all of the Knight Riders were in a tight peloton formation with JJ in the lead.
I had to keep saying, “Hey JJ, ya tzitzis are draggin’ on the road!” As someone who has always worn his tzitzit when cycling, I was impressed on day one to see that all five of us had ours on and flying in the wind. I was moved to tears to see that all 12 of us on day two had them flying in the wind. This would not be something anyone could have imagined a generation ago for Jews.
Then, at a sharp turn, at mile 140, my bike lost traction with the ground and my body found it. When my body and bicycle skidded to a stop, JJ was already ahead of me. But the rest of the group stood in amazement. They wanted me to get in the SAG van. I stood up, straightened the bent parts on the bike and pedaled on. I was bleeding and I was sore, but if JJ was going, I would not quit. He has this effect on others. If he is going to work extra hard, how can we give any less?
It started to drizzle with 20 miles to go.
By 10 miles from camp, we hit a vertical wall. A climb so steep that it looked like we would need suction cups to not fall off the earth.
With the SAG vehicle blocking the advancing cars and the rest of us cheering him on, JJ cycled on.
We stopped at the top of the hill and stared in amazement as JJ powered up a half mile climb at 18 percent grade. Nine months of training was paying off for him. It is the equivalent of asking someone to climb a rope with just their hands. (Degraw Road in Teaneck is only nine percent.)
Ten miles to go and the drizzle turned to downpour.
We were hot, so the rain was a welcome relief as the sky opened up.
After 10 minutes, we were cooled off. After 15 we were shivering. Now we were like Choni Ha Magel, cursing the heavy rains. We soldiered on. We were so close to the goal of finishing on our own, that we would not stop.
Right before we entered camp I turned to JJ and said,
“ We started this together...”
“...and we are finishing it together.”
As the group rolled into camp the clouds parted and the sun broke through. We were greeted by family and campers at the greatest finish line in the world.
By David Roher