Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Peter the Great

"What are you riding for?"

I hear this question a lot. It bothers me ... and not just because of the dangling participle.

It's usually at a convenience store out in the country. Somebody asks where we're going, and we explain that we're not really going anywhere -- we're just riding our bicycles 200 miles that day. They assume that we're riding for a charity, like Jack and Back to fight Multiple Sclerosis, or the HOW 100 to raise money for breast cancer research.

But we don't usually ride for anything as noble as that. Typically, we ride brevets for some deeper, personal reason. Since it's personal, I guess it's selfish -- that's just the nature of the personal reasons. But it's our reason ... even if we rarely know what it is.

For some of us, it's because we just don't know how to stop. We have addictive personalities, and cycling is our drug du jour. Others of us are trying to prove something ... maybe to the world, or ourselves, or to the parent who once called us a "quitter." For a few, it's because this is the way that we have defined ourselves for so long that to stop doing it would force us to examine who and what we are. And nobody wants to do that.

"What are you riding for?"

There is no single reason for most of us. It's fun. It's what our friends do. It gets us out in the fresh air, seeing parts of the world in a much more close and intimate setting than we would get from a car or motorcycle.

We all admit to one reason, of course: We ride because it's good for us. Exercising this hard for this long gives us healthy hearts and lungs, keeping us stronger and more vibrant than most folks our age. We have as much energy as people 10 or even 20 years younger than us. We begin to think -- quietly, never saying it aloud, maybe even a little ashamed to dare imagine it -- that if we can keep it up, riding longer and faster every year, we will never grow old or feeble, and be healthy forever.

We will be immortal.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog. My friend, Peter Lee, is dying.

Peter Lee - Self-portrait stoking with Jeff Bauer

Regular readers of this blog know about Peter, one of my most stalwart randonneuring companions and cohort on numerous cycling adventures. As I mentioned back in September, Peter has been undergoing treatment for cancer. Right after Ten Gaps, things were looking a little positive. They've since turned negative. I won't go into the medical stuff, but it basically comes down to the fact that the cancer keeps going, tearing him up a little bit at a time, and he just doesn't have anything left to fight it with.

Peter (right) with Jeff, riding Green Acres in August 2009

RandoGirl and I visited Peter in the hospital Sunday. His wife, Katy, and son Wayne were there, as well as so many other friends that the nurses finally limited us to groups of six at a time in his room. Mostly, he and I were reminiscing about some of the great rides and fun we had together. I don't think that he just meant rides, though, when he said, "I had a good time. I don't regret any of it."

This is classic Peter. Even when he has every right to be miserable, he is upbeat. He has been this way throughout his illness, and he was always this way on rides. On the longest brevets in the worst weather, he kept his chin up. No complaining, and no whining. Just smiling.

He told us Sunday that he wants some of his ashes spread on the Tail of the Dragon in east Tennessee -- a stretch of road that we hit about mile 200 of our horribly hilly 600K. It's a tough climb with a beautiful view ... a great mixture of painful challenge and heart-wrenching reward.

Classic Peter.

Jeff and Peter at the finish of the 2009 Tennessee 600K

I remember riding the Jack Daniels permanent about a year ago, with Peter on the back of Jeff Bauer's tandem. We cross a lot of county lines on this route, and we were making the ride more interesting by sprinting for each of these make-shift finishing lines. When the county line was at the top of a climb, I was usually able to get there first, but whenever the terrain was flat or gently rolling Peter and Jeff were so strong that they could easily pull away from the rest of us. At the end of the ride, they had more county-lines than any of us, and thus "won" the brevet.

Peter loves this kind of action. On a single bike, he'll stalk you, smelling the county- or state-line, or city limits sign, or any reason to mix it up. When you see the sign, you start ramping it up, and he's on your back wheel ... sitting in ... sitting in ... and then bam he swoops around you for the win.

(from left) Me, Jeff Sammons, Kevin Warren, Phil Randall, and Peter at the George Dickel Distillery

This past Saturday, as he and I were test-riding a new permanent, Jeff said, "Peter would be here." I knew exactly what he meant. Before he got sick, you could always count on Peter to show up for a Saturday brevet no matter how cold or hot or windy or rainy it was. Maybe it's because he is so dependable -- if he says he's going to do something, you'd better believe he's going to do it. Maybe it's because he is rigorous with his training, and knows that riding in crummy weather when you don't have to is the only way to get ready to ride in crummy weather when you do have to.

(from left) Jeff Sammons, Peter, and Me -- preparing to rob this convenience store

I think it's just because he loves to ride, though. Or maybe he enjoys hanging out with goofy cyclists. Or, possibly, because he really likes it when we stop at Henpeck Market for pasta salad, tomato basil soup, and a piece of cake.

All the usual suspects, Henpeck Market

For a thin fellow, the boy can eat. On colder rides, he usually has a few baked sweet potatoes in his jersey pockets. If you ask, he'll gladly share one with you.

Classic Peter.

And, of course, he can climb.

That's Peter catching up to me on last year's Ten Gaps. We were climbing back over Hogpen. He passed me, of course. He finished before I did, too. Of course.

Peter (left), Vida Greer, Jeff Bauer, and George Hiscox (seated). Sorry about the sweaty camera.

He's famous, too. Twice, I've been riding with other randonneurs when they start telling the story about this guy that they heard of who laid down in the middle of the road in a small French town and took a nap on Paris-Brest-Paris. That was my friend, Peter, I tell them. That really happened. I've heard other groups of cyclists talk about this guy who went from riding his first century in September to doing a 1200K in August. That was Peter Lee, I reply.

He's my friend, I proudly add.

We all love to talk about that first year of randonneuring with Peter. The 200K in the snow in Kentucky. The even colder 300K there less than a month later. The ride where he asked how to keep his underwear from riding up under his cycling shorts. That first (and last) 300K on the back of Jeff's tandem, where Peter learned that 150 miles was probably his limit as a stoker. This was too bad, because sitting in on Jeff and Peter always made for a very, very easy ride.

It's these things ... sitting in on a fast tandem, county-line sprints, sleeping in the road, baked sweet potatoes. For the rest of our lives, when we do these things, hear these words, or eat baked sweet potatoes ... this is when we will think of Peter. We will remember the pure joy that he brought to things, and we will smile. When the "sleeping the road on PBP" story is told at 4:15 in the morning in the middle of nowhere by cyclists who may have never even had the great luck to meet Peter, they will laugh themselves back to wakefulness once again. Then somebody will mention that Peter went on to finish PBP in 89:57 ... on a year that saw one of the highest DNF (Did Not Finish) rates ever.

And the cyclists will ride on, inspired by Peter the Great.

The things that Peter has done, the people that he has touched ... the legends of Peter. These will go on forever.


Editor's Note: Peter passed away two days after I published this blog. He was surrounded by friends and family, and it was very peaceful.

I had told him that I was going to write this, but was having a hard time. He understood, and asked me to read it to him when I finished it. By then, his energy was all but gone, and I was never able to read all of it to him. I'm pretty sure that he's read it by now ... heaven probably has great internet access. I'm looking forward to getting a comment from him on it, as I miss him.


  1. Robert, thank you for posting this article. The pictures brought back many memories. -Jeff Bauer

  2. Mirriam-Webster
    Joy noun
    1 a: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.
    b: the expression or exhibition of such emotion
    2: a state of happiness or felicity
    3: a source of cause or delight

    Also, Peter's gift of presence among us.

  3. Robert, so eloquent as always and with the words that the rest of us could not write. Thank you. And the only reason Peter did not finish PBP earlier was because he was dragging Bill's puking and spewing body along hoping Bill could finish (which he didn't and was one of the DNF). Classic Peter! He will be in our hearts and minds forever. Sametta and Bill

  4. Well said Robert...I have great memories of Peter from when he first started riding...and then...bam! He became a living legend before you knew it. I have great memories of his humor, his strength, and "what in the hell did he just say?" I should have tried to write an Mandarin accented phrase book...Jay S

  5. Robert - thanks for putting your thoughts of Peter down - it is a very touching tribute. Several times after doing a long ride on the weekend, Peter would stay back with me on the Cool Springs ride...I felt bad for him because he had to go so slow, but he didn't seem to mind. I will also vouch for the tomato basil soup....we had it on the Dog Meat ride. The soup from Henpeck Store was great going down, but not so good coming up...on the rollers.

    My heart goes out to Peter's family and friends and our friend Peter...

  6. Robert,

    This piece is a very special gift that you have left for all of Peter's family and friends to cherish.


  7. Beautifully written. He was blessed in life, to be sure.

  8. Thanks Robert. Sad and beautiful.

  9. I visited Peter Sunday, apparently beating the crowds. He asked how much I weighed, then urged me not to lose much more. Classic Peter, on his deathbed, still coaching, helping, other riders, maybe urging us on to ride in his stead. And then he said "You are so strong to lose so much weight". Peter, C'Mon MAN! Robert, as you so eloquently wrote (thank you), Peter embodied strength, know how to suffer, on and off the bike, always with a positive attitude, always looking to help others. He will inspire me forever. Kevin

  10. Robert,
    Thanks for the memories of a very special man. Peter was one of the most humble, gentle and thoughtful people I have ever had the pleasure to ride with. His passing is a loss to all of us, and my prayers and thoughts go out to those of you who knew him best. He is an inspiration to all of us.

  11. It's hard to believe that Peter is gone. He was a kind and gentle soul with a smile that could light up the world. RIP my friend. You will live on in our hearts forever!

  12. I agree - wonderful tribute for a wonderful guy. He sure was lucky to have you as a friend and companion. Your post reminds me that we need to be thankful for every moment we get. Be well and keep the rubber side down.