Oct 04

Tour de Pink II: The Sequel

Peppercommers Matt Purdue, Trish Taylor and this blogger joined 200 other cyclists this past IMAG0066 weekend to battle flooded roads, steep hills and aching muscles to successfully complete the 230-mile Tour de Pink charity fundraising ride.

Click here to see a video of Matt being interviewed by FoxNews at the end of the ride in New York City.

Tour de Pink 2009 was an amazing experience for me- some of my readers may recall my "post ride" post from last year. This year was even more extraordinary

Created six years ago by Matt and a few other pioneering souls, the Tour's goal is to raise awareness of and monetary support for the Young Survival Coalition. This is an amazing group that, unlike Susan G. Komen and other high profile breast cancer charities, has had to depend on Matt and his circle of friends to make a difference. And, what a difference they've made. In just six years, Matt & Co. have elevated the tour from an initial event that raised just $30,000 to this year's Woodstock-like experience that has already put some $550,000 in the YSC coffers. The event’s lead sponsor, The Hershey Company (cultivated by Matt and his committee), also donated $300,000 and sent nearly 40 riders to the tour.

But, the event is about much more than the much-needed moola. It's an emotional, physical, mental and spiritual roller coaster that pushes riders to the max. In many ways, it reminds me of the demands of climbing Kilimanjaro, Elbrus or other 14,000-plus foot peaks. Cyclists, like climbers, bond immediately. We push each other through the pain. We urge each other to go just one more mile, or stagger in to just one more rest stop.

There's no hype, no false pretense and, above all, no mind games. When a rider says she has your back, she means it. When one rider falls (and, unfortunately, three cyclists suffered broken collar bones the first day), we all stop to provide whatever support we can.

You won't find that type of individual riding Matt Purdue's Tour de Pink. Many of Matt's riders begin the three days as complete strangers and end up BFFs. The exact same things holds true for climbing.

So, before ending, I wanted to send a few shoutouts:

– To all my friends, family and co-workers who contributed money. Thank you.
– To the Tour de Pink support staff who had PBJ sandwiches, bananas and Advil waiting at every rest stop.
– To the three riders who broke their collar bones on day one, but traveled with the group for the rest of the tour.
– To my most excellent assistant, Dandy Stevenson, who handled all of my personal logistics so that I could concentrate on the matter at hand
– To Matt Purdue, who lost his partner, Randi, to breast cancer this past February. This one was for you, Matt.

Although I've exceeded my $3,000 fundraising goal, I can accept donations on my fundraising page through December 31st. And, to further help Matt and YSC, we'll once again be hosting a charity comedy event this coming Saturday night, October 9th, at 8pm at the New York Comedy Club. I promise that, too, will be a special experience.

So, if the spirit so moves you, help Matt, Trish and me raise the awareness of the Young Survivors Coalition. And, if you think your legs, beck, back and lower extremities can take it, join us for next year's Tour de Pink. I've done it twice now and cannot wait for a threepeat.

If you do decide to join us, I guarantee it'll be one of the best experiences of your life.

Aug 10

“TIR, baby. TIR”

Ever notice how a movie will sometime introduce a new expression or phrase into the public 
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consciousness? The Bogart/Bergman 1942 classic, ‘Casablanca’ may hold the all-time record for unveiling memorable such bon mots as:
– “Here’s looking at you, kid.“
– “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
– “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
And my personal favorite…
– “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

The Tom Cruise flick, ‘Jerry Maguire,’ contributed a signature phrase as well: “You had me at hello.” I use that with Ed every now and then.
 
And, then, there’s a fairly obscure Leonardo DiCaprio movie called ‘Blood Diamond,’ which donated a line that’s resonated beautifully with my last two climbing trips: "TIA, baby. TIA." For Leo, and his co-stars, in that particular epic, TIA stood for the ‘This is Africa.’ The main characters used the expression whenever anything that could go wrong did so.
 
TIA worked well when we climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa. Quite simply, there was no infrastructure to speak of, and one could count on Big Brother not doing his part.
 
But a variation of TIA, "TIR, baby. TIR" worked even better in Russia, a country that I’d be hard pressed to categorize as Second World, must less First World.
 
Let me begin by saying that Russia is unlike any nation I’ve ever visited. It embraces insularity. Russians have no real interest in the outside world. Period. It’s all about Medvedev, Putin, and where the next meal is coming from. At the same time, Russia’s Communist-era transportation infrastructure makes a bumper-to-bumper, parking lot-like, jam on the Belt Parkway seem like a walk in the park.
 
Here’s just a sampling of the TIR experiences we faced:
– In the midst of its fifth straight week of 100-plus degree temperatures, St. Petersburg boasted few, if, any, air conditioned buildings. To make matters worse, the powers that be decided to create monumental mid-day traffic delays by sending Con Ed-type guys with acetylene torches to repair antiquated trolley systems. Excuse this Amerikanski, but why couldn’t the repair work wait for cooler weather?
– Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, not only uses vintage, 1960s era Soviet airplanes, but allows passengers to smoke freely in the bathrooms. They also feature female flight attendants who could easily land positions as offensive guards with any NFL team. And, god knows what type of food they serve. It defies description.
– Mineral Vody in Southern Russia has already been named one of the world’s top five worst airports (I’m surprised to hear there are four other airports that provide even worse customer service). I’d liken Mineral Vody to Manhattan’s Penn Station at its absolute worst. Imagine the hottest possible mid-August day when all train service has been suspended because of yet another Amtrak signal problem. All of a sudden, though, one train miraculously begins receiving passengers and thousands swarm one small entrance portal. That’s Mineral Vody International Airport. The place reminded me of an NHL ice hockey game with 3,000 passengers hip checking and body slamming their way into the 150 or so available seats on the one departing flight to Moscow.
– And, speaking of Moscow, there’s a city that bore all the characteristics of a metropolis laid low by nuclear winter. Air temperatures stagnated above 100 degree for the fifth straight week. Carbon monoxide fumes, in combination with the soot and ash from rampant forest fires, restricted visibility to a city block or less. Moscovites who could find them wore surgical masks to mitigate the intake of carcinogenic materials in the air. We tourists dealt with it. Oh, and the sun reminded me of an ‘about-to-die’ 60-watt light bulb that barely penetrated the murky atmosphere.
– When picking up a few essentials at a local St. Petersburg supermarket, I was asked by the cash register attendant if I'd like a bag. "Da," I replied with a smile. She promptly threw one in my face.

Getting out of Dodge was no treat either. The fine folks at Moscow’s international airport were next to useless in terms of helping us find our KLM check-in counter. To wit, our queries elicited such responses as:
– "KLM is in Terminal F."
– "Who told you KLM is in Terminal F? It’s in Terminal E."
– "You’re in the wrong terminal. Next!"
– At Terminal E, we finally found a KLM gate agent who said: "Where you want to go? JKF? What that?"
 
Russia may be the most insular society I’ve yet to encounter. The many residents with whom I spoke have no interest in geopolitics, the U.S., Obama, or bin Laden (one mountain guide shrugged his shoulders when asked about bin Laden and sighed, “He’s your problem now.”).
 
From a personality standpoint, Russians seem to come in two varieties: warm and engaging or lobotomized robots. They either hug and kiss you or simply ignore you. There is no happy medium.
 
The more I see of foreign countries and cultures, the more I appreciate what we have here in the U.S. Whether it’s Singapore, Malaysia, Tanzania or Russia, there really is no place like home (which, coming full circle, was one of the signature lines from the 1939 classic, ‘The Wizard of Oz’).
 
So I end by saying, “Spasibo and dasvedanya, comrades. Give me a buzz if you’re headed to Russia anytime soon. The sanity you save may be your own.”

Jul 28

You don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the U.S.S.R.

Phoenix and its 116 degree heat and Manhattan with its hazy, hot and humid spell of six million
St-petersburg-russia straight, 90 degree days have nothing on St. Petersburg, Russia.

Having had the pleasure of touring the historic Czarist city the past few days, I can report on the following:

The Russians don't do air conditioning. Period. And, that's not a good thing. I thought London struggled with excessively high heat, but the Brits could learn a trick or two from the plucky Russians. Most merely shrug their shoulders, sigh and deal with it. As Pauline, our tour guide put it: “Your Mr. Albert Gore was sure right about his world warming theory, da?”

To begin with, there's St. Petersburg's overall miasma: daytime temperatures soar well in excess of 100 degrees (F). But, unlike Phoenix and it’s much heralded and over-hyped 'dry heat,' the humidity here is Vietnamese jungle-like in its intensity (courtesy of its proximity to the Baltic Sea).

Stir in absolutely no carbon dioxide emission standards whatsoever, never-ending road construction work which sears the air with a heady aroma of burning tar and a sun that, due to our extreme Northern exposure, doesn't set until 11pm and one gets hot, hot, hot to paraphrase another pop song.

But St. Petersburg's special charm is its cigarette-addicted populace. When it came to conquering the Russian population, Napoleon and Hitler should have studied Phillip Morris instead of Carl von Clausewitz. Nearly every uber attractive, scantily-clad Russian lass can be seen strolling the Neskiye Prospekt with a cigarette dangling from her lips. And, the men puff away just as enthusiastically. So, if you're an investor, hang onto your tobacco stocks- Phillip Morris is making a killing here, literally.

On the plus side, St. Petersburg has beautifully restored 17th and 18th century Russian Orthodox churches on virtually every street corner. They also have a subway system that is clean and cool. (Yes, I said, cool. I was actually thinking of bedding down in one for the night.) There are also lots of historic sites for the hyperactive tourist. (But, one morning of inhaling noxious fumes and sweating through my clothes many times over was enough to put a damper on any extended tours for this blogger.)
 
Another plus is the World War II memorabilia. The Russians proudly display many of the weapons used to fight back the Nazi siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's name during the Communist regime). And, there's even a brief tour of the Astoria Hotel (not to be confused with NYC's Waldorf-Astoria) where Hitler had already made plans to host a gala celebration of the fall of Leningrad. (As our guide, Pauline, beamed, “So, he did not have the chance for that, no? So, instead, Stalin came here and he give big, big celebration.”)

I found it curious that there were no statues or murals of Stalin to be found, but Lenin is everywhere. I guess those 30 million mass murders tended to dampen the Russians' pride in Uncle Joe.

Anyway, my climbing team leaves St. Petersburg this morning for a day-long flight South to Mineral Vody in the Caucasus Mountains, where we begin our assault on 18,840 foot Mt Elbrus. With cell service being as scarce as tobacco and nicotine are plentiful, this blogger doubts he'll be able to file an update until we reach Moscow midweek of next week. Here's hoping in advance that Moscow copes with the heat a little bit better than its neighbor to the North.

St. Petersburg was nice to visit, but here's one comrade who wouldn't want to live there. Dasvedanya, Amerikanskis.