Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Twenty Years

I was reminded recently that it's been twenty years. A lot of things have changed in that 20 years. A lot of things haven't. I'm happy to see some of the changes, sad to see others. I'm disappointed in some of the things that haven't changed or haven't changed enough. And I'm happy to see that some other things haven't changed at all.

I have many before and after moments in my life, some significant point that becomes a dividing line for me. Collectively we share some dates of significance, where we know exactly where we were and what we were doing. Sadly many of them mark deaths - the assassination of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Lennon,  and the events of September 11. We can talk about our innocence or naivety before the event, and how different things were after.  We all have stories of how these events changed us personally.

June 7, 1992 is one of those dividing lines for me. I lost a dear friend on that day, one who taught me to seize the day and to have the courage to try to overcome obstacles in my path. I changed the way I approached everything after that day. I now know that life is indeed short and random. I'm much less likely to put things off, or to be afraid to try something new and challenging and outside my comfort zone than I was before. And I don't save stuff for special occasions. I make every effort to live in the moment and appreciate exactly what is happening at the time.

Al Lester was killed on June 7, 1992, while doing a 24 hour bike race. He was hit head-on by a teenaged drunk driver, and killed instantly. Al was not killed because riding a bike is dangerous. He was killed because driving drunk is. Sadly, Al and many other innocent and random folks, have been in the path of drunk drivers and paid the ultimate price. While statistics point to the wee hours on weekends as being particularly lethal, drunk and otherwise distracted drivers are on our roads 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The only way to avoid the danger is to lock yourself inside your house and never go out, but that is not living. The better approach is to spread the word NOT to drink and drive, NOT to text and drive, to always drive as if it matters.

I was taking part in same race, and was stopped at a control when word came in of a tragedy - although with no real details at the time. The officials stopped the race and sent support cars out to pick up all the riders. I learned about Al when our support driver came into the control - pale and shaking after driving past Al's crumpled bike on his way to pick us up.

Al's mother asked his cycling friends to ride our bikes to his funeral. I think she may have realized that we needed to do this as much for ourselves as it being a tribute to what Al loved. I had not been back on my bike since that night. But when I did, the day before Al's service, it felt like riding a bike. It wasn't scary, it just felt right. I'd lost some innocence and naivety, but the joy of turning the cranks around and gliding along was still there.  The first time I rode at night was the same. It was quiet and peaceful and the stars were brilliant. I think of Al often, when riding on some road we had ridden together, when riding along a quiet country lane at night, and when my heart rate is at its max as I try something new and challenging.

The following in from a tribute I wrote back in late 1992...

I met Al Lester on a bicycle. Where else? We met while doing qualifying brevets for Paris-Brest-Paris. Al and I, and thousands of others riders dreamed for years about doing this ride. We lived it, breathed it, ate it and dreamed it. 

Al had epilepsy and his doctor's told him it would keep him from doing long distance rides, but he defied them by doing a century. They said nothing longer. He did a double century. They said that was the limit. He did a triple, and then a quad. After he completed Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1990, they decided to stop telling him he couldn't do things anymore.

Al started taking conversational French lessons before we traveled to Paris last year. He used to drive me crazy calling out obstacles in French while on rides, but it helped to prepare him for the ride and got him psyched. Telephone callers were even treated to an answering machine greeting in French when they called.

But Al had so much energy, that in addition to all his training for France, he was on the crew that pushed Cathy Ellis to victory in last years RAAM. 
When I was getting burned out riding last year, he helped bring the fun back into the ride. He was one of the ride leaders for TOSRV-East. This ride tours scenic rural Vermont, by traveling up route 100 for 100 miles and then back the next day. This year will be the 21st year of the ride. Last year, Al and I had planned to drive up together, but at the last minute, I broke a shift lever. I suggested that we try the tandem. Al had never been on a tandem before, but decided to try. We set the seat height, put him on the back, and rode around my neighborhood. Based on that 3 mile ride, we decided to do the back to back centuries the next day. He did great, and rarely complained about sore stoker butt. He fell in love with tandeming on that ride. We did a few more centuries together. I even let him on the front once!

He had just started riding with a new tandem partner recently, and we were looking forward to doing a little competing on TOSRV-East this year!

Al completed Paris-Brest-Paris in 1991 and was ready to do it all over again in 1995! We had a blast on the ride and touring around Paris. Al practiced power napping while standing over his bike on the first day. He would get ahead of me, and stop, sleeping standing up over his bike. When I rode by, I'd wake him, and he'd do it again. He helped me through some of my low points during the ride.
Al served as president of the Greater Boston Chapter of American Youth Hostels for 4 years, until he did a walkabout this past winter. His leadership there pushed a great many projects along. He led trip after trip and ride after ride. He was an absolutely tireless volunteer. 

Al had done a tremendous amount of touring in the US and in Europe and had incredible stories about the people he met along the way. 

Al attended MIT, and received a degree in Computer Science. This past year, after suffering major burnout or plain dissatisfaction with his career, he decided to take some time off and tour through the southeast for a while. He planned to lead several trips and tours this summer and then enter graduate school in the fall. He wanted to teach math.

Al had mentioned Ididabike and RAAM as future possibilities. Al was competing in his first 24 hour ultramarathon in Johnstown, NY. He was always a strong rider, but he was shocking everyone with how well he was doing. All that touring this winter had really paid off. Apparently, he was just playing with us, when we won those town line sprints from him on the 300K this year. 

Al was 31 years old, and had definitely packed a great deal of adventure into those 31 years. He touched a lot of lives along the way. You may have been one, and not even known it. He touched my life and I miss him dearly.

It was during that 24 hour marathon bike race, that he was hit head on and killed by a drunk driver. In the same race, and just minutes apart, Andrew Spiller suffered a similar fate. Please don't drink and drive, and don't let your friends, family and children drink and drive.


  1. Thank you for sharing and honoring your friend and for your stark message about impaired driving. I lost my mother to a drunk driver and in my law enforcement career did my best to take them off the road and prevent the slaughter. Peace and a blessed Independence Day to you and yours. Jim

  2. My local club, the Rochester Bicycling Club, sponsors an annual Andrew Spiller Memorial Challenge Ride in memory of Andrew and to support 24-hour cycling in our area.

    Bob Cooper