2007 Tour de Pink

Text: John M. Flores • Photography: John M. Flores

Inspired by the exploits of Tour de France legend Greg Lemond and other Americans racing in Europe, I was a rabid, but not very rapid, cyclist in the 1980s. It was exotic stuff to me - wiry cyclists battling over impossibly brutal Alpine passes, the frenzied crowds threatening to swallow them whole, and then in the last possible moment, a motorcycle-mounted race marshal would part the masses, like Moses parting the Red Sea, to create a small gap for the stream of racers. With those memories in mind, I set off on my motorcycle on a cold September morning to assist in the Tour de Pink and see what it's like to ride in the company of cyclists.

From the outside looking in, the Tour de Pink is a four-day, 200+ mile charity bicycle ride from Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to New York City. Now in its fourth year, the event raised $ 390,000 for the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), which counts 12,000 members in over 30 countries. As quoted on the group's website, the YSC mission "seeks to educate and influence the medical, research, breast cancer and legislative communities to address breast cancer in women 40 and under, and to serve as a point of contact for young women living with breast cancer." (Visit www.youngsurvival.org for more information.)

From the inside looking out, the Tour de Pink is a rolling caravan of courage and camaraderie, filled with individual stories of breast cancer survival and breast cancer memorial. It is also a logistical challenge for organizers dedicated to keeping 96 riders on the right route, well fed, and safe from harm along the back roads of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

That's where the motorcycle marshals come in, providing tactical support from the very first rider on the road to the very last and everywhere in between. Agile and responsive, motorcycles are perfect for the task, and are part of a mobile support network that includes mobile bike mechanics, lunch crew, and the sag wagon which gives fatigued riders a much-needed lift.

This particular crew - Vicki, Chris, Scott, Linda and Rick - support some of the biggest bicycle races in the country, the Tour de Georgia, Tour to Missouri, and the Philadelphia International Championships (formerly USPRO National Championships) that roll through the streets and neighborhoods of the City of Brotherly Love. They are accomplished riders, with years of big mileage touring, including top finishes in the Iron Butt Rally. In the big races, upwards of 30 motorcycles are used create a rolling safe zone for the race. For them, the experience is filled with long periods of steady riding punctuated by periods of intense action as racers seek every strategic advantage and work to be part of the winning break. It's a high speed chess match, and the motorcycle marshals - some of whom are avid cyclists themselves - have the best seat in the house.

The Tour de Pink is not a race, however, so the challenges for the motorcycle marshals are different. For one, most of the route is not closed to traffic, which means the cyclists must navigate among four-wheeled, two-ton road hazards. Secondly, the varying fitness levels of the cyclists, from National Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist Mari Holden to less genetically gifted weekend warriors, strings them out on the road like pink pearls on a long necklace. The motorcycle marshals work to keep groups of cyclists intact, monitor major intersections, and generally help make sure other motorists are aware that there's an organized event passing through. It's not like herding cats, exactly - these cyclists have trained for this event by riding hundreds and hundreds of miles on their own and are accomplished road warriors in their own right - but situations unique to organized rides such as this do crop up.

When leading a group of cyclists through a busy intersection, a marshal will often control the situation by placing the motorcycle in the middle of the intersection and prompting other vehicles to yield with hand signals and a firm look. While this goes against the self-preservation instinct of most motorcyclists, it is something that marshals do willingly and repeatedly throughout the day, as their helmets and protective gear are decidedly sturdier than cycling gear. In situations where the group is spread across many intersections, the marshals escort them with a technique known as "bumping." Once the last cyclist clears the last intersection, the last marshal zooms ahead to the next intersection and bumps the marshal stationed there forward. This continues until the lead marshal is bumped up to the lead cyclists and the cycle begins again.

The gear that marshals use is no different from the gear that motorcycle tourers use. Known for their low-speed handling, strong torque, and generous luggage capacity, BMWs are popular among the motorcycle marshal crowd. Blinking hazard lights, an uncommon feature on motorcycles, also come in handy when shepherding cyclists moving at less than 20 mph. Flip-up helmets, GPS systems, and communications systems are also common tools of the trade.

But really, what is the thrill of riding all day at 15-20 mph? Truth be told, there were moments of quiet boredom, but that gave me more time to absorb and enjoy the countryside. This ride is more than bagging a mountain pass or cruising a favorite stretch of road. The Tour de Pink has a special vibe that permeates everyone involved, and the cyclists, as they push their pedals and challenge their bodies, show great appreciation for the efforts of the motorcycle crew.

South of New Hope, PA, the Tour continues on Route 32, a narrow two-lane road along the Delaware River. There's a street fair in town on this unseasonably warm day, clogging the road with SUVs and minivans. I take up a position behind a string of cyclists as they head for Day 2's finish in Trenton, NJ. It's disconcerting to have drivers stack up behind me and wait for their time to pass. The longer they wait, the more impatient they become. The more impatient they become, the more willing they are to attempt risky passes that leave little room for error. There's little I can do except hold my position behind the cyclists, protecting their backs and maintaining their pace of 15 mph. No, this is not the Tour de France, and, no, I'm not following the coveted Maillot Jaune, the yellow jersey worn by the race leader. But there in front of me are a handful of cyclists in pink jerseys, riding with all of their strength and all of their hearts, and anything I can do to make their ride just a little safer is all that matters right now.