When I was invited to ride in the “Champions Ride for Safety” by St. Augustine NASCAR Driver Scott Lagasse I was flattered and a bit intimidated. After looking at the list of cyclists, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. Sixty miles from the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine to the track at Daytona with legendary pro cyclists like George Hincape and Christian Van de Velde as well as professional racecar drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Lagasse himself. All of these guys ride for fun and fitness and their competitive nature, I knew, would ramp the speed up pretty regularly along the ride.
“No problem Sam” one of the guys in Lagasse’s regular riding group from St. Augustine told me before we left. “We’ll go like 20 or 21, no faster than that.” I know I can sit on anybody’s wheel for 20 or 21 mph all day long, but when it creeps up, I’m going to struggle. I haven’t been able to ride in the last three months because of stem-cell surgery on both knees so I approached with a bit of trepidation.
Nonetheless, early on Wednesday morning about thirty of us departed to the south, headed to the track. After about a five-minute warm up, somebody on the front decided we needed to pick it up a bit and looking at my bike computer we were clicking along at between 25 and 27 miles an hour. I knew, based on my heart rate, I wouldn’t last there long but just tried to tuck in and hang on.
I’ve met most of these guys in their “day jobs” but it was completely different riding along with athletes I’ve covered and admired for their accomplishments in a completely different arena. I learned quickly they all take cycling, and their fitness, very seriously.
“We’ve all been there,” a voice from behind me said as he gently put his hand on my back and helped me back to the group. I was struggling a bit to stay with the main peloton as we approached Daytona and the pace jumped a bit. I laughed to myself when I looked over and saw it was six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson helping me along.
“I’m so much better when I’m fit and that’s why I concentrate on it,” Johnson told me. “I like helping my friends lose weight, stay fit and think about their health.”
All of these guys have hectic lifestyles, traveling constantly but fitness is a part of their daily routine.
“I’ve always liked to exercise,” Indy champion Tony Kanaan said after the ride. “Now it seems the whole racing community has gotten into it.”
“I was on the back end of that,” retired Indy driver and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti told me in Victory lane. “My buddy (Tony) Kanaan had already brought it to our sport so it’s all his fault,” he added with a laugh. Both Franchitti and Kanaan are avid cyclists, driving up from Miami the night before to participate in the Champions ride.
And while fitness was at the forefront of the day, Lagasse is hoping to raise the awareness of how cyclists and motorists can share the road. Scott rides, “as much as I can” in and around St. Augustine when he’s home and is passionate about changing the culture on his home state’s roads.
“I hate it that we’re at the top of the list in pedestrian and cycling fatalities,” he explained. “I want to ‘humanize’ the equation. Drivers need to know that those are real people on bikes and cyclists need to respect the drivers’ rights as well.”
As we cruised through the Tomoka State Preserve near Flagler Beach, I found myself next to George Hincape, the 17-time Tour de France veteran. Yes, a few miles earlier it was a bit of a surreal moment when I tucked into the draft, only to look up and see it was George right in front of me, doing the pulling.
“I challenge my friends to ride just 20 miles,” Hincape said, talking about his daily routine at home in Greenville, S.C. “And if they do it, they’re hooked. They fall in love with cycling and it changes their lives.”
As much time on the road as Hincape spends on his bike, he knows a few things about the interaction between motorists and cyclists. “Everybody just needs to have respect for one another,” he explained. “Cyclists and motorists need to learn how to coexist because there are going to be more bikes and more cars, not fewer.”
Running a cycling friendly hotel in Travelers Rest, S.C., George has stayed close to the sport and still rides beautifully. Getting people on both sides of the issue to see a solution is what he preaches.
“This is a great cause, a great event,” he said standing in Victory Lane at Daytona. “If we can raise the awareness and just have people think about it, that’d be great.”