Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tour de KSC Offers Unique Ride

Spacecraft and bicycles are more alike than you might think.

For example, many of today's top-flight bikes are made from carbon materials, just like the space shuttle's heat shield tiles. And just as with aerospace engineers, bicycle builders obsess over trimming the slightest gram from a design. Every ounce taken off a spacecraft means extra payload or speed into orbit. For bike riders, it means saving just a little extra pain in the leg during a steep climb or going a bit faster in a sprint.

On Oct. 17, cyclists even shared the same real estate as NASA's shuttle fleet in the name of charity during the Tour de KSC.

As an employee, I was allowed to bring three guests. My friend Mike Sheffield, Team-in-Training coach Jay Burke and team mentor Doug Oxendine joined me for the event.

Yeah, riding a bike is fun and cool when you're 12 and heading to a neighbor's house, but most people grow out of it in the amount of time it takes for a set of car keys to drop from a parent's hand into their palm. But it's still cool to us.

Image above: A group of cyclists rides past the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the Tour de KSC. The routes offered riders a chance to pedal down the shuttle runway and ride past Kennedy's two launch pads as well. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

Along with sharing the common bond of endurance road riding, all of us are connected by cancer. Oxendine and I survived different forms of leukemia, and Burke's son is a two-time childhood leukemia survivor. Sheffield also is a cancer survivor.

We're some of the ones for whom legs are the best engines and tight-and-bright clothing is cool. (We know the spandex is more comfortable for us to wear than it is for you look at. That's part of the fun.)

That morning, there were 500 of us and organizers say there could've been a lot more. Some of us were kids riding by the Vehicle Assembly Building under the wings of parents. Some were adults going by the launch pads on bikes that hadn't been out of the garage since John Young and Robert Crippen strapped into space shuttle Columbia for the first time.

There were riders from local teams with established uniforms, others wearing a couple T-shirts to brace from the sudden chill and a group from Constellation Ground Operations who made their own pro-caliber jerseys.

Part of the money raised from the event was donated to the United Way, which will divide it among different charities.

"I'm glad to see it go to something like that rather than just something internal," Burke said.

The event was the brainchild of Dicksy Hansen who was inspired to take up cycling after she met seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong a couple years ago.

"We were trying to come up with a fundraiser for the Combined Federal Campaign," Hansen said. "So I just thought of something I would enjoy . . . something we hadn't done before."

Working since February, organizers presented their plans to various center departments and got the clearances to hold the event. They drew up enough courses and speed schedules to make even Goldilocks proud. The only limit was the number of slots available. Hansen said she thought maybe 300 people would show up, on the high side. Instead, the 500 available tour tickets sold out and organizers spent the last two weeks turning people away.

Image above: Dicksy Hansen came up with the idea for a charity bike ride through Kennedy because it was an exciting place to do something fun. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

The good news is that the event went quite smoothly, so the team already is looking at ways to open it up to more folks next year.

"I thought it was going to be pretty overwhelming," said Jane Mosconi, one of the organizers. "We had all the security measures with unbadged people and 500 people doing all different routes. We wanted it to be fun, but it had to be safe."

Our group was scheduled to ride a 20 mph pace over the 37-mile course. Again, we found something in common with the shuttles – fighting the wind.

After a ride through the Industrial Area, the course threw our band of energetic riders against the harsh morning winds of Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility.

Our recreational stroll at a fast clip became a 3-mile grind. It felt like a treadmill – our legs were moving, but we weren't going anywhere. Our 22-mph pace became 15, then 13. It was worth it for the chance to snap a picture at the top of the runway. Plus, we barely had to pedal on the southbound leg.

After crossing the tow-way, we headed for the Vehicle Assembly Building and the first stop. Cameras came out almost before our bikes stopped. Oxendine posed in front of the building, a landmark his grandfather helped design as part of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Back on the bikes and into the wind again, this time out to a camera mound between pads A and B. Shuttle Atlantis was a popular backdrop as it stood on its mobile launcher platform prepared for liftoff.

Image above: Our group of Tour de KSC riders: Steve Siceloff, left, Doug Oxendine, Michael Sheffield and Jay Burke. Photo credit: NASA

We got back on the bikes and headed again into what seemed like a wind determined to meet us in the face. We crossed by the Vehicle Assembly Building and stopped for more shots before heading back to our start zone at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

There was no shortage of smiles as the riders helped themselves to box after box of waiting pizzas, and no compliment was spared in congratulating the organizers.

"The people coming back, they were saying, 'That was great! That was great!' which makes us feel good because we put a lot of work into it," said Ben Bryant, another organizer.

A lot of riders are eager to come back.

"It was great getting out there and seeing the sites as close as you can," Burk said. "It's a lot different than seeing them on TV."

Steve Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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