Texas flags wave as the grackles arrive for lunch. Photo by Scott Ball.
Texas flags wave as the grackles arrive for lunch. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Third Street Grackles team completed its 10th consecutive ride in the annual National Multiple Sclerosis Society charity cycling event this past weekend, a two-day, 161-mile back roads journey from San Antonio to New Braunfels, along the scenic Guadalupe River, and back to the Central Texas city synonymous with Oktoberfest and tubing.

The official event name is Bike MS: Valero Ride to the River, presented by H-E-B. That’s not very poetic, but it communicates the enormous generosity over the years of the two principal sponsors: Valero Energy and H-E-B. The logistical challenges of moving, serving and protecting 1,500 riders through multiple counties over two days are enormous. It couldn’t happen without generous underwriting. It’s no surprise that H-E-B and Valero also finished one-two in the team fundraising challenge.

I was one of 40 or so Grackles who rode this year, down from as many as 90 riders in some years until we tightened qualifications and disinvited opportunistic riders who showed up only for the event and our team’s meals, massages, and accommodations. We’ve built an extraordinary team esprit over the years, and the smaller team has suited us well.

The 2015 Third Street Grackles Valero MS150 team. Photo b Scott Ball.
The 2015 Third Street Grackles team during the Bike MS: Valero Ride to the River. Photo b Scott Ball.

This was the 26th annual MS ride in San Antonio and there are riders out there who have done all 26 years. At 10 years the Grackles are a familiar name in cycling circles, but we are hardly old-timers. Still,  the Grackles will surpass $500,000 in fundraising for MS treatment and research this year, a considerable sum for a team with no corporate affiliation. We do have our sponsors, past and present, but we are an independent team. Riders raise the funds individually. for the many people who have contributed to my fundraising each year, or to other Grackles, thank you.

This year, we were part of a larger event that drew 1,500 registered riders, and hundreds of volunteers who staffed rest stops along the route, most of them featuring bike repair stations, rows of Porta-potties, a first aid station, and tables filled with freshly quartered oranges, bananas, energy snacks, water and sports drinks that make the long ride easier to complete. Many of the area bike shops staff the remote stations pro bono. Bike World, for example, hauled Grackle cycles home to San Antonio, and when I flatted in the last few miles of Saturday’s 100-mile run, it was Bicycle Heaven that fixed that flat at no charge.

About half the Grackles chose the longer, 100-mile route over the 70-mile option on Day One, knowing the extra effort would be rewarded with 20 or so miles of cycling along scenic River Road that parallels the Guadalupe River near Gruene.

Cyclists pass through farm land just outside of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
Cyclists pass through farm land just outside of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

Glorious weather helped this year, with early morning temperatures in the low to mid-60s as riders departed the Wheatley Heights Sports Complex on the Eastside, bound for La Vernia, Seguin and then New Braunfels, most finishing long before late afternoon heat became a serious factor. For the MS Society, weather is more than a matter of rider comfort. In recent years on three different occasions, heavy autumn rains have forced cancellation of one of the two days of riding, a streak of bad luck that has contributed to a decline in the number of cyclists. The annual rides have served for 35 years as the major fundraising opportunity for the MS Society in more than 100 cities across the nation, so a decline in riders for the local chapter is not good.

“The ride succeeded in providing two days of cycling for this traditional two-day event.  This was a welcome occurrence to cyclists after five of the past seven years have seen one of the days rained out,” said Tony Ralf, vice president of development for the National MS Society. “This weekend we came together, continuing to receive fundraising, so we are able to ensure that people affected by MS can live their best lives as we stop MS in its tracks, restore what has been lost and end MS forever.”

Tony Ralf watches cyclists leave the starting chute at the 2009 Alamo Ride to the River. Courtesy photo.
Tony Ralf, regional vice president of development for the MS Society, watches cyclists leave the starting chute at the 2009 Alamo Ride to the River. Courtesy photo.

Destination might matter as much as the weather. For years what is now the Ride to the River was the Ride to the Beach, from San Antonio to Corpus Christi. That route involved an overnight in Beeville in a temporary tent encampment at the local junior college, where individual riders pitched tents or unfolded sleeping bags in campus hallways and the gymnasium. H-E-B, then as now, ferried luggage and extra gear in its trucks and then ferried it back home afterwards. Corporate team riders with the likes of Valero, H-E-B, AT&T and others set up camps complete with chefs, music entertainment, generators to provide light and electricity, and individual cots and bike corrals.

In contrast, the ample number of hotel and motel rooms in and around New Braunfels has meant far fewer riders stay in tents. The Grackles have always rented modest rooms and cottages located on the original Schlitterbahn grounds, which are closed  in the off-season and make for a cozy one night retreat. Yet fewer riders are drawn to the out and back ride compared to the former ride to Corpus.

The last Ride to the Beach, in 2008, drew 3,600 riders. The annual Houston to Austin MS ride draws 11,000 or more riders each year, so local MS officials in San Antonio are contemplating a route change to boost participation. Whether it is a return to the coast or to another destination, it probably will involve an overnight somewhere with few hotel or motel rooms and thus a return to the tent encampments.

The Third Street Grackles team was born on Third Street downtown where the Express-News and Lake/Flato Architects, located across the street, both have their main offices. Riders from both workplaces came together to form a team. Years earlier, the two entities had worked with the City under Mayor Lila Cockrell to plant oak tress along Third Street that have since matured and now form a graceful canopy over sidewalks on each side of the street.

Lake/Flato staff and friends gather for a recent Bike4Breakfast event. Courtesy photo.
Lake/Flato staff and friends gather for a Bike4Breakfast event. Courtesy photo.

When River Walk air cannons were fired to chase away shrieking Grackles descending on tourists and conventioneers, many of the shiny black, boat-tailed birds would flock to Third Street. Thus our team’s name, one that reflected our decided spirit of independence. Over time, other indy-minded riders from all walks of life joined our team, sharing in common a love of cycling and a commitment to community.

The Grackles had the youngest rider ever to complete the MS ride, which he did on a tandem bicycle with his father. Scotty Wallace was eight years old, I believe, when he and Dr. Philip Wallace made the complete Ride to the Beach, Scotty pedaling all the way. The Wallaces are one of multiple families that have work the Grackles colors.

Bill Harris, an Assistant U.S. Attorney here, and his teenage son, Cameron, first rode with the Grackles in 2007, their third MS ride as a father-son team. Bill’s wife, Julie, served as the Grackles support team manager from 2007-11, a complex undertaking when the ride included a massive tent encampment in Beeville on the way to the Texas Gulf Coast. Julie registered for the 2012 ride, but was in a car which was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler the month before the event, which destroyed her bicycle and inflicted serious spine injury. For the 2014 ride, she was a registered non-riding fundraiser.

Cameron went on to win admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in physics, and during his undergraduate years he served as one the academy’s falconers.  In 2015, Cameron received his masters degree in nuclear engineering.  He regularly rides his bicycle from his home to Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, where he is serving as a 1st lieutenant in the USAF. We can’t claim that the Grackles were central to cameron’s success, but we do claim him as an alumnus. This year, his sister Jillian, a senior transportation planner for the city of San Antonio, joined her father for the ride. 

Our best known and most cherished non-riding fundraiser was a former Express-News reporter named Amy Dorsett, who endured several serious autoimmune illnesses, including MS. I say “endured” rather than “suffered” because Amy was one of the most selfless, spirited, well-humored people I have ever met. Her journalism career was cut short in 2009. Before Amy died on Thanksgiving Day 2012 at the age of 39, she managed to make the MS Top 100 list of MS fundraisers i multiple years, and the team honored her in death by raising enough funds to put her name on the Top 100 list one more time posthumously. Amy and her parents, Hugh and Dianne, were familiar visitors to our overnight camps. She will always be remembered and missed.

At age 62, I am not the oldest Grackle who rode 100 miles Saturday. That would be Ernesto Bromley, 64. But I am one of the few remaining has has been on all 10 rides. Part of the thrill over the years has been watching the team change. One constant is that we always have counted multiple generations of riders on our team as well as a significant corps of strong women riders. I’m not the only male Grackle left trailing them on fast rides.

In the early years, the Express-News footed most of the bill for the Grackles, paying to rent all the equipment and set up the corporate tent city in Beeville, hire a cook, haul down a big grille and smoker, generators, dozens of folding tables, chairs and cots and our overnight baggage. It’s been years now since any riders worked at the Express-News or the team had any affiliation with the newspaper.

I served as team captain in our early years, and Lake/Flato architects Brian Comeaux and Rebecca Bruce have been our co-captains for the last five years. None of us have the time, energy or inclination to undertake the search for sponsors and underwriting dollars needed to pay for an overnight camp and continue our participation in the annual MS ride. It was a great adventure these past 10 years, but the Grackles are moving on.

San Antonio has changed enormously in that same decade, and we believe the Grackles could be better served by participating in an event more focused on San Antonio’s urban core, rather than an event that sweeps riders out of the city to a distant point, as well as the $1.3 million the MS Society hopes to raise this year that will go into the regional and national pot. Multiple sclerosis is a debilitating disease and most of our riders, including me, have lost friends or family to the disease or know someone who is living with it. The search for an MS cure is a worthy one, but there are other, equally worthy causes that are local in nature.

The Grackles and the Rivard Report would like to come together with other like-minded groups and individuals in the local cycling community and promote an annual event that invites in many more participants with a much lower fundraising expectation than the minimum $300 required of every rider in the MS event, and attracts less serious cyclists of all ages and bike styles.

We will have more to share on that front in the coming months, and we invite your ideas. San Antonio is certainly ripe for more big community events and festivals that serve a worthy cause and make this an even better city in which to live and work.

Saturday night the Grackles gathered for the last time in the Bavarian Pavilion at Schlitterbahn.  After a post-ride feast of tender brisket (thanks to Alex Rivard) and baked lasagna (thanks to Guillermo’s) we celebrated our 10th and last MS outing. Our co-captains thanked Amy Gonzalez, the leader of our volunteer team and her many assistants, introduced new riders, and then talked about closing one chapter and opening another in the team’s life. There were stories, testimonials and lots of laughter.

The next morning we rode again. By day’s end, all riders were back in San Antonio, safe and sound, savoring the accomplishment of a long ride, knowing they had contributed individually to something much larger than ourselves. It’s a feeling that countless riders on many teams surely shared.

A special Grackles thank you to our sponsors:

Perhaps you know or have known someone with MS and would like to remember them with a contribution. It’s not to late to donate to the Grackles to help our fundraising or to any other team or individual who participated this year. Click here to donate. No sum is too small. 

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Let’s Ride! Fall Calendar of Cycling Events

Back on Broadway, Síclovía Draws A Record 70,000

Oompapa: After Síclovía, Parktoberfest

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.