Serious saddle time |

Serious saddle time

Students of Christian Encounters Ministry and "saggers" cheer on riders of the annual Agony Ride.
Submitted photo |

This weekend, 97 cyclists will head to Loyalton in the Sierra Valley to peddle day and night during a 24-hour fundraiser for troubled youth known as the Agony Ride.

It is one of many century bike rides — 100 miles or more — gaining popularity among hardcore riders throughout the West. Riders thrill in the challenge of pushing themselves while developing friendships unique to events like these.

“There’s a satisfaction in knowing you’ve accomplished something really difficult,” said cyclist Ed Townsend.

Townsend rode 350 miles in the five-day Cycle the Sierra event and last weekend cycled “just shy of 130 miles” in the Death Ride — 15,000 feet of climbing through five passes in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This weekend, he plans to ride 300-plus miles in the 24-hour Agony Ride.

“It’s all about training,” Townsend said, who teaches spin classes at South Yuba Club. Keeping the heart rate down and staying hydrated are keys to finishing a century ride.

“You just have to be smart about it. It’s not about coming in first. It’s about finishing,” he said.

The Agony Ride is a 24-hour bike-a-thon fundraiser for Christian Encounter Ministries, an 86-acre ranch for youth trying to heal from lives complicated by drugs, sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse.

“For some of the students, CEM is their last stop before life chews them up,” said Rick Heerema, who is making a comeback this year after retiring from the Agony Ride. He rode to support CEM youth from 2000 to 2007.

Beginning in Loyalton, the Agony Ride is a 38-mile flat loop in the Sierra Valley held from 1 p.m. Friday and ending 1 p.m. Saturday. Daytime conditions can be windy and hot, with temperatures in the 90s. Nights can get downright cold with lows in the 30s. For some, the mental challenge of circling the same route past high desert cow pastures over and over is the worst.

Boredom and wind are the biggest challenges for Suzanne Hartley, who has attended all the Agony Rides since she began working at CEM 19 years ago.

“The valley just never changes. Twenty-four hours is a long time,” she said.

Hartley averages 289 miles and rode a high of 335 miles in 2006. This year, her training includes riding “miles and miles” plus running and swimming for an upcoming Ironman Triathlon.

Students of CEM often work along with the 200 “saggers” (SAG — Support And Gear), cheering on riders all the way.

“They give you energy and you feel like you’re participating in the Tour de France,” said Paul McClain of Auburn.

This will be his sixth time riding in the Agony. His record is 321 miles.

While the route of the Agony Ride itself is less arduous than other century rides in the Sierra, the 24 hours of being saddled to a bike sets the event apart.

“This has demands in other ways; you have to pace yourself and pour yourself out smoothly,” said McClain. At dawn, riders shake with fatigue as the sun rises, then gut it out for the rest of the ride, tired of sitting in a seat, rummy and sore.

In the early years of the Agony Ride, cyclists rode through multiple elevation changes from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney.

In 1985, Marion Parker rode in one of those earlier rides. She hadn’t trained at all.

“It was over 100 degrees when we started, and the wind was so strong that I literally went nowhere while peddling some of the time. Needless to say, I didn’t go far, only 35 miles,” she recalled.

This year marks her seventh Agony Ride. At 75, Parker’s goal is to ride to midnight and clock 100 miles. For Parker, the youth at CEM inspire her to ride.

“As a society, we seem to have lots of sympathy for abused and neglected small children and even for animals. But just because a hurting child has grown to near-adulthood doesn’t mean the problems and deficiencies of their early years have healed and disappeared. … I have had a blessed life; I want that for them,” she said.

To learn more about the Agony Ride, visit

Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at 401-4877 or

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