Cross-country racers hit finish line
Sandpoint cycling team raises $80,000 for autism
Four mostly middle-age Sandpoint men have bicycled across the country in 6 days, 9 hours and 28 minutes to raise $80,000 for autism.
Wayne Pignolet, 51, describes his experience with Team Laughing Dog as “epic.”
The Sandpoint cyclists’ 10th place finish among 19 teams in their division of the Race Across America was faster than Pony Express riders took to get halfway across the country on swift horses.
Laughing Dog, named for the brewery that sponsored it, averaged 19.5 mph in the nearly 3,000-mile relay race. Riders climbed 100,000 feet of grades that sometimes exceeded 10 percent and rode down them at speeds that reached 55 mph.
“It seems hard to process, it’s so monumental,” Pignolet said Monday in a telephone interview from Annapolis, Md.
Tenth place was a victory in his view.
“We had a pretty big definition of winning,” Pignolet said. “I feel like we did it all really, really well.”
Unfortunately, he said, the team had to do it without rider Mel Dick, who fell two weeks earlier in the 150-mile Cycle Hard for Education race in North Idaho. Dick broke seven ribs and cracked some vertebrae in his neck.
Pignolet said Dick is in a lot of pain but is recovering and “already plotting his next big ride.”
Participating in the Race Across America was Dick’s idea, “so it was pretty sad for all of us,” Pignolet said.
Alternate Mike Murray stood in for Dick as Pignolet’s racing partner. They took turns riding and resting every 20 to 30 minutes of their six-hour shifts.
Teammates Al Lemire and Jacob Styer did the same while Murray and Pignolet rested.
The team’s goals included raising awareness about autism – a range of developmental brain disorders more common than leukemia or muscular dystrophy.
The riders and their 12-person support crew proclaimed their mission on their shirts and their four support vehicles.
“Every one of us has stories of people coming up to us with tears in their eyes and talking to us about how autism had impacted them,” Pignolet said.
The team’s inspiration was 12-year-old Jackson Barth, the autistic son of crew member David Barth.
“I may never forget seeing Jackson at the finish line, just so excited to see his dad,” Pignolet said. “Jackson was just bouncing.”
Donations raised through the team’s website – www.teamlaughingdog.com – are still coming in. The money will go to Idaho, Washington and Oregon chapters of the American Society of Autism.
Pignolet describes himself as the team’s “elder statesman,” but Lemire and Murray aren’t far behind at 48. Styer is 32.
Based on their average age, they competed in the under-50 division for four-man teams.
Laughing Dog riders surprised themselves, crossing the finish line at the Annapolis city dock early Friday morning, about a day sooner than they expected.
They began “blasting across the country” about 2 p.m. June 18 from a pier in Oceanside, Calif.
“You start climbing right away,” Pignolet said. “You’re at sea level and you climb up to 4,200 feet in the mountains in California and then you drop down into the desert, down below sea level.”
Then the team climbed 7,000 feet into the mountains of northern Arizona and 12 hours later were climbing Colorado’s Rocky Mountain backbone.
The Appalachians were the most challenging mountains. Although not the tallest, they were humid and their frequent ups and downs required more climbing.
“Most of it we did at night, in short, steep, hard hills,” Pignolet said.
Some team members were heading home today – by airplane.
“I’m just grateful that I had an opportunity to do this,” Pignolet said.
He doesn’t want to call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience because he “might have caught the bug to do it again.”