During the week, Doug Grant builds his company, Westamerica Graphics.
On weekends, he builds community. One mile at a time.
It looks like a typical Saturday at Cook's, Lycra-clad bikers mixing with leather clad bikers. Cyclists and motorcyclists.
But this crowd is different. Each mountain biker is here not just for the camaraderie, although there is that in giant helpings.
They are here to support Project Rwanda, a fundraising effort to supply basic transport bicycles to the developing nation. Tom Ritchey, mountain bike pioneer, inventor, racer and businessman, launched the non-profit organization after visiting the country in 2005.
Grant is off to the side, enjoying a well-deserved sandwich after working almost non-stop the past few weeks as the date for his annual fund-raiser approached. It's sunny, breezy and cool. The perfect day to ride and ride and ride.
Grant realizes that what began as a 50th birthday ride in 2006 has succeeded beyond everything he imagined.
He'd hoped to raise $7,500 that first 50-mile ride. Why? Because Grant admired what Ritchey was trying to do. He liked mountain biking. And he loved coffee – and Rwanda grows great coffee beans.
More than 230 riders showed up at that first epic ride and Grant's "50 Mile Ride" pulled in $28,000. Saturday is no different, except in three areas. The weather is better. There are 485 riders. And more than $50,000 is being raised.
But on this day, Grant comes to understand what started out as a birthday party has become more than a gaggle of cyclists. He sees people coming together for a common goal.
Still, there's something mysterious going on – something that causes people to pedal up and down hills until they are so exhausted they have to walk their bikes.
It's just after 6 a.m. Saturday at Cook's Corner and, already, there are hundreds of steel, aluminum and carbon fiber bikes being pulled from car carriers, out of trunks, from the back of SUVs.
"Get ready for a long one," Ivan Artates of Rancho Santa Margarita says to me as dawn breaks.
Yeah, I figure, a long one. With more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. I'm nearly three times the Cal Poly Pomona sophomore's age. Will I finish?
The first hill separates many of the 50-mile riders from those opting for the shorter, and saner, 25-mile ride. The longer riders speed ahead, missing the gene that reminds normal humans to smell the flowers.
We climb into O'Neill Regional Park, hook up with the trailhead in Rancho Santa Margarita that goes west to Caspers Wilderness Park (off Ortega Highway), head east back to Dove Canyon and start to ride west to Oso Parkway.
"I'm exhausted," one 25-miler woman says to another.
"Be glad we're not doing the 50."
"Yeah, but they're maniacs."
"No," I grunt. "We're just dumb."
The ride loops back through O'Neill, up and back to Cook's. I run into Artates. We'd ridden for more than six hours. And there are plenty of cyclists still riding.
"It was a long day but it was fun," Artates says. Then college boy makes me feel better, adding, "It was tough."
On Monday, I asked Artates why he signed up for "50 Mile Ride." He talked about coming around corner after corner, always seeing someone he knew, catching up with old friends, connecting with new ones.
Then Artates talked about the larger effort.
"There are not very many things that have a great cause," Artates said. "And there's something about doing something for a cause."
Doug Grant on Monday shared his September 2007 trip to Rwanda with Project Rwanda. They rode mountain bikes. Grant called it "the land of a thousand hills."
Tall and lean with a not-shy graying moustache, Grant found something in the people that moved him. He discovered true joy, just by showing up. Kids by the dozen flocked around whenever he rode into a village. And he saw the bikes being used that Ritchey had designed to carry hundreds of pounds of produce.
We reflected on listening to Ritchey talk about the project on Saturday, how Ritchey spoke of the bike as being both a tool and a symbol of hope and of Orange County's contribution.
"This thing has really taken on a life of its own," Grant concluded.
I recalled all the exhausted but smiling faces I'd seen Saturday. The smiles were different than those at races, where sometimes the celebrations are inward.
These were outward smiles.
Smiles of community.
'GET READY FOR A LONG ONE'