April 13, 2000, 6:48PM
By JOHN P. LOPEZ
YOU never know when or where or how it will strike you, only that it will.
It always does. It is a feeling that grips you and moves you. It inspires and motivates. It's why you ride and why you keep pedaling mile after mile.
Committing to the MS-150 Houston-to-Austin bike ride usually begins as some kind of adventure or personal challenge.
What the heck, you tell yourself. I'll give it a shot. I can stand to lose a few pounds and, heck, these old knees aren't up to jogging or pickup basketball anymore.
Maybe it begins as a dare, a new hobby or a midlife attempt to recapture long-lost athletic glory. Maybe it begins like it did for me -- looking for a way to keep the waistline from getting completely out of hand.
Of the more than 7,000 riders in the MS-150, there likely are more than 7,000 reasons each rider committed to this two-day, 183-mile test to Austin.
But inevitably, once the flag drops at Tully Stadium in west Houston and you venture off onto farm roads you've never seen, the real reason you ride swarms your soul.
Reasons for riding are many
You creep up on someone like Houston native Doris Staley, 76, pedaling and pushing her bicycle deliberately and purposefully. Speed is not a priority, but finishing is.
Pinned to the back of Staley's jersey is a handwritten note: "For Carol."
"I started riding just to do something," she said. "I thought about trail rides, but then I found out how much it costs to keep a horse."
Staley's daughter, Carol, convinced her to try cycling. Together, in 1990 mother and daughter began riding in various events. Then, in 1992 they decided to try the big ride -- the biggest of its kind in the nation -- the MS-150, which benefits the fight against multiple sclerosis.
But in the strangest and saddest of ironies, Carol could not participate in the 1992 MS-150 because she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly before the ride.
"Neither of us thought we'd ever have to deal with MS firsthand," Staley said. "We started riding just to ride. It devastated us as parents. Our baby girl had something that we couldn't fix."
It's why Staley has continued to ride in all but one MS-150 since 1994. Saturday, Staley again will start in the back of the pack and pedal slowly, but she's planning on seeing her daughter at the finish line in Austin.
Carol's condition has deteriorated to the point that now she uses a mobility cart, but she will lead her mother's support team and meet Staley at the first-day stop in La Grange.
"No matter how old I get, I'll ride," Staley said. "She inspires me. She tells me, `Mom, if I can just keep my condition where it is right now, I'll be happy.' But I want a cure for her. I want to raise money."
So do I. So does anyone who takes to the course even once. The stories and inspiring figures behind so many riders swarm your soul and open your eyes.
Disease unforgiving, merciless
Your legs might become numb and climbing the next hill might seem forbidding. But every year, it takes maybe two days for the pain and soreness to go away.
If only longtime Chronicle "Big City Beat" columnist Maxine Mesinger, who was diagnosed with MS in 1985, could have even two days without pain and soreness.
It's why you ride.
"It gets discouraging," Mesinger said. "You don't know how much worse it's going to be after the next episode. It steals your energy. It's cruel."
MS never has stopped Mesinger from covering her beat in all her elegance, but Mesinger's condition never has gotten better. It's gotten worse.
Now restricted to a wheelchair, Mesinger suffers from an advanced form of MS, which strikes the central nervous system, chipping away at the protective coating of the spinal cord and brain stem. MS strikes young women (age 20-40) twice as often as men.
Its symptoms include blurred vision, fatigue, weakened muscles and in extreme cases paralysis. Officially, MS by itself is not fatal, but it often leads to other fatal conditions.
It is unforgiving and merciless, squeezing lifestyles and relationships. Of the more than 400,000 victims of MS in the United States, more than 80 percent of married sufferers ultimately get divorced.
"It's a horror," Mesinger said. "You just keep hoping that someday there will be a cure."
And so you keep riding.