By Executive Chef John McConnell - Clif Family
This May, I will embark on a task that admittedly makes me a little nervous. A ride, or shall I say three rides, where I will endure suffering, pain, anguish and ultimately a deep understanding of my personal limits. This selfless endurance will benefit an organization called No Kid Hungry whose mission is to end childhood hunger in America.
As I begin this journey, I want to take a moment to reflect on where I have come from and how far I have left to go. My story begins in March of 2014. I was about to interview for the dream job I had been waiting for and unbeknownst to me, I was also about to begin a new adventure in cycling.
When I first walked into the Clif Family tasting room, I recall the interior filled with cycling paraphernalia. Not being an avid cyclist myself, I was asked if I rode a bike or had any similar interests. I didn’t think much of it at that moment but later that evening, as I reflected on the job, I felt excited about the cycling connection at Clif Family. If given the opportunity to cycle, I’d love to travel the roads of Napa and the great outdoors of Northern California. My interest was definitely piqued.
Two months would pass as I was tasked with beginning a culinary program that would include a farm-to-food truck, in-house catering, retail packaging and recipe creation. During that time, I recall the discussion of doing a team building activity and that we should all do a group ride around Napa Valley. Intrigued by this, I had to ask “what if I do not have a bicycle?” Our General Manager, Linzi Gay replied, “no problem, we’ll rent you one!”
On the day of the ride, I wore running shoes, running shorts and a windbreaker…what else would I need? My previous biking excursions were limited to my four mile round trip commutes to work. On the morning of our team building ride, I was given a helmet and an all-carbon road bike. This bike looked like a Ferrari compared to the previous mountain bikes I owned. When we were set to leave I couldn’t wait to hit the Silverado Trail and put some speed on the bike. We got started and I took off, leaving the group behind. I pedaled as hard and as fast I as could until I reached a far enough distance to look behind me and realize what a jerk move that was considering this was meant to be a team building exercise. I stood on the side of the road and waited until I could see the group reappear. Once reunited, we continued south to Oakville crossroad and back up towards Saint Helena. Though it was a short ride, I recall the thrilling feeling that overcame me when I was just pedaling and riding as fast as I could.
A few months would pass and I was asked if I’d like to participate in a chef curated cycling event of which I would be given a rental to train prior to the event. I was also given a cycling kit, including a Clif Family Winery jersey and bib shorts, some socks and a helmet. It was from that day forth that I felt connected to an activity much larger than myself. I trained my butt off and was very intimidated to ride 40 miles and to complete the climb of a mountain pass. The week before the ride, I decided to challenge myself to ride the 65-mile route instead of the 40-mile route and I did it! When I finished the ride, I felt like I overcame a huge obstacle that I would have never dreamed of. I never saw myself as a cyclist or even an avid enthusiast and there I was completing a 65-mile ride and climbing two mountain passes. I asked myself what was next.
Post event, I continued riding even harder in pursuit of becoming a better rider, climbing more mountains and defying my own skepticism. Shortly after the event I had to face the reality of returning my “rental” bike, a bicycle that I had become very fond of. I knew that it was time to purchase a bike of my own, so I went ahead and purchased a bike that was way above my price range, complete with all the bells and whistles. Sadly, just two short weeks later, I was hit by a mid-sized pick-up truck and the bike that was my very own laid in pieces before me as I lay in dizzying pain on the pavement. I was rushed to the hospital and on top of some bumps, abrasions and scratches, I received two broken bones that would require some serious mending and worse yet, take me off my feet as a chef, father and husband. On that very day amongst all things, I recall swallowing the reality that I may never ride a bike again, certainly not another new road bike. That sensation was a tough reality to face considering how much joy this activity had given me.
Six months went by and chef life was keeping me busy! I was back on two feet again, but uncomfortably so. At this point the reality of not riding again had already settled in and I was focusing on just keeping afloat to keep our business running as smoothly as possible. As we ramped up towards the end of the year we knew we had one major event still on the books. During this event, we were to transform our farm property into a fine-dining showcase and multiple course dinner. As the guest began to take their seats to begin the meal, Gary and Kit (founders of Clif Family) approached me and asked if I had a minute of time. I of course said yes and stepped aside with the two of them. Kit began to thank me for an amazing year and helping to create the vision they shared in providing a culinary program as a part of the winery’s offering. Gary then handed me a device that looked like a charger and mentioned that I would need to find a place to plug this in and could I provide a good home for “this?” “This” as he pointed to a bicycle was a gift from Gary and Kit that would replace the bicycle I lost in my accident. “I got a bike!!” I was so excited that I shed a few tears of joy and hugged Gary and Kit tightly. I was so overjoyed that I almost forgot I was needed in the kitchen to begin the meal everyone was eagerly anticipating. I had such a difficult time focusing that evening on the meal. I just wanted to test out that new bike, and shortly after, I did just that. In 2016 I was able to get back on the bike and continue to push myself to go further, higher and chart new territory. I have not looked back since.
As I write this, I am eagerly waiting out this rainy weather so I can get back on the bike and train. This May I will attempt to ride my first century ride for Chefs Cycle to help raise money to end childhood hunger in America. The kicker… this event is a three day event and we will ride 100-miles each day consecutively for all three days. WOW! This will result in the ultimate sacrifice. For the child in America who does not know their next meal, I will ride for them. For the children that are born into a world that is less fortunate, filled with less opportunity and uncertainly, I will ride for them. To work for such an organization that gives back, I ride for them. If you would like to support this organization and donate to this noble cause, please click on the link below. Thank you for your support!
Life is a ride you have yet to bike,