New York Times: After Storm, Riding His Heart Out


JORBA Board Member/Chapter Leader

After Storm, Riding His Heart Out

Published: December 1, 2005

During his 35-day journey from Brooklyn to Miami Beach, Lee Quiñones licked sweat from his lips to stay hydrated, swerved for alligator road kill and took his meals where he could, impressing scores of people along the way with the sheer lunacy of his trip.

His goal was simple: Mr. Quiñones, a Brooklyn artist, would ride a bicycle from his hometown to Florida to raise money for 20 Boys and Girls Clubs of America that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Quiñones said he was inspired to make the trip, which ended yesterday in Miami Beach, by his wish to shake people up and by the prospect of a 1,500-mile bike ride that promised a prolonged "uncomfortable state of exhaustion and loneliness."

Feeling both helpless and saddened by the losses begot by the hurricane, Mr. Quiñones, 45, found himself intrigued early in the fall by a friend's offhand remark that Mr. Quiñones ought to ride a bike from New York to Art Basel, an art show he attends every winter in Miami Beach. He convinced himself that he would share in the pain of the hurricane victims and help them, too.

Less than a month later, on Oct. 27, with pledges of more than $20,000 from friends, businesses and people who read about the plan on his Web site,, Mr. Quiñones embarked on a journey that would test the strength of his will even more than his muscles. Departing shortly after 10 a.m., with two changes of cycling underwear and pants packed in saddlebags, he secured his helmet, mounted a 29-pound, $2,500 bike donated by Brooklyn Machine Works, and bid farewell to friends at the pedestrian ramp of the Williamsburg Bridge.

"My heart is aflutter," the actress Rosie Perez said as she watched him ride away with six biker friends in tow. "He's crazy."

Ms. Perez and other friends who came to see him off were understandably worried: Mr. Quiñones did not even ride a bike for sport. Indeed, he had no clue how to shift the gears of his eight-speed bicycle. To train, he rode a borrowed bike about 30 miles a day in Central Park for a few weeks before leaving.

After being escorted by the police through red lights on the Lower East Side, then on to the Holland Tunnel, which the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had cleared of traffic for his departure, Mr. Quiñones entered his first state outside New York, New Jersey, around 10:30 a.m., shedding his bike mates - a prelude to a more than a month of agony and loneliness.

" I said to myself, 'Lee, you're on your own,' " Mr. Quiñones said. The weather would warm as he rode south, but the reception Mr. Quiñones received in some cities was chilly.

Dodging the wire, glass, old wigs, used condoms and dead cats and dogs that littered Route 1 in New Jersey, he ignored shouts and honks from bewildered drivers and, before reaching Princeton, got the first of four flat tires.

In Baltimore, he followed Route 1 through "the heart of the ghetto," he said, where, amid blocks of burned and gutted homes, he glanced into a car alongside him that was filled with young men. After returning his look with icy stares, the men followed closely behind him for about 10 blocks, rattling his nerves and causing him to lose his way.

He reached Washington the next day, Halloween, just as Rosa Parks's funeral motorcade was passing. The sight, he said, invigorated his spirit of rebellion.

"I think that Rosa Parks felt, 'I am entitled to this seat,' and in the same way I felt that no matter what, I'm entitled to make a statement with this bike, on my own ground, on my own time, to my own people," said Mr. Quiñones, who checked in with this reporter every few days to detail his journey.

For the first time in his life, Mr. Quiñones said, he ate breakfast regularly, filling up nearly every morning with eggs, bacon, home fries and pancakes, French toast or waffles. At night, he would look for Italian restaurants or pizza parlors that served pasta, so he could load up on two carbohydrate-heavy entrees.

Mr. Quiñones, who added muscle to his 150-pound frame by biking more than 40 miles a day, learned biker tricks from friends, like using Assos Chamois Cream to avoid chafing by lubricating his lower body before pulling on his spandex cycling pants.

"Every morning I would feel like a child in Pampers again: 'Oh yeah, that's what it feels like to wet your pants,' " he said, laughing.

On long stretches of road, Mr. Quiñones said, he had to sing or talk to himself "to keep from going insane." A few times, when he had run out of water and there were no stores in sight, he had to lick the sweat that dripped down his face, he said.

In parts of rural Virginia and North Carolina, he rode along seemingly endless cotton fields, where, he said, the messages on the marquees of Baptist churches gave him brief spiritual respite.

One message would echo in his head for the rest of his journey, as a mantra of sorts: "Aspire to inspire before you expire."

All along his journey, strangers would ask what he was doing. Some with shouts from afar, others during his stops for water or energy bars. In South Carolina, in a small town whose name he cannot recall, several mechanics working on a semi truck yelled out as Mr. Quiñones rode past: "Where you coming from, boy? Where you going?"

Mr. Quiñones stopped to tell them.

"One of them said, 'I know a good psychiatrist down the road you can talk to,' " he said. "It was some real Southern comfort. I went through that town laughing."

Yesterday, when Mr. Quiñones arrived in Miami Beach about 3:30 p.m., he was greeted by friends who live there and friends who flew in from New York. They toasted him with Champagne.

"It was beautiful," Mr. Quiñones said by cellphone. "It feels like I've just experienced a whole lifetime."

His bike will be auctioned on Friday in an art exhibit at Buck15, a Miami Beach nightclub.

The long journey allowed him to experience a semblance of the "physical and mental distress" that thousands are still feeling three months after Hurricane Katrina hit, Mr. Quiñones said, even if many Americans have lost interest in their plight.

"People in the Gulf States are 'Katrina-ed out,' too, but they can't move on because their world was flattened," he said. "Just because everyone else is on to the next thing doesn't mean the sun is back shining over there."
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