Cycling: Rough riders keep rolling through tough terrain

The Fresno BeeMarch 27, 2013 

When it comes to bike racing, few Fresno families are more involved than the Sassers. Mark Sasser, 43, is a fixture in the local cycling scene, wife Ruste Sasser, 33, races road and mountain bikes, and 14-year-old Cameron Sasser is one of the area's top juniors.

But the Sassers' lives changed dramatically in early 2012 when Mark was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease. Despite tremors in his right hand and other associated symptoms, Mark continues to race and even captured the single-speed division in last fall's Homegrown Cyclocross Series.

In advance of Saturday's Big Sandy Point to Point Mountain Bike Race, The Bee's Marek Warszawski went riding with Mark and Ruste Sasser and later spoke with them about bike racing and how they are coping with Mark's condition.

Question: What makes the Big Sandy such a good race course?

Ruste: It's got everything. It's got technical. It's got swoopy. It's got climbs. It makes you put your guts on the table and see what you've really got. A person could be technically savvy but have really poor fitness, or have bad technical skills and great fitness, and the course is an equalizer for everybody. It really tests all the elements.

Mark: What I really like is it's 95% singletrack. If you go to one of the big races like Sea Otter, you're going be racing on fire roads, which is pretty lame and boring. At the Big Sandy, you start with the Ridge Trail, which has a climb but the downhill is world class. Then you go down the San Joaquin River Trail, which is 15 miles of continuous singletrack. You don't find that in a lot of places, let alone get to race on it.

What are some of your earliest memories about riding at the San Joaquin River Gorge?

Mark: When we started riding in there 25 years ago, it was called Squaw Leap. It was illegal, but we did it anyway. Lots of times. And when you got to Finegold, there was this ranger station, this double wide, and when you'd come off the trail, you'd have to book it through that parking lot and make sure they weren't outside. (laughs) So it's kind of cool to see how far we've come.

How does Parkinson's affect you on the bike?

Mark: Surprisingly not that much, mostly arm and hand strength. I'd say Parkinson's affects me more when I'm done riding. When I do a really hard ride and come home, I'm down for the count.

Ruste: The last time we did a road ride together it was bad. I had to ride home and go back and pick him up.

Mark: But on a mountain bike ride, nobody cares. You get people with mixed abilities and fitness levels, and people wait for each other. They stop and take pictures. It's a different culture. And cyclocross, the races are an hour, max. I can go hard for an hour.

How does it affect you in other aspects of life?

Mark: Socially it's a little bit difficult, especially at the beginning. You'd go to a restaurant and realize people are watching you because your fork shakes or you can't eat soup. So I had to learn how to eat left-handed.

You lose your fine motor control. Let's put it this way: I'm not going to be making julienne carrots any time soon. And I had to learn new ways to tie my shoes and button my shirts ... and learn how to put my contacts in with my left hand.

It can be tough in business situations. I'm in a business where you shake a lot of hands, and I assume everyone I shake hands with notices that my hand is shaking.

Do you say something to diffuse any tension?

Mark: A lot of times I just wait and see. I probably have about 20 or 25 really good Parkinson's-related jokes that I can break out.

Oh yeah? Throw a couple there for me.

Ruste: Some are really funny. If somebody goes, "What's shaking?" He'll say, "Me!"

Mark: That's a good one. I'll say something like, "I'm a little shaky on that topic" or "I make a great martini. Shaken, not stirred." Just stuff like that. My assumption is that most people are more uncomfortable about it than I am.

The tremors can get pretty bad ... and it affects my speech. When I get tired, I stammer. I'll get stuck and start popping like a popcorn machine. You get stuck on a word. It happens when I drink beer or have a cocktail. The problem now is I can't fib about how much I've drank.

Ruste: (laughter) He's got a meter, and it's his right foot. When he's had a couple beers, his right foot drags. I'm like, "Oh oh, you're done! No more for you." It's pretty funny.

Do your cycling buddies treat you any differently? Do they go easier on Sasser now?

Mark: No, no. My cycling buddies, I pick on them pretty hard. I'll go, "If I beat you, you suck, because I'm handicapped." The smack talk is pretty hard, and it goes both ways. ... But there are a lot of people that I can't keep up with, so they ride slow with me. Or they double back. It works out.

Are you both racing in the expert class on Saturday?

Mark: Last year I did the pro race and got fourth out of four. I was doing well right at the beginning ... but the cold started eating at me, and I lost 20 minutes. I don't know what I'm going to do. I might do the expert race and I might do the sport race.

Ruste: This year has been a big transition. Acceptance and recognizing that Mark can still go and have fun with Parkinson's and it doesn't have to be at the pro level. The fun and the accomplishment comes from being able to do it.

Mark: I'm not super fit, but we went riding together. You saw. When it comes to getting the flow and riding the rocks, those things are not a problem. But I can't climb like I did five years ago.

Ruste: He pummels me in the technical stuff, and I pummel him on the climbs. ... He flies downhill, and I fly uphill.

Mark: That's OK. We make a good team.

Ruste: Yeah, we do.

For the full Q&A, visit sports.beehive.com


Big Sandy Point to Point Mountain Bike Race

When: Saturday

Start/finish: San Joaquin River Gorge (outside Auberry) to South Finegold Picnic Area (Millerton Lake)

Distances: Long course, 23 miles (Pa'San Ridge Loop plus San Joaquin River Trail); short course, 15 miles (SJRT only)

Description: Long course 4,400 feet of climbing/4,900 feet of descending; short course 3,000 feet climbing/3,500 feet descending

Race day schedule: Registration and packet pickup, 7:30-10:15 a.m.; sport class start, 10:30; beginner start, 10:40; pro/expert start, 10:45; finish line lunch, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; raffle and awards, 2 p.m.

Fees: Long course, $58; short course, $50; juniors, $25; $5/vehicle day use fee at San Joaquin River Gorge

Website: bigsandyrace.com

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6218 or marekw@fresnobee.com.

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