The tortoise, the hare and the long-distance biker

finney    When Ron Cambias, the president of the St. Rita conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Harahan, heard Joe Barbara tell him offhandedly that he planned to make a solo bike ride from Oregon to Virginia beginning the first week of May to raise money for the society’s work among the poor, he didn’t know whether to respond with his mind or his heart.
    “Do you want me to give you a saliva test before you leave?” Cambias asked.
    Barbara, 58, has been called – or at least presumed – crazy before, but he is certain of one thing. He will start his 4,200-mile-plus trek in Astoria, Ore. – “actually, I may cross over a bridge to say I stuck my toe in Washington” – and end it two to three months later in Yorktown, Va., in one piece, it is to be hoped, and a mere shadow of his 214-pound self.
    For a Baby Boomer, Barbara is in terrific shape. He runs an auto repair business in St. Rose, and even though he has a truck, he bikes 8 miles a day to and from work.
    “I’m trying to put Exxon Mobil out of business,” he said.
    Over the last several years, he has made several biking expeditions, first in the comfort of a small group of adventure cyclists, and later solo, traveling hundreds of miles at a time through multiple states.
    When Barbara says he’s going on vacation, he squeezes his fingers against his front and rear tires to make sure he’s good to go, packs his trunk (a small backpack attached to the rear frame) and then pedals out of his driveway, located directly across from St. Rita School on Jefferson Highway.
    His daughter Rachel lives in Colorado, and Barbara has biked with her frequently in the Rockies. Forget the speed bump called Denver, the Mile High City, at 5,280 feet. Barbara has scaled Berthoud Pass atop the continental divide, elevation 11,306 feet.
    “You just try to stay within yourself,” Barbara said. “I don’t have a great need to go fast.”
    While the Rockies get all the glory because of their sheer height, the toughest part of the trip may come in Virginia.
    “It’s not because of the height but because you’re going up and down so much,” Barbara said. “If you add all the ‘ups’ together, you’re actually climbing a higher mountain in Virginia than in Colorado.”
    Barbara does not draw attention to himself. He quietly answered questions from St. Rita students recently when he got them excited about keeping track via computer of the progress he’ll be making on his bike pilgrimage. Since kids love a competition, Barbara is pledging a $300 gift certificate to GNO Cyclery for the student who brings in the most donations for St. Vincent de Paul. Another $50 certificate will go to the St. Rita student who comes closest to picking the actual date of his arrival.
    “He told them he was going to go to church every Sunday, and the kids were like, ‘Ooh, he’s still going to go to church!’” said St. Rita principal Miriam Daniel.
    But there’s something Barbara didn’t tell the kids.
    He probably should be dead.
    Nearly five years ago, Barbara suffered a pulmonary embolism.
    “They told me the best case was a stroke and the worst case was that I would die – and neither happened,” Barbara said. “I’m a blessed fellow. For some reason, I’m still here. I can’t explain it. I’m as healthy as a horse. Very few people live through what I had.”
    Barbara also has a passion for St. Vincent de Paul. He attended Holy Cross and East Jefferson high schools, but he never finished and went to work. When he accompanies fellow Vincentians on visits to homes where money and food are tight, he often sees children and teenagers who are struggling with school.
    And then he reflects on his own life and his own blessings.
    “I was highly blessed because I had some good parents who helped me through different difficulties, but I still relate to these kids and to their reasons for dropping out,” Barbara said. “I was never hungry, and if we were poor, I didn’t know it. In one home, I saw a lady who was having some problems with her son, and he was 7 years old, the same age as my grandson. That really slapped me in the face.”
    Cambias, the St. Rita conference president, stands in awe of Barbara and his ambitious undertaking.
    “We’ve got about 10 members, and we’re a bunch of old guys that range in age from 58 to 91,” Cambias said. “Of course, we’ve got a guy who is Superman.”
    Barbara says he has one piece of advice for the kids he meets in tough circumstances.
    “You have to have a good work ethic, whether it’s at work or on the bike,” he said. “In the Bible, it’s all about perseverance.”
    For more information or to donate, go to www.pedalforapurpose.com. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
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