Featured photo for In Memory of Joseph Shami, The Ageless Wonder

In Memory of Joseph Shami, The Ageless Wonder

In mid-April I received some very sad news that took me several days to process. My friend Joseph Shami of Lafayette, California, passed away after being hit on his bike by an SUV at a roundabout a mere half-mile from his house. He was 86.

Joe was well-known and well-loved by the cycling community. But well before he became known as the “Legend of Mount Diablo” who had biked up that 4000-foot mountain a mind-blowing 615 consecutive weeks during his 70s and 80s until only one year ago, he had befriended me by leaving a guestbook message on this website.

On August 20, 2004, he wrote:

Hi Felix,

I’ve enjoyed your bicycle stories. I think I’ve read all of them and congratulate you on how well written they are. I discovered your website almost a year ago when I took up bicycle-century riding again at age 69 after a hiatus of 30 years and wanted to read other people’s descriptions of San Francisco Bay Area centuries that I was considering, such as the Tierra Bella.

I particularly liked your account of the 2002 Markleeville Death Ride and found it helpful in motivating me to try my first Death Ride last month. I wrote up my experience of the 2004 Death Ride, and in it I referenced your story. The Almaden Cycle Touring Club picked up my report and put it on their website at: www.actc.org/stories/deathride04_js.htm

I also made reference to your two Tierra Bella Century accounts in my report on the 2004 Tierra Bella Century on that same club’s website.

I’m eagerly awaiting your description of the 2004 Mt. Tam Double Century. I was there for the Marin Century at the time you began it and probably experienced the same fog along the coast and the scorching heat in Petaluma.

After that message, we’ve exchanged well over 100 email messages over the years. I saw him on the road at least once before I moved away from California—including during the Bay in the Day Double Century. After I had moved to Colorado and during visits to the Bay Area, we rode together a couple times on some shorter rides. This included the time he gave me a delightful tour around his hometown of Lafayette, California and another breakfast ride up the steep hills of Berkeley with my friend Sarah.

Although we saw each other infrequently, we kept in touch over years due to our mutual interests and admiration. I looked up to Joe as a role model for staying active in the decades to come.

Conversely, Joe saw a bit of himself in me, explaining the following in August 2020:

The thing that fascinated me about your early posts, i.e., before you moved to Fort Collins and after, was how you always challenged yourself physically, which was also my problem.

But in my case, I was making up for the lack of any real athletic ability before I moved to California at age 32.

So your detailed descriptions of your centuries, double centuries, and marathons were engrossing to me. Of course, I was never in your class, but I did run 10 marathons, including the Boston Marathon at age 44 in 1979. Because I finished in slightly over 3 hrs and 30 minutes, I thought for several months that I didn’t qualify for a certificate, but to my great surprise, I received a finisher’s certificate in the following September, because this was the first year that there were so many participants, that people like me could not actually start when the gun went off. I think that was the first year that there were 5,000 runners.

It was discouraging to me to be still climbing Heartbreak Hill when the first finisher crossed the finish line.

Your choosing a new place to live was something I did too, moving from New York City and Boston/Cambridge to Northern California. So I identified with you and looked upon you as a favorite son, who always told me in detail, and eloquently, what he was doing.

Joe graduated from MIT and worked as an engineer for AT&T for several decades. I think he felt that a Stanford-degreed mechanical engineer who worked in Silicon Valley could relate to him.

How Joe Impacted My Life

The Tour Divide

One of the most important messages from Joe came in the summer of 2007. He wrote me about the Great Divide mountain bike race that was went from Canada to Mexico, was self-supported and held in time-trial format along the Continental Divide. I looked into it more, was really intrigued, and signed up for the inaugural Tour Divide MTB race, which was the same as the GDMBR except that it started 170 miles farther north up in Banff in Canada. Both finished at the U.S.-Mexico border in Antellope Wells.

I ended up finishing in sixth place and was one of the original eight finishers in what turned out to be a watershed moment in the annals of bikepacking races. The award-winning, now cult classic, Ride the Divide movie documented the race, turning bikepacking from a completely unknown fringe sport to one that now has an enthusiastic following.

The Tour Divide was the #1 adventure of my lifetime—an epic that occurred right before technologies such as GPS and smartphones would drastically transform bikepacking, particularly in navigation—and Joe was directly responsible for my participation in it. I am sure that I would not have heard of it until years later had he had not suggested it to me.

His Editing and Sage Advice

As an avid reader of my blog, he encouraged me to keep writing. Not only that, he wanted me to maintain a fairly high standard of writing, even notifying me of typos and awkward turns of phrases.

Looking back at my posts from before 2005, the quality of my writing was pretty bad. That’s not to say I ever became the second coming of Hemingway afterwards, but there were several reasons for the poor quality:

  1. As a fully employed engineer in Silicon Valley, whenever I did write, I was writing in haste due to limited free time.
  2. I did not care about the writing quality because I thought I was writing mainly for myself and that very few people read my work.
  3. I rarely proofread, which was simply due to being lazy!

Aside from getting me to care about my own writing, Joe advised me to keep my own political views off the site.

At the time I disagreed with him—after all, this is my own site and I can write whatever I’d like—but over the years I came around to not only appreciating that bit of wisdom but agreeing with him entirely. Not only have I come to detest political matters myself, but I also realized that no one comes to this site to read what I think about Republicans or Democrats. One’s political views rarely change and many people are way more interested in confirming their own biases than determining truth for its own sake.

Joe, you were right!

His Encouragement and Support

Joe was a generous man. When the Tour of California started in the 2000s and went through my hometown of Stockton, California and over many of the same roads and climbs I did when I lived in the Bay Area, he snail-mailed me video tapes that he recorded of local TV coverage. (That was before the ubiquity of YouTube.) He did this not only because he thought I’d enjoy watching them, but to keep my enthusiasm for cycling going.

In 2018, he read about how I was leading a team of blind cyclists in the Race Across America to “destroy the preconceived notions of what a person who is blind can achieve,” and he asked me how he could donate to the cause. He then sent Team Sea to See via USABA (the United States Association of Blind Athletes) a check.

But the most touching thing that Joe did for me occurred one year when I decided to sell my recumbent bicycle after riding over half a dozen double centuries on it. I think he enjoyed reading about my adventures on the oddball machine so much that he insisted that I keep it. In fact, to get me to save it, he sent me a check for my asking price of the bike! I couldn’t argue with his wish after that.

The bike initially languished in my basement after that aside from a couple Tour de Fats and a notable 200-mile ride to Walden and back, but in recent years, I have racked up thousands of miles riding it on a trainer while watching videos or composing emails.

black and white cat, red Reynolds Wishbone Recumbent, red Ascent fluid trainer, convertible laptop on IKEA table

In fact, during the pandemic I rode the recumbent more than 4000 miles, or about 2500 miles more than all my other bikes combined. Riding on the trainer at home kept me both accident-free and productive at the same time. Thanks, Joe!

I fully intend to donate the amount of the check Joe wrote me to some cycling cause in his name one day. I will update this paragraph after I do.

More Stories About Joe, In His Own Words

In some of our email correspondences, Joe sent me ride reports including this delightful story from 2009 in which his bicycle wheel broke and he was stranded in the snow on Mount Diablo.

More of Joe’s ride reports can be found on the Almaden Cycle Touring Club’s website.

Videos of Joe’s Rides Up Mount Diablo

The Mount Diablo Cyclists posted a dozen short videos of Joe riding up Mount Diablo on this page.

This video below is of Joe’s 600th consecutive week of riding up Mount Diablo. Since he rode his 500th on January 14, 2018, his 600th must have occurred in mid-December 2019.

YouTube

The End of Joe’s Mt. Diablo Streak

It was shortly after the start of the pandemic that Joe’s Mount Diablo streak ended at an astounding 615 weeks. As he explained to me in an email dated September 14, 2020:

But my streak of 615 consecutive weeks (11 years and 33 weeks) ended on April 4, 2020, when I had a crash descending the mountain because I got two flat tires simultaneously. Though I broke my ribs, I didn’t know it at the time and managed to ride the 20 miles home. But I had to walk up the final 12% hill to get to my house.

It took about 7 weeks to recover, during which time the virus changed my life even more. I did climb the mountain a few times during the virus, but it was never the same after the accident. I was always nervous when passing the place of the accident, and I was bored with the mountain after such a long streak of consecutive weeks, some of which were extremely tough because of climate, etc.

Indeed, during Joe’s incredible streak, he had biked up Mount Diablo during times of snow, 110-degree heat, 70-MPH winds, and wildfires.

Joe’s Final Goal

Even after his Mount Diablo streak ended, Joe had another cycling goal in mind: to reach 100,000 miles on his 2003 Trek Project 1 bike!

He explained it to me in the same email dated September 14, 2020:

So now I have a new goal: To reach 100,000 miles on my current Trek bike, bought on December 3, 2003. It now has 92,725 miles, and last month, when it was at 91,000, the president of Trek Bicycle offered me a free e-bike when I reach 100,000 miles. It’s a Trek Project 1, which means that it’s a standard Trek 5500, but I could choose how it was equipped, and at the time Campagnolo was the most treasured brand of accessories, so that’s what I have. The only original parts that haven’t been replaced are the Trek frame, the Bontrager (now owned by Trek) handlebars and the fork.

I never wanted an e-bike, but several of the friends I used to ride with are on them now and love them. At age 86, it might be wise to ride one., but I’ll be 87 if I ever reach my goal.

As the result of my new goal, i.e., going for mileage, I choose the easiest, flattest routes, which aren’t easy to find in the Bay Area. But I’ve been averaging 25 miles per day and managed to reach 175 miles per week on several weeks and even 200 miles on week, which is what I used to do in 2004 and 2005, when I did all four and five passes of the Death Ride, respectively, after reading your story in 2002 (“2002 Markleeville Death Ride” by Felix Wong).

However, because of the very unhealthy air this week, I’ve done two 15-mile rides, wearing a KN95 mask, and took a rest day yesterday, when the TV said that riding in such unhealthy air could make it easier to catch the Covid virus.

My mileage was only 90,000 miles when the president of Trek made his offer to me last month, so I’m proud of how many miles I’ve put on since then. I’ve lost weight and the daily exercise had been good for me. So the only “fly in the ointment” is the virus.

But you well know what it’s like to be goal-oriented!

On December 8, 2020—the final time I received an email from my dear friend—Joe reported the following:

Today, I reached 95,000 miles at age 86.

I’ve done 5,800 miles for the year to date, which is what I used to do ten years ago.

I’m fortunate to have cycling and yard work to pass my time in this lonely period.

Season’s greetings!

Were Joe not to pass away unexpectedly in April, I have no doubt he would have accomplished his goal of 100,000 miles later this year because he was averaging over 100 miles per week.

He would have been 87.

Memorial for Joe Shami

The Mount Diablo Cyclists held a memorial service for Joe on May 1, 2021, with the support of Trek Bicycles on this page. Thanks to both for the memorial and especially for posting the videos of it. I enjoyed the stories by all the speakers and learned a lot about Joe that I didn’t know before or had forgotten!

Unfortunately, I didn’t know about the service and wasn’t able to attend in person. I only found out about it nearly four weeks later. So I really appreciated the videos.

But on May 6, 2021 during a trip to northern California to visit family for the first time in 18 months, I stopped by Joe’s home and left my own little memorial. It was surreal to see his classic, silver Volvo 240 sedan still sitting in his driveway and the motion-activated exterior lights still going off at his home. It was just like when I visited him last many, many years ago.

A postcard and bicycle left for Joseph Shami a few weeks after his passing.

Rest in peace, Joe.

Sarah, Joe and I stopped for breakfast after biking 1 mile.  Phew, what a workout!
Sarah, Joe and I stopped for breakfast after biking 1 mile. Phew, what a workout!