Al Brody had pedaled his bike past the old cottonwood tree 1,000 times. Coming or going, he never noticed the tree's massive size, the span of its winter-bare branches, its deep, wrinkled bark.
But on this bike ride, the tree practically spoke to him. A Stage 4 cancer diagnosis has a way of stimulating a guy's senses. Riding home from radiation treatment at Penrose Hospital on March 2, Brody stopped his bike and snapped a photo of the tree.
"I guess I always appreciated nature, the surroundings we have here," he says. "But I'm seeing things that I've never seen before."
Brody, 56, is not retreating in despair. He joined a posse of cycling yahoos for a moonlight ride on frozen Elevenmile Reservoir — it was his idea — a day after being diagnosed with throat cancer in early February. Later that week he led 45 cyclists in the Colorado Springs Cycling Club's Sunday Social Ride.
It's difficult to throw a line of type around Al Brody. He is a passionate advocate for bicycling and non-motorized transportation. Friendly, funny and playful, he owns 20 bikes, or pedaling contraptions of some sort.
"They're all different," he says. "But I don't own a regular road bike."
His thinking is unique and persuasive. A few years ago, he convinced Colorado Springs city government to open the Pikes Peak Highway to cyclists. The idea seemed radical and dangerous, but Brody thought it possible.
"Nobody else wanted to touch it, and I received a proclamation from the city for making it happen," Brody says. "It was wrong to prohibit bikes. They didn't have to do something positive, they just had to stop doing something negative. That was my point."
Cyclists have now safely negotiated the famous, twisting mountain road since January 2013.
Raised in the Bronx, New York, Brody is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He and Tamara, his wife of 33 years, and their daughter Shayna moved here in 2002. He loves Colorado Springs, but insists that cycling in the Pikes Peak region can be better. That starts at the top, with Brody pining for a mayor and council members who ride.
"Our city leaders have to embrace [cycling]," he says.
Brody organized the Mayor's Ride, an event to promote the benefits of cycling, years ago. And though Steve Bach has not participated, former Mayor Lionel Rivera pedaled along every year.
He also introduced Complete Streets (tinyurl.com/om7rog8), a national program calling for street construction accommodating all users, to Colorado Springs. Its adoption marked progress for area cyclists and pedestrians, but Brody says the city hasn't always followed through. In fact, he sees the traveling environment on the roads getting worse.
"I don't believe that bike lanes on the roads really add much safety," he says. "It delineates a piece of the road, but from a confidence standpoint I'm not impressed."
He has a plan for safer riding. Brody has explored miles of creek beds and drainage structure in Colorado Springs, bumping over rocks, debris and the occasional abandoned grocery cart. He believes the area's drainage basins can become thoroughfares for cyclists and pedestrians, if we add safe passageways to stormwater projects. Why cross a busy intersection when we can ride through tunnels and under bridges?
"I'm calling it Complete Creeks," he says. "It doesn't take a lot more work. It does take forethought. I think it will change our ability to move around on non-motorized stuff."
Brody's prognosis is good, but cancer, as we all know, is a beast. Last week, with swallowing becoming difficult, a feeding tube was inserted through his abdomen and into his stomach. "It feels like I've been hit with a tire iron," he says.
Still, he planned to ride this past Monday, and his sense of humor remains intact. "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around," he wrote me via Facebook.
He is focused on riding for the 20th time in July's RAGBRAI, the famous bike ride across Iowa. He could be done with treatment by May, but not declared cancer-free for years.
The disease has slowed his pace ... a little. But he is more aware. He looks at people and smiles. And they smile back. That's something new, a good symptom.
"The community support has been incredible," he says. "Cancer is a disease that makes people reach out. It's like I'm having an It's a Wonderful Life experience."