Q&A with local bike racers Mark and Ruste Sasser

Mark Sasser of Fresno strains for more speed as he competes in a recent cyclocross race. (Courtesy Mark Sasser)

Ruste Sasser of Fresno makes her way around the course during a mountain bike race. (Mark Sasser/Special to The Bee)

(Author’s note: This is a longer, more expansive version of the Q&A that will run on the Out There page in Thursday’s editions.)

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 both 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 their love of bike racing and how they are coping with Mark’s condition.

Question: What do you look forward to most about racing Big Sandy?

Mark’s answer:  It’s one of the few point-to-point mountain bike races left. Downieville and the Big Sandy are the only two I can think of. Twenty-five years ago there was lots of them, and now there’s not. So that elevates its status in my mind.

Ruste’s answer: Most races are laps of two or three miles, so people can go out and pre-ride and it’s not a big deal. But with the Big Sandy, because it’s so rural, there’s no option for that. If you want to ride it, you have to dive in and see what it has in store for you.

What makes it such a good 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 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 in 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. (laughter) So it’s kind of cool to see how far we’ve come.

What was the first feeling or inclination that something wasn’t right with you physically?

Mark: It would’ve been in the fall of 2011, during the Homegrown Cyclocross Series. I was racing single-speed and I was fit. I was so fast — crazy fast — and I lost every race but one because I was crashing and making these stupid little mistakes. It didn’t make sense, here I’ve got 20 years experience. But I started having these footwork and balance issues.

So what did you do about it?

Mark: Well, first I talked to Ruste, and we started to figure it out. We did a lot of research, and I have a friend who’s a neurologist. I talked to Pete a lot, to the point where he told me I needed to make an appointment. I had Kaiser at the time, so I started going through the process. Which, as I found out, is surprisingly long. I had to have 20-something blood tests. It was pretty ridiculous.

It took a while for someone to give you the proper diagnosis?

Mark: Ruste did, immediately. She knew. But one of the things that was the most frustrating is that every doctor wanted to beat around the bush about it. Right? Because I’m young, because I’m athletic, because I’ve got great blood pressure and all these things. But they didn’t want to say it. Seriously, I wanted to punch the guy in the face after he finally told me. After so many visits. I really wanted to hurt him. I was mad.

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 go do a really hard ride and come home, I’m down for the count. On the bike, you’ve got all these endorphins going, so I’m fine for three, four or up to six hours. That’s one of the problems with road riding. In mountain biking, it’s on and off the power and you’re constantly changing positions. But on the road it’s hour after hour in the same steady state. I can’t do it.

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?

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. You’ve got to understand I’m not one of those people that asks for help. I had to 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 out 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. There are times when I’ll need a handicapped placard, or a cane. 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, and I like to drink beer and 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 you 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’s a lot of people that I can’t keep up with, so they ride slow with me. Or they double back. So it works out.

Are you both racing the expert class on Saturday?

Mark: Last year I did the pro race and got fourth out of four. I was doing well at the beginning, right behind Vinnie (Owens), 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 have pro level technical skills and beginner-level climbing fitness, so where do you fit in? I’m not super fit right now, 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 5 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.