MARCO ISLAND — The guest of honor could not be present, but a good time was had by all.
"Ironman Sam" Fleming, age 7, was recovering from a recent treatment for the neuroblastoma he deals with every day, and wasn't up to coming out for the "Tour de Taverns" on Saturday morning. He was there in spirit, though, and in the thoughts of those who rode the 10-mile course, stopping at seven island watering holes on their bicycles.
Cyclists, and supporters who stopped by to donate to help Sam and his family, packed the Sand Bar ahead of the 10 a.m. start, crowding in to register and collect their ride cards and fluorescent yellow t-shirts.
"It's awesome. I've had tears in my eyes all morning," said Jackie Fleming, Sam's grandmother, who works at the Sand Bar. "People have been just walking in all morning with money, not even doing the run. Look, I get chill bumps," she said displaying her arm.
A festive atmosphere prevailed among the cyclists, even those who did not believe the breakfast of champions comes in a longneck bottle. Ridership was estimated to be a record turnout of 170 or more.
"The first year we did this, we had 68 riders," said Jimmy Boylan, who works to organize the Tour. As well as more cyclists riding, the Tour de Taverns had more taverns, with seven local establishments participating this year, a new high. The run began at the Sand Bar, then headed to the Crazy Flamingo, onto the Sunset Grille, Rookies, CJ's on the Bay, the Snook Inn, and Porky's before ending up back at the Sand Bar.
With seven stops, the theme for the Tour de Taverns was seven-card stud. At each stop, riders drew another card, duly noted on their ride sheet, and gradually built what they hoped would be a winning poker hand.
With this many "players," it had to be a good hand. C. J. Muntwyler had the winning combination with five tens, and donated his $100 prize back to the charitable cause. Last year, when the cause was the 9-11 orphans fund, Sam's grandfather won a new bicycle in the raffle drawing, and also donated it to be sold again, said Gene Erjavec.
Not everyone wore the matching t-shirts. Mario and Luigi, from the Mario Brothers video game, put in an appearance, although they also bore a resemblance to Max Barber and Guy Glover, respectively. Claudia McCoy was a little disappointed to have to change out of her "Master Bait & Tackle" shirt.
Some people did a little down and dirty tailoring on the garments. Rob Popoff tore off the arms, converting his to a sleeveless shirt. "I sweat so much, it's better for everyone," he said.
Stacy Mittelstadt expressed a little nervousness about getting onto a bicycle. "I haven't ridden in 15 years," she said – but after all, it's said that once you learn, you never forget. Some of those longtime non-riders cycled on bikes provided free of charge by Island Bike Shop, which offered wheels for anyone wanting to ride but bikeless.
When all the cards were dealt, said Sand Bar manager Capri Sickler, the event raised $8,175.99, including a $1,000 donation from Sand Bar owner Ray Fortune. The Tour de Taverns, helpful as it was, will make only a small dent in the mountain of expenses incurred by Sam Fleming and his family. Those wishing to help out Sam can go online to www.ironmansam.org, or call Capri at (239) 642-8449.