CHATTING WITH CHARLIE CARABELLO
Charlie Carabello, aka the Caramel Cupcake, is a WBL Zealot from the Modern Era and belongs to a prominent minority known as the Over 40 Gang (40G), a rowdy group of Classic City old-timers who still enjoy turning the pedals with the younger lads and lasses on lengthy rides over varying terrain. Charlie is married, a father of two, and is Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Georgia. He’s also the type of tough, gritty and determined rider the WBL is most proud to have in its ranks, someone who may never have raced bikes, but through hard work and perseverance, can nowadays oftentimes be seen at the front pulling late in the day on a long, hard WBL ride, spinning along effortlessly while others toil behind. Charlie has gone from a rider who first only dipped his toes in the WBL waters to someone who not only contributes, but also excels, especially on a hard, hilly parcours. Charlie first attempted a WBL ride in 2015, as he relates below, and he’s progressed rapidly since then, but what makes Charlie’s story special is because of the extra hurdles he has overcome. Having the strength, the stamina, the fitness, the drive, the commitment, and the dedication to consistently complete a 4-to-5-hour ride with a strong group is a big enough challenge in itself, but when a curveball is thrown into the mix like the one hurled at Caramel Cupcake, it makes the accomplishment move into the realm of the amazing. Charlie tells about his present-day life in Athens and how he came here, talks about his cancer journey, and preaches about all things bikes in our chat that follows. And whether he’s called the “Caramel Cupcake” because he’s so damn sweet or because it’s simply a way to mask the fact he has a killer instinct on the bike, is something the reader will have to decide, but you’ll all agree, he’s a role model for all.
Humble Chronicler: Thanks very much for taking the time to take part in this digital sit-down, C.C. You have an inspiring and remarkable story that I look forward to diving into, but first tell folks a little about yourself and your family.
Caramel Cupcake aka Charlie Carabello: Thanks very much, it’s a pleasure to introduce myself further to the WBL world at large. I live in Athens with my lovely wife Joanna and our two kiddos, Adam and Vivian. I am currently Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Georgia and my wife is a grant writer for Goodwill Industries of Northeast Georgia. Prior to this, she was the editorial page editor for the local Classic City rag, the Athens Banner Herald, as well as a freelance book editor. Our son Adam is a junior at Clarke Central and he runs cross country and track and is steadily working on earning his Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts. Our daughter Vivian is in eighth grade at Clarke Middle, and she’s a swimmer, a runner, and the Number 1 Gym Dawg fan in the world. I grew up around Reading, Pennsylvania, which is about one hour northwest of Philadelphia, and if you have ever read Rabbit, Run by John Updike, the fictional town of Brewer is actually my hometown of Reading. It is also where, in 2017, WBL Zealot and Hall of Fame member Oscar Clark nabbed a stellar win at the Reading 120 - small world, indeed!
H.C.: Tell me a little about your wife and how you and she ended up in Athens.
C.C.: I met Joanna while attending Washington & Lee University (W&L) in Lexington, Virginia, and we became, and remain, best friends. She is the captain in our tribe and steers the family ship, and I definitely married above my paygrade. My wife is a cycling fan but she also refers to my bike as the “Two Wheeled Mistress.” After graduating from W&L over 20 years ago, I enrolled at the University of Georgia to pursue my Masters Degree in Education. The move to Athens was a nice fit for my wife because she grew up in the Atlanta area so she was physically closer to her family. She landed a job here in Athens and we’ve been here ever since. She has always been a stalwart P.T.O. member and served as an officer at each of our kid's schools. We both love Athens and we couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Athens is the right size and fit for our family and allows us opportunities to participate in meaningful ways in our community. For example, I recently joined the advisory board for Children First, which includes the CASA program for Athens Clarke and Oconee counties. CASA is an anacronym for Court Appointed Special Advocate and we are appointed to advocate on behalf of children. My work at UGA also allows me to assist people of all ages and backgrounds discover how higher education can have a positive influence on their lives. Joanna and I both feel a real connection with our community.
H.C.: When did you start cycling?
C.C.: I have been cycling seriously for over 20 years and the bug first bit me in college in the mid 90's while attending W&L in Virginia. The university is situated in the Shenandoah Valley region between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains with easy access to lots of amazing roads. During this time, I rediscovered the freedom and fun I had felt while cycling as a kid but which I had forgotten after obtaining my driver’s license. Something clicked when I rode my bike, pushing myself to my physical and mental limits at times while at others seeing and appreciating the sights and sounds of the world around me at slower speeds appealed to me. During the summers following my junior and senior years of college, I worked for a touring company that specialized in multi-week outdoor adventures for teens, which allowed me to ride my mountain bike all over the western U.S. I also learned that I enjoyed sharing my passion about bikes with others, and I not only wanted to become a stronger cyclist, I also wanted to learn the history and culture of cycling—I was all in at this point. As fate would have it, I wound up living in one the best places in the world to foster and grow these interests, Athens, Georgia, the mecca for southern cycling.
H.C.: When were your first WBL rides and how did they go?
C.C.: In 2015 I started dabbling in the WBL and I can thank, or perhaps blame it, on my friend and fellow Zealot Dr. Michael Trivette. I was initially intimidated by preset, uniformed perceptions of what WBL rides must be like and thus shied away from them, toiling away instead in solitude. Dr. Trivette's belief that I could hang with the group was all I needed to try my hand. My first outing was a trek to Good Hope and because I was a novice, I rode in the back third of the group only to realize later that, even with smooth pulls at the front, riding in the rear felt like sprint intervals for an hour-and-a-half, so I suffered during my first rides. But the following spring and summer, I started showing up for Single File Saturday rides (SFS) and learned the WBL Code and style, which boosted both my fitness and my confidence. From there, I found my place in bunch, proving along the way, I can handle myself and be a trusted lieutenant on the road, fully capable of steering the group home.
H.C.: No doubt, that is true! You mention your first WBL ride was in 2015, so this was after your cancer diagnosis. Let me step away from the WBL and ask a few questions about your battles with cancer. How were you first diagnosed?
C.C.: In late 2009, my wife was cutting my hair and noticed a mole on my scalp that did not look 'right' and sent me to go to the dermatologist and on October 14,2009 I was diagnosed with Stage 3B Melanoma. At that point, the nodule on my scalp had metastasized and gotten into my lymph nodes but, in a stroke of luck, it had not travelled to any other organs. It all happened so darn fast, and I don't really present as a big-time candidate for skin cancer, but cancer doesn't particularly care about those factors. I'm not sure what the survivorship rate was for someone like me back in 2009 because I didn't want to focus on that, but it was not high. I received my initial treatment at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas and its team didn't broker in odds or percentages of survival either, rather they were more focused on treating me and trying to give me a fighting chance. Years later, a few of my docs told me I was one sick dude, but what good would that knowledge have done me at the time? Every step of the way, as I received good news, it built hope, and I think having hope helps a patient too.
H.C.: Can you tell me about the type of treatment you received?
C.C.: The treatment I received was in three phases: surgery, radiation, and adjuvant drug therapy. Surgery was a seven-hour affair with a wide resection of the primary area on my scalp (today it looks like dent) and a dissection of the left side of my neck to get rid of any infected or potentially infected lymph nodes. Next, I received radiation treatment to kill off any errant cancer cells but it also (literally) nuked the hair follicle cells on that side of my head. Anyone who has seen me without a helmet or cap can attest that I have a unique hair style, even for Athens! Finally, came the drugs, and at the time, standard treatment was called for one year of injections of the drug interferon-alpha. Taking interferon made me feel like I had the flu, except it lasted over a year. The fatigue and mental fog were extreme and simply having a conversation with someone at work was exhausting. Injections three times a week were a brutal regimen and so many new drugs have come to market since then that it is not prescribed anymore. But it worked for me for some reason. I may not be great at much, but I'm really good at fighting cancer, and the thing that honestly kept me going, aside from friends and family, was riding my bike. Because so many other variables in my life were out of my control, being in control of the fatigue and exhaustion caused by riding my bike felt like a victory. I continued to ride fairly regularly every Saturday and even some weeknights when I could barely manage 15 mph because I didn't want the joy I get from riding taken from me too. Cancer takes so many things away that I learned quickly I could only get back those things I was willing to fight for, so I fought like hell for everything.
H.C.: When I first met you at the WBL, I didn’t know the struggles you’d been through, I only saw an individual with a smile on his face. How have you maintained such a positive attitude?
C.C.: I would be lying if I did not say I had dark moments. All I need do is look in a mirror and turn my head slightly to be reminded that I've been marked for life. But I cannot realistically control all aspects of a disease like cancer, so fretting over it endlessly is a waste of time. In terms of riding, the long journey to being healthy has given me a mental fortitude that I didn't have before. I would like to think that if I'm known for anything among my fellow Zealots, it is that I'm too damn stubborn to pull the plug and call it quits. I developed strength from pushing forward week after week feeling like crap during treatment while still doing my best to engage with the world. I feel like it shaped my cycling in ways too because so many people gave their time and talent to help me get where I am physically and mentally today that being a humble domestique that others can depend on to close a gap or set a smooth pace on the front is just part of giving back.
H.C.: You are actively involved in a charity ride called Pelatonia. Tell me about it.
C.C.: Pelotonia is a charity cycling event in Columbus, Ohio that is 200 miles in length over 2 days and with One Goal: End Cancer. Of course, calling Pelotonia a “charity cycling event” is like saying Milan-San Remo is a long bike race, but the bottom line is every cent raised by participants (me) goes towards cancer research at the James Hospital at the Ohio State University. Typically, 7,000 plus riders will tackle one of the many ride options, from 25 miles to the two-day, 200-mile experience, which is what I ride. There is a complete buy-in from the city of Columbus and the surrounding areas and I've rarely been on another ride where every intersection is marshalled by law enforcement, every turn is marked, and every SAG is overflowing with hospitality. I was convinced to enter by a coworker who had worked the event as a volunteer at Kenyon College (where Day 1 ends and Day 2 begins), and he and his wife helped start our local Peloton, The Midnight Train from Georgia, and the rest is history. I now understood more fully the enormous number of people that are out there focused on defeating what seems like an unbeatable foe. When a person is a survivor, he or she may spend a lot of time thinking about what will happen if I get sick again, but when I see so many smart people who have dedicated their lives to finding solutions to this disease, I can't be anything but hopeful.
H.C.: That is truly inspiring, C.C., and thank you for sharing your cancer story, it’s one we all can learn from. Let me step back over into WBL territory now. Do you have a favorite WBL ride?
C.C.: I have to say first that the number of times I've been spit out the back when the tempo goes to full gas are numerous, but I always bounce back! One of my favorite days over the last couple of seasons was the last Alto in 2019. I finally put together an Alto where I had a strong ride and finished with the second group in the Final Attack Zone. I rode the Alto Triple Stair Steps and Crackback Hill with intelligence and I held matches in reserve. This was the last WBL for the time being it is a good memory and will sustain me until life gets back to normal and the WBL cranks up again. As far as routes, the 100-mile ride to Lula is my favorite by far and a new route we rode recently into Madison via Buckhead is a beauty too!
H.C.: What is your hardest day on the bike?
C.C.: That’s easy. My toughest day on was in April of 2017 when I joined a merry bunch of misfits to ride the old 200-mile Athens to Savannah route in one day. Crosswinds started around hour 3 and never stopped for the entire day. At one point, I think I had mild heat exhaustion and rode in the SAG wagon for about 14 miles, but after inhaling an entire bag of gummi bears and gulping back copious amounts of water, I was back legging out the last couple of hours.
H.C.: Who are a few of your favorite riders?
C.C. I tend to favor the real 'puncheurs' like Julian Alaphilippe and Paolo Bettini, probably because I'm similar in stature. I love the way they animate any race they enter, as well as having the talent to back up those attacks. Also, I like Marianna Vos because she wins everything, and is genuinely humble about it.
H.C.: What are some of your other interests?
C.C. I'm an avid reader and podcast 'consumer. I regularly listen to Cycling Tips and The Cycling Podcast to stay current on events in the cycling world, and Planet Money and Reply All to keep me in the loop on money and tech. As a family, we enjoy getting away to the mountains of North Carolina and we enjoy hiking. And goodness knows, I do love a bourbon neat and a nice fire this time of year. Does that count?
H.C.: That counts in my book, and it might be about the time to pour one. Thank you very much for your time, CC, and thank you even more for sharing your story. You are an inspiration to all.
C.C.: Anytime, thank you, and we will see everyone soon!