You don’t outgrow everything as you grow up. Your jeans may get handed down and your toys may end up in the back of the closet, but the important things, the ones you really love, stay with you.
Just ask Russ Hands.
Russ, 55, is still playing drums and riding bikes, just like he did when he was growing up in Los Angeles. He characterizes both activities as hobbies – interests he pursues when he’s not fulfilling his responsibilities as chief of surgery for Kaiser in Vallejo and Vacaville.
But he takes a more serious approach than most casual hobbyists. In the 1990s, he rode in the Death Ride (about 15,000 feet of climbing over 130 miles through five mountain posses in one day) three years in a row and also took three bike tours of Europe.
“I remember seeing the Tour de France while on the highest pass in Europe,” he recalls.
His dedication to riding continues. Currently, he’s one of five Benicians who are members of the Taleo Racing Team and competes about once a month during the nine-month race season. This fall, he may race in a cyclo-cross — a mix of road racing and mountain biking. Russ also rides as often as he can with the Benicia Bicycle Club.
“It makes you feel like a little kid again to ride a bike. It makes you smile,” he says, his own grin emphasizing his point.
Music also makes him smile – and he’s just as driven when it comes to the drums. He still takes lessons and practices regularly so he’s ready when his group, Jazz Explosion, plays each Thursday evening at the Union Hotel Restaurant. He also plays with a band of Kaiser employees and family members.
Russ came to Benicia in 1988 when he started working at Kaiser Vallejo. His wife, Elle, also is an active rider with the Benicia Bicycle Club. “Elle rides with them more often than I do. It’s really nice having a wife who likes to ride,” he says. They have two children – Luke and Gabby — who are now in college.
When did you start cycling?
Like any kid, I learned to ride a bike. But I became dependent on it when I was a student at UC Davis. It’s a perfect bike town – I could ride right up to my classrooms.
When I came to Vallejo, some orthopedic surgeons were avid bike riders. But I was playing basketball then. When I hurt my ankle for the umpety-umpth time, I was given the options of bike riding or swimming, so I got a bike. I rode in a Multiple Sclerosis benefit the next weekend – 75 miles each day.
You rode 150 miles the weekend after you started riding again?
Well, I was tired by the end of that weekend (laughing).
What type of bike do you ride?
I have a rule that you need a new bike every five years because the technology improves by leaps and bounds. I started with a stainless steel bike and since then, I’ve had a bike made of all titanium and now one that’s all carbon fiber. Each bike has more gears, is lighter weight. I have a Trek now – they’re a sponsor of Taleo. It weighs just 15 pounds and it’s the biggest bike they make. Dollar for dollar, you get more technology in a bike than you do in a car or boat.
When did you start racing?
I just started racing two years ago. I race in the 55+ category, but they’re just as fast as those in the 45+ age group. Prior to that, I rode with the Benicia Bicycle Club.
Did you ever win a race?
I won the Dunnigan Hills race in the 45+ age group two years ago. But I’m not of a level of ability that that’s going to be happening again soon.
Why did you move from recreational riding to racing?
If you want to be more challenged, you race. … If you want to have a stronger challenge, you join a race team to compete with the best riders in your age category.
How often do you ride?
I like to commute to work. It’s really a nice 40-minute commute to Benicia, so that’s actually how I get a lot of riding in. But you gotta get in one or two long days a week.
Do you have a favorite route?
My current favorite is what I call Bridge to Bridge.
We’re just so fortunate they built bike lanes on the Zampa Bridge and the new Benicia Bridge. … You can ride out your door, go out to the Carquinez Bridge, go to Martinez, then ride across the Benicia Bridge. It’s about 30 miles. … By having these bike lanes on these bridges, it opened up so much.
You have a pretty demanding job. How do you make time for riding?
It can take over your life. This year I made the choice to race less and play music more because it became difficult to have two hobbies. My New Year’s resolution was to de-emphasize bike riding. …
I’ve never had a bad crash, but I’m well aware of the inherent risks. That’s also part of why I made the decision to cut back.
When did you start playing drums?
In elementary school, in fourth grade, I wanted to play trumpet and the band teacher told me there were too many trumpet players and I should play drums. I started with a snare and was a featured musician and soloist by fifth grade, played in the marching band in junior high, then the jazz band and a rock-funk band in high school. I even played in clubs. But I’d played enough by the time I was 17 that I recognized that it would be a difficult career, so I didn’t pursue it. …
What’s surprised me is that I still do it. It’s been challenging sometimes to keep music in my life, but I’ve played pretty much since fourth grade.
When did Jazz Explosion start?
Jazz Explosion started in the early 90s, and I’m the only surviving member from then. This year it’s undergone the most changes, and we’ve been playing every Thursday at the Union Hotel Restaurant since July 2009. This is our longest continuous run at a single venue.
The lineup of musicians changes every week. I’m the band leader so they get me every week, plus an assortment of great musicians, professional musicians.
How often do you rehearse?
We often don’t get to practice – that’s the good thing about professional musicians. They play regularly and so they’re ready to perform.
But you practice on your own?
I have to practice more, like a student does, to make sure I’m fresh for Thursday night. I’ve got a little music studio/man cave in our house. I have an electronic drum set so I can use headphones and play to an iPod …
I also study music. I have a young drum teacher and I’ve taken lessons from some master drummers. I’m always trying to seek out the best drummers.
What’s next for the group?
Now that we’ve been at the Union Hotel for a year, we’re getting ready to record an album. … I’ve done demo recordings before, but this is my first recording for an album.
Our hope is to get over to Europe next summer with the band. We’ll have an opportunity in the fall to book dates for summer 2011.
When you were a teenager, did you ever imagine you’d be spending your life this way?
It’s rich. I just feel really lucky to have a great family, my health, an incredibly fulfilling job, and then to be able to play music and play the music I want to play – all within blocks of where I live. I pinch myself. …
It was tough when I was growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money. I was the oldest of five with a single mother and we were on welfare when I was in high school. I started working when I was 15. There was so much uncertainty. …
To me, I always thought if I could pursue education for as long as I could pursue it, things would work out.
But I never really would have pictured all this.