Tour de Red Nose with Matt Lauer
Red Nose Day is a campaign dedicated to raising money through positivity and entertainment for children and young people living in poverty. This annual event began 27 years ago in the UK and was launched in the US for the first time on May 21st, 2015. People from across the country came together to have fun, raise funds and build awareness, wearing a red nose they got in exchange for a donation. The day’s events culminated in a three-hour TV special on NBC featuring the country’s favorite comedians, musicians and Hollywood stars. To celebrate Red Nose Day, NBC’s The Today Show co-anchor Matt Lauer had a great idea. He decided to embark on a challenge–a “Tour de Red Nose“–biking 226 miles from Boston to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, raising money along the way. The show’s producers asked Backroads to join the cause by planning the route, riding alongside Matt and supporting the navigation of the entire crew. We couldn’t say no. So we–Backroads Trip Leaders Kelly English and Tommaso Spinelli–set out to help make the Tour de Red Nose happen. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at our experience from each of our perspectives:
TOMMASO SPINELLI: It was two in the afternoon–and I was trying to avoid the tourists on the sidewalk in the everyday human Tetris game we call New York City–when I received an email asking me to be a part of the Tour de Red Nose challenge. In authentic Backroads style, things needed to happen fast and research had to start in three days. Boston to 30 Rock was all I knew at that point. My first concern was that I’d have to watch my English on camera. Three days later I was at the airport waiting for a stranger–fellow trip leader Kelly English–who would become my irreplaceable partner in crime. Good thing we were wearing the same puffy Backroads jacket–a great first sign! The following days we found ourselves driving along the route, yelling at Siri for giving us wrong directions and looking for the perfect cup of coffee to ease the long hours. When one of us was driving, the other was cataloging an infinite number of potholes and reference points. Four days later, we were in Rockefeller center for our first meeting with Matt Lauer and the producers of The Today Show.
Meeting Matt Lauer
KELLY ENGLISH: We wanted to look good for our 9 a.m. meeting, so we were up around 6 a.m. primping. We walked the 15 blocks or so to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, dressed to the nines, and met with one of Today’s producers, Sean Reis, who was putting on this project. He ushered us into Matt Lauer’s office, where Matt looked us in the eyes, shook our hands, thanked us for coming and apologized for his thick layer of TV make up. He sat behind his desk and began talking a bit about his training. He was clearly anxious about the multi-day trip and we attempted to put him at ease. We pulled out the map and showed him the route we’d spent the last four days planning, with neon Post-its containing daily mileage in the corner. After a few adjustments we were ready to go!
The Studio Segment
KELLY ENGLISH: Tommaso and I were both very excited and flattered to be asked to do a segment on The Today Show with Matt to kick off his Tour de Red Nose—-neither of us had been on national television before. Luckily, I’d recently bought a solid turquoise dress that would be perfect for TV and went impeccably with the Backroads jacket that Tommaso was going to wear. We headed to the green room first thing in the morning and wardrobe grabbed my dress and immediately went at it with the steamer. The guy doing my hair added some curl while telling me how he used to be friends with one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, until fame turned her into a witch. The makeup lady was really nice and told me all about where she got her cool glasses. I was churned out, feeling like I was wearing a Halloween mask and a dress from a Disney movie. Up in the studio, they put microphones on us and ran through the questions Matt was going to ask and how we’d start the segment. I think I blacked out through the entire TV experience, because all I really remember was being handed a glass of champagne and not being able to stabilize it with just one hand. It takes a lot to make me nervous, but having teleprompters and giant cameras in my face succeeded in doing so! We toasted with the Today crew and it felt like it was over just as fast as it started.
The Ride Start – Fenway Park to Providence
KELLY ENGLISH: I was the first to ride with Matt when the tour started on live TV. I felt about a thousand times more comfortable having the cameras in my face while wearing spandex than in a newly pressed dress and heels. We stood over our bikes in the chute of people with an SUV in front of us, cameras pointed at our faces. All of a sudden I couldn’t remember if I usually clipped in with my right or left foot. I shifted back and forth a few times. Matt seemed equally nervous. His chain was in a weird position and not moving very smoothly. I went to get off my bike to help him, but forgot about the eight pounds of camera and audio equipment I had on the rack and almost went down when my leg snagged on the antennae. The Specialized mechanic came to the rescue and moved his chain into a better place. After a few minutes of standing there, one foot clipped in (hoping it was the correct one), we were off! The only thing that was going through my head was “DO NOT CRASH INTO MATT. DO NOT CRASH INTO MATT. DO NOT CRASH INTO MATT.” We made it through the chute of people and around the corner without incident and so began our police-escorted ride through Boston. The police cars leapfrogged and shut down intersections, so we rode our bikes straight through Boston, without stopping at a single red light. It. Was. Wild. Matt compared the experience to a time he did a story in Iraq and the army barreled through towns, shoving any car off the road that wouldn’t move in case they contained explosives. After a few miles, Al Roker jumped on a bike and pedaled with us for a bit. At the end of his three-mile stint, he hopped into a fancy SUV and was whisked away! As we rode, Matt had an earbud that was feeding him audio from The Today Show. If I were him, I would feel like a crazy person with all of those voices chattering away in my ear, but he managed to maintain great conversation throughout our entire ride. We chatted about everything from biking to health and nutrition, family, travel, etc. Somewhere around the Rhode Island border he decided to play some music through a little speaker on his handlebars. It was the saddest, slowest playlist I’ve ever encountered. Of course, I didn’t know him well enough to say anything at this point, so I just endured the slow beat and sad crooning. After a few songs, he turned it off and we continued chatting. We arrived at the Rhode Island State House, checked in to our hotels and then met for dinner with the whole crew.
Ride Day 2 – Providence to New London
TOMMASO SPINELLI: It was an early start to the day that Matt and the producers had feared since the beginning. We hit the road at 5:30 a.m. Our faces still carried the signs of our pillows, but the excitement was undeniable. Herbie, a State Patrol officer, escorted us along a 13-mile bike path, a great warm-up for the challenges we faced that day: hills, wind and potholes. Along the route, kids and families are walking to their mailboxes shouting “Go, Matt, Go,” showing their love and support, and even trying to pronounce my Italian name! Then we hit the hills and Matt killed it! We reached New London two hours ahead of schedule, cheered on by the crowds and Shanice, the future ballerina who helped inspire the Tour de Red Nose. We hopped on the Long Island Ferry and, while Matt was getting a massage, Kelly and I visited the control room and drove the ferry for a while. Backroads leaders just can’t stop! KELLY ENGLISH: There was great concern about coffee availability at 4:30 a.m. in Providence, and justly so. Anticipating this, I had brought my backpacking stove, coffee grounds and a filter to make delicious coffee on the fly. I brought Matt a fresh cup of strong San Francisco brew and handed him a PB&J for breakfast (I made him two PB&Js a day, which he happily ate instead of power food or donuts). I noticed he didn’t finish the coffee, so I asked him what he thought of it. His reply was “It’s good.” So I said, “Are you sure?” And he said, “Want God’s honest truth?” I told him to bring it on and he unleashed with “That was DISGUSTING. I couldn’t drink one sip of it.” Open the floodgates of sarcasm and teasing! By the next rest stop, I told him I had to make my coffee extra strong so I didn’t fall asleep to his playlist while riding. I offered to mount a pillow to my handlebars so I could take a nap if he wanted to listen to elevator music while exercising. Our joking continued throughout the day and the dynamic shifted from professional chit-chat to fun banter.
Day 3 – Orient Point to Port Jefferson
KELLY ENGLISH: What was supposed to be an epic day of biking on the flats in the sunshine turned into a miserable day of rain and cold and sludge kicking up in our faces. Matt and I put our heads down and pedaled without much conversation. About 18 miles into the ride, we arrived at Macari Vineyards and Winery, where they did some taping for the show and we took a moment to dry off. The fantastic proprietors threw our clothes in the dryer, heated us up with tea and even shared a taste of their new rosé. By the time we were back on our bikes, the weather had improved substantially, and so did our spirits. A few miles down the road, Today co-anchor Natalie Morales jumped on her bike and joined us for a bit. Natalie and I immediately found a common ground–giving Matt a hard time. We laughed and chatted and hummed along until Natalie’s bike started making a strange sound. I fell back with her and was exploring her chain ring, derailleurs, cogs, gears and pretty much every other component that could cause a problem. Then Matt diagnosed the painfully obvious problem: a flat back tire. We were so focused on the metal that we didn’t bother looking at the rubber. Oops. The dramatic tire change was hilarious and Matt got his retribution by giving Natalie a hard time about not knowing how to change a tire. After Natalie left, a few of the producers got on bikes and we all rode along happy and chatty. Matt’s play list picked up the pace a little bit and they discovered my horrible lack of Billy Joel knowledge, which left me vulnerable to a whole new onslaught of comical abuse. That night at dinner, Sean got up to make a misty-eyed toast about how well we all worked with each other and how proud he was of the project coming together–it was touching to see how much of his heart and soul went into the ride.
Day 4 – Port Jefferson to Flushing Meadows
TOMMASO SPINELLI: Back in the saddle bright and early, we hit the road toward Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. It was 45 miles away along residential streets and beautiful woods, with just a few hills but a strong headwind. We stopped at a fire station, where locals gathered to show support and Kelly got to ride in a fire truck. NBC anchor Lester Holt joined us and I got the opportunity to help him brush up on his Italian. Then Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie took part, pedaling with us for two long miles! We made our way to Flushing Meadows’ iconic Unisphere, the symbol of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where an excited group of children was waiting for Matt–it was wonderful to see all of the community and coworker support Matt had along the road each day. KELLY ENGLISH: When we pulled up to Flushing Meadows, the State Troopers asked if they could have a photo with me. WITH ME???? I wanted a photo with THEM. It was really flattering and as we were taking the picture, the group of riders went whizzing by. I sprinted to the van and followed them up to the Unisphere, where the ride ended for the day. The riding crew had a BLAST. Deborah Turness, the President of NBC News, was thrilled with her ride and couldn’t wait to go on a Backroads trip!
Day 5 – Flushing Meadows to 30 Rock
TOMMASO SPINELLI: This was the most epic and intense day of Tour de Red Nose, but also the shortest. The skyline was behind us, the light was pale, and the air was fresh and cold. We were tired but happy, looking forward to the last stretch across the streets of Manhattan. Matt, Kelly and I hit the road, rode across the Queensboro bridge and Park Avenue, and took selfies while avoiding potholes and traffic. When we were almost in Rockefeller Center, we could hear the crowds cheering from around the corner. At the finish line, we were asked to join all of the Today anchors for a toast. I was still carrying the live feed equipment on my back–thankfully, I somehow managed to remember and gracefully unplug the wire that was keeping me attached to my bike–phew! When it was all over, the Tour de Red Nose raised $150,000 and Red Nose Day raised over $21 million. It was time to celebrate! But first, it was time to take a nap before the evening’s Red Nose Day entertainment special. We said goodbye to our new family, just like on any other Backroads trip. After a few hidden tears, I found myself walking along the streets of Manhattan in my spandex, carrying all my bags and a yoga mat, somehow feeling in my element, contemplating America, opportunities, charities, gratitude, new friends and the pure pricelessness of traveling for a good cause. For video, photos and more, visit Today’s Red Nose page.