Santa Rosa cyclist Paul Stimson dies at 62

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Less than two months before he died from a neurological disease, Paul Stimson threw a big party for himself — a bit like having your own funeral while you’re still alive — and invited all his friends to come and celebrate his life with him.

The April event at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building drew close to 200 people, a kind of who’s who of the Sonoma County bicycling community, including former pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer. They came to honor Stimson, an accomplished amateur rider and racer, who was dying from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Cycling was only one chapter in the life of Stimson, who died Wednesday at the age of 62. He was attracted to challenging and exhilarating physical pursuits, from rock and ice wall climbing, to team skydiving, slalom skiing, surfing and scuba diving.

The Santa Rosa man faced his end with some of the same courage and stamina it took for the extreme sports he thrived on, choosing to stop eating and drinking until nature took its course, rather than prolonging his life with a feeding tube, ventilator and artificial breathing machine.

“He decided long ago, he didn’t want to get a feeding tube. He wasn’t Stephen Hawking. He didn’t want to live in his mind only,” said his wife of 25 years, Mary Jane Stimson. “I don’t blame him. He was incredibly active. He would just go crazy.”

Without the option of assisted suicide, she said, “the only choice in California is to stop eating and drinking. It’s not a fun thing to watch or experience. It’s very difficult.”

Stimson was beloved in the local cycling community for his mentoring and coaching, including for fundraising rides that benefited the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. But he was also respected for his accomplishments, completing 19 “double centuries” — grueling 200-mile, one-day rides like the “Terrible Two,” which takes in some of the steepest climbs in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Stimson, however was much more than an avid long-distance cyclist and athlete.

He spent a summer mining gold in the Yukon Territory, was a charter sailboat captain in the Caribbean and became an instrument-rated airplane pilot. He had a career as a land surveyor.

He also loved photography, bird-watching, flower arranging, Haiku poetry and Zen meditation.

“He could do things that weren’t adrenaline,” said his wife.

But over the past 18 years or so, cycling was his passion, beginning with mountain biking and cross-country races before he transitioned to road bikes.

He first participated in a Team-in-Training (TNT) fundraising ride to fight blood cancers in 2006, at the Tour de Tucson, and would go on to coach and ride with others at similar events, including century rides around Lake Tahoe and the so-called Death Ride, a 127-mile, one-day ride over some of the higher mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada that he completed five times.

Sometimes he would stop to talk to fatigued riders who were on the verge of giving up and help coax them over the climb.

“He was a very gracious rider, very respectful, extremely strong, stronger than most,” said Santa Rosa physician Bill Carroll, a friend of Stimson’s for the past six years. “Yet he was the kind of guy who would wait for you as a cyclist and do what he could do to improve your riding in a very respectful way.”

Stimson even did some racing with the Colavita-NorCal Cycling team.

“He was gifted on a mountain bike and a road bike,” said Michael Cooper of Novato, a fellow TNT coach. “I used to tell him if he’d started at 15 or 16, he could have ridden in the Tour de France.”

But then, Cooper said, Stimson never would have had time to indulge in other passions like trout fishing and sailing.

Stimson, the son of a highly decorated World War II submarine commander, Paul Stimson Sr., had a peripatetic childhood, growing up in places where his father was stationed for a couple of years at a time, including San Diego, Hawaii and New Jersey.

He graduated from high school in Mooreston, N.J., in 1971, and went to prep school for another year before entering the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

“He told me he wanted to fly F4 Phantom jets. He wanted to be a Naval aviator, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough,” his wife said.

Stimson dropped out of the Naval Academy after 2½ years and began pursuing other things like skydiving and captaining sailing boats along the Florida Coast and to the Bahamas.

He worked odd jobs, including staking a claim and mining for gold. He sold the nuggets for jewelry and kept the gold dust for other things, including making his own wedding rings when he married in 1990, the year after moving to Sonoma County.

His work as a land surveyor included jobs at Adobe Associates and Cinquini and Passarino. Typically the work involved mapping new residential subdivisions, as well as surveying the tracks for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train.

It was in late 2012 that Stimson began to experience signs of weakness that presaged his diagnosis a year later of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

The rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles. It eventually saps the ability to move the arms, legs and body and people die of respiratory failure.

“I’m a physician. I see a lot of people with a lot of bad diseases and ALS is as bad as it gets,” Carroll said.

Stimson, with the help of his wife, handled his diagnosis with courage and strength, Carroll and others said.

While Stimson could get around with the help of a walker, the couple began checking off his bucket list, with trips to New Zealand, Kauai and Montana.

In his last few months, in his wheelchair, Stimson took up chess.

He didn’t express anger at his fatal prognosis, and talked freely about dying, what he called “the big unknown,” even though friends could detect a little fear.

“He never once complained, or said ‘why me?’ ” said Cooper, who visited Stimson two weeks ago to say a final farewell. “It was just remarkable. He accepted it for what it was, and would deal with it the best he could.”

Cooper said he told his friend, “Why can’t you have cancer like everybody else?” with a chance to beat the illness. “He said ‘yeah, that would be nice.’ ”

“The amazing thing about the guy is he never griped,” Cooper said.

Even when Stimson lost the ability to talk, Cooper said he was able to make out one thing he said on his death bed.

“The only thing I could get out of him — that he could communicate — was ‘thank you,’ ” Cooper said.

In addition to his wife, Stimson is survived by his mother, Emily Stimson of Largo, Fla.; sisters Emily Maney of Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., and Katheryn Stimson of Largo, Fla.; and three nephews.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or On Twitter @clarkmas.

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