Story by Michael Collier
The most moving cycling odyssey of my life began with a phone call last July from a former colleague. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in joining a group of disabled U.S. military veterans — embedding myself with them, in a sense — in a ride down the California coast in October. “Yes,” I said.
It seemed like a rare opportunity for a civilian like me to understand the veterans’ perspectives. The event, known as the California Challenge, was billed as a kind of group healing process for warriors, including those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are men and women who paid a dear price: severe physical wounds and the debilitating symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I jumped into their world a few weeks later, riding 66 miles in the Napa Valley with a group gearing up for the weeklong Challenge ride in October. I knew little of what they’d been through — one soldier told me that passing cars freak him out. Still, they cheerfully accepted me as a volunteer member of Ride 2 Recovery, a nonprofit based in California that runs more than 50 regional chapters in the U.S. for veterans and supporters. It has served 10,000 veterans since it was founded in 2008.
While several groups are helping U.S. war veterans heal with activities such as river rafting or mountain climbing, Ride 2 Recovery is all about cycling and social engagement with other wounded veterans. Whether the organization’s strategy works to promote a better sense of veterans’ well being over time is the subject of a scientific study being conducted by the organization.
The late-summer sun rose over Silicon Valley on October 5, 2014, as 200 riders clad in red, white, and blue Ride 2 Recovery jerseys launched on their epic ride. It would finish at the end of the week – more than 470 miles south in Los Angeles.
The scene included an array of adaptive bike technology, with several bikes fitted for bodies missing limbs. Tim Brown, a triple amputee who lost both legs and his right arm, led the pack at the start, cranking his adapted recumbent bike with his left arm and a bright-yellow prosthetic arm on the right side that was anchored on his handlebars.
A few miles from the start, riders stopped at the Veterans Administration’s Palo Alto Health Care System for a formal opening ceremony. The VA complex,which helps veterans recover from physical injuries and PTSD, is where the idea of Ride 2 Recovery was born in 2008. Gil Ramirez, a Veterans Affairs recreation therapist who is an avid cyclist, called John Wordin, the former director of the Mercury professional cycling team, and proposed putting patients on bikes as an alternative therapy for PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Wordin founded the charity soon afterward and he is the chief evangelist for the cause.
“This program makes a difference,” Wordin told me. “When disabled veterans come back home, they are at risk for suicide and on the brink of losing hope. We make them believe that hope exists.”
The next day, I got an unexpected glimpse of what Wordin was talking about as I rode with a group of 40 slower riders chugging along the famously scenic 17-Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula.
We were starting up a hill when I heard a man’s pained voice from somewhere behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw Jose Miranda, whose anguished cries reflected the level of his distress. While the rest of us were straining to get up the hill with two legs, he was pedaling with one. Ten years ago, when he was 19, he lost his right leg when a jet ran over him on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Miranda gritted it out up the hill and he got to the top — just like those of us with two legs. The scene brought tears to my eyes as I watched him complete each turn of the crank with every ounce of determination he had.
He told me later that he rode an adapted recumbent bicycle for several months last year, until retired Gen. George Casey, who led forces in the Iraq war, contacted Miranda. The general believed that Miranda was ready to graduate to an upright bike, so he presented Miranda with a brand new road bike. “Just try,” Casey said. “Can you give me that?”
The third day of the ride was the emotional and physical rollercoaster of the week — a 92-mile trek from Carmel, up and over Big Sur and down to San Simeon, the home of Hearst Castle. It was on this stretch that I experienced my greatest satisfaction in company with the vets.
For the better part of an hour, I took turns pushing the weakest riders uphill, one at a time, in 3- to 5-minute rotations. Their recumbent bikes were outfitted on the left side with a length of PVC pipe, known as a push bar. I grabbed onto the top of the bar with my right hand and pedaled hard to increase the riders’ speed up hills.
Behind the pushers, a designated rider barked out commands to the pushers every few seconds: “30 seconds. 20 seconds. 10 seconds. SHIFT!” That’s when it was time for me and the other pushers to move forward in line and start pushing another rider.
It was a great exercise of teamwork, for which I received generous thanks. I felt like the outsider who had just joined the club.
I have thanks of my own to an unsung hero: Jennifer Goodbody, who led the slowest group of riders every day of the journey. She was unflappable, helping riders in distress from coming unwound. Goodbody has her own experience of trauma.
15 years ago, a superior officer sexually assaulted her. After years of depression, a friend told her about the Women’s Trauma Recovery Center at the VA clinic in Palo Alto, and Goodbody checked in. “It was a turning point in my life,” she said. “It’s where I was introduced to cycling.” She now works on Ride 2 Recovery’s newest project, the Women’s Initiative, which runs events and offers support for women with physical and mental injuries.
Denny Salisbury, a disabled Marine from a small town in Northern California, is a muscular, tattooed and friendly guy who resembles a super hero. As such, he became the poster guy of the 2014 California Challenge. Whenever riders closed in on an elementary school, Denny seemed to be the one kids wanted to see. Which is good, because he absolutely adores kids, starting with his five-year-old daughter.
In 2007, Salisbury was riding in a Humvee in Iraq when an explosion killed the driver and a platoon leader and sprayed shrapnel on Salisbury’s legs, neck, and face. His physical recovery took three months. He later became addicted to pain medications and now is drug-free. His mental recovery is ongoing.
Last year he rode from Boston to Seattle with a friend to raise money for children’s hospitals across the U.S., and he finished the California Challenge for the third time — assisting the slowest riders most of the time.
“You hit the bottom but you can always go really high,” he told Challenge riders at dinner one night. “There is no limit to how high you can go. When you hit bottom, there’s no way but up.”
2015 Challenge rides*
Six Challenge rides, sponsored by United Healthcare, take place in 2015:
Gulf Coast Challenge, Feb. 28-March 7, Atlanta to New Orleans
Texas Challenge, April 18-25, Houston to Fort Worth
Memorial Challenge, May 24-30, Arlington, Virginia, to Virginia Beach
Germany Challenge, July 2-13, Germany to Holland
Army vs. Navy Challenge, Sept. 25-Oct. 3
California Challenge, Oct. 17-25, Palo Alto to Santa Monica
*About 30 civilians participate in the Challenge rides every year. Donations typically are $3,000 per rider.
After four days and 270 miles of riding along California’s coast with wonderful people, I had return to my day job. As I rode Amtrak from San Luis Obispo back to the San Francisco Bay Area, I reflected on take-aways from the experience. Here they are:
Openness: Participants in October’s California Challenge were noticeably more candid about their struggles and triumphs than those I have met in other multi-day rides. Perhaps that’s evidence that the social interaction component of Ride 2 Recovery program is working as well as the cycling.
Social media: R2R folks love it. A week after the California Challenge, I had two-dozen new followers on Strava. They even gave me kudos when I posted my dog-walks.
Safety: On urban stretches of the California Challenge route, a shield of local and state law enforcement officers protected the riders. You won’t find that level of protection on any other ride.
Precision: The riders are the most disciplined I’ve seen. It’s two straight pace lines — and I mean straight. Never cross the center divide. I did it once and got hell for it. I never made that mistake again.
Happy people: Considering the horrors they have witnessed, the veterans are among the happiest cyclists I have seen. I thank them for allowing me a glimpse into their world.
For more information on Challenge rides and other activities of Ride 2 Recovery, go to ride2recovery.com.
Michael Collier is a freelance writer in Northern California and a USA Cycling certified coach.
Photos courtesy of Ride 2 Recovery