For most of us, the challenges of bicycling lead to growth as cyclists: climbing a long, steep grade to the top of a hill, staying balanced and pedaling through a difficult section of trail, taking a deep breath and merging into traffic on a busy road. But for some, bicycling takes them beyond growth and into transformation.
For the men and women who serve in armed forces, being strong and capable–physically, mentally and emotionally–to meet the challenges of battle is core to not only their job, but to their identity. To be wounded and permanently lose capabilities is a life crisis for anyone. For warriors, the wounds can run much deeper.
Through cycling, Ride 2 Recovery “makes a difference in the lives of healing heroes by providing life changing experiences that can help speed up the recovery and rehabilitation process.” A few weeks ago, they started their California Challenge ride at the VA Center in Palo Alto. It was cold that morning, but I rolled out of bed early to see them off on their 450 mile ride down the coast to Santa Monica. I wanted to see these courageous wounded warriors on their ingenious adaptive bicycles.
Ride 2 Recovery designs and builds adaptive bikes that it make it possible for almost any injured veteran to participate in the program. For a veteran who lost an arm, it might simply be adjusting the brake and shift levers to be one-handed. For veterans who cannot use their legs due to paralysis or have lost their legs, hand cycles get them rolling. For balance issues, recumbent trikes allow riders to lean back with their legs forward. Each bicycle is customized to the needs of the rider, and adjusted as the rider’s needs change through the training process.
Ride 2 Recovery hosts day and week-long ride challenges throughout the United States for wounded warriors as well as non-injured riders who raise money to support the program. The challenge rides let the injured veterans set individual goals while working in a group, and lets them accept help when needed. Sometimes a gentle push on a climb is all they need to reach the top.
Out of respect for their privacy, I didn’t talk to any of the injured veterans about their challenges: why they decided to do it, what were the biggest hurdles, how it’s changed them so far, what’s next for them. But we don’t need to know the details, do we? Even as outsiders we can imagine that it’s physically and emotionally hard every step of the way, that the rewards are boundless, and that the experience is transformative.
I cannot imagine that these wounded warriors see themselves in quite the same way after learning to ride a bike again as a double above-the-knee amputee or after being blinded–or both.
I was honored to have the opportunity to see them gather for the start of their 7-day challenge, and was humbled as I struggled to catch the group after it sped down Foothill Expressway. After seven miles I finally caught them, only to silently bid them adieu and wish them farewell on their long journey south.
What were your biggest challenges in bicycling? Has bicycling fundamentally changed your understanding of self, your beliefs, your life? Has bicycling been transformative for you?