For the past several weeks, I’ve been telling people I’m going to be embedded with the troops. I’m not headed to Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m bound for some hilly terrain along the Front Range, where troops, former troops, and their civilian buddies---up to 200 cyclists---will hop on road bikes and pedal for more than 320 miles over six days. Ride 2 Recovery, the program organizing the event, has dubbed its July 31 to August 5 ride from Cheyenne to Fort Carson the Rocky Mountain Challenge. The idea, says Army Specialist Juan Carlos Hernandez, who has participated in two rides, is to heal the wounds of war, whether physical, mental, emotional, or all three. Just nine months ago, Hernandez (pictured) was in Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade careened into the helicopter he was in, shattering his leg. Hernandez emerged without a right leg below his knee. After a long and arduous recovery, he finally began to walk again in February with the help of a prosthetic leg, and he will ride in the Rocky Mountain Challenge.
Ride 2 Recovery was formed about three years ago, after John Wordin, a professional cyclist who was part of the elite Mercury Cycling Team, was approached by Veterans Affairs to help devise an alternative therapy program for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. The ride has since evolved into "a big group-therapy session on wheels" for veterans injured in war. This year features seven rides with an average of 150 riders. In all, there have been some familiar names along the way, like Senator John Kerry and actress Kristy Swanson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. Governor Bill Ritter, an avid cyclist who was injured in a cycling accident earlier this year, will ride one leg: August 3, from Boulder to Denver. He’ll be part of a long a chain of road, recumbent, and hand-powered bikes. At least one rider is blind, and some have multiple amputations, traumatic brain injuries, and/or PTSD as a result of their service in the wars. Ritter, who recently participated in another cycle ride for vets, the Sea to Shining Sea Ride Across America, when it wound through Colorado, "sees these rides as a wonderful way to support our veterans and to highlight their service on behalf of our freedom.” In all, riders will breeze through Fort Collins, Estes Park, Boulder, Denver, and Monument on their way to Fort Carson. Click here to view the route. Ride 2 Recovery receives help from a slew of corporate and other sponsors, who provide just about everything a rider needs---from specialized bikes, clothing, lodging, and meals to the support crew who helps keep everyone safe on the road. Some tough road lies ahead, but neither Hernandez nor Wordin are too concerned about the climbing. "I’m more worried about breathing at the high elevation," Hernandez says. As for me, I’m worried about keeping up with Hernandez, despite my advantages: two legs and lots of experience breathing Colorado’s thin air. My cycling experience is limited to the silver Schwinn Sting-Ray with a banana seat I had as a kid, a dirt bike, and subsequent beat-up 10-speeds and mountain bikes. Borrowing a road bike from a good pal, I caught up with Army veteran Andrew Pogany for some training. Pogany is the director of military outreach and education for Give an Hour, a nonprofit that helps meet the mental-health needs of troops and families affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read about how my training went at my personal dscriber.com blog, where I'll also chart my daily progress in the Rocky Mountain Challenge. To get involved yourself, join the Challenge as a civilian rider at the cost of $75 per day, which includes a jersey, socks, and a T-shirt, or donate any amount to help sponsor a rider. Visit ride2recovery.com for details.