Two hundred veterans gathered at a South San Francisco Holiday Inn Saturday to gear up for a 500-mile bike ride to Los Angeles -- some on two wheels, some on one; some who use clamps instead of hands to hold the handlebars.
These are the wounded warriors of Ride2Recovery.
Ride2Recovery works with Fitness Challenge Foundation to fund cycling programs that help injured veterans heal, regain a sense of wholeness and ability, and forge bonds.
"Riding a bike is a metaphor for independence, for joy in life," said founder and former pro cyclist John Wordin.
Pilot Michel Stalcup, 62, learned about Ride2Recovery through his work with the Concord Vet Center Elder Warrior program. Wounded in combat, the Vietnam veteran was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for Valor.
The self-effacing Stalcup has an intense sympathy for veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably because he was flying less than two miles from New York when the second plane hit the twin towers.
"My story is just one of over 200 riders participating in the Challenge ride," he said. "Other riders I am assured have more compelling stories to tell then my humble history and past."
Ride2Recovery purchases bikes from Shimano for the event, fitted and readjusted to the unique needs of each veteran. Handlebars are modified to accommodate riders who have lost arms or hands. Tandem bikes suit vets whose legs have been amputated. Riders can keep the bikes afterwards and continue cycling.
"I've been waiting for this program for 45 years," said Vietnam veteran Jim Penseyres, who has been with Ride 2 Recovery for three and a half years. "It's pure communication with all the guys, they understand each other. There's a real closeness, there's a lot of healing going on."
Chuck Sketch had been working out in gyms, but was able to feel the wind in his face for the first time in eight years on a ride.
Penseyres says the first day of the ride is much like the first day of school. Not many of the veterans talk, but by the end of the ride they have found lifelong friends and relief. Veterans are able share stories and common experiences, something that cannot be easily shared with friends or family.
The ride is not only a time for veterans to connect with one another, but for families to reconnect.
Such is the case for 15-year-old Brandon Lerma and his father Nick Lerma. Nick, who mentors other injured veterans, suffers form PTSD. Cycling has not only helped clear his mind, but has strengthened the bonds between father and son.
Support vehicles follow along, carrying spare wheels, tool kits, first aid, drinks and snacks.
The cyclists hit the road Sunday, heading for the coast. They will ride through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and down the coast, turning inland around San Simeon. The group will make it to Los Angeles for a celebration Oct. 8.
"We need all the support we can get to help our returning, severely wounded veterans," Stalcup said.
Purple Heart recipient Michel Stalcup will bike the Challenge to raise $5,000 for the rehabilitation and support of severely wounded veterans. To sponsor Stalcup's ride, visit www.ride2recovery.com, or send a check to: Fitness Challenge, 23679 Calabasas Road, Suite 420, Calabasas, CA 91302-1502.