Baltimore chefs trade their toques for helmets in charity bike ride

Some of Baltimore's most prominent chefs and restaurateurs are biking 140 miles this weekend. Here's why.

Doug Wetzel was unconscious when he arrived at Maryland Shock Trauma Center with failing kidneys and a skyrocketing temperature. He had suffered a near-fatal heat stroke during a triathlon, which led to a liver transplant and long recovery. Now, nearly a year later, Wetzel is getting back on his bike to benefit the same organization that supported his family while he was hospitalized.

Wetzel, the executive pastry chef at Gertrude's, is among a contingent of local chefs and restaurateurs gearing up for this year's Ride for the Feast, a two-day, 140-mile bike ride from Ocean City to Baltimore to benefit Moveable Feast. This year marks Wetzel's third ride with Rebels with a Cause, a team of about 65 cyclists that also includes chef and restaurateur Bryan Voltaggio, Wit & Wisdom executive chef Zack Mills, City Cafe owner Bruce Bodie, and fellow Gertrude's teammates John Shields and John Gilligan, who founded the team seven years ago.

Moveable Feast, which brought food to Wetzel's family last year while he was in the hospital, provides meals to patients and the families of patients with diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, as well as other life-threatening conditions. Many of the chefs riding on the Rebels team have supported Moveable Feast in years past, cooking for, attending or hosting fundraisers. They were eventually talked into tackling the ride by friends and teammates.

"I said, 'I'm done giving excuses. I'll do it,'" said Bodie, who is participating in the ride for the first time this year.

Training for the race is demanding for any cyclist, especially those who work in the restaurant industry, where schedules often don't leave a lot of time for 75-mile training rides or three-hour spin classes. But they say it's worth it to find that time.

"You make time for things that you're passionate about, things that you like, and it's a good focus for me to kind of spend worthwhile time," said Bodie.

Mills is another newcomer. Every day Mills isn't in the kitchen — typically Sundays and Mondays — he's been out on his bike. Spring is a busy time for restaurants as the service industry emerges from the winter lull, but Mills said training for the ride has been a good release for him.

"As chefs — especially this time of year because it's a busy time of year for all of us — it's been nice to have something to just do and to focus on other than the restaurant and food," Mills said. "There's kind of a Zen to riding a bike. It's just you out there, and you're having fun and, you know, trying not to make an ass out of yourself."

He added that the physical demands of chef life have helped him prepare, even though he doesn't cross-train with other activities.

"I'm on my feet so much that my legs haven't been nearly as tired as I had anticipated, so it's a little weird," Mills said. "I get done a long bike ride and I think, 'Oh, I'm going be tired tomorrow.' And it's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be."

Ride for the Feast is one of Moveable Feast's largest fundraising events of the year, with about 230 cyclists participating in the 14th annual event. Although participation has dropped about 10 percent from last year, Tom Bonderenko, Moveable Feast's executive director, said he expects this year's event to bring in more money. The event is aiming to raise $800,000, up from the $749,000 it took in last year.

Each participant in the ride is asked to raise $1,500, the amount Moveable Feast spends on food for one person for one year. The distance of the ride is significant, too — 140 miles is the farthest Moveable Feast travels to deliver food to its clients.

"For something that seems so intense, it's really a lot of fun," Wetzel said. "There's no egos in this whole thing. There's no one like really riding hard, it's all fun."

Although Rebels with a Cause are lighthearted bunch, they're also serious fundraisers. The team brings in the most cash of all 20 teams riding in the Ride for the Feast. The Rebels were aiming to raise $100,000, and as of last week, they had surpassed that goal with more than $103,500.

Bonderenko said he looks for high-profile members of the community who will come together and promote the event.

"I have a tremendous admiration for these folks because executive chefs and restaurant owners are busy," he said. "To know that these folks are going to walk away from their business and get on their bicycle to support their community, to me, just speaks volumes about the people they are and the commitment they have for the community."

Chefs are asked to participate in a lot of charity events, Voltaggio said. He leans toward causes like Moveable Feast that tie back to food and ending hunger.

"I can't cure diseases, you know, but I can cure hunger," Voltaggio said.

It's Voltaggio's second year joining the Ride for the Feast but his first as a member of Rebels with a Cause. Last year, he jumped in at the last minute as preparation for a 300-mile ride to benefit Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry initiative. After putting only about 12 miles on his bike, he joined a handful of cyclists who rode 100 miles to Ocean City the Friday before the ride, and then biked back during the event — covering 200 miles in two days. (Last year, the ride's second day and its 40-mile leg to Baltimore were eliminated because the event fell the weekend after the riots following the death of Freddie Gray.)

This year, Voltaggio is training more consistently rather than winging a century ride. For Christmas, his wife bought him a trainer bike, and he tries to do between 70 and 80 miles per week. He trains near his Frederick County home, a hillier area than the flat Eastern Shore route.

While Voltaggio is ramping up his training regimen, Wetzel is backing off. The May 14-15 ride is too close to the anniversary of his May 30 heat stroke last year, he said. This year, he's only riding during the second day — the 40-mile stretch back to Baltimore.

"In good conscience, I couldn't commit to the whole thing," Wetzel said.

He's still training, cautiously — he rides with a thermometer to monitor his temperature and a Fitbit to track his heart rate. Most Sundays he rides along the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, and he tries to fit in a couple runs and two trips to the gym each week, too.

Sometimes he squeezes those workouts into his work days.

"I'll hop out for an hour and do a jog and get back to work," he said.

Wetzel said doctors think the bike portion of his triathlon last year led to his heat stroke. He fell during the bike ride, and they think the contusion he suffered from the fall caused compartment syndrome, which blocked blood flow to his legs. He ran four miles after the bike segment of the race before collapsing.

Baltimore resident Amy Borth was Wetzel's nurse practitioner at Shock Trauma, and she joined the Rebels after he asked her to come on board in November. This year is her first time participating in the event.

"Every time I ride with him, it blows me away," she said.

Bodie, the City Cafe owner, is another rookie on the Rebels. It's a new way for him to support Moveable Feast "and probably the most challenging," but he's supported the nonprofit for the past 20 years, starting by delivering meals to AIDS patients.

"That long ago, that was a death sentence," Bodie said. "I literally would deliver food to patients who wouldn't be patients after a while. That's changed a lot, and so has Moveable Feast's cause."

Moveable Feast originally focused on clients living with HIV/AIDS, and has expanded its services to patients battling other life-threatening illnesses. The organization served 847,680 meals to 5,721 clients in 2015, according to its website.

Peter Jackson, a co-captain of Rebels with a Cause, rides in a number of 100-mile events throughout the year, but he said the Ride for the Feast is different because the mission of the fundraiser is so ingrained in every part of the event.

"It's not just raise some money, show up, ride your bike" Jackson said. "Feeding sick people — it doesn't get any more important than that. You can't argue with it. Food keeps you healthy; food makes you stronger. No one wants to cook when they're sick or worry about where their next meal is coming from."

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