A Rolling Memorial

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael DiPaula has found a spot of shade along the Annapolis waterfront. He takes a bandanna and mops the sweat from his shaved head. His lime-green Bianchi bike, the one with the patriotic stars-and-stripes handlebar tape, is leaning against a nearby tree, as if pausing to catch its breath.

"I do a lot of thinking when I'm riding," says DiPaula. "It's very therapeutic."

He and about 20 fellow cyclists just pedaled 40 heart-pumping miles from Washington's Capitol Hill to Maryland's capital city. They're taking a lunch break before the return trip.

But this workout is just a warm-up for the main event. On Sept. 20, DiPaula and 1,200 other saddle-toughened souls will hop on bicycles at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan and dismount two days and 270 miles later at the Pentagon. Some 2,000 moral-support cyclists are expected to join them for parts of the journey.

Face of America 2002, as it's called, is an unconventional way of paying homage to all the innocent lives lost in last September's terrorist attack. DiPaula, who lives in Alexandria, Va., has done a few long-distance AIDS rides, but never anything like this. Face of America, he says, "means the world to me."

DiPaula, 41, is a civilian project coordinator who is supervising long-term renovation work at the Pentagon. The morning of Sept. 11, he was at a meeting in the E ring section of the building. An electrician who was supposed to be there didn't show, so DiPaula went to look for him, walking about 60 feet outside to a construction trailer. Suddenly, an airplane roared into view, nearly shearing the roof off the trailer before slamming into the E ring.

"It sounded like a missile," DiPaula recalls. "There were three loud thump, thump, thumps. You could hear the metal cracking and crinkling, and the explosion."

About a dozen men and women had been sitting in the room he had left moments before. All of them were killed, plus more than 100 others in that wing of the Pentagon. DiPaula, briefly listed by authorities as missing, crawled from the flaming debris and the shroud of black smoke unscathed. He took one day off, then was ordered back to work because of his familiarity with the E ring's office layouts.

"I spent a month and a half helping with the recovery of personal items," he says. "I saw body parts I didn't want to see."

He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He attends counseling sessions twice a week, but still has recurring nightmares of planes hitting the Pentagon. He "freaks" on occasion, he says, and continues to ponder the question: "How come I survived? There's a reason Michael DiPaula is still in this world. There's something else for me to do."

While waiting for that "something else" to reveal itself, while trying to ford a river of grief, DiPaula escapes by riding his bike, over the hills of Virginia, down the back roads of Montgomery County, pedal stroke after pedal stroke, mile upon mile.

'Moving monument'

There's something peaceful and uplifting about the rhythm of propelling a bike. They understand that at World T.E.A.M. Sports, the North Carolina-based nonprofit organization behind Face of America 2002. World T.E.A.M.'s mission is to encourage disabled and able-bodied people to be physically active, to use athletics as a learning tool to convey larger lessons of perseverance, teamwork and brotherhood. WTS sponsors mountain climbs and footraces, but it specializes in staging high-profile bicycle rides.

World T.E.A.M. co-chair Peter Kiernan is a semi-retired alumnus of Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street investment house. He says the idea for a commemorative ride started evolving last fall. World T.E.A.M. representatives spent months talking with New York City politicians, police officers, firefighters and victims' families. The consensus: Don't schedule anything on Sept. 11, don't raise money, don't establish any kind of foundation. Keep things simple.

"Make it essentially a moving monument," says Kiernan, summing up the feedback.

"You don't have to cover every inch [of the route] to get a pretty complete experience," he adds. "You do the best you can. There will be people who ride five miles and get a lot out of it, and people who ride the whole thing and maybe won't get anything out of it. It's almost like there are 3,000 riders and you've got 3,000 different causes."

Groups of cyclists are coming from eight countries. There is an integrated Israeli-Palestinian team, including some members disabled because of politically related violence.

The oldest rider is a 78-year-old Polish man who lost both arms in World War II. One of the youngest riders registered is 14-year-old Rhys Jones of Severna Park. He saw an ad for Face of America and signed up to ride by himself -- without family or friends. He says Sept. 11 shook him to the core.

"It made me realize how much I've taken for granted -- all the freedoms I have," he says.

Most teen-agers would rather take an algebra test than spend three days in the company of several thousand adults. Jones has never cycled more than 40 miles at one time, and doesn't own a proper road bike. He plans to borrow his father's bike, which is 25 years old.

Although he has had some "second thoughts," Jones has no intention of backing out. "I'm gonna give it my best shot," he promises.

His mother, Lezlie Pratt, was less than enthused about the idea at first. "You think I'm going to drive you 300 miles and drop you with 1,000 strangers?" she exclaimed.

But then Pratt spoke to organizers at World T.E.A.M. Sports and was told there will be lead cars, sweep cars, sag wagons and a well-marked route. She no longer has visions of her son wobbling along at midnight through the wetlands of Delaware. She even thinks Rhys may be able to go the entire distance.

"I've changed from I thought he was crazy to being very proud of him," she says.

Paying respects

The Face of America ride is a collection of short stories -- nearly every participant has one to tell, testimony to the ripple effects of large-scale tragedy.

Mary Delaney, 52, of Alexandria, had two cousins who were New York firefighters and who perished at the World Trade Center.

Heart surgeon Mark Burlingame, 51, of Lancaster, Pa., will ride in memory of his brother, Charles, a pilot on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon with 64 people aboard.

Patricia Lewis of Fairfield, Conn., is a 36-year-old widow riding on behalf of her husband, Adam, a stock broker who worked at the World Trade Center. Lewis feels comfortable with World T.E.A.M. Sports' approach to the anniversary.

"I thought it would be a great way to do something kind of fun and combine it with commemorating Adam. We did a lot of bike trips together," says Lewis, whose four children, ages 2 to 9, will see her off at Ground Zero. "I like the idea of an outdoor event where you're actually doing something vs. maybe a memorial service where you sit and talk."

John Santell, 44, a pharmacist from Gaithersburg, and Amy Nespor, 33, a post-doctoral fellow at Howard University, will travel from New York to Washington the hard way because they want to do something to help heal their hurting country.

Riding 270 miles may not change the world, but it could change a person.

The bicycle is a remarkable human-powered machine. It has the capability to transcend as well as transport. Maybe it's all those childhood-memory associations: baseball cards clipped to spokes with clothespins; shiny Schwinns next to the Christmas tree.

These are dark days of technoterrorism and government-issued security alerts. Doomsday-ers hear distant thunder of the impending apocalypse. But H.G. Wells, the British science-fiction novelist who wrote about time travel and creepy aliens from other planets, had an abiding faith in, of all things, two spinning wheels.

"When I see an adult on a bicycle," Wells once wrote, "I do not despair for the future of the human race."

Michael DiPaula didn't go to any funerals in the aftermath of Sept. 11. There were too many to choose from. He intends to pay his respects in Wellsian fashion: by grinding it out from Ground Zero to the Pentagon, by searching for closure on the open road.

"Biking is my sport," DiPaula says. "This is my way to remember everyone."

Want to take part?

World T.E.A.M. Sports ("T.E.A.M." stands for The Exceptional Athlete Matters, a nod to the organization's commitment to people with disabilities) is no stranger to mega-events. A group of WTS riders pedaled and hand-cycled around the world in 1996. In 1998, a larger group of former American and Vietnamese war veterans, plus disabled athletes, cycled more than 700 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Two years ago, World T.E.A.M. put together Face of America 2000, in which separate fields of cyclists left the East and West coasts and met in St. Louis in celebration of the millennium.

Face of America 2002 begins at Ground Zero in New York Friday, Sept. 20. Riders will pedal 75 miles the first day, and camp on the New Jersey shore. On Day 2, the course is 120 miles and ends at Tuckahoe State Park on the Eastern Shore. Sunday the group will cross the Bay Bride and proceed to Annapolis, where the Naval Academy will serve lunch at the football stadium to more than 1,200 cyclists. From there, it's on to the finish at the Pentagon.

Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, a WTS board member, plans to join the ride sometime Friday and cycle to the finish in Washington. Senators John Kerry and Tom Daschle are among the guest riders planning to do a portion of the 270 total miles.

Face of America 2002 is for registered participants only, but World T.E.A.M. Sports co-chair Peter Kiernan says the ride should be more upbeat than most Sept. 11 anniversary festivities and, therefore, might inspire some unofficial cyclists to tag along for a few miles.

"I'm all for it," says Kiernan.

For more information about Face of America 2002 and World T.E.A.M. Sports, call 704-370-6070 or visit the Web site www. worldteamsports.org.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
30°