NY-Va. ride transforms the bikers


When 14-year-old Rhys Jones told his mother he wanted to sign up for a memorial bike ride from Ground Zero to the Pentagon, he knew the event had a serious purpose - to honor those who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attack.

But part of him was also imagining how much fun it would be.

"I was mostly thinking of the adventure," the Severna Park 10th-grader says. "But that has changed."

After completing the three-day, 270 mile-ride yesterday and rolling into the Pentagon to a hero's welcome along with more than 1,200 other cyclists in the Face of America 2002 ride, Rhys has a new perspective.

"You know how it is in high school. It's who is this person's girlfriend, and what she said and what he said. I was like that," he says. "And to tell you the truth, I was kind of unhappy."

After finishing this ride, and being part of a team that included many disabled athletes as well as those who had lost friends and family on Sept. 11, "everything is totally different," he says.

Of course, the ride was no less an adventure. From Ground Zero Friday morning, when he put his bike helmet over his heart for the National Anthem just before the ride got under way, to meeting three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, to being moved by the stories of loss and courage he heard along the way, the experience exceeded all his expectations. And don't forget the bragging rights of riding 130 miles Saturday through New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore.

After a lunch stop in Annapolis yesterday, riders made their way to RFK Stadium, where they regrouped and were given a police escort to the Pentagon. It was a parade of honor.

Behind the police cars was a 1928 fire truck from New York, which had made the entire trip. Then came riders who had been directly affected by events of Sept. 11 and disabled riders using hand-cranked bikes. All told, the procession stretched for perhaps half a mile.

Most cyclists wore Face of America team jerseys. Many wore armbands with the names of those they were riding for. Others attached pictures on their bikes or their clothes.

It was a slow roll down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the U.S. Capitol and Independence Avenue. Cars honked and people on the street cheered. When cyclists entered the Pentagon to even louder cheers from friends and family, they began chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A!"

World T.E.A.M. Sports, the nonprofit organization that sponsored the event, is dedicated to bringing disabled and able-bodied people together for athletic challenges that promote diversity, and in the case of the Face of the America ride, healing.

"It's great to see people coming together," says Jim Benson, World T.E.A.M.'s founder, who rode the entire distance. This kind of event, he adds, "seems to bring out the best in people."

Ken Thompson, 37, an Oklahoma native whose mother was killed in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, didn't realize how many disabled riders would be participating. "These people are an inspiration."

Since the death of his mother, Thompson has worked with the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, providing outreach and grief counseling. He went to New York a few days after Sept. 11 to help the families of victims, and has been back 14 times since then.

Although he is not an experienced cyclist, Thompson says it was important to be involved in this rolling memorial.

"When you are all riding for a cause and all share the same cause - not to forget your loved one - that has to be a positive experience."

He also believes events like Face of America make a strong statement about the human spirit.

"Every person who is making a choice to ride has made a choice to survive," he says. "You can either be a victim, or you can take steps and move forward."

Lauren Peters, a 27-year-old New Yorker who lost her left leg a year and a half ago in a boating accident, says disabled people can sometimes feel alone with their problems. "But here, everyone is pulling together."

Her physical therapist at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery taught her how to walk again, and then encouraged her to take up cycling. He designed a clip at the bottom of her prosthesis that attaches to her bike pedal.

The Face of America ride, she says, "makes you realize that people can overcome whatever challenges they have."

At a rest stop on the New Jersey Coast Friday, riders filled up their water bottles, ate snacks and waited to shake Greg Le- Mond's hand or ask him to pose for a picture.

He was happy to oblige. Le- Mond is on World T.E.A.M.'s board of directors, along with other high-profile people such as actor Christopher Reeve. LeMond rode the entire distance, and like other cyclists, even had a flat tire.

At the rest stop, he was introduced to Pentagon worker Michael DiPaula, 41, who was in a meeting at the Pentagon Sept. 11 and left moments before American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building, killing all those he had just been with.

Face of America organizers had asked DiPaula to tell his story, along with others who were sharing their stories of loss and heroism, but he was not sure he could.

But by Saturday night, DiPaula did speak to the crowd. He described the plane approaching as the "loudest noise anyone could imagine." After the crash, all he could see was "black smoke and fire." He was buried in debris and covered with airplane fuel.

The people he had been with minutes earlier were all dead. "I can still see them sitting around the table, their faces." DiPaula told the crowd he hopes his anxiety and grief will go away one day, "but it will probably stay with me forever."

When he had finished speaking, he was given a standing ovation.

The ride was emotional, but by no means somber. There was a positive spirit on the road, where few able-bodied cyclists found fault with heat or headwinds when they saw their disabled counterparts riding without complaint.

Each evening's campsite hummed with activity. There was entertainment on the main stage, and lots of laughter and enthusiasm.

The event required a significant volunteer effort, to which hundreds of people responded, not the least of which were the Girl Scouts in Tuckerton, N.J., who walked around Tent City passing out milk and cookies.

As for Rhys Jones, a newcomer to cycling, by the second day he seemed like a seasoned veteran.

When Rhys told his mother, Lezlie Pratt, he wanted to do this ride, she was at first skeptical. But after she talked to organizers at World T.E.A.M., she not only approved, she and her husband Tim volunteered at registration in New York.

As for Rhys, he says, "I'm really getting into biking. A lot of people don't realize how relaxing it is. And you get to think about stuff."

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