Part of the Greater
The hours he spent on his bicycle taking his turns riding the grueling 40-mile legs of the cross-country trek gave way to hours behind the wheel of the RV support vehicle, which in turn gave way to hours reserved for sleep. But sleep wouldn’t come for Bob Roberts, BSEd ’70. Too much adrenalin coursing through his body. Too much concern for the cyclists out on the road riding their 40 miles. Too much focus. The natural beauty of America passed by them all. Not exactly unnoticed, but certainly not relished. In short, it was a hard 10 days and 3,113 miles. But it was beautiful all the same. Beautifully American.
Bob Roberts, has been riding his bicycle for a cause for nearly 20 years. His first ride was a local Ride MS event for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of Charlotte, N.C., that a friend from church invited him to join. The 150-mile trip to Raleigh, N.C., introduced Roberts to a world of philanthropy unlike any he’d ever known and began a passion that would eventually take him from sea to shining sea.
After 12 years of riding for multiple sclerosis, Roberts found another cause to support: the Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program (ASAP) of the Carolina Medical Center. It wasn’t an invitation from a friend this time, but a pair of tiny miracles that transformed Roberts’ commitment into a calling.
Roberts’ twin grandsons Aaron and Hobson were born three months premature. They weighed a combined four pounds and have faced many medical challenges as a result, particularly Aaron, who has endured many surgeries and subsequent stays in rehabilitation facilities.
Roberts was fortunate to be able to take Aaron to one such rehab session. His normally busy work schedule, which frequently includes domestic and even international travel in his role as director of business development for Axus Technology, cleared so that his life could change. Upon entering the rehabilitation facility, he was awestruck by enormous color photographs that adorned the lobby walls. They were of disabled men, women and children participating in sports. Kids, just a few years older than Aaron, were doing things Roberts didn’t know were possible: water- and snow-skiing; playing wheelchair rugby, tennis and basketball; even his beloved cycling. They were doing them all.
“I looked at those photos on the wall and my heart was struck by the incredible determination I could see on their faces – their drive to become active again, to take part in life again. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get involved with this,’” says Roberts.
It was the cycling photo that had the biggest effect on him. He had never seen anything like it. A cyclist on an upright bicycle held onto a pole that extended up from the back of the hand-cycle riding next to him. He would later learn that this rider was called a support rider, and that this pairing was common on long rides. With his will to help already strong, seeing that photo gave him a way.
It turns out that ASAP had a ride similar to the MS rides that Roberts had done for years. They called their three-day, 180-mile ride from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, S.C., “Cycle to the Sea.” It wasn’t long before Roberts was a regular.
About 18 months ago, Robert’s friend Aaron Harper suggested organizing a cross-county ride. It was one of those “you-know-whatwe-should-do” conversations that close friends have, but rarely act upon. There were plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t work, but would you believe that the more they talked, the more they talked themselves into trying?
Harper is a medically retired Marine. He wanted to do something dramatic to raise awareness for military veterans in need of physical or emotional rehabilitation. He also wanted to do something directly for the veterans in the ASAP program to fill the void left in their lives from military service. Roberts, himself a veteran who served in the United States Army Medical Optical Mobile Activity during Vietnam, understood Harper’s aim.
“When people go into the military, they are taught the idea of teamwork. They are taught that nobody is left behind. And they are taught that they need to work together to accomplish the mission. But if they are injured and sent home, many times they lose that sense of teamwork. They lose their identity as a part of the greater,” Roberts says.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Certainly not to Roberts, who trained for his military service at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colo., where he met soldiers his age and younger who were wounded in Vietnam. Most had lost mobility or dexterity. Many lost their determination. Some lost their will to live. Without some kind of positive intervention –some way to fill that void that came with their injuries – wounded veterans face a tough road. Roberts and Harper planned to fill it one mile at a time.
Riding a bicycle is an individual activity, but it is a team sport. Cycling at the competitive level is seldom done alone. Three, four or even five cyclists work together to go faster. They draft off one another, riding in a single file, wheels just inches apart. When the lead rider tires, he or she falls to the rear and the next rider takes on the burden of cutting through the air.
It took some considerable planning and logistical maneuvering, but Sea to Shining Sea 2016 became a reality on April 10, 2016, at the Wounded Warrior Battalion West at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, in Oceanside, Calif. Five disabled, paralyzed, wounded or injured hand-cyclists and five support riders set out to complete a mission. Together.
“I’ve found that with these ladies and gentlemen that I ride with, these hand-cyclists, is that all you have to do is tell them they can’t do something,” says Roberts. “The next thing you know, they are doing it. And, they are poking you in the ribs, saying, ‘Come on, let’s go. You can do it, too.’”
The Sea to Shining Sea team rode the entire 3,000 miles nonstop, save for a pair of overnight rests in Waco, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. A hand-cyclist and a support cyclist, tethered together by a pole and mutual admiration and trust, raced across America’s back roads and forgotten highways. Each pairing rode for 40 miles like the links of a chain. An RV support vehicle drove behind them with the rest of the team.
“We’d stop in these small towns – Ada-sized, and even smaller – for short rests and people would come up to us wanting to know what we were all about,” says Roberts. “There was one man in Florida that I’ll never forget. He was a huge man. He could have been a defensive tackle in the NFL. He was speaking to one of our hand-cyclists and he was crying. I went over and asked him why.
“He told me that his former girlfriend, with whom he had a son, got involved with a man who beat the boy while he was still an infant. His son can’t walk now because of it. I told him about all the programs that exist for children just like his son, and through my own tears, I made him promise me he would become the most important thing in his son’s life and seek out these opportunities. Through his tears, he said, ‘I will.’”
Sea to Shining Sea 2016 rode to Charlotte, N.C., where they met up with the ASAP “Cycle to the Sea” ride for the last 180 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Their manifest destiny complete, the team got back on their bikes and rode to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., to officially finish their ride on April 24. In just 10 days, they did what some believed to be impossible.
It’s a remarkable thing to do something this grand, to accomplish such a feat. Deep down, Roberts knows this, but he is reluctant to dwell too much on the finish line.
He has been blessed in this life. Aaron and Hobson are doing well. His career is all he ever hoped and dreamed it would become. He has friends that mean the world to him. Roberts rides his bike for others. He gives them all he can, and graciously accepts what they give in return – the chance to be part of something far greater than himself.