SEMINOLE — About 30 cyclists, many of them veterans, hope their breezy, weekly 15-mile bicycle ride will change lives of injured service members living in the Tampa Bay area.
Project HERO (Healing Exercise Rehabilitation Opportunity) has been rolling in Pinellas since May 1, one of 52 group rides of its kind in the country. The Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized the program as therapeutic for veterans with physical as well as psychological ailments.
Participants and organizers say anyone, regardless of how debilitating his or her condition may be, can come experience the benefits of moderate exercise.
“This is about helping veterans heal through exercise, through cycling,” said Army veteran Mitch Lee, one of the group’s ride leaders.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, greeted the group ahead of the ride to commend their efforts and to assure them he is working to strengthen the VA’s support of the pogram.
“It’s about creating opportunities and empowerment for veterans, not just suggesting that we need to provide better benefits or health care,” Jolly said. “It’s about the life that we know each and every person is capable of living. And to those who have worn the uniform and have sacrificed to us, it’s programs like this that actually contribute so substantively to restoring the veterans’ quality life.”
Project HERO Pinellas is associated with the national Ride 2 Recovery program, which was founded in 2008 to help with the physical and psychological recovery of the country’s wounded service members and veterans. Organizers say the motion involved in riding a bicycle has direct benefits for those grappling with combat-related trauma.
“What we find is that the repetitive operation and the multiple operations that you do while cycling help you recover from injuries such as (traumatic brain injury) or (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said John Goodwin, operations manager with Project HERO.
He said the only challenge is getting people to regularly participate is getting them out for an initial ride, but the rest - even outfitting those with the most debilitating injuies with the right bike - is easily.
“We’ve had a quadriplegic, no hands, no feet, we adapted a bike for him,” he said. “We’ve got a triple amputee who rides a hand cycle.”
Unlike group rides geared towardlifelong cyclists, organizers, say, there’s no minimum level of fitness required.
“A lot of people haven’t ridden bikes since they were a little kid, and going to ride with one of the big clubs can be intimidating,” said organizer Kelly Mc Donald. “We don’t care what skill level you are.”
The ride launches Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. at at Seminole City Park (7464 Ridge Rd.) next to the Pinellas Trail, which is where the ride takes place.
Currently 20 to 30 riders participate in the weekly 15 mile bike ride, both veterans and civilians. Organizers are hoping to increase the number of participants by raising awareness of Project HERO Pinellas.
“We’d like to grow the program with more rides and more vets, especially ones that can benefit from this,” Lee said. “This is about helping, it’s not about racing down the road. We do not leave anybody behind.”