U.S. veterans join ex-Saint for bike ride

Ignoring the cold, several hundred men and women veterans from across the country gathered Sunday morning beneath the statue of former Saints player Steve Gleason outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The landmark statue, known as Rebirth, immortalizes the famous blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons, which is forever instilled in Saints lore as Gleason’s greatest moment of athletic glory. And after posing for photos beneath his own likeness Sunday, Gleason, riding a special tandem recumbent bike, led the group out of Champions Square to start the Ride 2 Recovery Gulf Coast Challenge.

The Ride 2 Recovery, which raises funds to support rehabilitation programs for veterans, is a 395-mile bike ride for injured war veterans and their supporters. It will end Friday in Tallahassee, Fla.

The more than 200 participants, many with some sort of physical and/or psychological scars from their military service, departed with smiles, waves, heartfelt “thank you’s” and even a couple of “Who Dats” to the small assembly of family, friends and media on hand to see them off.

During the next week, they will ride along the Gulf Coast with overnight stops in Gulfport, Miss.; Mobile and Orange Beach, Ala.; and Fort Walton and Panama City, Fla.

Gleason, who was diagnosed in 2011 with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the terminal neuromuscular disease known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, led the group using the special tandem recumbent bike designed by Ride 2 Recovery and United Health Care, which sponsors the event. Gleason and his team trained on the one-of-a-kind bike, known as “The Big Easy,” for several months in preparation for this week’s ride. On Sunday, Gleason, decked out in black and gold socks, was assisted by his trainer Team Gleason General Manager Blair Casey.

For those gathered Sunday, Ride 2 Recovery is more than just a bike ride. It’s a physical, emotional and mental challenge, but it’s all about the camaraderie. Matt DeWitt, 36, of New Hampshire, lost both of his arms in an explosion in Iraq 10 years ago. Bicycling was one of his favorite pastimes, he said, and one he worked to get back to after his injury. This week’s ride is his second “challenge” using a specially equipped bike to accommodate his artificial limbs.

“Just the logistics of getting back on a bicycle after the amputations was the biggest challenge,” he said. “After that, you’re pretty much going. It’s the camaraderie. Everyone together and helping each other out. If you can’t make it up the hill, somebody comes up behind you and pushes you up. It’s an awesome experience.”

It’s one Eric Garner, stationed at Fork Polk, wanted to savor — which is why he set out Sunday with a camera affixed to the top of his helmet, to record the special moments.

“I’m about to get out of the military and I just want to keep all my memories fresh,” the Alabama native said. “There’s a lot of motivation. I want to be able to show my family and friends the type of motivation that goes behind the Road 2 Recovery.”

Produced by the Fitness Challenge Foundation, Road 2 Recovery helps injured veterans through group cycling. Sunday’s event was the second on the Gulf Coast.

The group and its sponsors help provide specialized bicycles for wounded veterans and programs to aid veterans in their recovery.

Paul Lazar, 59, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., who was wheelchair bound after his seven and a half years in the U.S. Navy and lost his legs two years ago to a pulmonary embolism, was taking part in his first challenge. He just acquired his specially designed recumbent bike three weeks ago and plans to ride in several events across the country.

“I’ve been training for eight months as a paralympic athlete,” Lazar said. “This is my first step. It’s all in your mind. I’m excited and thrilled. It’s something I wanted to do.”

And United Health Care CEO Glen Golemi was sent off with a surprise satellite phone call from his son, Dominic, 32, who is serving his first tour in Afghanistan.

“That was pretty amazing,” a teary Golemi said, after holding up his phone so the gang could give him a shout-out across the world.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” said David Haines, the chief operating officer of the race. “I try to put myself into the place of some of the guys who are doing this for the first time, how I felt on my first ride, some of the anxiety knowing that you’re going to be going almost 400 miles. It’s exciting to see some of the social stuff that happens here.”