By Terese Schlachter
I am lying face-up, feeling my shoulder blades against the concrete, my left hip somehow suffering disproportionately to the rest of my body, arms askew, held down by a young, helmeted, blue-eyed man, his face hovering above my own.
“Don’t get up, ma’am. Just hold still,” he says, glancing up, then back at me, trying to stare me to stillness.
“I think I’m okay,” I offer, lifting my head.
“Just stay down, you’re all tangled up with the other bike.” I lift my head again long enough to see a woman trapped beneath her hand cycle. She is yelling in some combination of pain and panic.
“She’s upside-down!” I say to the Face of America ride marshal, who is still sticking me to the road. “Is she—”
“She’s going to be okay. We’re getting her out.” He lets go and I pull myself from the wreckage, roll over and stand. My hip is strangely numb and my brain feels like a million marbles, but I figure I’ll shake it off. Some of my teammates gather, adjusting disheveled parts on my bike and my person. A quick attempt to re-saddle myself settles any question about continuing the ride. So, I stand watching as ride volunteers literally pull the spikey edges of electric chain rings from inside the hand cyclist’s body. She spends the next two days in the hospital. I spend them in the SAG wagon.
As a frequent participant in organized semi-athletic events I’d often peered into the windows of SAG (Support and Gear) vehicles and found myself squelching uncharitable thoughts, like the self-righteous, “Maybe those folks should have trained a little harder;” The haughty, “It’s gotta be so embarrassing to be in there;” and the shaming, “Why is that lady snacking? She sure didn’t earn those calories!”
And here I was stepping gingerly into a white cushiony van, glancing back as my sleek neon yellow and black Pinarello, only two miles added to her odometer, went wheels up like a Kentucky Derby scratch, into the trailer.
“Want some snacks?” The SAG drivers, Rachel and MC, were sympathetic and cheerful, having an innate understanding of the medicinal properties of peanut butter crackers.
In the seat behind me was a pretty brunette who didn’t seem too worse for wear. I introduced myself.
“I’m Laura,” she said. “I’m having trouble with my bike—it’s not mine, I borrowed it.” We spent the next ten miles chatting about riding, her work with Warrior Sailing, how I’d look for her at the upcoming Annapolis boat show and how we’d both could really go for a latte. She was immediately my BFF and we exchanged “see ya laters” at the rest stop where she went to the bike mechanic and I headed for the medical tent. Toby, a local physical therapist, secured a bag of ice to my hip with what looked like saran wrap. Less Cameron Diaz and more Carol Burnett’s Mrs. Wiggins, I twerked my hip back into the van, then slid over to allow room for incoming.
I watched helplessly as a man on a hand cycle pulled parallel to the door, slid his behind from his bike to the gravelly ground then hoisted himself backwards onto the floor of the vehicle. I wanted to help but I didn’t know which part to grab. Despite limited use of his legs, he landed in the seat next to me.
“I’m Olaf,” he announced. “Bike trouble. I hope they can fix it at the next stop.” Olaf, he told me, is planning to ride with other adaptive cyclists across southern Africa.
“Will you see animals? I mean, like game, like lions?” I asked, mesmerized by the thrill.
“Oh, yeah, we’ll see some. It’ll be exciting… the only problem is, my documentary film crew bailed.”
“Well, Olaf, guess what I do for a living!”
His eyes widened and we were off, me touting my reel full of stories I’d produced about adaptive sports, he explaining that he’d lived in more than 50 countries and he’d dreamed for years of riding from Namibia to Mozambique.
Olaf and me
Over the radio came the voice of the SAG coordinator, the person who at once manages load and logistics.
“SAG 3, can you pick up at the top of the hill?”
The van slowed and soon Lachelle, part of Team Atlanta, who was nursing an ankle injury, was in the row behind us. I unraveled my saran wrap and handed her my ice.
Next in was Michelle. Her breathing was raspy and uneven as she flopped into the seat.
“I wanted to keep going,” she sobbed. “He—that marshal—made me quit.”
It was a line that marshals had to ride, literally, torn between keeping the peloton from stretching length-wise beyond what was safely manageable and allowing riders to meet their own physical challenges.
“You can try again on the next leg,” Rachel and MC offered. Michelle gazed wishfully out the window, watching the terrain grow hillier.
Beth Regoli and Jon Coile provide support to our Patriot Team Captain, COL (ret.) Greg Gadson.
Traffic was building behind us and a few impatient drivers inched up, working their way into the oncoming lane, creating an unsafe situation for the riders ahead. Rachel let out a soft, low growl, then swerved the trailer out a bit to prevent the pass. Suddenly on defense, I mentally dressed down the anxious intruder, but cast only an ugly stare.
“Watch out for this grey Honda,” MC warned the other SAGs as we stopped for our next passenger, who turned out to be Lachelle’s twin sister Rochelle. (How did their mother keep that straight?) Soon there were a few others in and out between the rows, comparing injuries, ex-spouses and cookie recipes. I spotted a bald eagle in a field.
“An eagle!” Michelle crowed. “You know what that means?”
I shook my head.
“An eagle symbolizes power and strength. Its spirit is here with us. I can feel it.” She closed her eyes, absorbing the moment, drawing on the bird’s magnificent power. “I’m okay now,” she said quietly. “I’m gonna finish.”
The SAG rolled slowly into the final stop of the day. It was time for an unearned beer and dinner. Swelling on my lower back and hip kept me out of the saddle the next day too. But I was able to help out a little at the rest stops where adaptive riders wanted to move from their bikes to wheelchairs and back again. Every transfer was different but I soon realized each rider would kindly provide instruction: move a foot, slide a leg, Velcro a hand or in one case, join arms and “dance” his way into the seat.
I also got to clap my team in at the finish in Gettysburg and pose for photos—the only one in street clothes and a “volunteer” t-shirt I’d commandeered from Rachel. I’d become tangentially a part of two teams, not quite fitting into either.
Team Patriot, the Shady Side: Beth Regoli, Jennifer Barnabee, Craig Barnabee, Ross Colquhoun, Judy Zdobysz, me, Kristin Acquavella and my husband, Jon Coile.
Perspective changes quickly. One blow takes you from vertical, looking ahead to flat out, looking skyward; from self-satisfied with your seemingly steely link in the team chain, to wobbly curb-side supporter; from rider to observer and nascent helper.
The SAG vehicle traditionally rides in the rear, carrying out its intrepid duties of sweeping up the fallen. From the front of the pack, it appears to lumber, its supine cargo weighing heavily on progress. But from the back, the riders can see the whole peloton spread before them, protect from the rear, gain an ear on the inside stories and be inspired. “Support and Gear” is a misnomer. “Sustenance and Gratitude” seems more appropriate.