It’s 3:25 a.m., and you’re preparing to start an IV on your umpteenth patient of the shift. You ask the volunteer EMT next to you for a thingamajig—“You know, the…ugh, I can’t remember!” She looks at you like you’ve lost your damn mind and hands you a prepared saline lock. This is the same look of grand miscalculation you can expect from your coworkers when you tell them you’re riding a bicycle 400–500 miles in a week. That’s usually followed by some variation of “Doesn’t your tush get tore up?!” or “I don’t even want to drive that far!” I tell them you can do anything you put your mind (and tush) to.
Some folks drink too much or binge on food. Others might suck on a laundry pod or bet on the ponies. Not me. Give me a bicycle and a crap-ton o’ miles to ride, and I’m grinning like a fool. My addiction isn’t cheap, but it’s probably good for me. As a three-time participant in the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride’s East Coast version, I thought I’d mosey west. This ride would take me from Reno, Nev. to San Francisco with a climb up to and circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe. That’s 426 miles and more than 21,000 feet of climb in six days. I thought, Yes, that seems reasonable, I’ll do that. After a kiss from the wife and a friendly fondle from the TSA at Austin’s airport, I was off to Nevada.
The NEMSMBR is a nonprofit made up of EMTs from around the country who ride to memorialize coworkers, friends, loved ones, and even complete strangers. Those remembered are EMS workers killed in the line of duty or who have died by suicide or even disease, like those exposed to toxins after 9/11. Most of the riders are EMS providers, though others are welcome. Ride participant and former flight nurse Sheila Shafiee says, “The type of people attracted to this are people you want to know—good-hearted, conscientious people.” For her, anyone who respects those who help others is welcome on this ride.
Most of the time spent is riding bikes, enjoying the folks you meet and the uniqueness of EMS providers. There are certainly somber times as a bell tolls and the names of the year’s lost are read at daily ceremonies. The riders and support staff all wear military-style dog tags, each bearing the name of an honoree. Some riders, having participated in many rides, bear clusters of the chained memorials around their necks, never shedding the weight or memory of past honorees. Sometimes I hear the four tags I’ve accumulated from four EMS rides clanking together as I work my way up a hill. It reminds me this isn’t just another organized bicycle ride.
The tag I wear specifically for this ride honors Scott Riola, a flight paramedic killed in an April 2017 helicopter crash. I met his widow on the East Coast ride last May. To honor her late husband, she rode every mile, nearly 500 of them, with only four months of training. She was, in a word, amazing. I felt fortunate I could be part of a group for her and others to ride, remember, and heal.
The West Coast route coordinator, Sue Ritz, told me, “It’s important that people remember their coworkers who have been lost.” Every year she’s amazed at the number of deaths, last year nearly 80. For Sue it’s personal. On a November day in 2009, her son Chris, a flight paramedic, became an honoree of the ride. He was killed in a helicopter crash. Sue has been involved with the ride for six years. She jokes that her favorite thing about the ride is when it’s over. The reality is that “mom” will keep the wheels down on this ride as long as she’s able.
Like any long bike ride, the West Coast ride is impossible to sum up in a single word, but I’ll try: hills. This ride was very challenging but rewarding. The EMS rides aren’t made to be easy (how honored would you feel if someone rode round the block on your behalf?). As I crested the first and possibly greatest challenge of the ride, the Kingsbury Grade up to Lake Tahoe, “shuffle” landed on David Bowie, and he sang, “Major Tom, you’ve really made the grade.” Another smartphone-fueled geolocation intrusion into my personal life? Serendipity sounds much better. After that my ability to tame the many hills and huge roller-coaster descents was not in question. The scenery was beautiful, the people fun, and the beer cold.
Advice for Riding
The NEMSMBR events, East, West, Colorado, Midwest, and South, can be trained for and conquered by any reasonably physically fit person. If you have serious questions about that being you, visit your doctor, shaman, palm reader, etc. The routes for each ride can vary from year to year. The geography of the West Coast ride provides some big-ass hills and beautiful mountain scenery. The East Coast ride tends to be less mountainous and includes some urban sights and people with funnier accents than me. What it lacks in climbing it makes up for in overall mileage, typically covering at least 500 miles in seven days. I’ll report on the other routes as soon as I ride them.
Some people who do these rides are on bikes that cost more than your first used car. I am one of those people. You need not take a vow of poverty to get rolling! Lightweight road bikes are ideal, but I’ve seen mountain bikes and pannier-encumbered grocery-getters too. Don’t go low-bid on bike shorts! Get the fancy kind, and you can be comfortable. Apply tush-protection gel liberally. Just imagine you’re lubing an ET tube for Shamu. The NEMSBR riders are nicknamed the Muddy Angels because they’re out there rain or shine. Keep the filth/muck/schmutz on the outside by getting decent rain gear.
It takes fuel to burn miles. You will be well fed. You’ll be supported if you’re mechanically unfortunate or inept or just too pooped to pedal onward. If you’re already an experienced cyclist, the entry fee is really a bargain for a multiday supported ride. Not sure how to pack a bike for shipping or need a ride-share or hotel roomie? Visit the NEMSMBR Facebook page. Not an EMT? Come ride. Not a rider? Phone a friend and learn. Never gonna be a rider? Be a wingman/-woman and provide support. Without their help I’d ride hangry, and nobody wants to see that. (I’ve been to all 50 states, and I’m not welcome back in all of them because I got hangry. Sorry, Nebraska!)
Biking Lake Tahoe is spectacular. Riding through the booze trees of California wine country is pretty and has other potential benefits. Shutting down the Avenue of the Americas in New York City so we can ride it safely is unforgettable. Bringing your bike into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and sitting in on a service is a little surreal, especially for a West Texas Jew, but unique nonetheless. The people you will ride with are like no other. What’re you waiting for?! You’ll be just fine. And if you’re not? Yeah, there’s an ointment for that.
Capt. Dan Cohen is a provider of clinical education for Williamson County EMS in central Texas.