As the route coordinator for the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride’s Southern Route, I did not get a chance to do much cycling during that 2019 event. So after hearing the NEMSMBR’s Midwest Route was flat and fun, I decided to try the ride from St. Paul, Minn., to Chicago. It turns out that the description of the Midwest Route was only half true—it wasn’t as flat as I’d been led to believe. Fortunately the “lot of fun” part was accurate.
Riders and support staff met for an opening orientation when we got to Minnesota, introducing themselves and sharing their connections to the ride. While most of those involved worked in EMS or healthcare, there are were a few outliers. There was a preschool teacher there with her paramedic sister and a plumber from New Zealand riding with his son, but the person who truly reminded everyone in the room why we were riding was the participant biking in memory of his wife, a dispatcher who died on her way to work.
My ride started with a little extra stress, as my bike did not travel to St. Paul as quickly as I did. Fortunately the group was full of extremely friendly participants, and one gave up riding at the start of the first day to drive me to UPS to pick up my bike. Once I got it to the first rest stop, a local bike mechanic who’d joined us for the day put it together, and I was off.
Another draw to the Midwest Ride was the fact that I had never been to Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Illinois beyond an airport, so I was looking forward to checking some new states off my map.
Faces of the Fallen
We initially got the flatness I expected as we rode along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, but in short time we headed out of the river valley, and the elevation increased. Soon we were in the “driftless” area of Wisconsin, an area glaciers did not touch during the Ice Age. It was there I had some time to think about the honorees whose names I wore on the dog tags around my neck.
Starting on the Southern Route, I’d been honoring Brad Clark from Hanover, Va., and for the Midwest Route I added Joseph Schaefer of Sterling, Va. Halfway through the route I also added Nicole Kielar, Vienna, Va., as the rider who’d started with her tag had to return home midride.
The ride could not occur without its support staff. They provide essential functions such as marking routes, setting up rest stops, and providing encouragement along the way. During some of the steeper climbs, support personnel even walked alongside riders as we labored toward to the top.
Differentiating the National EMS Memorial Bike Rides from other types of bike rides is the daily ceremonies where we read the names of the 75 honorees being remembered. Unfortunately the Midwest Ride appeared to have more local honorees than others, so within each ceremony there was a presentation of dog tags to the honoree’s family, friends, or colleagues.
One particularly meaningful moment came during our lunch stop in Madison, Wisc., where the extended family of honoree Matthew Adams joined us to tell us more about his life. After that ceremony we rode past the hospital where Matthew worked, and many of his coworkers stepped outside to cheer us on.
The hardest day of the ride had nothing to do with the terrain: On the fifth day we awoke to the news that a medical helicopter crash in Minnesota had added two names to next year’s honoree list. One of the riders had worked with the fallen flight nurse, Deb Schott. Everyone really wanted to get out on the course to honor those killed, but strong thunderstorms covered the area, forcing us to shuttle between stops. The storms blew through in a few hours, finally allowing us to get on the course and honor not just this year’s honorees but those from the North Memorial Health crash.
One of my favorite parts of the different rides is getting to meet the local fire/EMS/hospital personnel who generously open their doors and provide places for us to stop. It’s interesting to see their different apparatus and station memorabilia. I hear at many stops that people had no idea this ride existed, and they’re happy to be able to spread word of the ride and possibly recruit new riders. We had all our meals provided for, including some incredible home-made meals from fire/rescue personnel and catered meals at different hospitals.
After six days of riding our arrival in Chicago was incredible, starting with a bagpiper and spraying fire hose as we rode into Station #102. Next we had police/fire escorts through the streets to Lake Michigan. After navigating the summer Saturday crowds, we arrived at a clearing where the Chicago fire boats put on a show, then we ended at the Chicago Firefighter and Paramedic Memorial for a final reading of the names. I finally had the deep-dish pizza I’d dreamed about while pedaling all week, and it did not disappoint. One rider got tickets donated for the White Sox game, and they happened to be playing the Minnesota Twins, which provided a great postride get together.
While I look forward to coordinating the Southern Route again next year, I’m already plotting a return Midwest trip. It was indeed a fun ride, with the hills only being a small blip on an otherwise epic week.
Kate Passow is Southern Route ride coordinator and a board member for the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride. She is quality assurance manager for Physicians Transport Service, Herndon, Va., and a paramedic with the Sterling (Va.) Volunteer Rescue Squad.