During the week of July 15–19, 2019, I joined more than two dozen fellow EMS providers from around the country in the Colorado EMS Memorial Bike Ride. We rode from Snowmass to Littleton, crossing over three passes, Vail, Loveland, and Squaw. Loveland is on the continental divide, and the elevation was 11,990 feet.
Why did we ride? To remember and honor our brothers and sisters who lost their lives while doing their jobs, along with the ones who couldn’t go on any longer and succumbed to PTSD/depression.
We also rode to support the Air Medical Memorial. At the finish in Littleton, we were greeted by family members who’d lost loved ones in flight crashes, along with members of the memorial staff. Many riders participated in a candlelight vigil Friday evening where participants placed their candles around a helicopter. On Saturday some joined a memorial service with prayers and several speakers. The service ended with a reading of the names of the lost.
Along with the riders we had six support personnel, two cars, and one Penske cargo van to make sure the riders got where we needed to be.
Four participants rode recumbent bicycles. Although slower going up the mountains, they made up for it on the downslopes. The recumbent riders were some of the older in the group (go figure), with an age range of 50–68. All lived at 90 feet or less above sea level.
We faced challenges with some of the passes, such as Loveland. I live at 65 feet above sea level, and at 11,990 feet I found the air a little thin—some of us felt short of breath at times. But the effort was worth it, with views that seemed to go on forever and long, fast descents of 8–10 miles at a time.
Camaraderie, Not Cliques
This riders came together as a group quickly, becoming a cohesive unit that had each other’s backs. Everyone mingled together, bonding, sharing encouragement. There were no cliques but lots of camaraderie.
Ages of the riders and support personnel spanned from 13 to 72. Riders came from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. A cyclist with multiple sclerosis completed the entire ride, including every mountain pass.
We enjoyed sunny weather throughout the ride, with occasional late afternoon showers. Luckily we were at the hotels when the showers went through. The views were outstanding at all times, with towering snowcapped mountains, crystal-clear lakes, fresh air, high meadows, and one postcard view after another. If you couldn’t find a breathtaking sight on this ride, you weren’t looking very hard.
What made this ride so special? Of course the scenic views and quaint towns we rode through, but more so it was the work of organizers Steve Berry and Becky Peterson. They made each individual feel special and like a friend. They spent countless hours scouting the route, traversing it multiple times to make sure it was perfect.
When I do these rides, I meet some wonderful people, and this year was no different. I met the widow, Melissa Limmer Riola, and brother, Dylan Riola, of Texas flight medic Scott Riola. Scott and his crew perished in a crash two years ago. Melissa rode on the East Coast ride last year, when her husband was inducted into the EMS memorial. She found a special bond with the ride and people involved. That enticed her to come back for the Colorado ride this year. Melissa works as a nurse anesthetist in the Amarillo, Tex., area.
Melissa’s friends, family, and coworkers presented her with a check for $35,000 they’d raised. She was overcome by the gesture and wanted to put it to positive use: With the money she started a foundation in Scott’s name to provide scholarships for Amarillo-area students who want to go into flight nursing. This year Melissa gave out the first scholarship; the recipient was a past mentor of Scott’s.
Dylan is seven years younger than Scott and idolized him growing up. They shared many traits and interests, including sports and music. When I met him on the first day, Dylan was a bit reserved, being around new people and a new environment. He was new to the biking world and concerned he wouldn’t keep up. He more than kept up, and we usually found him among the lead riders. As the week went on, I watched this shy, unassuming young man gain comfort and start to open up and become more engaged with the group. I have observed this phenomenon on other rides: Often riders arrive carrying baggage like hurt and concerns with them. But as the week goes on and miles add up, they work their way through their problems. Finding others with the same issues and perspectives, they talk and realize a common bond and that support is available.
It’s been documented that long-distance physical/endurance events help in the healing process and bonding that comes with it. I felt this was happening with Dylan as he became comfortable with new friends. I hope interacting with other flight medics on the ride, who were working through their own losses of friends and coworkers, provided Dylan some insight into his brother’s life. On the last evening I sat with him and Melissa, he was engaging, outgoing, and relaxed, a completely different person than five days earlier.
In the past 14 years, I’ve participated in 27 different EMS memorial rides. I know the good, bad, and ugly. And Colorado is by far my favorite EMS ride.
Deb Meaux, the route coordinator, did a fantastic job with her staff of volunteers, keeping everyone under control and getting them from point A to point B.
If this 68-year-old male with hypertension, angina, and a blocked distal RAC can participate in and enjoy (and finish!) this ride, then anyone with a little training can make it also. It’s not about riding every mile or being the fastest; it’s about the journey and the reasons why each individual participates.
Hope to see you there in 2020.
Mike Kennard, EMT-P, has been in EMS for more than 33 years. He currently works as a paramedic at Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.H., and is a program coordinator for the New Hampshire Bureau of EMS. Mike is a retired assistant chief from the Nottingham (N.H.) Fire and Rescue Department. Contact him at email@example.com.