Among mountain bikers it’s called the calm before the yard sale. I was out of my saddle and barreling down a short, steep singletrack channeling my inner Ned Overend when I planted my front wheel deep into the soft scree of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The bike came to a complete stop and I flew through the hot and humid southwest Texas air. One leg pointed north and one pointed south before I landed face first in the prickly desert brush. My brand new Specialized stumpjumper Carbon Hardtail 29 landed to my left while my hotel key, sunscreen, water bottles, bike tools and silver-foiled two-pack of Pop Tarts were scattered all over the crash site. It looked like a yard sale.
I was invited to former President George W. Bush’s inaugural Warrior 100K Mountain Bike Ride, called the W100K, in April, along with 14 servicemen and women who were injured or lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The W100K was the inaugural event for the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Social Enterprise Initiative, whose goal is to highlight the bravery and strength of America’s wounded warriors and the organizations that make continuing commitments to support these heroes. Representatives from four charities who raise funds to support the needs of injured troops also participated: Wounded Warriors, Ride 2 Recovery, Challenged Athletes Foundation (which I co-founded) and World T.E.A.M. Sports.
We would ride for three days, about 12 miles on Day 1, 30 miles on Day 2 and 20 miles on Day 3—all of it off-road in the 90-degree heat and sauna-like breezes of the desert. The group riding with Bush was known as “Peloton One,” and Bush’s Secret Service, who would shadow him over the 100K, codenamed him “Trailblazer.”
Bush’s reasoning behind creating the W100K was simple: He said he feels a loyalty to the troops that served under him. “I put these men and women in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. I feel that they will always be part of my family and I will always be part of theirs.”
One of those men is U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Chris Self, 44, who is based at Fort Campbell, Ky. Self grew up in Canton, Ohio, the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a linebacker in high school and enlisted in the Army right after graduation. “I saw my uncle go off to Vietnam when I was a kid,” he remembers. “I loved the shiny boots and the uniforms. That was so cool. I told myself, ‘I’ve got to do that.'”
From 1986 to 1992, he was part of the military police at Fort Campbell. Then he went through the program to become part of the Special Forces. In 2001, he broke his foot and on Sept. 8 of that year he went in for surgery. Three days later, while at home recuperating, he watched the attack on the World Trade Center on television, went into his garage, took out a hacksaw, cut off the cast and went back to work. He was deployed to Iraq on October 31.
On Dec. 28, 2005, Self was based in Northern Baghdad and was three weeks away from returning home to the U.S. to attempt his first iron-distance triathlon, Ironman Florida. But as he geared up for his morning run, “I happened to walk right into a prison break,” he says.
During the firefight that followed, Self was shot in each leg. He had his right leg amputated on July 13, 2006, and in September 2007, he was back with his unit in Iraq.
It was while Self was at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in April 2009 that he met President George W. Bush for the first time. “I was there for rehab and to have my prosthetic worked on,” he remembers. “This was not long after President Obama took office. President Bush was at the hospital visiting the troops, he saw my road bike and asked who it belonged to,” Self says. “When we connected, he asked if I wanted to go for a ride on his ranch sometime. It was a Tuesday. I told him that he was the boss and I’d ride anytime he’d like. I borrowed a mountain bike and that Friday we rode for two hours on his ranch. I had no idea what that one ride would eventually lead to.”
I don’t know much about the fitness or athletic achievements of other former presidents but after catching a glimpse of Bush, wearing No. 43, riding at the front of Peloton One, there is no doubt in my mind that he is our fittest former president ever. The guy can definitely ride a mountain bike. If you’re not ready to rock and roll, he’ll leave you in the dust.
“The president was having issues with his knees and needed an outlet besides running,” Morse recalls. “He decided to get into mountain biking and when he found out that I had a lot of experience on the trails, we started to ride together.”
At first they rode at the Secret Service facility in Beltsville, Md. “The Secret Service staff was obviously very fit, but running fitness is a lot different than mountain biking fitness,” Morse says. “The Secret Service put together a special training group to get its team up to speed as mountain bikers. Besides being able to carry their weapons and radios while they rode, they had to learn bike handling and mechanical skills plus keep up with the president, who was becoming a really good rider.”
Morse rode with Bush at the his ranch in Crawford, Texas, at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., and at Fort Belvoir, Va. But the president’s favorite rides were at the White House. “I’d get a call and the president would want to ride at 3 o’clock that afternoon,” says Morse. “We’d ride laps on the South Lawn and through the Rose Garden. It would just be the two of us and his dogs.”
Over the years, a number of White House staffers would try to ride with President Bush—but only once. “People underestimated how hard the president rode or how competitive he was,” Morse says. “A lot of them quickly got dropped and never came back.”
After a trip to Idaho, where the former president had his first taste of singletrack riding, everything changed. “He loved the singletrack,” Morse says. “The day after we returned from Idaho we started building singletrack trails on President Bush’s ranch. He would be out on the trails with us and we’d sweat together.”
The idea for the W100K began when Bush’s personal spokesman, David Sherzer, called Self in February 2011 to let him know the president would be coming to Fort Campbell to promote his memoir, “Decision Points,” and wanted to meet. “I was asked if I could help them find some injured troops and representatives from groups that support the troops to go on a little mountain biking adventure,” Self says.
Of course, Self understands the mindset of an injured serviceman or woman. When he first came to the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October 2006, Self couldn’t run or ride at all—he was still in recovery mode. “I spent that weekend soaking up information from other guys who had already figured out what they wanted to do in sport,” he says. “The best part about getting wounded guys together is to share your experiences, to learn about each person’s path to recovery.”
Another W100K participant, Army Airborne Infantry veteran and amputee, Staff Sgt. Kenny Butler, 33, of Braintree, Mass., has learned a lot about dealing with the loss of his right arm in an incident when the Humvee he was riding in hit a roadside bomb outside of Baghdad in May 2007 and shrapnel punctured his body. He says he has to stay active and expand his lungs every day so that the scar tissue he has doesn’t tighten up and force him to lose flexibility.
When Butler returned home, he went online and looked for videos of one-arm athletes riding bikes. He discovered Ride 2 Recovery, a cycling event series hosted by the nonprofit Fitness Challenge Foundation, which partners with the U.S. Military and the Veteran’s Affairs Volunteer Service office to benefit America’s wounded veterans.. He participated in the R2R race in Texas. “I saw a lot of guys with more severe wounds then me,” says Butler. “I knew then that there was no room for ‘tiny heart syndrome’.”
Tiny heart syndrome?
“You know, when you start to feel sorry for yourself,” says Butler.
Butler was amazing on the mountain bike, too. With his prosthetic arm, he hung tough with President Bush throughout our three-day ride.
“I was impressed with how President Bush rides,” says Butler. “He’ll drop you quick if you’re not careful.”
U.S. Army Spc. Carlos Hernandez, 24, a lower-leg amputee and veteran from Schulenburg, Texas, can relate. “I wasn’t expecting President Bush to be as fast as he was,” says Hernandez. “He’s in great shape.”
Hernandez is as well. In 2010, he did all of the Ride 2 Recovery events plus one in Europe that benefitted injured British troops. He’s come a long way since October 2008, when the chopper on which he was a gunner was hit over Afghanistan by a rocket-propelled grenade. “I knew I was hit,” he remembers, “and I knew something was terribly wrong. I couldn’t feel either leg.”
If the RPG had hit the chopper two feet over, it would have hit the gas tank and no one would have survived. As it turned out, Hernandez was the only one wounded. “My leg was amputated in Afghanistan,” he says.
Every athlete at the first ever W100K had a great story and was more than happy to share. It was a very special few days. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Hernandez says.
And he’s right. Every one of the troops that made up Peloton One is constantly dealing with the mental and physical trauma that comes along with being injured in battle. Some of those wounds are visible, but some are not. The W100K was all about providing a venue for mentoring, sharing, riding, biffing and, ultimately, recovering and moving on.
Challenged Athletes Foundation/Operation Rebound
Wounded Warriors Project
Ride 2 Recovery
World T.E.A.M. Sports
Trail Location: Big Bend Ranch State Park
200 miles of old Jeep roads and trails