Tired but grateful. That's how Tom Fehlman described how he felt Monday afternoon after the first leg of his first try at the Ride 2 Recovery.
Tired, because he had just ridden 55 miles from Tampa to Weeki Wachee. Grateful, because three years after undergoing multiple surgeries to repair torn groin muscles suffered during an Army training exercise, he was able to complete the daylong bicycle ride.
"I really have no complaints," said Fehlman, 48. "It was a haul. We were going a pretty good clip most of the day. But we all kept up. We all did what we had to do."
Fehlman was one of about 200 injured veterans who set out Monday morning on a grueling six-day, 350-mile trek from Tampa to Jacksonville aimed at raising awareness for the care and rehabilitation of military personnel wounded and injured in the line of duty.
Using mostly back roads through Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, the caravan of custom-fit bikes — several of which were specially crafted for veterans suffering injuries from spinal trauma to multiple amputations — averaged about 10 mph, stopping only when someone in the group needed assistance.
"What some of them went through just to be able to ride a bike is amazing," said Byron Taylor, a retired wounded veteran who has spent three years as a trainer and coach for Ride 2 Recovery.
Taylor spent much of the day riding with Army veteran Roberto Cruz, who is recovering from a sniper wound he got in Iraq two years ago that left him with only partial use of his left arm.
"The guy was a trouper all day," Taylor said. "He just kept going and going. I'd look over at him from time to time and see him smiling from ear to ear."
Wherever they rode Monday, the bike riders got a hero's welcome. Drivers honked as they saw the banner identifying the event. People along the road waved and gave them thumbs up.
"I was just so happy to see that," said Jaebird Planchard, one of about a half-dozen American Legion Riders who is helping to escort the group on their motorcycles to Jacksonville.
"I think we all rode most of the day with tears in our eyes."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.