SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Waiting patiently to get the OK to get started on a 40-day, ocean-to-ocean trek across the U.S., the firefighting riders of the Fire Velo cycling club briefly went over where they’d be riding and what the protocols would be after leaving from the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier on Sunday morning.
After the affirmatives and the nods — tense with anticipation — were out of the way, the lead rider then looked to the crew and barked, "And don’t screw it up!"
What You Need To Know
- Current and retired firefighters with the Fire Velo riding club will travel 3,100 miles across the U.S. in honor of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001
- Throughout the journey from California to New York, Fire Velo’s riders hope to raise money for a handful of charities supporting firefighters
- Fire Velo started in 2006 as a way for firefighters — both active and retired — to join a social cycling club
- Over the years, the Fire Velo nonprofit has organized annual fundraising rides from San Francisco to Los Angeles
The group of 11 riders laughed, eased a bit and sat back in their saddles. Within a few minutes, they were on the road to New York City on their scheduled 3,100-mile ride in honor of the 2,977 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001 — including 343 firefighters of the Fire Department of New York.
During the cross-country journey from California to New York, Fire Velo’s riders hope to raise money for a handful of charities supporting firefighters, first responders and wounded veterans. And just as importantly, they’re hoping to bring back the sense of community and patriotism that America felt in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Maybe for a few weeks, you can take off your Laker flags, your Dodger flags, and maybe you can put up an American flag on your car and hanging from your house," said Fire Velo Vice President Buck Buchanan to a crowd of supporters, fellow first responders and media on Sunday. "Let’s get back to what this country was really all about."
Does the 2021 Ride For America 911 roll through your town as 15 firefighters ride from LA to NY? pic.twitter.com/1EcFGDcQDt— Fire Velo (@FireVeloNation) August 2, 2021
Fire Velo started in 2006 as a way for firefighters — both active and retired — to join a social cycling club and give them the chance to be active and hang out off the clock.
“But after a while, we began to think, what else can we do with that? And the idea was born to raise money and see who we can give it to,” Buchanan said.
Over the years, the Fire Velo nonprofit has organized annual fundraising rides from San Francisco to Los Angeles, participated in other national rides and held a 10-year Sept. 11 memorial ride in 2011.
For this ride, Fire Velo is supporting the Gary Sinise Foundation, Friends of Firefighters, the Fire Family Foundation and the San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation. The latter three all work very specifically to support firefighters in California, New York and across the country. The former, founded by actor Gary Sinise, supports both first responders — firefighters, police and paramedics — as well as wounded veterans and their families.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Nick Kimmel, who was in attendance as a representative of the Sinise Foundation, was also a recipient of the foundation’s work. In 2011, during his second of two tours in Afghanistan, Kimmel was catastrophically injured by an improvised explosive device and eventually lost his left arm and both legs. By his count, he is one of a small number of veterans who survived injuries that caused them to become triple-amputees.
While he was recovering, Kimmel encountered representatives from the Sinise Foundation — and in 2016, the foundation dedicated a smart home to him, built in northern San Diego County and tailored to his needs.
“I think as a collective, first responders and military have been coming together, and it’s good to get together. A lot of the time, a lot of first responder jobs draw former military, so there’s still that bonding. There’s that connection,” said Kimmel, adding that were he not injured, he would want to be a paramedic. “You know that there are still guys that are still contributing, even though they could take some aid. But they’re still giving it out.”
LA County Fire Chief Daryl Osby was on hand Sunday to commemorate the ride. Osby was a member of Fire Velo when the organization formed, though he acknowledged that he’d not had much time to ride in recent years on account of his “crazy day job.”
"As the head of this department, to see all these colleagues who are going out and doing a ride like this to support everyone else, this is really exciting," said Osby. "To be a firefighter is a calling. For 30-plus years, you put your life on the line to protect the lives and property of others. It’s a calling and a commitment…so to see our retirees to still have that same level of commitment, it’s amazing."
Steve Winter, a retired battalion chief formerly of the Ventura County Fire Department, is one of the lead organizers and riders for this year’s journey. Winter was in his early 40s on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, having found out when a girlfriend of a colleague called into the firehouse and told them to turn on the television.
“We’re trying to keep the memory there and keep the lessons learned alive,” Winter said.
Exact statistics vary, but at least 200 New York City firefighters have died of Sept. 11-related illnesses as of 2019.
"Twenty years later, it’s still affecting people on a personal basis," Winter added. "We want to make sure that nobody forgets, and that we carry those memories forward."
For more information on Fire Velo, the Sept. 11 Twentieth Anniversary Ride, or to donate, visit Fire Velo’s website.