Vietnam Veterans Biking Challenge
There are rice paddies to the right of him, rice paddies to the left of him. But for once the sight of those distinctive green, checkerboard plots doesn't give Wayne Smith the creeps. That's because Smith a 50-year-old former Army medic who's president of The Black Patriots Foundation in Washington, D.C. is wearing snazzy bicycle shoes instead of combat boots. And snazzy bicycle shorts instead of camouflage fatigues. And a featherweight bicycle helmet that feels, oh, about 200 pounds lighter than the metal clunker that protected him 30 years ago.
"I'm in search of a draft," Smith chuckles as he attacks a hill, pedaling in sync with a pack of matching yellow-and-black-clad cyclists. "I never thought I'd be saying that in Vietnam."
Actually, it wasn't the wartime draft that originally landed him here. Smith made the mistake of walking into a recruiting office fresh out of high school. Sarge said, "Where in the world would you most like to go, son?" Kid replied, "Tahiti." Sarge said, "Just sign on the dotted line."
Several months later Wayne Smith was (surprise!) dodging bullets in Vietnam, tending bodies that brought to mind severed garden hoses the way they spurted blood. Now, after three decades of civilian life, he has returned. This time of his own accord. Smith is one of 21 Vietnam veterans who are part of a larger contingent of about 80 Americans who've journeyed a long way to practice what might be called bicycle diplomacy. They've been joined by some 20 Vietnamese, among them a handful of ex-soldiers from the North. Together they comprise the "Vietnam Challenge" team. Together they are humping and pumping in a southerly direction, primarily hugging Highway One, the country's two-lane backbone that, by coincidence, was mostly built by the U.S. military. The goal is to bike en masse from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (which, like "the artist formerly known as Prince," is still commonly referred to by its old name: Saigon). One thousand two hundred miles in sixteen days. As they used to exclaim back in the Sixties, what a mind blower.
"The last time I was here, they were trying to kill us," Jose Ramos, another former medic, notes one afternoon. "Now they're shooting us with smiles."
As Ramos, Smith and their graying comrades glide over miles of unexpectedly smooth blacktop often deep inside what had been enemy territory they discover that, like love, Vietnam is much better the second time around. My, how pretty those trees look without snipers in them. My, how friendly the people are. Families line the roadsides, flashing gap-tooth grins as bike after bike blows by. Curious children and curious adults caress riders' arms during rest stops, amazed that foreigners can grow such bumper crops of body hair. Must be all that Coca-Cola they drink.
This quasi-goodwill tour is a product of World T.E.A.M. Sports (WTS), a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that stages high-profile athletic events with a not-so-subliminal message: namely that, if given the chance, people with disabilities can accomplish remarkable things. Two years ago WTS pulled together a small group of able-bodied and disabled cyclists who pedaled around the world. For the Vietnam Challenge that formula was given a new twist by adding the element of middle-aged soldiers on a sentimental journey to the past.
Curiously, cycling has become WTS's preferred vehicle of expression. Consider the built-in advantages: Virtually everyone everywhere knows how to ride, people of disparate skills and mobility can participate side by side, and it's a sport easily transferable to remote locales. The ingredients almost guarantee success.
"Bicycling is, like, 'just add water,' " says WTS co-founder Peter Kiernan. "You don't have to do that much."
The Vietnam Challengers range in age from eleven to 78. There are seasoned speed burners and saddle-sore novices. The team includes three blind men on tandems, eight hand-cyclists who lost use of their legs due to everything from cerebral palsy to stepping on a land mine, and a half dozen veterans still grappling with the ghosts of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Greg LeMond, a WTS board member, is on hand. So, too, one-time endurance swimmer Diana Nyad and a rotating cast of corporate-sponsor day trippers who'd probably feel more at home riding a golf cart.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication