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Veterans VELO Group takes on California Challenge

Members of the VELO group
Four Veterans and a VA Menlo Park Recreational Therapist pose for a photo on the first day of a 7-day cycling ride from Santa Cruz to Carmel, CA, called the California Challenge.

On the morning of October 17, 2022, Veterans Karie Fuentes, Brian Menorath, Cale Shields, Brian Whitmer, and their Recreational Therapist Joseph Yang started their 64-mile cycle ride from Santa Cruz to Carmel, CA.

This cycling event was part of a 64-mile, 7-day ride called the California Challenge, hosted by the non-profit organization Project Hero.

Borrowing the French word for bike, “velo,” Yang created the Veterans' VELO Group to engage Veterans at VA Palo Alto's Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitative Transitional Program.

“When we first started, we only had old mountain bikes in the bike room. We started out with one and then borrowed a few from the Trauma Recovery Program because they also have their cycling programs. It grew, and now we've got 12 road bikes!” said Yang.

When Veterans first join the cycling program, they can have little to no experience with cycling. VA equips them with a road bike, water bottle, and bicycle shorts. Yang explains they are constantly setting goals for the Veterans in the group. The first milestone a Veteran can achieve is riding a cumulative 100 miles. Once they reach this, they are presented with a custom-made VELO kit.

“Something I have always wanted to do all my life that I've never got to do was ride road bikes. I came into this program a complete beginner, and now I'm extremely confident on the road, knowing the proper road signs, signals, and proper road etiquette on a bicycle,” said U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Brian Menorath.

United States Army National Guard Veteran Karie Fuentes accumulated over 400 miles of cycling within the program.

“I just got tired of sitting in my room and doing therapy all day, so I decided I'd get good at cycling. I know that as a Veteran, and a person with trauma, I need physical exercise to be able to balance. So, with this, I get the companionship and camaraderie of Veterans around me. But I also have the opportunity to maintain my independence and keep my space clear for me,” she said.

The opportunity to attend this event was a new challenge for the VELO group who trained for 3 months, twice a week. The team aimed to increase the number of miles they rode each time they went out. At the start of their training, the group rode 10 miles. Their goal was to at least be able to ride 40 miles in one session by the event. The group reached that mark 4 weeks ahead of their projected schedule.

On the day of the California Challenge, the VELO group started their ride at 9 a.m. in Santa Cruz. U.S. Air Force Veteran Brian Whitmer received a lot of motivation from the people cheering him on along the way.

“There is something about having the wind hit your face and being able to see everything in a different perspective. Nowadays, everything in life is about rushing and things slow down when you are at these events,” he said.

With only one break, the VELO group reached their 64th mile in Carmel in roughly 5 hours. Waiting at the finish line were staff and volunteers for Project Hero as well as the family of Veteran Karie Fuentes. This accomplishment really provided something special to each Veteran.

“The program, the event, and cycling pretty much saved my life and my family,” said Whitmer.

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