2017 UnitedHealthcare Challenge

Highlighted by fantastic scenery, challenging rides, wonderful memories and the unique camaraderie created by a decade of riding together, Project Hero celebrated the start of the 10th UnitedHealthcare California Challenge at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, the same place where we began our first California Challenge in 2008. The Veterans Administration literally rolled out a red carpet for us and we began our week-long journey under sunny skies and cool breezes that promised a welcome respite for the Bay Area from the devastating fires of the weeks before. The route took us immediately to the beach and then led us along rolling, tree-lined hills as we were treated to a series of superb views of the coast on our way to Half Moon Bay. The first day included several hills that brought out the best in our riders, who supported, pushed and encouraged each other over each challenging summit as we rode along the scenic coast. Those first hills were just a warm-up for a group of riders who took on one of the foremost challenges in California road riding, the climb over Bonny Doon, a ride made famous – or infamous – by its inclusion as a crucial stage in many Tours of California. The ascent earned them a superlative downhill ride as they reunited with our other riders in Santa Cruz. This year’s UnitedHealthcare Challenge was highlighted by the participation of several riders who were with us on the very first California Challenge, including Dick Brock, Roger Coggins, David Lang, Jim Penseyres, David Belcher, Nicholas Lerma and William Clark. Project Hero is honored to welcome them back to California as part of our cycling family! Dick Brock rode the inaugural Challenge and rode his 7th California Challenge this year, increasing his amazing total to 37 Challenges riding with Project Hero. Despite recently undergoing two back surgeries, Dick rode courageously and has a great perspective on Project Hero. “Project Hero has more potential than ever,” he said. Roger Coggins has ridden every California Challenge and is enjoying meeting new riders and many old friends. “There is something special about the California Challenge,” he said. “Project Hero has helped me do things I’d never have done.” Our second day was a perfect example of why the California Challenge is so popular: blue skies, great scenery and warm weather made for an ideal day of riding with our Healing Heroes. We were also joined by special guests from UnitedHealthcare, including Rob Falkenberg, Jeff Dooley and Meghan Newkirk. Although this was the shortest day of the Challenge in terms of distance, there was no shortage of camaraderie as we journeyed south through green fertile farmlands that bordered the highway. We rode into Monterey County where we were honored by a visit from Congressman Jimmy Panetta at our traditional rest stop at J&S Surplus in Moss Landing. Our arrival in Salinas was highlighted by an inspiring visit to Sacred Heart School, where students, parents and teachers came out with signs, songs and flags to cheer us on. There are few Challenge experiences as inspirational as seeing and hearing all those young people as they supported our Veteran and First Responder riders. Our riders this year included friends from Germany and Holland and we were thrilled they are with us as part of the Project Hero family. The German contingent included Dick Stahlberg, Judith Tembusch, Marcel Gunther, Christian Laube, Asiam Amani, Michael Stover and Naef Adebahr, and Patrick Woldinga from Groningena, Holland completed the European contingent. Patrick served in the Dutch Infantry for 15 years including deployments to Bosnia in 1996 and Afghanistan in 2006. “These riders talk to each other in a way civilians who don’t always understand what Veterans go through can,” he said. “People here make you feel welcome and I feel like a real brother here. The riders take you in and there is always someone who has your back.” It’s traditional that the third day of this Challenge is the most difficult and the 2017 edition was no exception. The longest route day of the Challenge featured a 103-mile trek that began with an early start from Salinas, took us past picturesque wineries and fertile vineyards of the wine country of Soledad and then to lunch in Greenfield, where we were joined by Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, who spoke to us and rode with Group 1 on the next leg of the route. The route perfectly embodied why we named these rides Challenges, because the miles that followed took us over some long climbs. After the first set of hills, we were rewarded with some flat roads which served as a useful break before we ascended more hills to reach our final destination at Lake Nacimiento. We were also honored to have United Airlines and Boeing riders with us this year as part of the Project Hero family. An avid cyclist who rides with the Boeing Cycling Team and enjoyed his second California Challenge this year, William Edwards works with Boeing’s Global International Citizenship and Corporate Philanthropy division. His message to those who need the support Project Hero provides is that “You can get through it, and the brothers and sisters with whom you have served are there for you here just like they were when they served. Give it a shot and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.” Although Day 4 of the 2017 UnitedHealthcare California Challenge presented by Boeing was not the longest, it was easily one of the most picturesque, as the 54-mile ride from San Simeon to Pismo Beach led us down the coast on some of the most beautiful roads in the Golden State. Our 73-mile journey for Day 5 took us from the rocky coast of Pismo Beach through fertile farmlands into Solvang. The day began with a Project Hero tradition: a photo of the entire Project Hero California Challenge family on a gorgeous point in Pismo Beach overlooking the ocean. Because it was Service Jersey Day, we also took group shots of each branch of service group, our support drivers and a truly distinguished group of riders who were with us on the first California Challenge 10 years ago. We then enjoyed another tradition of the California Challenge, our annual visit to Oceano Elementary School. We gathered with our good friend Jim DeCecco and student riders from the school, who accompanied us into Oceano, where students had made signs with all of the riders’ names on them and cheered our arrival. It was a wonderful sight as more than a hundred Project Hero riders greeted and took pictures with the students. Our riders cherish those unique souvenirs as much as any we will gather on this trip. After leaving Oceano, we rode into Orcutt, where we enjoyed a lunch hosted at the American Legion Post 538, the site of one of the first real lunches we had on the California Challenge. Prior to our first visit, we bought bread, peanut butter and jelly and made our own sandwiches; now we had homemade goodies, great food, and drinks and snacks all served by our friends in Orcutt – what a difference a decade makes! Service Jersey Day celebrates each of the branches and members of the Military that serve and protect our Nation including Ivan Ortiz, one of our riders from Florida and Puerto Rico. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico and current resident of Orlando, Ivan served 23 years in the Army, including deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. “This ride has definitely been harder than the others,” he said. “I like Project Hero because it’s like a Military unit without all the formality. The people I have met have become more than my friends, they have become my family, my brothers and sisters.” Day 6 of the California Challenge presented a ride that truly embodied the spirit and resilience at the heart of the Project Hero mission. From an ultra-challenging ascent to gorgeous flat roads on the coast, our 69-mile journey that day perfectly captured why the California Challenge is among our most popular rides. After traversing fertile farmlands and passed picturesque vineyards leaving Solvang, we began a long, difficult climb through the San Marcos Pass on Stagecoach Road. Riding the twisting route to the summit brought out the best of each of our riders, from those who triumphed on their own on the ascent to those who pushed and supported their fellow riders all the way to the top; and the fast, fun descent was a fitting reward for the hard work done on the climb. Project Hero’s growing relationship with the Veterans Administration gave us the opportunity to ride this Challenge with Spencer Beck, one of the many dedicated VA clinicians we have had on this and many other Challenge rides. A native of St. George, Utah, Spencer serves as a Local Recovery Coordinator (LRC) at the Phoenix VA. After taking part in our recent VA Clinicians Training, he enjoyed his first Challenge Series experience this year. As an LRC, Spencer appreciates Project Hero’s dedication to working with the VA and our dedication to suicide prevention. “Project Hero builds trust through cycling with groups outside the clinic and gets more of them into our system, so we can provide the support they need. Project Hero helps the VA build trust among the Veterans we are working to help,” he said. “I am truly impressed by Project Hero.” Spencer’s message to Veterans who need help is that with Project Hero they are not alone. “Don’t try to do it alone,” he said. “Come out with us and ride.” The final day of the 2017 UnitedHealthcare California Challenge presented by Boeing was memorable in so many ways. From the inspirational character of our riders to the incredible beauty of the coast of the Golden State, the finish of our 10th California Challenge was unique and unforgettable. On a day of glorious sunshine and cool breezes, we left Ventura and paralleled the coast, emerging onto world-famous Pacific Coast Highway. Photographs simply do not do justice to the beauty there and we soaked it in at our rest stop at Point Mugu. While the PCH has unequaled scenery, it also has hills, and our riders were challenged by climbs and enjoyed descents earned as a result of their hard work, all of which served as a perfect metaphor for the 2017 experience: it was a challenge, to which every rider with us this year will attest, but meeting those challenges paid off in unmatched rewards, unforgettable camaraderie and life-changing experiences. We concluded our 500+ mile trek from San Francisco at the West LA VA, where we were honored by State Senator Josh Newman, who presented us with a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate. As the Chairman of the California Senate Veterans Committee, Senator Newman is an ardent advocate on behalf of Veterans in California. “As an Army Veteran, I’m proud to be with so many of our Veterans and First Responders here today,” he said. “All of you who have shared so much with each other this past week show us the therapy that goes on in these rides is exactly what we need more of.” We are grateful for the Senator’s support and it appears we are going to see more of him. “I couldn’t be more impressed with Project Hero and everyone who has been part of the Challenge, and as proof of that, I am going to ride the next California Challenge, so see you next year!” Senator, we look forward to your joining us in 2018! And to the rest of our Project Hero family, including our exceptional American Legion riders, fantastic volunteers, dedicated supporters and wonderful sponsors – and especially the inspiring riders of the 2017 UnitedHealthcare California Challenge presented by Boeing – we’ll look forward to your joining us on the road at the 2018 UnitedHealthcare Gulf Coast Challenge.

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