Disabled veterans, mountain bike pros find common ground in Grass Valley (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

Disabled veterans, mountain bike pros find common ground in Grass Valley (VIDEO)

On Dec. 16, 2010, Daniel Riley's life changed.

Riley was serving as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps. He stepped on an improvised explosive device and lost both legs above the knee.

It's a horror most don't understand and will never have to live through. For Riley, the road back to health was a long and bumpy one, both physically and mentally.

The healing may never truly be complete, but with the Semper Fi Fund and events like the one happening this week in Grass Valley, progress is made every day.

There's a private, invite-only professional mountain bike race that happens every year in Grass Valley. It draws in a number of professional riders, sponsors and officials in the mountain bike community. Two of them are eight-time Downieville Classic winner Mark Weir and four-time Downieville Classic winner Jason Moeschler, who hails from Nevada City. Both are fierce competitors and good friends.

The duo was approached by Team Semper Fi Associate Director Sam Tickle about providing all manner of disabled veterans with an opportunity to not only participate in mountain bike races and activities, but to rub elbows with the best the sport has to offer and maybe learn some stuff along the way.

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Tickle remembers Weir's exact words, in fact, when the idea was floated.

"His response was, 'Duder … let's rip,'" Tickle said.

For those not familiar with the lingo, that's an emphatic affirmative.

Daniel Riley's story

That fateful day back in 2010 almost took Riley's life.

"That moment I woke up in the hospital, I looked down and I didn't see legs," Riley said. "I was a Marine Corps infantryman. I was defined by being physically able to do the job. If they told me to run 10 miles, I'd run 11. In that one moment, I basically lost my entire identity. I mean, I could stay in the Marines but not as an infantryman. That was over."

With help from the Semper Fi Fund, Riley was introduced to competitive sports. Surprisingly he wasn't an athlete growing up. He was a self-described nerd who never played any organized sports and was on his school's debate team.

So once his career in the Marines was over, it was difficult to envision sports as one of the key aspects to his recovery.

"But in sports I found everything I'd found in the Marine Corps," Riley said. "We could sit around and talk about sports, and the adrenaline rush isn't the same as combat, but it's close. I mean, there's nothing like getting shot at. But honestly, it's close. The thrill is there."

Riley's recovery began in San Diego, and he picked up surfing. He currently lives in Colorado and does a lot of skiing. And with an altered, hand-pedaled bike, he has a tendency to head for the hills in the summers.

How it began

As a member of Team Semper Fi, Tickle took part in the EAS Unstoppable Tour, doing 30 sports in 30 days in 30 different cities. In the course of a month, Tickle traveled from the West Coast to the East Coast participating in 30 separate sports from football to baseball to mountain climbing to mountain biking to boxing.

It was through the EAS sponsorship that he came to know Weir.

"I thought I knew what mountain biking was until I met them," Tickle said. "It's unbelievable, the family atmosphere that exists. We became really good friends so quickly."

When Tickle found out about Grass Valley's mountain bike races, that's when he approached Weir about the idea of bringing in some disabled vets to participate.

"I just had to expose this team to this family atmosphere here," Tickle said. "It's a really excellent experience just being exposed to these guys in the mountain bike community."

The Pros

When approached, Weir was all-in from the start. Knowing that instruction and teaching would be a big part of the experience for the Marines, Weir turned to his friend and competitor Moeschler.

"I had a long history in coaching mountain bike skills in the national high school leagues," Moeschler said. "So that's a big component of this camp is skills instruction."

One aspect Moeschler didn't see coming was the talent level he'd be working with.

"Some of these guys are better than me," Moeschler said. "I see some of these guys out here and they really surprised me. I had no idea they'd be at that skill level. I've learned a lot from these guys from last year's camp."

As for Weir, getting the call from Tickle to get involved was a no-brainer.

"When I was younger, I wanted to join the military," Weir said. "My dad was in Vietnam, so he didn't want me to join, but I've always been close to a lot of military people."

Weir also has a pretty good understanding that while the riding can be incredibly therapeutic for the Marines, it may just be the fellowship shared by the groups that makes the biggest impact.

"So many of us are afraid to meet someone new and start talking," Weir said. "It seems like here, we'd light up a fire at night and sometimes they'd tell their stories.

"It's incredible. I mean, I'd feel the pressure of what they went through even just hearing about it … and they are the ones who experienced it. At the very least we can take it in and try to absorb it. I just think it's really unique to have several men open up like that."

Ross Maak is the City Editor at The Union. He can be reached at rmaak@theunion.com or 530-477-4229.

To Help

The Semper Fi Fund is a nonprofit organization that helps, among others, post-9/11 injured military veterans. For more information or to make a donation, go to http://www.semperfifund.org.

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