A Rolling Memorial

During a three-day ride from Ground Zero to the Pentagon, cyclists will cover 270 miles to honor family and friends who died Sept. 11.

September 08, 2002

Michael DiPaula has found a spot of shade along the Annapolis waterfront. He takes a bandanna and mops the sweat from his shaved head. His lime-green Bianchi bike, the one with the patriotic stars-and-stripes handlebar tape, is leaning against a nearby tree, as if pausing to catch its breath.

"I do a lot of thinking when I'm riding," says DiPaula. "It's very therapeutic."

He and about 20 fellow cyclists just pedaled 40 heart-pumping miles from Washington's Capitol Hill to Maryland's capital city. They're taking a lunch break before the return trip.

But this workout is just a warm-up for the main event. On Sept. 20, DiPaula and 1,200 other saddle-toughened souls will hop on bicycles at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan and dismount two days and 270 miles later at the Pentagon. Some 2,000 moral-support cyclists are expected to join them for parts of the journey.

Face of America 2002, as it's called, is an unconventional way of paying homage to all the innocent lives lost in last September's terrorist attack. DiPaula, who lives in Alexandria, Va., has done a few long-distance AIDS rides, but never anything like this. Face of America, he says, "means the world to me."

DiPaula, 41, is a civilian project coordinator who is supervising long-term renovation work at the Pentagon. The morning of Sept. 11, he was at a meeting in the E ring section of the building. An electrician who was supposed to be there didn't show, so DiPaula went to look for him, walking about 60 feet outside to a construction trailer. Suddenly, an airplane roared into view, nearly shearing the roof off the trailer before slamming into the E ring.

"It sounded like a missile," DiPaula recalls. "There were three loud thump, thump, thumps. You could hear the metal cracking and crinkling, and the explosion."

About a dozen men and women had been sitting in the room he had left moments before. All of them were killed, plus more than 100 others in that wing of the Pentagon. DiPaula, briefly listed by authorities as missing, crawled from the flaming debris and the shroud of black smoke unscathed. He took one day off, then was ordered back to work because of his familiarity with the E ring's office layouts.

"I spent a month and a half helping with the recovery of personal items," he says. "I saw body parts I didn't want to see."

He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He attends counseling sessions twice a week, but still has recurring nightmares of planes hitting the Pentagon. He "freaks" on occasion, he says, and continues to ponder the question: "How come I survived? There's a reason Michael DiPaula is still in this world. There's something else for me to do."

While waiting for that "something else" to reveal itself, while trying to ford a river of grief, DiPaula escapes by riding his bike, over the hills of Virginia, down the back roads of Montgomery County, pedal stroke after pedal stroke, mile upon mile.

'Moving monument'

There's something peaceful and uplifting about the rhythm of propelling a bike. They understand that at World T.E.A.M. Sports, the North Carolina-based nonprofit organization behind Face of America 2002. World T.E.A.M.'s mission is to encourage disabled and able-bodied people to be physically active, to use athletics as a learning tool to convey larger lessons of perseverance, teamwork and brotherhood. WTS sponsors mountain climbs and footraces, but it specializes in staging high-profile bicycle rides.

World T.E.A.M. co-chair Peter Kiernan is a semi-retired alumnus of Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street investment house. He says the idea for a commemorative ride started evolving last fall. World T.E.A.M. representatives spent months talking with New York City politicians, police officers, firefighters and victims' families. The consensus: Don't schedule anything on Sept. 11, don't raise money, don't establish any kind of foundation. Keep things simple.

"Make it essentially a moving monument," says Kiernan, summing up the feedback.

"You don't have to cover every inch [of the route] to get a pretty complete experience," he adds. "You do the best you can. There will be people who ride five miles and get a lot out of it, and people who ride the whole thing and maybe won't get anything out of it. It's almost like there are 3,000 riders and you've got 3,000 different causes."

Groups of cyclists are coming from eight countries. There is an integrated Israeli-Palestinian team, including some members disabled because of politically related violence.

The oldest rider is a 78-year-old Polish man who lost both arms in World War II. One of the youngest riders registered is 14-year-old Rhys Jones of Severna Park. He saw an ad for Face of America and signed up to ride by himself -- without family or friends. He says Sept. 11 shook him to the core.

"It made me realize how much I've taken for granted -- all the freedoms I have," he says.

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