Cyclists stop in Champaign-Urbana on cross-country journey

Cyclists stop in Champaign-Urbana on cross-country journey

CHAMPAIGN – A team of cyclists who rode through Champaign on Tuesday have seen humanity at its worst, many of them suffering injuries while in service to their country.

Stuart Contant, 46, of Boca Raton, Fla., was piloting an Apache helicopter for the Army when it was shot down in Afghanistan in 2002, leading to head and spinal cord injuries.

Marine Corps veteran Eric Frazier, 27, of Pittsburgh, was shot seven times by his father with a .45-caliber handgun in 2005 after he came home from Iraq. He lost the use of his legs.

Air Force pilot and Iraqi war veteran Brian Petras, 24, of Bloomsbury, N.J., wears a prosthesis up to the knee of his right leg. He said he lost his lower right leg to cancer after getting a tumor on his foot last year.

But these men and women are trying to send a message of inspiration and hope as part of Sea to Shining Sea, a 63-day 4,000-mile cross-country bike tour to challenge perceptions about disabled athletes.

According to local coordinator Tom Graves of State Farm, which sponsors the event, some of the bicyclists are still on active duty. Others have received medical discharge, and some are retired from the military.

The cyclists began their journey on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on May 22, and plan to finish at Virginia Beach on July 24.

About 160 people, many of them waving U.S. flags, cheered the athletes as they rolled into Hessel Park on Tuesday afternoon.

World War II veteran Michael Blanzy, 86, of Champaign, said he came to show support for the troops.

"I'm a believer in veterans, and I think it is important to show respect for the men and women who are in the service," Blanzy said.

"Hearing all this warm applause is awesome," Frazier said. "It makes all our sacrifices worth it."

Chuck Zelinsky of American Legion Post 24 said each bicyclist was presented with an American Legion cap, towel and flag.

Boy Scout Matthew Devine, 9, of Champaign, signed a banner to show support for the cyclists.

"I wanted to honor the veterans who have done all this good stuff," he said.

Sea to Shining Sea spokesman Louis DeCosmo said the ride is intended to honor servicemen and women and to challenge perceptions of disabled athletes.

Petras said the journey is intended to send a message about the importance of staying active, no matter what a person's condition may be.

"For me, this trip began as rehabilitation and seeing the country," he said. "But now it has changed to trying to inspire people we meet along the way. If you've lost a leg or have another disability, you can still get out and do things like this."

Frazier overcame his spinal cord injuries to become a member of the U.S. biathlon team, which involves a combination of cross- country skiing and rifle shooting.

"The toughest part of the ride so far for me was crossing the Rockies," Frazier said. "It takes a lot of energy going up mountains, and you don't want to go too fast going down."

Coree Pelko, 27, of Lodi, Calif., who was representing the Coast Guard, said she has made a lot of friends along the journey.

"Everybody on this trip most likely will be lifelong friends," she said.

Contant said the response along the way has been overwhelming.

"People are waving the flag, little kids come out to meet us and other veterans salute it," Contant said. "It's a great feeling."

Graves said the bicyclists are scheduled to travel to Crawfordsville, Ind., on Wednesday, with a water stop in Fithian and lunch at Kickapoo State Park.