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Naval Academy graduates ride into Pittsburgh on the last leg of their cross-country trek for veterans

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Although they describe themselves as “old guys in tights,” the 70-some cyclists on a cross-country journey from Washington state to Maryland feel they have a duty to help fellow veterans.

In the Navy ’83 Ride Across America, members of the U.S. Naval Academy’s class of 1983 are biking to their 40th class reunion in Annapolis, Maryland.

They started at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, on Aug. 23 and will finish on Oct. 5 at the academy in Annapolis.

The riders are 62 and older and live all over the country.

“It is pretty cool for a bunch of old guys to ride over 3,400 miles across the entire country and stop in your town!” the cyclists said in messages to communities they visit along the way, including Pittsburgh.

They will arrive here on Saturday and depart from the Sheraton Station Square on the South Side on Sunday at 9 a.m. The riders are inviting the public to join them in doing push-ups just before they leave.

“Yep, it’s a good workout pedaling 70-80 miles or more a day,” said Dave Saba, 62, of Houston, Texas, a 1983 Annapolis graduate and public affairs officer for the event.

He plans to catch up with his classmates near Pittsburgh to bike to the finish line in Maryland. Fifty-five riders are pedaling portions of the trip and 15 have made the cross-country ride, Saba said.

Pittsburgh is their link to access the Great Allegheny Passage recreational trail running from Western Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland.

“I’ve done some of the GAP and it’s going to be spectacular,” said Saba, who previously lived in Deep Creek, Maryland.

Five years ago at their 35th reunion, Saba and some of his classmates agreed that a cross-country bike ride was a fitting way to celebrate their 40th reunion. They have been planning and training for it ever since.

Mark Hopgood, 62, of Seattle, a former Pittsburgh resident and a 1979 Upper St. Clair High School graduate, gets to return to his hometown for the ride. He has already clocked 1,000 miles from Washington to near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He will meet up with his classmates again in Pittsburgh to ride to Annapolis.

“I love Pittsburgh. The Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins are still my favorite teams,” he said.

Last year, he biked from Notre Dame, Indiana, to Pittsburgh and has stopped here many times during layovers as a captain for Delta Airlines.

He and his wife, Marie, started training four months before the ride, gradually ramping up their distances from 40 to 50 miles a day and eventually worked up to 100 miles a day.

“It’s great to reconnect to classmates after all these years,” Hopwood said. “Everybody took different paths. It’s interesting to see how different they are. The ride is a good cause, too.”

Saba bought his bike in the last two years. “I wanted to challenge myself and hang out with a bunch of guys,” he said.

“It was too good of an opportunity not to get in shape.”

They’ve been training and riding the last several years using an app to monitor the progress of their fellow graduates in training.

They knew they just didn’t want to ride.

“We thought if we could gather enough momentum, we should do something good for the veteran community,” Saba said.

Initially, they hoped to raise $250,000 for veterans. They have surpassed that and are now just shy of $500,000. Their new fundraising goal is just north of $700,000. The money will be divided among 26 nonprofits benefiting veterans.

Besides money, they wanted to raise awareness of suicide among military veterans, which once averaged 22 a day.

So they do 22 push-ups before each day’s ride.

The rate of veteran suicides is currently about 16.8 per day, which is still higher than non-veteran adults, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

“It’s still an issue,” Saba said. “Why do less push-ups when we can do more?”

Along the route, members of communities have come out to meet the riders before they depart. Some do push-ups with them, others send the riders off with fire trucks leading the way, Saba said.

Highlights included stops at Yellowstone National Park and a Jimmy Buffett memorial night when they were in Livingston, Montana. They sang the Buffett song “Livingston Saturday Night,” shortly after the entertainer died on Sept. 1.

Then, there were surprises in towns like Bassett, Nebraska, where “half the town came out with all of the K-12 students and did push-ups with us. It was really cool,” Suba said.

Unplanned challenges included changing their route to avoid the forest fires in Washington state. Then there were the 32 flat tires.

“We’re getting really good at it,” Saba said. Fortunately, one of the riders is skilled at bike repairs, plus there were bike shops along the way.

Tough as the long-distance journey was, the sights along the way were memorable, according to the Naval Academy graduates.

For example, although the ride was arduous in Montana, the cyclists were rewarded.

“Small payment for the beauty we have witnessed in Montana,” rider William Ryan wrote in the Navy Ride blog.

“Stunning vistas, crystal-clear rivers and streams, vast fields of grain, more variety of scenery than we could have hoped for.”

The journey might continue after the reunion.

“We still will ride,” Hopgood said. “People still want to ride together. It might be a weeklong ride for recreation to stay connected.”


(c) 2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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