Riding Across Virginia for the U.S. Parachute Team
By USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold
Thursday, June 10, 2021
The mountain bike, which weighed 65 pounds loaded with camping gear, was in the back of the van as my family headed to Washington, D.C. to drop me off for a 6 a.m. departure from the Lincoln Memorial. I was about to ride 533 miles across Virginia—west along the Potomac River, then through the mountains to the famous red caboose in Damascus in the southwest corner of the state. It would be a multi-day ride with 33,000 feet of climbing. My stomach had butterflies. The longest ride I'd ever undertaken was 65 miles long and on a lightweight road bike in the flatlands of Florida, so even though it wasn’t a race, I had competition jitters as if it were the day before USPA Nationals. Which was fitting if you think about it, since I was doing this for the U.S. Parachute Team.
Last winter, after moving to Virginia to take the helm at USPA, I started thinking about making a ride across the state. At first, there was no specific reason for it; I just enjoyed riding. But soon I came across loads of supported rides (the ones where someone carries your equipment) that were fundraisers for charities. I thought about doing one of those, and although the causes were great, I wanted to ride for something I really connected with and felt passionate about. So, I found an unsupported ride and an online fundraising platform and went to work to raise money for a cause that means a lot to me: The U.S. Parachute Team Trust Fund.
Having had the opportunity to interact with the U.S. Parachute Team Trust Fund on and off for 14 years as a competitor, as well as an administrator in the eight years I spent as USPA Treasurer, I felt strongly about the fund. The fund is now large enough that it can cover the world championships registration fees for our entire U.S. Parachute Team (about $100,000 every two years), but not much more. Competitors still must pay for uniforms, equipment, gear maintenance, training, practice, coaching, travel, meals and time off from work. So, every year, the members of the U.S. Parachute Team do raffles and car washes, sell jerseys, put up lemonade stands ... you name it … to compete.
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the trust could cover some of the massive costs associated with competing on a world-class level?” I realized that in order for that to happen, the fund needs to grow at a much faster rate. Not only to keep up with inflation, but also to cover the costs of a team that has gotten larger as new disciplines appeared. So, I decided to get on a bike to ride across Virginia, ask for donations and tell the story.
Let’s Make it a Little Tougher
With the May 22 departure date looming five months away, I began training. As soon as I did, an ankle that I had broken 11 years earlier began to bother me. After talking to friends who had had similar surgeries, I decided to bite the bullet and have the remaining hardware in my ankle removed. The doctors expected that I could be out riding a few weeks afterward, but it turns out that if you leave hardware in your leg for 11 years, it doesn’t come out that easily. It was four weeks before I could walk without crutches. My training window was now a lot smaller, and there was another big question about my ride: Would my ankle give out?
Nevertheless, I trained as much as I could. I researched bikepacking, acquired ultralight camping and survival equipment and planned my route, even though I didn’t know how many miles I’d actually be able to accomplish after five or six days in the saddle. I made an overnight trip as a dry run. It kicked my butt. I fell off my bike, scraped my leg, got bitten by a dog and my GPS locked up. After that 90-mile, two-day trip, I began to doubt whether I would be able to survive a nine-day trip over 533 miles. I barely survived the test ride! But since I had set up a page that had garnered more than $10,000 at that point, I was committed … not to myself, but to the team.
With my expectations tempered, I decided to shoot for a nine-day itinerary, averaging about 60 miles per day. This was actually very ambitious—I had never ridden that much before, with so much weight and so much elevation change, and I had certainly never done so for nine days in a row!
Ride Day and a Turning Point
The first day was the flattest, and I pushed through to ride just over 100 miles. My first century! Then the hills began. The next few days were grueling. My original plan had been to focus on one day at a time. That quickly became one mile at a time, and then simply one hill at a time … nothing past that hill mattered if I couldn’t make it up what was right in front of me. I kept eating the food I brought and stopping at every market I came across. I just kept pedaling. Those three days were without a doubt the toughest. The ride just seemed enormous. My muscles were tired, I was waiting for my ankle to give out, my butt was saddle sore, and I stunk worse than a boy’s high school locker room after gym class.
Keeping me going was National Director Al King’s voice in my head saying, “Just keep pedaling.” An even bigger motivator was the team and all the people who pledged support. If I didn’t keep going, the team wouldn’t see the payday, and it was inconceivable to let them down. I kept going, but I have to admit that I was cursing myself and saying, “Why the hell did I start that stupid pledge page? I could quit and go home right now if there weren't so much money on the line for the team!”
But on day four, something special happened. About midday, I passed 260 miles—the halfway point—and although the steepest and hardest climbs were all in the second half, my mind told me, “It's all downhill from here!” My confidence grew and for the first time in four days, I felt positive.
After that, I felt like I was going to make it. The days rolled together and I kept pedaling. I enjoyed the mountain trails, as well as the rolling hills in the valley. Every time I saw something cool, I heard my wife Emily’s voice tell me, “You better send more pictures,” and I’d smile to myself knowing that my kids would enjoy watching the adventure.
I managed to finish the ride at around 3 p.m. on the eighth day. I took my hallmark picture holding my bike over my head at the big red caboose. By then, the trip had put about $20,000 in the kitty for the U.S. Parachute Team Trust Fund. Just as importantly, it raised awareness about the need to grow the fund for the future of our U.S. Team.
Being awarded a slot on the U.S. Parachute Team is an amazing moment. It is something you remember forever. But that moment is quickly followed by the reality that you might need to sell everything you own to make your shot at an international medal happen. I look forward to the day when our U.S. Parachute Team members can simply say, “Yes I’ve made it!” and not have to follow up with, “How will I pay for all this?”
Will I do this again next year? Not a snowball’s chance in Florida. But maybe someone else will. Maybe someone will add the U.S. Parachute Team Trust Fund to their will, like generous donors Betsy Robson, Robert Waspe and Mike Truffer did. Maybe someone will run a benefit marathon or host an event at their DZ. Maybe more people will add a little extra for the trust fund when they renew their memberships. An old Greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” And while I don’t think of myself as old man, this sums up my motivation for this effort.
If you would like to donate to the U.S. Parcahute Team Trust Fund please visit uspa.org/donations.