Riding Across the United States – Marine combat engineer Rob Jones was serving in Afghanistan in 2010 when an improvised explosive device claimed both his legs. Now 28 and fitted with a pair of prosthetic legs, Rob is bicycling cross-country to give back to the charitable organizations that he says, “were there for me in my darkest hours.” He began his journey October 14 in Bar Harbor, Maine, and hopes to raise $1 million by the time he reaches San Diego, California.
You’re traveling with a support vehicle; what kind of support does it provide?
It’s a 17-foot U-Haul truck—we started calling it “The Kraken.” It’s got cots in the back, all of our food, water, clothes, and my bike stays there—my little brother Steve is driving it. When we stop for the day, we drive to our lodging in it.
What’s the one thing you found you needed for this trip that you didn’t anticipate before you started?
There’s nothing that I really need that I can’t just get; that’s the advantage of having the truck with us. But I guess it would have been nice to have extra tendons for the prosthetic; one broke before I got to DC, which is where I was planning to get some more.
Which is taking more of a beating on this trip, your bicycle or your prosthetic legs?
Let’s see, I’ve had 2 or 3 spokes break on the bike, and the derailleur hanger broke. Some screws on my left leg broke; my left leg actually broke in half. I guess they’re both getting a little beat up.
How does having prosthetic legs change the way you ride a bike?
I don’t have knees, so I can’t stand up to ride. I have to stay seated all the time. My balance isn’t quite as good, because I’m kind of balancing on these two precarious knee joints that are kind of free-swinging. I have to keep my hands on the handlebars for a lot of the time. When I want to stop, I can’t just stop, I have to get in the right position in order to clip out. I have to make sure there’s the right kind of terrain to land on. There’s a lot more thought and effort that has to go into those simple things.
When you’re riding for two hours or so at a stretch, how do you pass the time? For example, do you ride listening to music?
I’m focusing on the riding—planning out how to approach the hill, figuring out where and how I might want to stop to take a rest. Discomfort takes up a large portion of your mental capacity. So does pain—if I’m in pain, that takes up like a third or half of my thought process. Combine that with all the other stuff I’m thinking about, it’s kind of hard to enjoy the ride sometimes. I try to. I’m doing this to finish it, so I focus on that. Sometimes I have to take a breath and try to enjoy it just a little bit, but it’s hard to do both at the same time.
What’s the worst weather you’ve had to deal with so far?
Definitely the ice. I know that my X3 legs are affected by cold and the hydraulic fluid gets viscous when it’s colder, but I didn’t feel any effect on the legs. I was right in the middle of the Ozark Mountains one day, going up a hill, and I couldn’t get traction. My tire would spin, spin, spin and I fell over. Steep hills and ice, not a good combination.
You biked from Maine to Virginia before heading west. That means you traveled through the New York and New Jersey area. Drivers there are notorious—did you have any problems with road hogs?
No more than any other place. Most of the people who pass me are courteous and say something supportive; a tiny, tiny percentage are pissed off because they have someplace to go, but you’re always gonna have that wherever you go. It’s kind of hard to ignore a big old box truck—that’s an advantage I have.
The Rocky Mountains lie ahead; are you worried?
Well, I’ve heard a lot of people say the Rockies are easier than the Appalachians, that the grading is not as steep. There are all sorts of mountains in Nevada and eastern Utah, too. Any tough hill makes me nervous; I just hope that they don’t slow me down too, too much.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t know. Two things I think about are continuing to be an athlete—competing in the 2016 Paralympics–or having a go at standup comedy. [Note: Rob was one of five wounded warriors featured in the award-winning documentary, Comedy Warriors.]
After all is said and done, what do you want people to know and remember about all this?
I guess how challenging it is to ride a bike in general for double amputees—and how rare it is, because most double amputees you see are riding handcycles or racing wheelchairs or recumbent bikes. Riding is pretty rare. Besides that, the purpose of what I’m trying to do is to get people to take initiative on their own to go after stuff they want to do. That’s another thing about the fundraising side of all this; I would like people to see me and have the urge to donate, and not for me to have to ask. I just say, “This is what I’m doing and I’m raising money,” and I’m hoping they’ll take it upon themselves to donate.