PINEVILLE, Mo. —
The five hours and 50 minutes that Rob Jones spent on a bicycle seat Thursday were punishing.
He was headed due west nearly the entire time, straight into a headwind that gusted at times to 40 mph.
He had no one off of whom to draft. It was 45 degrees. He had been riding 95 days. And his legs are made of the same material as his bike frame: carbon fiber.
His real ones were blown off in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated in 2010.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one to leave Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) as a double above-the-knee amputee on an upright bicycle,” Jones said Thursday in an interview at Pittsburg’s bike shop, Tailwind Cyclists.
The 28-year-old former U.S. Marine was resting while owner Roger Lomshek complimentarily replaced Jones’ rusted bike cables and repacked his wheel bearings.
An hour before, Jones had arrived at the Kansas-Missouri state line to a hero’s welcome: Eight motorcyclists with American Legion Post No. 64 escorted him to Pittsburg. At the city limits, the parade was joined by vehicles from the Pittsburg police and fire departments.
A child, brought by his mother from preschool, waved a flag near the Besse Hotel as they waited on Jones’ arrival, and the Fire Department’s aerial truck hoisted a large American flag across Broadway.
Jones is unassuming by nature and not one to seek the spotlight, but it still seems to find him wherever he goes. He has attracted countless media outlets along his journey from Maine to California, and he often pedals along streets lined with onlookers.
But Jones downplays accolades and attention. His journey on a bike is really more about what he set his mind to do: complete the ride, and raise $1 million for charities that serve injured service members.
“I’m not really the one who decides if I’m a hero or not,” he said when asked how it felt to be one. “That’s up to other people to decide.”
Jones, a Virginia native who grew up on a farm, joined the Marine Corps in 2007 while in his junior year at Virginia Tech. He had planned to become a computer science major and video game developer.
But the next year, he deployed to Iraq as a combat engineer with Bravo Company, 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, and in 2010 he went to Afghanistan.
As part of a push into Taliban territory, his task was to clear areas that were thought to contain IEDs. An explosion injured him to the extent that doctors amputated both of his legs above the knee.
He was fitted with prosthetic legs — robotic-looking legs made of carbon fiber — while in rehabilitation at Walter Reed. His goal: to walk into a Marine Corps ball. He did so, and then some, walking into not one but three (one in Washington, D.C., one in Roanoke, Va., and one in Las Vegas) just months after the amputation.
He went on to compete in the 2012 Paralympics, in which he and fellow double amputee Oksana Masters won the bronze medal as part of the U.S. rowing team. He also has competed in triathlons and 10K runs, and has been featured in documentaries.
In October 2013, Jones undertook his most recent challenge: his journey across the nation.
He has raised $77,727 to date (it’s all done on his website directly to charities; Jones doesn’t want to travel with cash) and is within 200 miles of the halfway point of his journey. He’s checking off the miles 35 at a time, at a speed that usually doesn’t exceed about 7 mph.
It’s tough going: He doesn’t have the usual muscles that cyclists have to complete a pedal rotation, and instead must rely on his hip flexors and glutes. He’s also riding during a time when the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, which cuts through Pittsburg, is noticeably empty.
“I just didn’t feel like waiting any longer to do this,” he said with a shrug. “And I would rather be cold than hot.”
Pittsburg resident John Swartz, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force and now belongs to Legion Post No. 64, was among those on motorcycles who met Jones on Thursday at the state line.
They wanted to escort him into Pittsburg, they said, with the stars and stripes waving.
“It’s quite gratifying to me when a young man has had both his legs blown off to see that he’s adapted himself to riding a bicycle,” Swartz said.
The burley veteran acknowledged being emotional when he saw Jones’ effort.
“I can’t tell you what it would take to ride across America,” Swartz said. “But I do know he’s got great fortitude, and I wish him the best.”
Jones appreciates the respect and recognition he is given from such groups. It helps him through the challenging days, he said.
In his most recent blog entry, which chronicles a particularly brutal Illinois day on which he rode in 15-degree weather and a stiff wind, he wrote:
“I was wracked with fatigue, my legs burned, and my lungs burned. I rounded a corner, and in the distance I could see a group of people gathered with firetrucks and American flags waving. As I got closer, my fatigue dissipated. The cheers of admirers gave me that extra boost that I needed to pedal the last 500 meters. When I got off my bike I felt sick and dizzy, but all of the pain that I had just endured was worth it to make it to that point.
“This is just one day of pain, and one town. I get asked often how I continue on for so long in such conditions. And I remember things like this, except amplified tenfold. I know how good it is going to feel when I finish. And I know how much it would sting if I quit. So I keep going because what I’m riding for is worth it.”
He also clings to four mantras, emphasized during a speech at his former high school: Meet goals, no matter how long it takes. How a person does things is just as important as actually doing them. Adapt to unexpected situations. And don’t quit when a plan doesn’t execute perfectly; come up with a new plan and keep going.
“That’s what I’m doing,” he said. “My personal mission of leaving the world a better place after I left didn’t go perfectly, but I’m developing that new plan.”
ROB JONES WILL LEAVE PITTSBURG this morning and head west to Girard, then travel through central and western Kansas on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. His brother, Steve Jones, is accompanying him in a van. Rob Jones anticipates arriving in California in April. He can be followed on a map in real time via an app on his bike-mounted iPhone at www.robjonesjourney.com.