Gene Caffrey can’t feel his feet anymore except for the “pins and needles” and numbness he experiences at all times. The discomfort often spreads to his ankles, legs, knees and hips. His multiple sclerosis (MS) won’t prevent him from riding his bike, however, in a week-long tour around Moab with the MS Global Bike Tour on Sept. 24-30.
“For me, riding is the biggest part of my therapy,” Caffrey said. “I challenge myself to ride as much as I can. The mantra I live my life by is ‘Every step beats MS.’”
Caffrey was participating in an Ironman Triathlon in November 2009 when, 30 minutes into the event, he suddenly couldn’t feel his legs, and he stumbled and fell. Symptoms persisted, and gradually worsened until he was diagnosed in February 2010 with MS. MS is a disease of the brain and nervous system in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Caffrey also has issues with balance and fatigue.
A lifelong athlete, Caffrey said he remembered thinking “I want to keep doing what I’m doing.”
He began to research exercise and MS, and learned about Tyler Hamilton, a former pro cyclist and the MS Global Bike Tour founder. Then he came across a story about Jimmie Heuga — an award-winning ski racer who treated his own MS with exercise. Heuga also started Can Do Multiple Sclerosis, a national nonprofit that offers health and wellness programs to people living with MS.
“It motivated me to keep going and to help raise awareness to keep moving and live your best life,” Caffrey said.
Coincidentally, Caffrey met Hamilton and Heuga at a charity ride in North Carolina that he attended. Since then, he’s ridden in several global MS bike tours and will participate in the next ride, this time in Moab, on Sept. 24-30.
Approximately 65 cyclists, some of whom are like Caffrey and have MS, will participate in the seven-day Moab bike tour. There are three different levels of speed for this noncompetitive event with tour leaders, such as Hamilton, who will ride along to make sure everyone is safe.
As a ski racer growing up in Massachusetts, Hamilton recalled hearing about Heuga, a famous ski racer who was diagnosed with MS. Two decades later, Hamilton was asked to participate in a charity cycling event to raise money to fight MS.
“During that ride I met people with MS. I learned a lot about the disease,” Hamilton said. “After that I decided I will continue to support the fight against MS. I have a lot of friends now with MS. I see how it affects them. They’ve been dealt a tough card.”
Hamilton, 47, founded the MS Global Bike Tour 17 years ago. All proceeds go to Can Do MS. Each year the tour takes place in a different location.
“Last year it was on the Spanish island of Mallorca,” Hamilton said. “We’ve ridden in France, Italy, Switzerland, New Hampshire, Vermont, British Columbia, the Vail valley.”
Local residents can learn about the disease, and meet Hamilton and the other cyclists, at a meet-and-greet event on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Moab Bike Fiend, 69 E. Center St. There will be appetizers and beverages.
Hamilton, who now resides in Missoula, Montana, has done the Tour de France eight times, and was the collegiate national champion in 1993 while studying at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Each Global MS cyclist raises money through sponsorship and donations. Since 2008, the organization has generated more than $1.3 million.
“Some people riding will have MS; some don’t yet notice symptoms while others have lots of symptoms,” Hamilton said. “Other riders have family members or know someone else with the disease. Every rider is affected by MS somehow. … Our goal this year is to raise just under a quarter million dollars.”
Last year, Caffrey raised $30,000. This year, he’s raised between $18,000 and $20,000. He said he hopes to inspire others.
“Whatever you do, always keep moving; keep ahead of the MS,” he said.
Former pro cyclist is founder of bike tour that supports people with multiple sclerosis
When: Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Moab Bike Fiend, 69 E Center St.
“Some people riding will have MS; some don’t yet notice symptoms while others have lots of symptoms. Other riders have family members or know someone else with the disease. Every rider is affected by MS somehow.”