For Some Military Vets, Mountain Biking is Nothing Short of a Lifeline

Photo courtesy of Veterans Expeditions.

The training that U.S. service members receive just ahead of their end of active service is notoriously skimpy. In roughly one week, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) teaches military members in very broad terms how to draft a resumé, apply for healthcare, education, and disability benefits at the VA, and how to translate your military skills to civilian job recruiters.

What the TAP program doesn’t teach are the soft skills; the elements that can take months and years of painful dissimilation from the military and re-assimilation into civilian life. How do you find a sense of purpose again without morning formation, physical training, and daily objectives? How do you find another culture that so closely replicates the skivvy-off-my-back brotherhood and sisterhood of the military? For most vets, it’s not in a college classroom or at a punch-the-clock job. For some, it might be on a bike, somewhere down a trail.

Veterans Expeditions is helping vets one trip at a time

Nick Watson served as an Army Ranger from 1991-1995, and in the Army Reserves until 1999. “The excitement meter got turned off pretty quickly as soon as I got out,” says Watson. Having grown up racing road bikes, and climbing before he enlisted, Watson knew where to direct his energy when he was discharged and he knew how important it was for his own well-being.

“If I didn’t have my bike to jump on, on a daily basis or a larger trip or expedition to put on the calendar, something like that, I think I would have been a statistic like a lot of other people,” he says. “I biked off and hiked off and climbed off all of the stress and everything that’s involved with the transition.”

The more Watson spent time out in the wilderness, the more he realized that he wanted to make a living in the outdoor industry. He went to school for recreation management, and afterward, worked for the National Park Service in the summers and guided trips in the winter. Watson got involved in wilderness therapy, and other therapy programs, and co-led a guide company.

As time went on, Watson spoke with more vets who were familiar with his skillsets, and suggested he think about wilderness therapy and programs that are specific to veterans. In the late 2000s, more post-9/11 veterans returned home from both wars, and it was apparent that this was somewhat of a void.

“So it wasn’t on my radar until a bunch of vets made me fully aware that there was a need and also a demand, and that if I could start it, they would come.”

Veterans Expeditions, VetEx for short, started in Boulder, Colorado in 2010 and today is the premiere, grassroots-funded and grown, veteran-run program centered around getting veterans outdoors. They lead hiking, climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, and mountain biking trips for veterans.

“The number one thing we offer vets is community, and it’s outdoor community,” says Watson. “If you want to be part of our gang, in a sense, you do have to get outside with us, and that’s the caveat. But, jeez, it’s a supportive community.”

Watson adds that community is the largest element of what most vets are missing when they separate from the military. Vets typically have a tough time finding a community that’s as tightly clasped as their prior units. Finding a subsequent passion is also difficult. Going to work or class isn’t quite as experiential or emotionally charged as going to war.

“Folks need to find something they’re passionate about in the civilian world and if it’s not their job, it’s recreation, and that’s kind of where we come in, hot and heavy.”

Watson notes that VetEx is light on curriculum if there is one at all. The trips are light-hearted and focused on being out in nature, together. The group gives a setting for vets to find other vets with similar interests, who have similar backgrounds. From there, the magic happens. Vets find continued support in each other and more partners that they can challenge the trails with.

“For us, that’s what’s most important. Because when it comes down to it, if you want to prevent suicide, give veterans a higher quality of life, and help them with mental health, it’s about people. People need people.”

VetEx takes a completely grassroots approach to fundraising. About half of their funding comes from donations from everyday people, and they’re great at landing small donations from corporate donors in the under $10,000 range, but as Watson puts it, “more money gets more money.” Thus far, VetEx, he explains, remains a small nonprofit, although they run 50 trips a year and get about 600 vets a year out on trips.

They have some industry support from brands like Osprey. SubCulture Cycles in Salida has also been a great partner to them, but he would love to work with more brands. Watson’s resources from working for more than a decade in the outdoor industry have lent him the know-how to keep VetEx going, and his grit from the Army has given him the resourcefulness and a do-more-with-less mentality.

“It’s been my passion project,” he says. When vets approach him on trips and tell him that an outing saved their life and gave them a purpose again, Watson says of feedback like that, “It’s addictive. Right now, I couldn’t stop this if I wanted to.” 

For more information on Veterans Expeditions or to donate see their website.

Returning invaluable favors through mountain biking

After 24 years in the Marine Corps and many, many deployments, Dean Zenoni left the service with a back injury. Zenoni and other Marines struck an improvised explosive device in their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle in Iraq. Zenoni says he was “slammed around inside the vehicle.” The explosive resistant troop carriers can weigh upwards of 30,000lb and don’t have the most comfortable interior or ride quality.

“That was the injury that ended my career. That was 24 years, otherwise I would’ve done 30,” he told Singletracks. Before leaving the Marine Corps, the master sergeant spent time at a wounded warrior unit in 29 Palms, California rehabbing his C6-7 vertebrae and was introduced to road cycling.

When Zenoni discharged, that’s all he rode for years. Zenoni and his wife Lorri started a road cycling team for veterans, but “over the years, I eventually got burned out on it. I was doing it to stay fit and recover and every time you turn around, someone’s getting killed on the side of the road.” He knew he needed something to stay active though.

“Since I was getting down on road cycling — the types of injuries I have — if I don’t stay fit and exercise, they go downhill fast. The pain levels go up, sitting around gaining weight, depression goes up.”

He doesn’t remember exactly how he found it, but Zenoni discovered bikepacking somewhere online and then the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Bikepacking seemed similar to road cycling since it’s endurance-focused, not as technical as other mountain bike disciplines, and safer since much of it is on lightly traveled Forest Service roads.

The Semper Fi and America’s Fund had been a huge help to Zenoni over the years that he transitioned to civilian life, offering him grants and education benefits, so he decided to take on the GDMBR as a fundraiser with a goal of $100,000. He’d give the first $50,000 to the funds’ cycling program and the rest to their general sports programs, which help veterans recover from injuries through sports.

Lorri and Dean meticulously planned their route for months and on June 11 they started the route, aiming to finish it in 62 days. They finished on August 8, 59 days later. The Zenonis started in Montana at the Canadian border and rode about 40 miles per day, trying to wrap up early in the afternoon before it either got too hot or too rainy. Zenoni, who’s struggled with the transition to civilian life at times says the ride made life simpler.

“One of the things I struggle with is motivation. And it sounds funny right? We just rode from Canada to Mexico, you’d think that’s a pretty motivated guy. But somewhere in that 24 years in the Marine Corps, man, my motivation factor, that circuit in my head, is burnt the fuck out. The one thing I found out about the ride, is that it was kind of brainless. Like, I didn’t have to think about anything. Motivation wasn’t a factor.”

Rather, they got up early every morning, knew where they were going, how many miles they’d ride and the elevation they would gain. “We did all the work ahead of time, not that there wasn’t work on the ride,” adds Lorri, but planning alleviated most of the work.

So far, the Zenonis have raised $55,000 to give to the Semper Fi and America’s Fund and have extended the deadline to December 5. They hope they’ll be able to support and inspire other vets to ride.

“I’ll tell you riding, whether it’s road bike, mountain bike, whatever it is, it was the biggest thing in my process of recovery. Everyone can do it,” he says.

For more information or to contribute to the Zenoni’s fundraiser, click here.

The Dept. of Veterans Affairs examines the outdoors as therapy

Passed late last year by former President Trump, the Accessing Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act (AVRO) established an interagency task force to explore outdoor recreation for veterans. The bill required that the agency be established within 18 months of its passage in December 2020, but unfortunately it is delayed until the “date on which the national emergency declared by the President, with respect to COVID-19, expires. Unfortunately, that national emergency continues,” Gary J Kunich, a VA spokesperson told us.

The task force’s duties are to identify opportunities and coordinate between the VA and public land agencies such as the Department of the Interior and veteran service organizations for “the use of public lands and other outdoor spaces for facilitating health and wellness for veterans,” and to develop recommendations to better use public lands and the outdoors for therapeutic interventions for vets.

It’s not totally clear yet how this will play out, but according to the bill, the VA may recommend wilderness therapy programs to vets who are in need of treatment. The VA did say that they will be approaching Veterans outdoor recreation groups for consultations, and when the “national emergency” expires, the Task Force will establish a meeting schedule to resume work.