2021 Club of the Year Project Hero 2

Meet 2021 Spirit of Cycling Club of the Year: Project Hero

By: Jim Rutberg  March 21, 2022

Project Hero is dedicated to helping Veterans and First Responders affected by PTSD, TBI and injury achieve rehabilitation, recovery, and resilience in their daily lives and increasing awareness to combat the national mental health emergency posed by PTSD and TBI.

The beauty of cycling is that the bicycle can serve different roles for people throughout their lives. For kids and teens, a bicycle can mean freedom and independence. And certainly, there are competitive outlets for cycling. If you’re a traveler, there’s no better way to see and experience the world than from the saddle of a bicycle. For the Veterans and First Responders participating in Project Hero weekly HUB rides, virtual group rides, and multi-day challenges, cycling can be a form of therapy, create camaraderie, and provide the sense of mission and community previously found during military service.

Project Hero is USA Cycling’s 2021 Club of the Year in the Spirit of Cycling category. The organization was founded in 2008 after a group of Veterans on suicide watch at a Veterans Administration facility in Palo Alto, CA were taken out for a bike ride. Afterward, much to the VA staff’s surprise, those men who had been struggling to find any purpose or joy in life asked to go again. From the first pilot program to 2022, Project Hero has served more than 10,000 Veterans and First Responders. The organization has provided around 3,000 standard and adaptive bikes to able-bodied, physically challenged, and injured Veterans and First Responders. And throughout the country, they have organized more than 60 one-day Honor Rides and multi-day cycling Challenges.

Cycling’s Crucial Role in Healing

Todd Setter, CEO of Project Hero, rides thousands of miles each year with groups of Veterans, both outdoors and indoors on the Rouvy app. In addition to the feel-good parts of cycling everyone enjoys – fresh air, sunshine, physical exertion, time with friends – Setter believes specific aspects of cycling resonate strongly with Veterans. “We ride two-by-two in a group, which is a big deal because it makes Veterans feel like their back in their unit. When you think of the hand signals and camaraderie, they’re used to that. They’re used to being on time and taking on a mission together.”

Although cycling plays a valuable role in many people’s lives, for the Veterans drawn to Project Hero, the stakes can be much higher.

“We’re trying to reduce suicide rates, and we have good data to show we’re successful,” said Setter. “A lot of these men and women have vices, unhealthy ways of coping with their PTSD, TBIs, or physical challenges. As they start coming to rides a few times a week, they realize those vices make it hard to take part. What we see, by focusing on the riding and community, is that some Veterans organically push away from their vices so they can ride better.”

According to internal survey data, 62% of participants reported a decrease or elimination of prescription drug use, 83% reported reduced frequency of PTSD-related stress attacks, and 89% reported improved sleep.

Consistency and engagement are important factors for achieving Project Hero’s mission: To save lives by providing hope, recovery, and resilience for those who serve our country. On a local level, there are more than 55 Project Hero HUBs in communities nationwide. These Veteran-led chapters organize multiple group rides each week to provide Veterans at all stages of healing with opportunities to exercise and connect with peers.

Pandemic Challenges Lead to Great Opportunities

As the pandemic began in 2020, Project Hero was already working with the Rouvy app to start virtual group rides. They chose Rouvy specifically because it features video routes and offered the opportunity to integrate route videos from Project Hero Challenge rides. To facilitate conversation, which fulfills an important therapeutic role, Project Hero dedicated one of their conference lines to be open to everyone during the rides. The women-only groups took the virtual rides to another level. They encouraged female Veterans and First Responders to call in to the conference line while doing any activity, including walking, running, hiking, and weightlifting. As a result, the conference line is open to all Project Hero participants – doing anything, or nothing – during all virtual group activities.

How to Get Involved

Even with the pandemic, Project Hero managed to organize seven multi-day Challenges in 2020-2021, with another three scheduled for 2022. The formula for successful Challenges has evolved over the years. The peloton was trimmed from about 200 riders to between 35-50 riders. The smaller group environment facilitated team building and camaraderie over seven long days on the bike together. Civilian slots are still made available for Challenges, but the number has been limited to keep the focus on peer-to-peer connections between Veterans and First Responders.

After being introduced to Project Hero rides at the local level, Veterans and First Responders may be eligible to receive adaptive equipment through the organization. Project Hero is recognized as an accepted therapy by the Veterans Administration and has an adaptive center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. To lower the barrier to participation, Project Hero raises funds so Veterans and First Responders can ride any of the organization’s events – including the 7-day Challenges – at no cost.

To support Project Hero’s mission, civilian, active-duty military, Veterans, and First Responders are encouraged to donate to the organization’s fundraising efforts. All cyclists are also encouraged to attend Project Hero’s single-day Honor Rides around the country. The Las Vegas Honor Ride (November 12, 2022) is the only event of the year that closes the Las Vegas Strip to car traffic!

There’s More to Do

Looking to the future, Project Hero plans on including firemen and law enforcement officers (LEOs) in their programming. Like military veterans, firemen and LEOs experience traumatic events during their careers. Many suffer from PTSD and both visible and invisible injuries, and suicide rates for both groups are substantially higher than for the general public. “The blueprint for the Veteran program is there. We’re in 55 cities and we know how to grow those HUBs organically. Now the task is determining how to use cycling to service this obvious issue with fire and law enforcement suicide rates.”

To donate to Project Hero, click here.