Riding to remember: Firefighters pedal 343 miles to reflect on fallen brothers
The FDNY 343 Ride supports the veterans that took the fight overseas after 9/11
Ten years ago, FDNY Captain Mike Alexander was sitting at the kitchen table at Engine 50/Ladder 19 in the Bronx. He was thinking about 9/11.
This was not unusual for him. Every single day, something about September 11 pops into his mind. And every single day, a story about 9/11 fills the firehouse, sometimes just for a minute or two, sometimes for an hour or more.
Amazed at how fast 10 years has transpired, Alexander had decided to do something personal to mark the milestone anniversary. He would ride his bike a mile for every member lost – 343 miles – his tribute to the fallen.
That day, sitting around the kitchen table, Alexander casually mentioned his plans to five or six other guys. His announcement was initially met with looks of surprise and hesitation – Alexander wasn’t an avid cyclist by any means – but within minutes, the sentiment turned to support. What’s more, a couple of the guys were in; they wanted to ride, too.
That first ride eventually became 38 riders strong, weaving their way from New York to the Pentagon – a distance almost exactly 343 miles.
The FDNY 343 Ride has since garnered worldwide attention and support. The event gives riders a way to honor the first responders who didn’t come home that day, to reflect on their sacrifice, and to support the veterans who subsequently fought to defend the American homeland.
I spoke with Alexander about how the vision for the ride has evolved over the years, the 20th anniversary of the attacks, and the future of the event.
What was it like conceptualizing the ride that first year, then seeing the support start to come in?
It started off slow, like almost anything else, but the support was amazing once we got going. It’s been really a cool thing to watch grow.
We wanted to honor the memory of the firefighters that died, plus the Port Authority police, the members of the New York City Police Department and the people at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But we decided to raise money for wounded veterans, too, because they took the fight to the enemy after that day, and have been doing it every day since. From that point on, once people heard about what we were doing, the generosity has been nothing short of amazing, and the people you meet are amazing. In 10 years, we’ve grossed over $1.2 million for veterans.
For that first ride, what was it like for you, both physically and emotionally?
The first year, because most of the guys who did the long trip with us weren’t bicyclists, you’re wondering if you’re going to make it – and we did, and the guys did great.
It was mixed emotions. It took the whole week to kind of reflect about the events of 9/11 itself.
Firefighters spend a lot of time together, whether you’re working the same shifts, or you’re having dinner or just sitting around after the day’s over, and you talk about stories of guys we lost, their families. It’s good to hear their names being called out, and you remember what great people they were. You reflect about that.
Who participates in the ride?
We try to keep it kind of personal. Most of the riders are firefighters from this house. Some of the members are retired. Some are still active. Some are from surrounding houses that have heard about it and want to get involved. And then someone will bring along a friend or companion or somebody that is really interested.
We’ve had people who aren’t on the fire department ride and have really embraced it, and some family members do it as well. We have had a couple of veterans jump in and do it, but at the same time, some of the guys that are firefighters are also veterans. They’re in the Marines or the Navy or Air Force, so they have dual titles.
We even have people involved who lost family members. One guy told me that his brother, also a firefighter, was killed, and he told me that he was kind of floundering, and when he heard about the FDNY 343 Ride, he said, “I gotta do this.” He has done the ride every year since then. It kind of puts you in a good place around 9/11 because, you get mixed emotions that time of year. You’re trying to do something positive. Make something positive come over a negative event.
We’ve seen that happen between the fundraising and the support for each other. We’re doing something positive, and we’re also helping these veterans who are such patriots by raising money to help them, whether it’s with therapy, with modifying their homes, getting them specialized equipment. Every one of these soldiers is a true American hero.
Can you tell me a bit about this year’s ride?
The ride will be held from Sept. 14. We leave Montauk, Long Island, and we’ll finish up five days later – on Sept. 18 – at Arlington Cemetery. We ride all of Long Island, then through New Jersey. We take a ferry over to Rehoboth then ride through Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and end the ride in Arlington. Two firefighters, Christopher Slutman and Chris Engeldrum, were FDNY firefighters and they were also members of the Armed Forces. While they were activated, they were killed in the line of duty serving their country. So, we’re going to end the ride at their gravesite and pay respects to them at the end of the week when we finish.
This year’s ride has been dedicated to Captain Frank Portelle. Frank was a 25-year veteran of the FDNY, and passed away from brain cancer on March 13, 2021, at the age of 51. He was the 244th member of the FDNY to die from illnesses caused by operating at the WTC. Frank did the ride in previous years, and he will surely be on our minds as we pedal to Arlington.
How many riders are participating this year?
We’ll probably get 80 cyclists and 15-20 people who do support. The support members set up the rest stops. They work their tails off all week and cook and get the routes squared away for us. They set up the rest stops with water, food; they do first aid; and they take care of the hotel check-ins. The support team makes everything work.
From that first year to now, can you tell me a little bit about how the ride has evolved, not only with the mission but the fundraising?
We started with 38 riders, and we could easily be over a couple hundred riders no problem, but we’ve made a conscious effort to keep it manageable. With the planning for the ride, so many people are involved now, so we’re a lot more efficient.
At the same time, our fundraising has really just gotten so much better. We have a website with a PayPal link that’s active so people can donate. We sell bottled wine and T-shirts. We raffle off a car every year during the bike ride. So, our fundraising efforts have gotten a lot better.
One of my favorite things is the ride itself because you spend a nice week reflecting on a lot of different things. You also meet a lot of great people in the process. Whether it’s business owners that want to support you and people who want to donate — we get donations from all over the country from people who just happen to stumble on our website. We’ve gotten donations from people in Europe, just miscellaneous donations. It’s just been really a nice thing to see grow and there’s no question people are embracing what it’s all about, so that’s why it’s been so successful.
Gearing up for this year’s ride, what’s it been like to try to manage coming back to it following a year off due to COVID, plus the milestone anniversary?
Everybody is excited to do the trip because it’s a nice week. You’re pretty tired when you get done. It’s not the hardest thing in the world, but it is a long trip and a bit of a challenge. and most of us aren’t cyclists. They ride for this ride. On the last day, when it’s over, a lot of times you feel, “Geez, it’s kind of sad to see the week come to an end” because you just enjoy it. So, on top of being excited to do the long trip and spend a week riding together, everybody’s excited because we’re coming out of COVID, and everybody all over the country and the world has been kind of cooped up.
Are you doing anything different this year because it’s the 20th anniversary?
You can’t believe that 20 years has gone by. Every year 9/11 comes up, it feels like it was just yesterday. I get mixed emotions for a couple of days, but then you get busy, life goes on and you move on. But every year around 9/11, for me, it comes back pretty quick. I enjoy doing this ride because it puts you in a better mindset.
I know for myself, and I’m sure the guys feel the same, the longer it gets out from 9/11, the more important we feel it is to do things like this. People forget. Kids get older. You get busy. Other things come up. But when we do an event like this, people kind of slow down and remember what happened. We see that happen. It’s important. Being 20 years, it’s not any easier for the family members and the kids who lost their dads and moms, so we feel it’s important to let them know we didn’t forget their moms and dads and loved ones that went in to save people and didn’t come home.
What’s the future of the ride?
We don’t know. This is the tenth year, and like all great things, they have a shelf life. There was talk that this was going to be the last long trip to Arlington, but there also is talk that some other guys might want to pick it up and keep it going. Personally, I just retired in January, so I don’t know how many more rides I’ll run. I love doing it. It’s rewarding, and as long as they do it, I’ll be involved in some form, whether participating or helping to put it together. We’re not sure where it’s going to go from here – whether we change the course, change the optics of the ride a little bit – but I’m sure in some form we’ll do something after this year. Right now, we’re just focused on getting this together and having a great week together starting on Sept. 14.
To donate to the FDNY 343 Ride, visit the event website. This year’s ride already has its set of volunteers, but the team is still taking donations to support veterans-focused charities.