Eight riders will be charging up the wall in this Sunday’s bike race for more than a chance at victory. They’ll race to remind others of the sacrifice made by Philadelphia firefighters Robert Neary, Daniel Sweeney and Michael Goodwin, who all died in the line of duty.
The left shoulder of the cyclists’ jerseys read “Firefighters Cycling,” designed specifically for this race. The team formed in 1996 and since 2009 has been dedicated to informing others about the hazards and health issues faced by firefighters.
The amateur-level elite squad was invited to the Philly race while competing in Florida. There they learned of the fallen men from Philadelphia and decided to dedicate the race to them.
A heartfelt design project
The emblem on the front of the jersey says Local 22, for Philadelphia’s Firefighters Union, across the city’s skyline and flag filled heavens on the familiar shield of all American firefighters.
Greg Marshall helped design the logo. He went to the Philadelphia Fire Academy with Sweeney and remembers the shock he felt when he learned of his death in a Kensington warehouse blaze in April 2012.
“It was a tough day. When I first heard, we didn’t know who it was because the TV wasn’t releasing names and it was like mourning the entire department,” he said. “It was another blow when I found out it was one of my classmates.”
Marshall remembers Sweeney as an eager 19-year-old starting the career “he always wanted.”
Alan Wahlstrom, the owner and director of Firefighters Cycling, explains that about 100 firefighters are lost each year with about 60 percent suffering either heart attacks or strokes. He points out that many who survive injuries suffer lingering effects.
It was when he started learning about the continued suffering of 9/11 first responders that he revived the cycling team. First formed to compete against police in Los Angeles, he is now set on a mission to raise public awareness of the conditions firefighters face. Wahlstrom himself is a retired firefighter due to health problems incurred in his work.
“Firefighting is a brotherhood,” said Bill Gault president of Local 22. “We’re very honored. Firefighters Cycling is doing a great thing.”
And for the jerseys: “Snazzy ain’t they?” he added.
A ‘bigger goal than yourself’
The team will be led by Diego Milan of Spain and includes one Pennsylvanian, Barry Miller.
Adam Carr will be racing Manayunk for the third time previously riding with Ekoi Da Vinci of Quebec. He likes riding with the Firefighters because you have a “bigger goal than yourself.”
Teammate Victor Ayala is looking forward to tackling the wall. “It’s the most famous race in America,” said the Mexico native.
The racers feel confident, but are humble in the face of a tough field including past champion Freddy Rodriguez.
The new format of the race with the Start/Finish line on The Wall is also a game changer. Instead of the best sprinter at the end, the win will go simply to “the strongest guy at the end of the race,” according to Wahlstrom.
The Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic is one of four events this weekend dedicated to the memory of Neary, Sweeney, and Goodwin. On Saturday, about 100 firefighters will participate in two charity fitness and obstacle course races. There will also be a “beef and beer” benefit for the Goodwin family at the Mummers Hall Museum in South Philly on Sunday.