This month’s Virginia Dare MS 150 bike tour wound through some of Virginia’s most scenic and historic countryside: along the banks of the James River, past stately colonial plantations, down to Williamsburg and back to Richmond.
A.C. Roane may not have been able to see it — but he could appreciate it just the same.
Roane’s view of the surroundings on his two-day charity ride was limited primarily to the blurry shapes and swatches of color that indicated the location of his cycling friends — a group known as the “Chain Gang” — on the road ahead of him.
For almost three decades, beginning shortly after Roane’s graduation from Virginia Tech, the hereditary disease retinitis pigmentosa (RP) has been stealing his sight. Today he is 50 and long ago quit driving a car. He views the world through a tunnel of fog that will only shrink as the disease progresses.
As if RP wasn’t enough to cope with, Roane also suffered a stroke in 1997 — at the age of 43.
“It was just a fluke thing,” he says. “Other than the RP, I was always healthy as a horse. I had low blood pressure, and no clue anything was wrong.”
The day of the stroke, Roane was upstairs in his bedroom preparing to take his daughter to a piano lesson, when the room started spinning violently. He was able to call to his daughter for help, and at the hospital learned that he had an extreme narrowing of the arteries at the back of his head.
Fortunately, the stoke damage was in a relatively unimportant, “forgiving” part of the brain that controls equilibrium, and within a year he had fully recovered. But the experience left its mark.
“I’ve always felt that life was really fragile,” says Roane, “but when this happened it really drove it home.
“It was like someone flipped a switch and the whole world turned upside down.”
So what, you might ask, is Roane doing on a two-day bike ride — and raising money for multiple sclerosis?
On the one-year anniversary of his stroke, Roane says, he felt the need to celebrate his recovery and challenge himself at the same time. He signed up for the Virginia Dare MS bike ride without knowing a single other participant or knowing anyone with MS (his sister-in-law has since been diagnosed). He simply enjoyed riding bikes, and had never gone a long distance.
“I wanted to do something to signify I was totally back,” he said.
The ‘chain gang’ is born
Although he had trained and felt physically fit, Roane began that first tour in 1998 with no small amount of trepidation.
“It’s a big group doing the ride, but it gets spread out over 75 miles [a day’s leg],” he observes. Roane has particular difficulty seeing his way on back roads with no center lines or side lines, and in transitions from sunlight to shadow. “I was afraid I would miss one of the [marker] arrows,” he chuckles, “and ride off into the sunset!”
Coming out of the first rest stop, however, he heard the familiar voice of neighbor Gordon Fox.
“Riding with anyone?” asked Fox, who was accompanied by a friend – and with that was born the “Chain Gang.”
For seven years now, Roane has ridden with the group through everything from torrential downpours to terrific heat – not to mention an obstacle course of hazards from potholes and dogs to gravel, glass and railroad tracks. All such obstacles are relayed to him verbally, and he usually manages to average about 17 mph over the two-day ride.
The camaraderie of riding with a group, Roane observes, is wonderful; but equally important is the feeling of accomplishment the ride gives him.
“With what I have, you need to step and out and stretch yourself a bit,” he says. “I’ve found that when you challenge yourself to do things, it gives you confidence. If you don’t stretch yourself, your world starts to get smaller and smaller.”
Although Roane gave up working in the insurance business years ago, he continues to thrive in his role of stay-home dad to daughters Natalie, a new J.R.Tucker H.S. grad, and Anne Carey, a rising freshman at Deep Run H.S.
He goes snow skiing and water skiing and ran the Ukrop’s 10K with his daughter in March. In the familiar environment of his Wellesley home, he gardens and often does the cooking for the girls (who particularly favor his spaghetti) and his wife Brenda.
He can be so proficient at these tasks, in fact, that a newcomer to the scene would never guess he has limited sight. But in unfamiliar surroundings his limitations become “painfully obvious,” says Roane — who adds that anyone who stumbles or says “excuse me” to inanimate objects as often as he does can’t help but develop the ability to laugh at himself.
‘A screeching halt’
His only bike-riding mishap had nothing to do with his lack of vision, either. In that race, two blocks from the finish line, Roane’s bike shoes got hung up in the pedals and he broke his wrist in the resulting fall.
Another freak “off-bike” accident on the way to a tour left riders unscathed, but cost Roane and his group their cycles. As the carload of bikers approached Fredericksburg on I-95, the straps of the bike rack gave way and the entire contents crashed to the pavement in a tangle.
“We brought I-95 to a screeching halt,” laughs Roane. “Those bikes looked like pretzels!” Although it ruined the ride for that weekend, he says with a shrug, the insurance paid for a new bike that he loves: a titanium model weighing a mere 17 pounds.
With a disease as progressive as his, Roane cherishes each year that he can continue to ride in the Virginia Dare, and holds out hope that researchers will find a way to arrest RP.
He never hesitates to participate in studies of the disease, such as the program that required him to make multiple trips to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Who knows? Given the right breakthrough, he might someday be able to enjoy the sight he misses most – his daughters’ faces as they grow up.
Meanwhile, Roane and the “Chain Gang” raise hefty amounts of cash for multiple sclerosis research – though he insists his former employer and perennial sponsor, Northwestern Mutual (John Van Der Hyde Agency), deserves much of the credit for the $400 in pledges he collected this year.
Obviously, it would take a lot more than near-blindness to make Roane miss a Virginia Dare ride. “I have so many wonderful friends,” he exclaims, as he savors his memories of the latest tour. “People are always willing to help. And what a wonderful job the MS Society does — the ride is so well-organized.
“Besides,” he laughs, “They treat us like celebrities!”
For information on the Va. Dare tour, or donating to the MS Society, visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/var/home
As part of its 30th anniversary year and partnership with the Children's Museum of Richmond, Commonwealth Parenting will present a six-part RVA Parents Forum Series to address some of the toughest issues confronting parents.
Parenting experts and family educators will tackle topics ranging from bullying to alcohol, sex to divorce, and technology and stress. Parents will learn how to identify potential problems.
"We're excited about bringing this much-needed forum series to parents in central Virginia. Through our valuable partnership with Commonwealth Parenting, we can have a deeper impact in the community through parent and caregiver education," said Karen Coltrane, president and CEO of the Children's Museum of Richmond. > Read more.
Former Sandston resident Mildred Taylor celebrated her 106th birthday Aug. 9. Taylor, who now lives in Powhatan, is still a member of Sandston Baptist Church. She was visited the day after her birthday by several members of the church, who played for her a recording of the entire church membership singing happy birthday to her during worship. > Read more.
YMCA officials gathered last week to break ground on the new Tommy J. West Aquatic Center at the Shady Grove Family YMCA on Nuckols Road. The center, which will featured 7,600 square feet of competitive and recreational space, including water slides, play areas for children and warmer water for those with physical limitations, is the fourth phase of a $4 million expansion at the facility. West was president and CEO of Capital Interior Contractors and a founding member of the Central Virginia Region of the Virginia Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. > Read more.
Check out these three B’s in Henrico this weekend: books, bluegrass and “Born Yesterday.” Other activities to participate in – and feel good about – are the 15th annual James River Regional Cleanup and the 5th annual Richmond Out of the Darkness Community Walk. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
Inspirational football movie tries too hard for its own good
When the Game Stands Tall is based on a true story – an unbelievable true story that takes the word “inspiring” about as far as it can go.
It’s a film about Bob Ladouceur, coach of the De La Salle High Spartans, a California high school football team with 12 consecutive undefeated seasons (a staggering 151 games won in a row).
Along the way, Ladouceur (played by Jim Caviezel) faced the kind of hardship most football coaches (thankfully) can only imagine – suffering a near-fatal heart attack, the death of a star player, and rebuilding the team after that 151-game streak came to a humiliating end. > Read more.
Enjoy political comedy at its finest with The Capitol Steps at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. Methodist and Baptist churches unite for the fourth annual Mission Footprint 5K, taking place at Trinity UMC. Or in honor of Grandparent’s Day on Sunday, treat them to A Grand Family Affair or maybe a movie – the 1978 film “Superman” is at the Henrico Theatre. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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CalendarThe Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond will stream National Theatre Live’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” at 3 p.m. in Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of… Full text