Firefighters halfway through cycling trip for fallen comrade

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — More than halfway through their trip honoring a fallen firefighter from Asheville, the Carolina Brotherhood cyclists have pedaled into typical summer thunderstorms and braved road temperatures well above 100 degrees on the heat index.
Jay Baker, a battalion chief for the Salisbury Fire Department, said the support along the five-day journey from Wilmington to Asheville for him and 29 other cyclists — all firefighters — has meant a lot.
“And the brotherhood has just been awesome,” Baker added Wednesday during the ride’s overnight stop in Charlotte. “I have 39 or 40 new friends.”
The ride is raising money toward college scholarships for the three surviving children of Asheville Capt. Jeffrey C. Bowen, who died in a medical office building fire July 28, 2011.
Baker says the cyclists have devotionals every morning before taking off on that day’s leg, and Asheville cyclists who are part of the Brotherhood ride share a few words about their fallen comrade Bowen.
When the Brotherhood ride finishes in Asheville late Friday afternoon, the cyclists will make a special presentation to the family.
On Saturday, the one-year anniversary of the fire that claimed Bowen’s life, the cyclists will attend a memorial service. Each has packed his or her dress uniform.
Baker said his bike odometer showed Wednesday night that he had covered 230 miles in the first three days. The group will travel from Charlotte to Forest City today and from Forest City to Asheville on Friday.
The riders generally travel in two columns of 15 riders each, drafting much like NASCAR drivers.
“We take turns pulling each other, working our way up to the front,” said Baker, who at 46 is one of the older cyclists. “It keeps everybody fresh.”
Baker said he has held up well physically, drinking plenty of liquids. The meals, supplied by “very, very generous” rescue squads and fire departments along the way, have been incredible, he added.
“I’d be surprised — we’ve been fed so well — if I don’t gain weight on this trip,” Baker said.
Day 2 of the journey was the toughest, Baker said. It covered 85 miles and was 105 degrees on the pavement until storms rolled in and cooled things off.
The group rearranged its schedule so the cyclists could pay a tribute at the funeral for slain Lumberton Police Officer Jeremiah Montgomery, who was shot while on duty July 17. Baker and the others wore their fire department helmets — not their bicycle helmets — as part of their salute outside the service.
In Hamlet, the riders met with Assistant Chief Calvin White, who was first on the scene Sept. 3, 1991, at the Imperial Foods Processing Plant fire that killed 25 people, injured 54 others and ended up orphaning 49 children.
The cyclists visited the memorial site of the fire. Baker described it as a moving, humbling experience.
There have been no accidents or close calls with other vehicles, Baker said. The Brotherhood ride has about six support vehicles, including one devoted entirely to carrying the cyclists’ gear.
Baker said one cyclist sustained a minor road-rash injury when a recently milled road caused two bicycles to come together on Day 2.
“The news coverage really picked up today,” Baker said in Charlotte. “We’re getting a lot of good plugs out there, and people are looking for us coming through.”
Baker updates his Facebook page every night and tries to give as many updates on Twitter (@BattChiefBaker) as he can.
The Carolina Brotherhood website includes a live tracker of the group when they are on the road. It also has downloaded scores of photos from each day’s leg.
Baker, who is in several of those pictures, knows the hardest part of his trip may be coming up.
“We haven’t hit the mountains yet,” Baker said. “We shall see.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.