Two years ago, Sergio Armani broke his tailbone in a bike accident. Sidelined, he began slipping into a funk.
Experience had taught him that the best way to parry depression is to help others. As an active Philadelphia cyclist, Armani, who lives in Fairmount, knew about Neighborhood Bike Works. Headquartered in the basement of a church on the edge of the Penn campus, the group teaches urban youth how to fix and build bicycles. Along the way, they also learn lessons about discipline, leadership, and character.
Armani had a wild idea, something he called the "Ride of Dreams": a long-distance, multiday bike tour. It would be a horizon-expanding thrill for the kids, he figured, and a way to raise money for the nonprofit, whose budget has taken a hit lately.
In July 2010, 10 young people and about a dozen adults took part in the inaugural Ride of Dreams, a 240-mile, four-day bike trip from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and back.
"Absolutely phenomenal," recalls Armani, 42, a sales manager at a tech company in King of Prussia and now president of Neighborhood Bike Works' board. "It was the first time any of the kids had done anything like that."
Eager for an encore, the kids suggested a more challenging destination: Washington, D.C.
This year's ride began on July 22. The cyclists gathered at St. Mary's, "the bike church," wearing snazzy blue-and-white Ride of Dreams jerseys, which they'd paid for by selling rehabilitated bikes at a flea market.
I joined the group - 14 kids, 17 adults - for the first part of the ride, 34 miles from West Philly to the lunch stop at a ballpark in Unionville, Chester County.
The temperature that day surpassed 100 degrees. As memorable as the heat were the hills. A few of the studs up front occasionally circled back to encourage us laggards.
"I just love doing hills!" declared Saleem Coates, 17, of Southwest Philly. "When I started biking, I wasn't very good, but I kept working at it and now ain't nothin' gonna stop me."
Coates was one of three riders who pedaled the entire first day's distance, 75 miles, without getting a lift in the sag wagon that follows along for support. That evening, at Camp Donegal in York County, the kids roasted s'mores around a campfire, scared one another with tales of marauding bears and wolves, and giggled their way to sleep under the stars.
The next day's leg was a more reasonable 48 miles, though no less hilly, they reported. The riders spent the night at a Jewish retreat in Maryland, where they dined on kosher food and played twilight volleyball.
The following day, Sunday, was another 70-miler that brought them to the nation's capital via the shady trails of Rock Creek Park.
"I remember looking up and seeing the dome of the Capitol," said Josh Case, 15, who lives in West Philadelphia and attends George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science. "In my mind, I just had this big sense of accomplishment: 'Wow, I made it to Washington!' I stopped and took a picture. I had to remember that moment."
That night, they bunked in a dorm at Howard University. On Monday, they were led on a campus tour, visited the offices of local members of Congress, and met with a representative of the U.S. transportation secretary, who lauded them for their 200-mile achievement and for embracing the bicycle as a means of travel. They returned to Philadelphia later that day by bus.
"I loved watching the dynamics unfold between the adults and the kids," said Sheri Hanna, 47, a postdoctoral fellow in the microbiology department at Penn and, with Howard Hochheiser, cochair of the ride. "The kids set the tone by working together and encouraging each other, and I got reminded how special these multiday rides can be. They seem to bring everybody together like a big family."
For Sean Betts, 17, a student at University City High School, it was his first trip to D.C.
"Normally people go there by car. But you don't see as much while driving. Riding a bike gives you a chance to see the beauty of everything," he said.
Last year, when Brandon Formanes, 17, attempted the ride to Harrisburg, he weighed 270 pounds. He spent most of the trip in the sag wagon.
Over the last year, owing in part to regular cycling, Formanes, of Upper Darby, has lost 100 pounds.
His most pleasant memory: "Making it up some of the climbs with the rest of the guys. A year ago, I was usually the last guy up. This time I was able to keep up with the lead group and be with my friends."
Formanes is proud that the ride raised nearly $23,000 for Neighborhood Bike Works (www.neighborhoodbikeworks.org), which has three other branches in the city and one in Norristown.
"I really love Bike Works," Formanes said, "and hope it's around for a very long time. It's my second home."
View a video of scenes from the Ride of Dreams, featuring interviews with the young cyclists: www.philly.com/wellbeing