WALLA WALLA - Roger Mallette was just sick at what he saw on a visit this past winter to the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Mallette, founder and owner of Retro cycling jersey company in Portland and a U.S. Navy veteran, was here in December on business. He swung by the VA to make contact with Derek Reser, the recreation director on the Walla Walla campus.
Mallette, a biking enthusiast who built his company with a push off of $250 and a spare bedroom, was aghast when Reser took him to an outbuilding, the "bike shed." There, the men saw a heap of bikes, none in usable condition.
"I was horrified. There were cruiser and mountain bikes, scattered all over the place. Not one was fully assembled and ready to go."
About 20 bikes were purchased by the Walla Walla VA over the past decade for recreation purposes, Reser explained. However, there is limited storage space and the majority of bikes have been chained to a bike rack, fully exposed to weather.
And, frankly, many of the veterans using the bikes haven't ridden since they were kids, he said.
Hence, there was plenty of going through potholes and jumping curbs, Reser conceded. "Being a kid again. Having fun. Which is part of the joy of riding a bike."
But only if the bikes function.
Mallette headed directly to Allegro Cyclery, where owners Justin Bannerman and Michael Austin hopped on board with the vision - what if some of the bikes could be repaired at no cost to the VA?
"To get some of the bicycles road-worthy and safe for vets to use. If a veteran getting any services at the VA needs to check out a bike for awhile, they should be able to," Mallette said.
"So I talked to Allegro, I said, ‘You have great mechanics here. If you donate mechanic services, send me your parts numbers and we'll purchase them and have them drop-shipped to you.' They liked the idea a lot."
Then, Mallette said from his Portland shop, he wondered if maybe Quality Bicycle Products in Minnesota might be interested in partnering with him, supplying the parts for these special bikes.
"They said yes," said Mallette, who served in the Air Force during the Persian Gulf War. He's also known in trade journals as the guy who pursues licensing agreements with gusto and was awarded the coveted right to use Dr. Seuss images on his bike apparel.
An "elated" Seth Nesselhuf of Quality Bicycle Products not only agreed, he loaded up the offer with donations of bicycle safety helmets, locks, safety lights, water bottle cages and bottles, Mallette said. "He got a little teary in an e-mail he sent me."
"We're all about bicycle advocacy," Nesselhuf said Friday afternoon, fresh from forklift duty at the warehouse. "We were able to partner with Allegro Cyclery, one of our accounts, to do something beautiful."
Suddenly the partners found themselves rolling out a real plan and the "U.S. Veterans Bicycle Program" was born. Mallette plans to take the concept to a number of VA medical centers around the nation.
It's the first of a kind, he said, and it fits with Retro's mission of serving the community at large. In that vein, the company has created "The Cat in the Hat Bicycle Safety Program" for kids in Seattle and Chicago.
Veterans who use the program bikes here and in other cities will also undergo mandatory safety and bike-care training first.
Walla Walla seemed like the perfect place to begin, Mallette said. "I just saw an opportunity to do good. What I gather is that Walla Walla appreciates its vets. You know, I saw a veterans' Christmas tree downtown when I was there."
He feels the same, Bannerman said. He comes from a Navy family and understands what military families go through. "It's not easy. This, for us, for me, it's really cool to be involved with the VA and be able to help out."
Bannerman has overseen the repair of two cruiser bikes, one recumbent trike and a mountain bike in the initial phase of the program. "It's really an honor and a privilege, a little way of supporting them when they get home. They see things over there we could never imagine."
Such are the men and women he works with, those enrolled in the VA's residential mental-health rehabilitation program, Reser said.
Most patients are enrolled for 30-60 days. Getting them out of the hospital and into the community is important to their success, the recreation specialist explained. "It gives them a break from someone always looking over their shoulder. And they can use the bikes for taking care of personal errands, like banking, shopping."
It bothered him to see the bikes go unused, Reser said. While he can do basics like change tire tubes, larger repairs are beyond his expertise, he noted. "And we have no budget for something like that."
In the past, he's found that veterans who did ride the loaner bikes regained some self confidence and a better self-image, he added.
People active in addiction are not typically active in physical exercise, which releases endorphins that provide stress and anxiety relief. Too, bike riding can address health problems associated with high blood pressure and diabetes, which are also significantly represented among veterans, Reser said.
Rolling out an answer for some of those woes is just plain exciting to him, Mallette said. "Veterans can get out, go to the library, maybe get a bite to eat. They can experience Walla Walla. And maybe some of them will discover a newfound passion or a return to the sheer enjoyment of cycling."
If you go
Officials from Retro of Portland and Allegro Cyclery of Walla Walla will present four rehabbed bikes to the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Wednesday, 1 p.m., at building 69 on the VA campus. The presentation is open to the public. For more information call Linda Wondra at 525-5200, ext. 22811