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Talking Friday morning with his bike-riding friends outside the Flying Pig Coffee House on Oak Island, Larry Snead was interrupted by someone who handed him a $25 check. The money was a donation to the funds Snead’s year-old bicycle team has been raising through Bike MS.
“We got five new recruits this morning,” Snead told the donor. “I have two more checks in my pocket.”
And Snead probably will have more checks for the Raleigh chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society by the time his fundraising drive ends in early October.
Earlier this month, Snead and 21 other members of his team—Suburban Cycles—rode in the New Bern Bike MS, with riders having the option of riding up to 150 miles over two days to fulfill pledges.
“We started with a team goal of $1,000,” Snead said, “and I kept raising, increasing it.”
As of Sept. 20, the team has raised $12,620. The money it raised through the New Bern ride—which attracted 2,100 riders—ranked 18th out of 125 teams, Snead said. For that accomplishment, his team received the Rookie Award.
“Originally, I didn’t know enough about MS to ask questions about it,” said Snead, 65, retired after 30 years as a prison administrator, the last 10 of which were as a superintendent of the New Hanover Correctional Center.
“But once you get involved, you see the real need for funds for a cure for MS. It really gets in your heart. Medically, I don’t know more than I did before, but I know how debilitating it can be.
“This one lady I’ve known for five years said she wanted to be a sponsor on a T-shirt and she wanted to donate. As she was (making a donation), she said, ‘I have MS, and so does my boss.’ I didn’t have any clue that either of them had MS. It can be all the way from not being visible at all to being wheelchair-bound or worse.”
Snead, captain of Suburban Cycles, rode 85 miles in the New Bern Bike MS.
That Snead himself is even able to pedal a bicycle for a couple of blocks is astonishing.
Three years ago, Snead weighed 450 pounds.
“My doctor will tell you,” Snead said, “my wife (Mary) will tell you, my son (Andy) will tell you and some of my friends—if I had not started doing this, I’d be dead. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t walk. I was in bad, bad shape.”
“I was afraid,” Mary said. “I was afraid.”
Snead, who at first glance resembles “Casablanca” actor Sydney Greenstreet, played basketball and football in high school and was offered a partial scholarship to East Carolina University in 1961. An injury prevented him from ever making the roster.
Mary estimates Larry weighed 250 pounds when they were married.
“He’s always dieted,” Mary said. “But it’s just gone up and down, up and down.”
Two years after Snead retired in 2003, his weight soared 450 pounds.
“I grew up an athlete,” Snead said, “and I knew I wasn’t doing healthy things.”
With the help of chiropractor Karen Fairchild, owner of Island Healing on Oak Island, Snead began in December 2005 a nutrition program that included five minutes of exercise.
“I rode a recumbent bike, and I went from five minutes to six minutes,” he recalled about the early efforts at exercise. “I said, ‘I think I’ll add a bicycle to it.’ So I’d ride a mile to the recreation center and work out. I’d be tired when I got there. I’d work out, ride home, be tired when I got home. And I just began to expand it a little bit.”
By June 2007, Snead was riding 5 miles to the Suburban Cycles shop, owned by Mark Meyer, 33, a former national champion in the niche sport of downhill, slalom and BMX bicycle racing. Snead had lost 100 pounds, but he had little interest in expanding his daily rides.
“I was at the Suburban Cycles shop one day and Mark asked a customer how far he had ridden that day, and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, 10 or so miles. I’m training for the MS 150.’
“When he left, I said, ‘Mark, what is the MS 150—does that 150 stand for what I think it does?’ He said, ‘Yes, it’s 150 miles in two days. You can do it.’
Snead, then 64, said, ‘No I can’t.’ Nonetheless intrigued, Snead asked how much it cost to participate in the ride, and Meyer told him $200.
“I said, ‘I’ll never be able to raise $200.’
“He said, ‘You just did.’ ”
With Meyer’s $200 pledge and encouragement, Snead and 12 other club members participated last year in the Breakaway to the Beach MS ride at Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“It was mind-boggling,” Snead said. “It was the most bicycles I had ever seen in my life, about 1,400.”
Snead completed 72 miles, and that experience led Snead to prepare to enter the 2008 New Bern MS 150. But Snead faced a recurring problem: his bikes kept breaking down because of his weight. In the Breakaway to the Beach, Snead had flat tires each of the two days he rode.
“Not many bike shops cater to someone of Larry’s size,” Meyer said. “Bikes are designed around people that top off at maybe 210, 220 pounds.”
Snead asked Meyer for help. Meyer’s challenge: design a bike the 350-pound Snead could ride comfortably and “confidently without popping a tire every 10 minutes.”
“No was never an option—because it never had to be,” Meyer said. “A lot of people give up before I do. For Larry, he had a difficult road. My setting him up was easy. For him to stay with it was one in a million. Most people don’t have the hope he had that it would work.”
Meyer was perfect in training and temperament for the job. The New Jersey native had lived in Washington, D.C., for 10 years before setting up his Suburban Cycles shop two years ago on Oak Island. The former professional athlete quickly became popular.
“When I come home,” he said, “there are bikes under my house with notes on them. And when I come to work, there are bikes at the door with notes on them.”
Meyer knew what kind of bike would work for Snead.
“With my background of downhill and aggressive riding,” Meyer said, “we have to have a bike that we consider ‘stout.’”
Snead would buy the bikes and Meyer would redesign them. On the first bike Meyer redesigned, he installed a tractor seat.
“It wasn’t the best-looking bike,” Meyer said, “but it was a tool, a tool to get him to the next bike. We just wanted to get him on a path of losing weight. We started playing around with different tire setups, a different seating position, just adjusting the bike to make it Larry proof.”
The bike Snead now rides, called a Trek, is the third one Meyer has redesigned. It was finished in May and Snead has ridden it 2,120 miles. But Meyer is custom-designing yet another bike, this one a road bike.
“A road bike is very thin-tired, like a Tour de France-style bike,” Meyer said. “They’re 20-some pound bikes. To have a 20-pound bike hold up someone 350 pounds on a tire that small—I don’t think anybody in the world thought he’d be able to ride a road bike. His bike is in the final stages of being finished.”
Meyer points to a bike with thin tires in the courtyard next to the Flying Pig Coffee House.
“Now he rides a bike with wheels this thin,” he said. “That’s not supposed to happen. But with my experience and his will, we were able to accomplish that goal.
“He was going to die if he didn’t do something.”
The success of the ride in New Bern has prompted Snead to plan an MS ride at Oak Island.
“They’ve already said they want to come here,” Snead said. He said the experience of riding in New Bern “was just awesome.”
“You see people you expect to do well who pass you, but then you see those who are not built like athletes and they go by you. I never heard, ‘On your left,’ so many times in my life.
“Of course, they’d pass me going up the hill. Going down the hill, my weight kicked in. And I’d coast by them and say, ‘On your left.’ ”
“Larry is an ambassador of cycling in my eyes,” Meyer said. “Larry was able to do something that truly has changed people’s lives. All these people come out because they love Larry. They love his enthusiasm. They love the fact that he’s lost so much weight.
“He now has a whole bunch of bikes and he picks which one he wants to ride in the morning. Any time during the day if you are riding up and down Oak Island Drive, you will see Larry cruising on his bike and everybody waves to him. He’s helped everybody.”
Mary said the bicycle riding had succeeded in helping Snead lose weight for a reason other than exercise.
“I think it has provided the socialization,” Mary said. “It’s something to do every day. The exercise has given him greater stamina—being able to breathe better, just feeling better, having a better outlook on life, alleviating depression.”
The bicycle in his bedroom—the one first set to five minutes—“is set on 48 minutes now,” Snead said. “When I get off of it, I get on a tread climber. And when I get off of it, I lift weights on some days and then ride a bicycle.
“At 65, you’re looking at things to extend your life. And I definitely have done that.”
Snead laughs as he recalls the conversation with Meyer in which Meyer pledged the money for the first bike ride.
“I was talking to him in general,” Snead said, “and that customer comes in there with all his fancy bicycle stuff on—his helmet, his jersey, his shoes—and I thought, ‘Golly, this is the stuff that I’ve made fun of, and now here we are a year later and I’m wearing all this stuff.’ ”
MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.