Tuesday, May 15, 2012

'Riding to Finish'

Seeing as how my newspaper's regular website archives are currently unavailable because of the transition to a new format, I wanted to post the article, "Riding to Finish," here. I was honored with a Press Club of Western Pa. Golden Quill Award for the story, about a local man living in Italy who battles his multiple sclerosis by competing in insanely-long ultramarathon bike races:

Italian film director Lucia Marani was immediately captivated when her father began telling her about a man he met the day after Christmas in 2007. The man was riding his bike in the pouring rain along the Tyrrhenian coastline. 

“My father told me about this ex-Olympian baseballer for Italy, Italian-American, struck with (multiple sclerosis), preparing for a legendary bike race in France… I was already captured by his story,” she said. 

Marani’s father had met Penn Hills native Tony Lonero, who has dual citizenship and has lived in Italy since the late 1980s. Marani is hoping that both Italian and American film audiences will be equally captivated by her documentary “Ride to Finish,” about Lonero’s extraordinary life. 

Lonero’s was already quite a story, even before the events that inspired the documentary. He was the youngest boy ever to play American Legion baseball in Penn Hills. Between 1978 and 1981, Lonero led the Chipola Junior College Indians to two state final appearances, and was awarded a full scholarship to Louisiana State University. In 1982, Lonero played professional baseball in Italy with the Nettuno Indians, who are essentially the Yankees of Italian baseball, having won 18 championships since 1948. Lonero was also a player on Italy’s 1984 Olympic baseball team, which finished fifth. Since retiring from baseball in 2000, Lonero has started an Internet design and hosting company.  

The story could stop there, but it doesn’t. 

Lonero was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago. “In 2001, I had come home from walking and was doing some stretching, and I fell over,” Lonero said. “I couldn’t get up and my leg wasn’t working. That was the first symptom.” 

Because of the lesions on his spine, Lonero said he was unable to run or walk for exercise, but one day he discovered that, for some reason, riding a bike did not cause any inflammation or pain. “My doctor said, ‘Do what makes you feel good, but you gotta move,” he said. 

That was 2002. 

By 2003, Lonero was participating in the 776-mile Paris-Brest-Paris cycling ultramarathon, one of the world’s oldest cycling events. In 2003 alone, he biked more than 1,580 miles. 

“Tony’s story is so incredible not because he has MS, but because he has a different approach to the illness,” Marani said. “He lives so intensely; every moment is precious. He never stops, he never resigns, he never regrets. 

“Filming Tony was great fun, although it was a very demanding project. Following a cyclist day and night, rain or sun, for days, no stop, is really hard, but it makes you understand how deep the motivation is that moves people like Tony.” 

Some of that motivation has also come from Lonero’s mother, Plum resident JoAnn Bary. In fact, when it comes to the number of miles traveled, Bary may give her son a run for his money. 

“I used to be a marathon runner,” Bary said. “But I ended up with some stress fractures, so cycling was easier on my joints.” Bary started cycling at the age of 50. At age 69, she completed a 3,000-mile bike trek the entire width of the United States, from California to Florida. And though they’re separated by thousands of miles of ocean, Bary and her son even got a chance to pedal side-by-side. 

“For Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary (in 2008), there was a cycle relay from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh, to carry historical documents to the Point for the big celebration,” Bary said. “I was talking to one of the PNC (Bank) representatives who was organizing the relay, and I told her my biggest dream was to do a race with my son. Before I knew it, she told me, ‘We’ll bring him home.’” 

Bary said PNC paid to fly Lonero home, and he was able to bike from Cumberland to Frostburg, Md., with his mother.  

“We did the leg together at two in the morning,” she said, “I just said, ‘Well, you can shoot me now, I can die happy.’” 

“He never gives up,” said Walter De Luca, southern Europe sales manager for Gore Bike Wear and Running Wear. Gore is helping to sponsor “Ride to Finish.” 

“He’s the most persistent person I ever met in my life,” De Luca said. “I think not just cyclists, but all of us, can learn from him. With the disease he has, most people would not even think of doing an extreme-distance bike ride, but he does, and he does so with such a passion and dedication that it sets new standards in expectation for everyone, healthy or not.” 

Lonero is setting new standards for himself as well. He is already gearing up for the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris event, but depending on how he feels, Lonero plans to partner with one of his closest friends in Italy, Paolo Bronzetti, and attempt the annual Race Across America, held in June and billed as “the world’s toughest bicycle race.” Lonero said he plans to enter the 3,000-mile, 12-state marathon and raise money for multiple sclerosis research along the way. If he is successful, he would be the first person with MS to complete the race. 

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Lonero? He would give it all up at the drop of a hat. 

“The movie’s great, the bikes and the sponsorship and the support I’ve gotten is great, but I’d give it all back to wake up without MS someday,” he said. 

Marani said a firm release date for “Ride to Finish” has not been set yet — Lonero attended a showing on Jan. 22 in Marani’s hometown of Rome — but she is hoping the documentary will have a spring 2011 premiere in Italy, and an English version is in the works for release in the U.S. 

“‘Ride to Finish’ is not just a motto (with Tony), but a sincere philosophy of life,” Marani said.

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