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My Soul to Fly

(speech given before the ride at BikeMS 2023)

Thank you to all the volunteers, staff, and riders. I think all of us in the MS community are deeply grateful for bikeMS because of the funds it has generated. Because of these funds, the National MS society is the leading research nonprofit in the world. But my own personal gratitude for bikeMS is of a slightly different nature.

My name is Laura Leigh Birdwell and I was diagnosed with MS in 2006. Two months prior to my diagnosis, I bought a second-hand road bike from a friend. It was a Cannondale, bright green in color (definitely from the 80s), and didn’t quite fit me. But I loved it. I still remember the very first time I rode it — it ignited something within me. All I wanted to do was ride rolling hills for miles and miles. My soul wanted to fly and see the world from two wheels.

The thing was, I had MS. Could my body ride long miles? Could my legs handle the stress? What if I suddenly went blind in one eye or lost the feeling on one side of my body while riding?

You see, these are the thoughts when you have MS. It takes a lot of courage to ride a bike with MS, so let’s give a round of applause to all of the I Ride with MS cyclists.

For 3 years, I yearned to ride my beautiful, bright green bike, but I was afraid -- afraid I'd have an attack while riding, afraid I couldn't keep up, afraid of the MS progressing.

Then, in 2009, I moved to Phoenix and heard about 2 cycling groups, one on Saturdays and one on Sundays, that were preparing for BikeMS Arizona in the spring of 2010. And some of you might remember the groups: Laverne’s Ladies ride — anyone remember Laverne? And Charlie’s Sunday ride — I know Charlie’s out there, where’s Charlie?

I joined the two groups, signed up for BikeMS 2010, and that March, on my trusty bright green Cannondale, I completed the century ride on Saturday and the 50 miles on Sunday.

Completing the 150 miles of BikeMS freed my soul, quite literally, and helped me believe that I could, indeed, ride my bike and ride it fast. Over the next several years, I got into road racing and competed as a category 2 road cyclist. I was pretty speedy back then and could ascend South Mountain in just under 24 minutes. I also completed double triple bypass in Colorado — 250 miles and 20,000 feet of climbing in 2 days. If any of you century riders want even more of a challenge, check out Double Triple Bypass!

That chapter of my life was short-lived; I was diagnosed with Secondary Progressive MS this past spring. I can't ride my bike like I once could, but I'm blessed to be still riding. The thing is, none of these accomplishments would have been possible without BikeMS 2010. If it hadn’t been for BikeMS, I would not have found my love for the bike. If it hadn’t been for BikeMS, I would never have even dared to believe I could do any of these things. And if it hadn’t been for BikeMS, my soul would still be fettered by fears and wondering “what if?”

Thank you, BikeMS - you helped me believe, you helped me realize my potential as a cyclist with MS, and you helped my soul to fly, if even for a short while.

Thank you to everyone who is here! Have fun today!

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