Commentary

Across continents, rider delivers message of will, passion

Updated: February 15, 2008, 7:55 PM ET
By David Sylvester | Special to ESPN.com

Since Sept. 11, 2001, I have biked on three continents: North America, Africa and Asia. The journey took me though 15 states, 21 different countries and across 20,000 miles. I have ridden three different bikes and my big butt has broken two of them. I am the first African-American to do what I have done, and because of the places I have been -- how many people, black or white, do you know who have been to Tajikistan -- I can comfortably say that I was the first African-American many of the people I met had ever encountered.

Who am I? A man, just a regular guy.

[+] EnlargeDavid Sylvester
David SylvesterDavid Sylvester dances with a group of children in the streets of an Ethiopian city.
Why ride a bicycle through all of these places to raise money? The bicycle is my vehicle -- I implore you to "find your own bike" when you step out to support the charity or cause of your choosing.

Why did I do all of these things? Sometimes I don't know.

How did I do all of this without a sponsor and broke? There is no substitute for will and passion.

What changed in me throughout my expedition? How was I treated as an African-American man on a bike? What was it like to go through all the physical and emotional strain?

The answers to those questions, and others you might have, lie in a slogan I once read on a T-shirt in Istanbul: Any given moment can change your life.

Like you, I have experienced many moments, and each took root at a different time and place in my life, but I can tell when my biggest and fundamental moment occurred. It was when my dad asked me one simple question after my first peewee football game: "Did you do your best?" From that point on, my father, Samuel Sylvester, would ask me that question after every game, competition, interview or exam I had. He posed it to me so frequently that even though my father has been dead for more than a decade, I continue to constantly ask myself the same question.

David Sylvester

Last summer, David Sylvester joined Page 2 writer Jim Caple in Ephrata, Pa., for a ride on Caple's sports tour of the Susquehanna River. For more information on Sylvester's bike rides and charity work, go to contribute2.org.

Much later in my life, it was my friend Kevin Bowser's passing on Sept. 11 that gave me perspective; his death, while at work 90-plus floors above the ground, reminded me in vivid, brilliant and shocking detail that our moments are precious and often fewer than we realize.

Months later, at his memorial service, I found myself standing while one of his life-long buddies was unable to move. I looked back and forth at my own feet, and looked at him and thought, "If I can stand, then I can move, and if I can move then I can do something." Then, I chose to ride a bike across the United States to memorialize Kevin and raise money for a charity.

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David SylvesterSylvester takes a break from riding and meets a Samburu warrior near Sololo, Kenya.
On the road across the USA, there were so many moments that made me who I am. These moments motivated me to make myself better.

An unemployed woman in Dubois, Wyo., hugged tears out of me after we had a brief conversation. Moved by my story, she cried as she looked at and touched a picture of my friend. She tried to offer me her last few dollars, but I refused, and that led her to give me the best thing she could -- a warm, well-meaning hug.

Since I started pedaling in 2002, I have received at least 4,000 e-mails from all over the world reminding me daily that my -- no, make that, anyone's actions can change the world. My positive energy might not have the power to turn every head, but it can make people open their eyes more.

I don't think I can begin to guess the number of high fives I have given and received during my trip. But I can say that each one buoyed my spirits and made me want to do more -- pedal harder and faster, smile more and be more passionate. Whether it was riding through Dongola, Sudan, with my hand outstretched and people giving me "Five by's," or in Teton Pass with passengers in cars doing the same or just meeting an Uzbek woman who lets you hold her baby, I discovered that the power that lies within a person's touch is immense.

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David SylvesterIn Egypt, Sylvester saw the Pyramids and the Sphynx -- monuments that to him revealed the human capacity to create objects that stand the test of time.
The very instant I saw the grand continent of Africa with the bike route I would take bisecting it, I began pondering the possibilities.

In Egypt, I stood at the base of the pyramids and thought about how amazing it is that humans can create something that can withstand the test of time. Meeting a man who went to my high school at the base of those pyramids moments later reminded me just how small this planet really is. In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, I met a woman who lives a mere two blocks from me in Philadelphia, bolstering that point even more.

In one brief encounter in Iringa, Tanzania, a man named George apprised me of my own power; he told me that he was holding me personally responsible for changing the world. We were in a bar and he was explaining how America's biggest export, entertainment, was affecting the minds, ideals and actions of his countrymen. Pointing a finger at me, he then pointed his finger to his head and said, "If you have it here," then he placed his hand over his heart, "and here," then pointed to the ground, "to get here, then you have some power and you have to figure out how to use it."

Doubled over in Ethiopia and vomiting everything in me, I yelled at my friend Addis, "Dude, your country is killing me." He came over and rubbed my back and said, "No man, you have been eating garbage your whole life and now you are eating good food from the earth -- my country is healing you." Although I still eat junk food, I no longer blindly consume it in the quantities I once did. I try to eat unprocessed food organically grown and locally sold as much as possible.

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David SylvesterSylvester and a new friend roast coffee beans in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.
In Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, a girl invited me and another rider into her humble, mud-packed-wall home. Once inside she placed fresh-cut grass on the floor to welcome us, roasted fresh coffee beans, ground them up with a mortar and pestle and then served us, making me feel at home. The moment made me realize that the substance of warmth and hospitality will always trump style and a little dirt.

In Xian, China, three elderly women surrounded me and rubbed my bare arms on a brisk November day. It took minutes, but I realized that these women were not remarking on my comparative size or color -- they were simply telling me to go put some clothes on. During this exchange I discovered that there really are no language barriers. If you want to convey something, enough true communication can endure anything; it is key to interpersonal and cultural understanding.

David Sylvester
David SylvesterSylvester meets Chinese women who communicate with him despite the language barrier.
As a black man about to ride through some remote areas of the U.S. -- including some notorious Klan hotbeds -- I was reminded by friends to be on the lookout for of acts of racism. What has been interesting is that I wasn't called a "nigger" once along any of the 4,000-plus miles. (Although in Malawi I saw a store with that word as its name. While in a barbershop in Tajikistan, I was patted on the back like a horse and called "Beeg Neegah." Hearing the name of a hip-hop mogul and seeing the T-shirt of another during these moments reminded me of the power of the entertainment industry and the images that it can convey.

I could go into my reactions, but I really think that with this being Black History Month and the fact that we have a black man running for the highest office in the land, I should ask you: What would you do if you saw a store called, "Niggers?" How would you act? How would you feel? Would it make a difference in how you think of yourself? What would you do if someone in another country called you a nigger upon seeing you?

A thousand miles from my destination of Beijing, after being kicked off a bike tour in the middle of foreign country, I had plenty of time to contemplate things. Two topics remain foremost in my mind because of that experience: True friends are anyone's most valuable resource -- thank you Scott, Brian, Tiffany, Catriona, Mike and Isabelle, I could not have done it without you; and we all have to be prepared physically and, more so, emotionally to be alone and still having the drive and ability to move forward.

In Hami, China, while other riders and I were ushered to a table in a restaurant, our Uyghur guide, Zabee, was informed that he would not be served and not particularly welcomed. This immediately brought to mind images of black-only bathrooms, segregated lunch counters and separate water fountains and reaffirmed that not all acts of racism and classism are black and white. It also lets me know that as long as one of us is enslaved or oppressed, we all are.

In Lusaka, Zambia, the government put on a show for the riders to showcase its country. One of the displays was a play and self-defense expo. The impassioned examined the high incidence and, in some areas, high probability, of rape. One actress in the play spoke about how if any man tried to take anything from her, he would be in for the fight of his life. After feigning an attack and seeing her steely, unflinching look, I tended to believe her. As a man, it made me more aware of the plight of women all over the world.

Back home, with an even keener ear I now listen to women's concerns about the unhealthy, age-defying and virtually unattainable body images that are displayed in advertisements to get people to consume more. Hearing these valid complaints makes me want to scream, "You're beautiful and be strong," at the top of my lungs to those who wake up on a daily basis and loathe the body they see in the mirror. No ad or image should be powerful enough to undermine your confidence.

David Sylvester
David SylvesterSylvester survived this accident, and went on to continue biking the continents.
Three blocks from home in Philadelphia, and only three days before I was scheduled to fly to South America to bike that continent, I was hit by a drunken driver. A young man high on alcohol, antidepressants and marijuana sped through an intersection and slammed into me. My body was battered and I had a 2-inch knob from the car I was driving lodged in my knee. The pain was unbearable. But nothing could compare to hearing the words, "Is he dead?" And being unable to respond, knowing they were talking about me. This made me realize that if I did have any more moments on this earth, I had to work even harder to achieve my goals: biking the continents to raise money for various charities; biking the continents to inspire as many as I could; biking the continents to be a voice of contrast to many of today's African-American athletes; biking the continents to expose the world to others; biking the continents to figuratively and literally broaden others' horizons; and biking the continents to become a better man.

Seeing a Kenyan boy run up to me and extend his hand reassured me of my connection with kids. That moment still fuels me to continue to write a children's book on my travels, so I can make my moment with these kids last longer. I look at his picture often and see something new in it and him each time.

I did the Black Bear thing for the second consecutive year -- some may call it Polar Bear -- and ran run into the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 1. I honestly didn't feel cold as I ran into the wintry water -- I felt exhilarated because with my knee now healed I actually could run, something the orthopedist told me I would never again do. I raised my hands into the sky as the sun started to rise and cried, fully acknowledging that I have seen so much and will probably see so much more. I cried because I felt even more alive.

That pretty much takes me to today, the first day of Black History Month 2008.

These are merely a few of the moments that changed my life.

These moments changed me because I experienced them.

These moments will continue to change me because I embody them.

David Sylvester
David SylvesterSylvester's first handshake upon arriving in Kenya.
If you believe (even a little bit) that any moment can change your life -- no, make that every moment can change your life -- you have to believe that all these moments surround us.

One does not have to travel the world to see all that I have seen. These moments envelope us trying to get us to see them. They bait us every second. Embrace and act upon them.

Act upon them so we can see more.

Continue to react to them so we can be more.

I will continue to travel the world and add to my moments, putting forth the images that I want of black men, all men: intelligent, smiling, confident, substantive, driven, open, smart, respectful, honest, caring, passionate, humble, willful, powerful, evolving, dashingly handsome and more.

This coming summer, I plan to take two young people on a trip to whet their appetites for travel, cycling, health, adventure, exploration and more. I hope to show them a life of volunteerism and passion. As good as it is to be the first and only African-American to do what I have done, it will be even better when there are others. That will be the day my legacy is complete.

The fundamental moment that started me on my path to where I am now still resonates with me, with my dad asking, "Did you do your best?"

Yeah Dad, I try to do my best with each and every moment.

David Sylvester can be reached at sylvester_david@hotmail.com.