In a grueling but little-known motorcycle sport, a Minnesota man has discovered invigorating therapy - and joy - in combating cystic fibrosis.
Ben Winterer probably is the world's only athlete who prepares for grueling, two-day motorcycle competitions by drinking gallons of water and donning a vest that pummels his chest 25 times a second.
"Probably not that many who slam down 100 pills a day, either, or inhale drugs to clear their lungs," said Winterer, 35, of Hastings, a computer programmer and national champion in a little-known precision sport called MotoTrials.
It's a non-speed sport with hours of start-stop, throttle-brake, teeter and plunge techniques that appear to defy gravity and common sense. For about 25 weekends a year, Winterer travels around the country, but it's not simple.
Since birth, Winterer has had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease characterized by thick mucus in the lungs and problems digesting food. It is a progressive, life-threatening and incurable disease that requires close monitoring and symptom control to maintain a good quality of life.
"You can get upset, I suppose. It's not a fun disease to have. But it's my disease, it's as much a part of me as my hands," he said recently, straddling his 300-cc Gas Gas cycle at the start of a five-hour competition. "So what's my choice? I'm lucky. I've got this sport that I love, something I'd do even if it wasn't so therapeutic."
Winterer got his first motorcycle at age 4 and promptly smashed it through his grandmother's wooden fence -- a memory he cherishes with glee.
"I remember thinking, 'Whoa, this is great! How far can I go next time?' I think I banged up my hand, the first of many injuries," he said. "It was cool."
He was exposed to MotoTrials by his dad, Jim Winterer, news service director at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and an avid competitor since the 1970s.
Winterer was competing by age 10 and improved quickly. But to make it work, he and his dad developed a routine to help him cope with symptoms of his disease.
"We were doing this all the time anyway, but we'd kind of step it up when Ben was competing," his dad said.
In addition to providing high-protein, high-calorie snacks, very salty food to replace sodium loss and lots to drink, Winterer's dad would pound his chest and back three or four times a day for a half-hour to loosen mucus so it could be coughed it up.
"It was a godsend when they developed the compression vests, because I was getting pretty bad carpal tunnel syndrome in my hands," Jim Winterer said. But the first generators to create the pulsing air were huge. Now they fit into his son's carryall traveling bag with his motorcycle helmet and other equipment.
Coping with the paraphernalia of cystic fibrosis has been part of Winterer family life from the start. A family doctor in Grand Marais, Minn., was the first to suspect the disease when baby Winterer dropped from 8 pounds at birth to 4 pounds in two weeks. The doctor sent him to specialists at the University of Minnesota.
With drugs and physical treatments, those with the disease live much longer than they did a few decades ago. Still, the average age of death is in the late 30s, usually from lung disease.
"MotoTrials has probably saved my life -- at least made me a lot healthier than I would be without it," Winterer said.
But he puts up with a lot to compete. Especially in hot weather the disease often causes pain, cramps that last for hours, shortness of breath and exhaustion. Twice he's passed out after events.
The ballet of cycling
In competition, riders use precision, balance, strength and skill to climb over rocks, up cliffs, over logs, across gullies, through mud and across sand, courses the two Winterers often help set up on wooded hillsides.
"This is not a rip-up-the-land, blow your ears out kind of sport, " said Gerald Bowen, whose family owns the 107-acre site near Theilman in southeastern Minnesota where a dozen riders were competing earlier this month and where Winterer practices two or three times a week. "They change the trails every year. The wildlife does just fine, and by next year these trails will be grown over."
For riders, the goal is not speed but keeping feet off the ground and staying within narrow boundaries outlined with colored tape. The lightweight bikes rarely have seats because riders stand on the foot pegs to shift their weight and better direct the bike.
They often come to a dead stop and may bounce back or front tires to reposition the bike for the next plunge into a ravine. It's sometimes called the ballet of motorcycling.
"I don't know if it's dancing," Winterer said while balancing on his cycle, engine idling. "But you do get so you're just a part of the bike. You don't even think about it."
'More than just a bike'
When Minnesota hills are covered with snow, he'll load his cycle in his pickup truck and head for weekend meets in Missouri, or Tennessee, or Texas. He works from home for UnitedHealthcare, and at times can work nights to free up days for travel. Married for two years, he sometime brings along his wife or dad.
He routinely does well at regional competitions. He often finishes near the top at national meets, and has won several.
"I work out a few times a week, but if I'm not riding, I don't function as well," he said. "They used to think that vigorous exercise wasn't so good for people with CF, but now my doctor agrees that at least for me, it's vital."
In his garage, tinkering yet again with his cycle, he paused for a second before explaining its importance.
"This is more than just a bike. It's medical equipment for me, just like the vest," he said. "The bike is life-saving medical equipment."
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253