Blinded suburban veteran pedals into new challenge
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As he ran his hands over the specially made tandem bike, the grin on Steve Baskis' face never dimmed.
The Army veteran, who was blinded when a roadside bomb exploded near him in 2008 just outside Baghdad, Iraq, was acutely aware that rain clouds were threatening the christening ride of his new competition bicycle Saturday morning. And when the skies opened up, the smile remained.
"Oh well," he said. "We'll just wait awhile I guess."
Baskis has big plans for the new bike that was built specifically for him by a company in Oregon, even though he only found out about it minutes before its unveiling at Village CycleSport in Elk Grove Village.
"The best way, or highest compliment I can make, is to ride this as much as possible," he said. "I'd like to ride it across the country. They do that. There's a thing for that, you know?"
The injuries Baskis suffered did little to detour the 27-year-old adventure junkie who is an avid triathlete, skier and mountain climber. Since his injuries, he's added competitive cycling to his athletic endeavors, placing in several paralympics events.
He still climbs mountains too. Something that he said sounds far more daunting than it really is.
"Climbing is very tactile," he explained. "There are all different kinds of climbing and while it's a little slower going when you can't see, you adjust and you learn how to do it."
Formerly of Glen Ellyn, Baskis now lives downstate. His family and friends kept the new bicycle a secret from him for the last few months, only dropping hints that "something was coming."
The new bike was the brainchild of Michael Lassig, a senior vice president at the insurance management company Swett & Crawford. Lassig and Baskis met in February at a gala sponsored by the insurance company honoring wounded veterans. The two sat together at the gala and Baskis was telling Lassig about cycling despite his blindness.
"It struck me as being so vulnerable, but the way he talked about it I found everything so inspirational," said Lassig, himself an avid cyclist.
Through his company's philanthropic arm, Lassig began working on getting Baskis a new bicycle. He contacted Vince Boyer, co-owner of Village CycleSport, because the shop has experience with tandem bikes.
"We collaborated with Mike and Co-Motion Bicycles out of Eugene, Ore., and made sure all the bike's specs were right," Boyer said. "Mike did an amazing job of artistry."
Adorned in red, white and blue as an homage to Baskis' military service, the bicycle looks sleek and powerful.
"This is probably about an $8,000 to $9,000 bike," Boyer said. "It's a competitive, top-of-the-line ride and the good news is that because it's so nice it's going to need less maintenance."
Baskis and Lassig are going to ride the new bike together at a race in Connecticut at the end of July.
"The only other time I was on a tandem bike was when I proposed," Lassig quipped. "I just hope Steve can provide more power."
For years, Baskis excelled at individual sports that only required him to rely on himself and his own strengths. While he has to give up some of that control to ride tandem with a partner, Baskis said that's part of the challenge.
"Riding tandem is simple and not so simple at the same time," he said. "If you're trying to race, you've got to communicate with one another. You can't lean left while the other person is leaning right. It's definitely different.
"I grew up on a bike. Like we all did. I miss being able to steer. I miss being able to drive. Though I can't see anything, it's still great to be outside."
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