READY TO ROLL In 2005, Pisey Tan lost his legs in Iraq. In 2012, he's riding a bicycle 25 miles.

Pisey Tan stretches before setting out, right, from Lloyd Hall at Boathouse Row on a 25-mile ride. Clicking his prosthetic left leg into the pedal is tricky and frustrating.
Pisey Tan stretches before setting out, right, from Lloyd Hall at Boathouse Row on a 25-mile ride. Clicking his prosthetic left leg into the pedal is tricky and frustrating. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 25, 2012

Pisey Tan, who lost both legs in Iraq, one above the knee, the other below, stands on a corner in Manayunk, trying to clip into his pedal.

He is on a 25-mile bike ride.

He grabs his left calf, or what would have been his left calf but is now a prosthetic leg, and guides his shoe onto the pedal. He pushes hard on his prosthetic knee, trying to get the shoe to click into the pedal.

It slides off.

He repeats, then tries again and again. The only sounds are of his own heavy breathing, his curses of frustration and determination under his breath, the traffic on Umbria Street whizzing by, and encouragement from Tyl Sadoff, a fellow rider whom he calls "my drill sergeant."

"Watch out for the bus, Pisey," she says as it zooms by way too close for comfort.

Cycling up the hills of Manayunk on carbon-fiber legs isn't as dangerous or difficult as patrolling the Iraqi city of Samarra in body armor, but it isn't exactly easy, either.

Pisey, 31, tries again.

Click.

"There it goes, right?" Tyl says.

"Yeah, I'm in," Pisey says.

"Love the sound of that click," she says.

And they're off again, 18 miles to go.

This ride was Tyl's idea. Tyl is motivator in chief at Prosthetic Innovations, a company in Delaware County that fits artificial limbs on amputees, many of whom are recent war veterans. Tyl's mission is to get these men and women to do things they used to do, and new things they never thought they could.

As of April, 1,448 American service men and women had lost a limb in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 434 of them, like Pisey, suffered multiple amputations, according to the Pentagon.

Pisey lost his legs to a roadside bomb in 2005.

Pisey (pronounced Pea-say) enlisted right before 9/11, because every other option in life for him was a dead end. After the World Trade Center towers were felled, he could have backed out, he said, but felt even more motivated to serve.

His mother was a Cambodian refugee, a single mother in Philadelphia. "This country took my mother in, gave her a chance," he said. "And I felt a responsibility to give back."

On his second tour, driving a Bradley armored vehicle, he heard and saw the explosion. He felt the Bradley lift in the air. He tried to haul out of there, hitting the gas. At least that's what he thought he was doing, but the Bradley wouldn't go. He looked down, saw blood.

"I'm hit."

He didn't realize how bad it was until he heard on the "net" - the radio frequency used by everyone in his unit: "Red Four Delta's down. Red Four Delta's down."

He was Red Four Delta. Red is the platoon. Four is the vehicle, and Delta was his position in the vehicle.

He woke up in Walter Reed Army Hospital, looked down, and wept.

As Pisey lay in Walter Reed, Frank McKee, a builder of over-55 housing communities in this area, wanted to build a home for a disabled vet. Actually, it was his wife's idea. They met Pisey.

Pisey couldn't believe it. He was from North Philly. There was no Santa Claus up there. People didn't just give you things. But McKee gave Pisey way more than a new house in Ridley Township. He gave him friendship, a fatherly relationship, help.

"He's just such a good guy," said McKee. "He's a humble guy, the kind of person you just want to give a lift to and help any way you can."

Pisey just completed coursework for his bachelor's degree in business at Rosemont College, something else Pisey never thought he could do, but promised McKee, his mother, and others he would. He'd love a career in law enforcement.

After the hospital, and settled in his new home, Pisey wanted to get married to a Cambodian wife, in part to honor his mother. He flew to Cambodia, where he'd never been, and his grandmother introduced him to Kai.

And now Pisey is a husband and the father of two, the elder of whom, Alyssa, 3, spent the first six months of life in a hospital and had a liver transplant. As McKee asks, "How much is one guy supposed to take?"

But Pisey will tell you, repeatedly, "I'm blessed."

"Not long ago I couldn't care for myself," he said, "now I'm caring for a family of four." He feels like a man, with duties, responsibilities.

Kai is his best friend. Coming from Cambodia, she often rode a bike. Pisey wanted to ride with his wife, and he also asked himself, what do fathers do with daughters? They ride bikes. So in 2012 he was determined to get back on a bike, to learn to ride again, surely an apt metaphor for his life after Iraq.

And he met Tyl. Tyl was named Maureen, but nobody calls her that. Her father, Don DiJulia, the athletic director at St. Joseph's University, nicknamed her Tillie, shortened over time to Tyl.   

Tyl was a basketball star at the University of Hartford. Her uncle is former 76ers coach Jimmy Lynam. After college she took a job with a corporation, and it wasn't the life she imagined. Then she got married and had her own disabled daughter, and what people thought was important in the corporate world seemed even less important.

So Tyl went to Prosthetic Innovations. All Pisey had to do was tell Tyl he wanted to learn to ride a bike again, and as soon as he could balance himself, no easy feat, she had him out on Kelly Drive. Pisey had lived his whole life in Philadelphia and never knew there was a bike path along Kelly Drive.

He loved cycling, the freedom, the motion, the exercise. Then Tyl got him to do a 10-miler in Paoli.

"She saw that he didn't think he could do it," said Tim Rayer, owner of Prosthetic Innovations. "There was fear there. And she saw him overcome it. She'll say she had nothing to do with it. But she had everything to do with it."

So on Sept. 9, Tyl was encouraging Pisey to ride with her in the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia's 25-miler, which starts at Lloyd Hall on Boathouse Row.

"You ready to roll?" says Tyl to Pisey and a handful of other riders in their group.

"Anything you say, boss lady," Pisey replies.

The course goes from Lloyd Hall around the Art Museum, out Martin Luther King Drive, over the Falls Bridge, through Manayunk to the Schuylkill Valley trail for several miles, and then back.

On his bike, Pisey looks like any other rider, blending in. The morning is glorious, his spirits high. He and Tyl ride up King Drive, closed to cars, as if, well, they are enjoying a ride in the park. They chat about their daughters, and whether the Phillies have a chance.

Pisey needs momentum to tackle a hill. Since he is an amputee, all his pumping and power must come from his thighs. But in Manayunk, he has to stop at a red light and walk up a hill to Umbria Street, where he takes several tries to click in and start again.

Soon, they reach another hill on Umbria. "Is this The Wall?" Pisey asks. It is not even close to the famous Manayunk Wall, but to Pisey it might as well be. He gathers speed on a downhill, and is pedaling hard up the hill.

Pisey learned how to ride a bike as a child, but never how to weave his way up a hill, doing S-shaped cross cuts to make the climb easier. Tyl taught him that. He is doing modest cross cuts and is two-thirds of the way up now, pumping as best he can. Man against mountain.

"Let's go!" he yells out, to himself. "Let's go!"

But then his right foot slips off its pedal, and hits the pavement. Pisey stops. He yells in frustration. "Ahhhhh!"

He can't clip his right foot into his pedal, as he does with his left, because he needs to keep that foot free in case he needs to stop suddenly. But too often his right shoe slides off the pedal, especially on difficult uphill climbs. Since he has no foot, no sense of touch, he can't feel the pedal. Tyl realizes he needs a toe-clip of some fashion, a stirrup that will keep his shoe on the pedal but allow him to get in and out easily. She'll look into it.

"Sorry," says Pisey.

"What are you sorry for?" Tyl says.

"I was hoping I'd get it," he says of the hill. "I was shooting for it."

"You'll have plenty more chances," says Tyl.

They ride on.

On the ride back, they return through Manayunk, and Pisey faces two monster hills again. He is tired now, his rear end sore (because he is a double amputee, he cannot stand on his pedals and give his rear end a break as other riders might do), and he really needs to concentrate to avoid mistakes or injury. Tyl wonders how Pisey will make it, but he pushes himself up the first hill, turns a corner and keeps going. Tears well in Tyl's eyes.

"Awesome . . . stellar . . . incredible," she says, riding along.

After that, it's mostly downhill or flat.

As he rides down Main Street in Manayunk, from a bar serving brunch, Pisey hears Bon Jovi, and he starts singing along.

Shot through the heart, and you're to blame.

You give love a bad name.

As one of hundreds of riders, many doing much longer rides, Pisey blends in.

But a few times, a pedestrian, or biker passing by him, suddenly notices his legs. He has sergeant's stripes on the back of his prosthetic right calf. One rider yells, "Thanks for your service!" Another says, "Ride safe," and a woman standing outside a restaurant on Main Street just catches her breath, gasps, really, as she sees a man with two prosthetic legs pedal past.

Pisey wants no sympathy, no attention. America has been good to him. He's just out to prove to himself that he can still challenge himself, and meet those challenges. And he loves riding and being with other riders.

He glides back to Lloyd Hall. He and Tyl high-five, and pose for a photo together. He sits on the ground and stretches out. He is whipped, sore and happy. He can't wait to see what challenge Tyl comes up with next.


Contact Michael Vitez

at 215-854-539 or mvitez@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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