Initially purchased as an attempt to connect while riding, Eric and Sue Freiburger recently discovered that their trusty bike provides a great deal more. It has taught them how to best navigate life’s unpredictable twists and turns, in tandem.
Sue and Eric met while attending graduate school, Sue at the University of North Carolina and Eric at Duke University. Active students with a zest for all things adventurous, the two were quickly inseparable and two years later, married.
While the young couple moved from state to state and started a family, they also opted in to each other’s hobbies, including Eric’s passion for cycling.
“My college apartment had minimal furnishings, but I did have a kayak and three bikes taking up space,” said Eric, now 47. “It looked more like a sporting goods store than a home.”
Since Eric had five more years of cycling experience than Sue, the duo found it difficult to stay together on rides. It was frustrating and they began to go their own routes. Until, that is, they bought a tandem bike.
The years rolled on, and the couple found themselves settling in Pittsburgh with their three children, Eamon, Sean and Sarah. Eric was working, Sue was raising the children and their bike was tucked away in the basement. Life seemed to be picture-perfect, until Sue’s vision began to blur.
“Whenever I was in motion, like driving in the car for example, the world wasn’t in focus,” explained Sue. “I didn’t think much of it, until my balance started to be affected too. But I still tried to press on.”
Over the next year, Sue continued to have vision issues, vertigo, fatigue and weakness in her legs. She was seen by a variety of neurologists and specialists and underwent many tests, including several spinal taps.
“We had the support of family and friends throughout this challenging time, but it became more difficult when I accepted a new position with Praxair in Buffalo, N.Y., three hours away,” said Eric. “We didn’t want to relocate the family during the school year so Sue stayed with the children in Pittsburgh as I started the new job. The hardest day was on our 16th wedding anniversary, when I got a call from Sue saying she had seen a new doctor and that we finally had an answer.”
Sue had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. More than 6,000 Connecticut residents are affected by multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease. Symptoms of MS can include, among other things, numbness in the limbs, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness, loss of mobility, and, in some more severe cases, total paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS cannot be predicted.
“When I was diagnosed four years ago, I was rapidly losing function and fearful of what my future would hold,” Sue remembered.
Within months, a new Praxair position relocated Eric to Praxair’s Danbury office, and the Freiburger family moved to Dutchess County, N.Y., where they now reside. Sue continued battling her symptoms, sometimes utilizing a cane, wheelchair or stair lift in the new home. It took a year of medication and multiple steroid treatments for Sue’s MS to become more manageable. However, once it did, she was adamant that it wouldn’t render her immobile ever again.
“I started horseback riding and it really helped me regain my strength,” said Sue. “Soon enough I started walking the rail trail near our home and even participated in an thirty-mile MS Challenge Walk.”
Then, one day while at work, Eric saw a recruitment table for the 2013 Bike MS. He sent a message to Sue asking if she was interested, and her response naturally was, ‘Yes!’
“There can be a stigma associated with MS in the workplace so we weren’t public with Sue’s MS, but we decided that this was our opportunity to raise some awareness,” said Eric, Corporate Director of Global Process Safety at Praxair. “I approached the team captain, Rich Jarrett, and told him that I would be riding on a tandem, with my wife who has MS. His first words were, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic, I’d love to talk to her.’ From that moment, I knew we had made a good choice.”
The couple pulled their dusty tandem bike out of the basement. In the beginning, it was tough and only commitment motivated them; however, somewhere that changed and the motivation shifted to the simple joy of riding the tandem together. While some people remark that a tandem is a divorce waiting to happen, Sue and Eric see the tandem as something that brings them closer together. Today, they appreciate every mile on the tandem together; even the hills.
“Riding on the tandem is pretty symbolic of my journey with MS,” said Sue. “I can't see the road ahead, I have no control of the steering or the brakes but if I just keep peddling, things will be ok.”
Finally, in June 2013, Eric and Sue set out for their 50-mile Bike MS journey through the hills of Fairfield County. Despite suffering a spill directly into a poison ivy patch, they were determined to stick with it.
“We had never ridden on a road with traffic before, and I for one was very nervous,” said Sue. “But Rich slowed down and rode right next to us for the first leg of the race, talking to me the entire time. Then, when we arrived at each rest stop, Rich was there waiting for us. We both knew that he could ride at a much faster pace, but he showed great team leadership by quietly giving us that support and encouragement.”
Jarrett, a member of the Sound Cyclists Bicycle Club, signed on as team captain after realizing that other Praxair offices across the United States participated in Bike MS rides. With an office of nearly 400 employees in Praxair's World Corporate Headquarters, he thought the Danbury office should also help in this worthwhile cause. Last year, Jarrett led the Praxair Danbury team of 20 cyclists in raising nearly $38,000 for Bike MS.
“We may have been one of the last bikes to cross the finish line, but the entire Praxair team was there cheering us on and greeting us with our medals,” said Sue. “There couldn’t have been a better way to end the ride and we immediately started talking about plans for 2014.”
The 2014 Praxair Bike MS Ride, presented by Louis Dreyfus Commodities, will be held Sunday, June 1, in Windsor and Sunday, June 8, in Westport. Finish line festivities include a barbeque lunch, live entertainment, local vendors offering product samples, free massage therapy and more.
“This year, with the combined Praxair title sponsorship and individual contributions and fundraising efforts, I am looking to double our total level of support for Bike MS,” said Jarrett, Director of Global Marketing and Business Development. “I know reaching our goal will require a variety of fundraising efforts and I look forward to adding events and programs in order to reach our goal.”
Last year, Bike MS attracted more than 800 cyclists and raised more than $578,000. This year, the chapter hopes to raise $595,000.
“Riding with Sue has really opened my eyes,” said Eric. “While the fatigue associated with MS can never be understood by an outsider, I know that by the end of our rides, I too am completely exhausted. Sue has issues with balance and often leans slightly to one side when she feels as if she is sitting upright As the captain in the front, I have to constantly compensate for this to keep the tandem balanced. I have to always be alert to changes I can’t predict, can’t control and can’t see. I can only react, and I think that’s a lot like what Sue encounters every day.”
Funds raised by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Connecticut Chapter, through events such as Bike MS, ensure ongoing scientific research to find better treatments and a cure, as well as help to provide vital programs and services offered by the chapter to those in the state living with multiple sclerosis.
“Events, such as Bike MS, give me goals to work for and have helped me regain control over my life,” said Sue. “I don't know what tomorrow will bring but, thanks to our team, I do know that Eric and I are not alone in this fight.”
For an eighth year, WTNH News 8 anchor Darren Kramer will serve as the grand marshal of Bike MS. Community partners include WTNH News 8, The Fox 95.9 and WRCH Lite 100.5.
“Sue has been a vital member of our local team,” said Jarrett, now in his 15th year at Praxair. “Her perseverance and willingness to share her story with others have served as an inspiration to me and our team. Eric and Sue also demonstrate a true partnership in life, so it only seems right that they use a tandem bike.”
For more information on the 2014 Praxair Bike MS, presented by Louis Dreyfus Commodities, visit bikeMSct.org. To donate to the Praxair Bike MS fundraising team, visit www.ctfightsMS.org.