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Biking across 'Bama with Bo Jackson

Two-sport legend leads annual charity bike ride following path of devastating Alabama tornado

It's an unspoken rule, but it's a rule nonetheless: Nobody passes Bo.

Bo Jackson leads a group 500 strong out of the gate for the 63-mile ride at the fourth annual Bo Bikes Bama in Auburn, Ala. In 20 miles or so, he'll van it back to the start and lead another 400 riders out on a 20-mile ride. But for now, he is flanked by professional cyclists Lance Armstrong and Christian Vande Velde, who immediately begin to push the pace.

The peloton is large and tightly packed, nerve-wracking for those like Bo's old football nemesis, Brian Bosworth, and actor Andre Holland, neither of whom is an experienced rider. Brakes squeak. There are cries of "On your left!" "Passing on your right!" and "Hold your lines!" as cyclists jockey for position at 20 mph. But to what end? This is not a race. It's a ride. And there's that rule: Nobody passes Bo.

And that's the point. Because when it comes to the stand Jackson makes at Bo Bikes Bama, everyone has his back.

On April 27, 2011, Jackson watched on television from his home in Chicago as tornados ripped through his home state, claiming the lives of 252 Alabamians. The legendary two-sport star wanted to help, but he didn't quite know how.

First, he thought about a golf tournament. But no, only so many people can get on a golf course. Bo wanted to go bigger. An avid cyclist, he had recently ordered a custom bicycle from Trek. So he called company president John Burke and suggested a bike ride. Burke was in. So was Nike. And the first Bo Bikes Bama was born.

On the one-year anniversary of the tornados, Jackson led 300 riders on a 300-mile, five-day ride that followed the path of the destruction. The group then included baseball star Ken Griffey Jr., basketball star Scottie Pippen and Olympic gold medalists Al Joyner and Picabo Street. Street, along with Griffey, has done the ride each year and recalls being moved to tears watching Jackson getting off his bike to kneel beside a woman sitting in a lawn chair on the concrete slab that was once her home.

"The devastation was in our face every day," said Street. "My suffering on the bike was so minimal compared to what I was seeing. I pedaled for those people who can't pedal, who will never get to pedal again, who might have needed a shelter and couldn't have one. And now they will."

After that first symbolic ride, Bo Bikes Bama became a one-day ride, with both long and short options, and has grown to more than 900 riders. In the future, Bo would like to see 2,000. All proceeds benefit Alabama's Governor's Emergency Relief Fund, specifically providing funds for the construction of tornado shelters across the state.

"You can't fight Mother Nature, but you sure as hell can get out of her way," Jackson said. "So far, we've raised almost $1 million and built 60 storm shelters across the state, and I'm looking to put up 200. This is my home state. It's not about Auburn or War Eagle or Roll Tide. Everyone in the state comes together, and we work as one team to raise funds in the hopes of saving more lives."

Former high school and college teammates of Jackson's come out for the ride, along with his celebrity friends, several of whom have their own experience with tornados. Bosworth is from Oklahoma, which is frequently hit by devastating tornados. And Holland grew up in Jackson's hometown of Bessemer, Ala., smack in the center of "Tornado Alley."

"My earliest memory of Bo is he'd come to my older cousins' house and throw the football around with them," Holland said. "I always do my best to be here, and my ride went well today. I hung in the group with Lance and those guys for about three miles, and then I peeled off."

Jackson hung in, too, until he was derailed by his first of two flat tires of the day, one about 15 miles into the 63-mile ride and the other just after the start of the shorter 20-mile ride.

"I was looking to do some damage and embarrass some professional riders, but my bike just gave out on me," Jackson joked. "It just wasn't my day today."

The day, though, was as perfect as cycling days get. It was 75 degrees and sunny, and the course was a beautiful one, full of rolling hills, winding its way by former Auburn football coach Pat Dye's Japanese maple farm, through a street fair in historic Tuskegee and into the lush farmland of Macon County.

Everywhere, residents lined the route, cheering, thanking the riders and hollering, "We love you, Bo!"

"You see Big Bo Jackson, but I know him a little differently," said Griffey. "He cares so much for people here and what they've gone through. This is his home state, and he's very proud of it. If he ran for mayor or for governor of Alabama, he'd win, hands down."

But Bo Bikes Bama isn't a race. Everybody stays behind Bo, and everybody wins. 

Lindsay Berra is a columnist for