Returning home exhausted after completing a six-hour ride in the hot Texas sun, Juan Carlos Hernandez, aka “JC,” turned the air conditioning on high, showered and crawled into his bed. Hours later he awoke, freezing. Springing out of bed to turn the A/C down, he made it exactly two steps before landing face first on the carpet. Reality still hadn’t quite sunk in, because just six months earlier, JC had his right leg amputated. He had removed his prosthetic just before he had gotten into bed. Focused on the single task of getting the A/C turned down, he was conscious that a crucial part of his body was missing, but not before crashing to the floor.
“The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”
Damage aftermath: Lucky to survive—a moment in time that changed the future forever. THE FOUNDATION
Juan-Carlos Hernandez was born in Orizaba, Veracruz, in southern Mexico, and was raised by his grandpa until he passed when JC was 9 years old. Opportunities in Mexico were limited for JC and his two brothers, so they made the journey to Schulenburg, a small Texas town to reunite with their mother. She had immigrated to the U.S. when JC was 2 years old to better provide for her family. They lived in poverty but never wanted for nothing. She worked in restaurants and hotels—whatever work she could find to provide for her kids. Being the youngest of three, JC was no stranger to hand-me-downs—be it shirts, shoes or even the rare bike. “Christmas was clothes—not toys—but we always got by. If you never experience things, you don’t know what you’re missing,” JC stated. Starting at a new school knowing zero English at 9 years old was difficult, but meeting some bilingual friends right away helped tremendously. JC never experienced any racism or bullying while growing up. It probably helped that he was one of the biggest boys in his 40-student graduating class.
“I don’t see my injury as a handicap, but rather as a challenge.”
At 13 years old, JC began washing dishes at the same restaurant where his mom worked, five or six hours a day. He became financially independent from that point on, but always struggled during football season when he couldn’t work as many hours. Receiving his U.S. green card at 15 was his first step towards becoming an American citizen. His mom filed the paperwork when the boys first arrived, but it took years to process. Working all through school, JC was able to purchase his first car when he was 17. He was the typical high schooler—interested in girls, football, movies and loved back-roading in the car.
With no interest in college, JC talked to an army recruiter in May of 2006 before he graduated and found himself in Ft. Jackson, Sout Carolina, in July of 2006 for boot camp shortly after graduation.
MOUNTAIN BIKE INITIATION
After boot camp, JC was relocated to Ft. Campbell in Kentucky, and his army buddies talked him into getting a 26-inch Gary Fisher Wahoo from
Bikes and Moore in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. He was more of a gym rat at the time, lifting heavy weights. However, most of his army buddies had runner bodies and were way more bike fit, so his first 10-mile-long rides were like death marches. JC became addicted to mountain biking right away, and it became his passion. Unfortunately, it was a shortlived period; his bike went into storage, just before Christmas, in 2008 when he was deployed to Afghanistan.
Juan Carlos Hernandez: U.S. soldier, U.S. citizen. A MEXICAN BECOMES AN AMERICAN IN AFGHANISTAN
“I spent most of my life in the U.S. I never felt like an immigrant. It was much easier in the combat zone of Afghanistan to become a citizen than it was while I was home in the United States,” said JC. Outside of the country, he just had to fill out the proper paperwork and wait a few months to pass a written test. It was far less of a struggle in the Middle East than it would have been for him on U.S. soil. The next thing JC knew, he was lining up to take the oath alongside 200 others in Afghanistan in May of 2009. Juan Carlos Hernandez had finally become a United States citizen.
Before being deployed JC had spent eight months in training and said, “I felt prepared; those around me were even better prepared. They knew their jobs.” He was assigned as a Chinook 47 door gunner with Task Force Palehorse 7/17th Cavalry. They flew hundreds of routine night reconnaissance and supply missions. His job was airspace surveillance, guiding the pilots, viewing structures and being prepared for anything.
His crew were flying a night mission in an extremely dangerous region through valleys near Pakistan on October 13, 2009. For some reason, this extremely brightly lit night felt different. They were returning to the FOB and preparing to drop down and pick up some soldiers. Out of nowhere, there was a flash of light, a glow and then a thunderous boom. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hit the Chinook directly beneath where JC was manning his gun. Knocked to the floor of the helicopter, JC was still aware enough to pull on his night goggles. His arms worked fine, but he couldn’t feel his legs. He didn’t see any fire, but he sensed something was really wrong. The motor of the Chinook was laboring; he could feel it weakening. Then reality hit; they were about to crash. The pilot navigated the best he could, but there was no practical training on how to crash the helicopter. The crew prepared for impact as the helicopter struck the ground. In the bottom of the Chinook appeared a gaping hole from the RPG that forced it out of the sky. Incredibly, JC was the only one injured from the RPG hit and crash-landing. Shrapnel from the RPG had torn JC’s lower right leg to shreds; there would be no saving it. Within seconds of landing, the crew jumped into action immediately applying a tourniquet. The medics on the ground rushed over and started an IV with morphine, numbing JC and getting some blood back into his body. He was stabilized and loaded onto a gurney when the pain overcame him. Going into shock, all JC wanted to do was go to sleep, but the medics wouldn’t allow it. He was not informed of the severity of his injury, and the medics wouldn’t allow him to see the wound. The damage was so severe that they did the amputation on the spot, just above the ankle. They kept him awake the entire 45 minutes until the medevac helicopter arrived for the 20-minute flight back to FOB Bostic, a small outpost in the northeast region in Afghanistan. There, JC was finally allowed to sleep until he woke up in Bagram.
From Afghanistan, JC spent a day in Germany, then flew to Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland the following day, finishing the journey in San Antonio at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas for his final surgery. Here he’d be a little more comfortable knowing that his hometown was a little over an hour away. The doctor convinced JC that he needed to amputate higher, just below the knee, for the most ideal prosthetic fit. The surgery was a complete success, and within a few weeks he was immersed in physical therapy. Just before his accident, JC was in the best shape of his entire life. Just before Thanksgiving he was released from the hospital weighing only 155 pounds. He’d lost 30 pounds in just six weeks, a portion being his shin and foot. JC had nothing but compliments for the active-duty military hospitals he attended. Just before Christmas, a little over two months after the accident, JC received his first prosthesis.
Modern day gladiator: JC, slaying the mountain in Colorado. Photo by Devon Balet/Breck Epic MINDSET
JC tells us, “I’ve always taken challenges head-on. I never had a point of feeling down and depressed. I’ve had a great group of supporters, friends and family. Setting goals for myself in the direction that I want to go—if I am sedentary it dwells—so I set goals and keep motivated. I schedule events and stay engaged by being accountable. The combination of friends and family helped my recovery.”
There is an epidemic of depression in our country, and JC’s outlook on life is totally refreshing. Chasing goals is the best therapy ever. This is a huge problem for veterans returning from overseas, especially with injuries. They don’t give themselves self-worth or set future goals, but JC found that with cycling there was direction, which motivated him with his rehabilitation.
Every step is precise and calculated when the consequences are monumental. Photo by Fotica/La Ruta de Los Conquistadores REBUILDING
Adjusting to the first prosthetic, which was a walking foot, was difficult. Fitting it to his stump was challenging because his leg had shrunk and was continuing to do so. There was a lot of skin breakdown and blisters. Taking soft fresh skin and exposing it to abrasive fabric was the main issue, and building calluses was a slow painful process. San Antonio provided him with a lot of opportunities, including basketball, a treadmill, a Stairmaster and a spin bike for rehabilitation. JC was drawn to cycling, so he began his recovery on the stationary bike. By February 2010 he ventured outside on a borrowed road bike with flat pedals, but was struggling to keep his prosthetic in contact. A vintage toe clip was recommended and helped eliminate the pedal issue. Soon after, a non-profit veteran group set him up on a road bike of his own. This allowed him to do longer rides with other servicemen around Ft. Sam Houston, which offered minimal car traffic. The next milestone was upgrading to clip pedals. But, only being able unclip with his left foot put him in precarious situations, and he experienced all of the laughable crashes that clip pedals provide. JC enjoyed this time being around other injured soldiers and veterans with long-time injuries, and the friendly competition with each other and the support they provided. This was the best-case scenario for his mental health.
“Wonder Twins, power activate!”: Form of a world champion! Shape of a hero! Photo by: Devon Balet/Breck Epic
His first rides were around 5 miles long, but there was a rapid push for more due to his competitive nature. As expected, there were a lot of crashes, bonking and overdoing it, which resulted in skin abrasions on his stump that would set him back a few days at a time. JC then got involved with Ride to Recovery, which allowed him to do longer rides while pushing himself to see how far he could go. They provided encouragement and opened doors to more opportunities and riding in new places.
LEADVILLE TRAIL 100
In 2012, now out of the military, JC moved to Georgia. He was introduced to Bruce Gustafson from Ride to Recovery and invited to do the
Leadville Trail 100 in August. Bruce was recruiting riders through RTR to find riders capable of finishing the race. With the help of Bruce and RTR, JC was given a sponsored 29-inch Diamondback dual-suspension bike. Not afraid of a challenge, JC immediately signed up for a nine-hour MTB training race near home to prepare. His longest ride had been a road bike century, so it is safe to say he had thrown himself to the wolves. His ambitious goal for Leadville was to finish in less than 9 hours and win the coveted “La Plata Grande” belt buckle. Bruce would pace him for his rookie 100-mile race, which he finished in 9 hours and 7 minutes, missing the buckle by a minimal 7 minutes. JC was pinned the entire race and left it all out there; in hindsight, it wasn’t possible to make up that much time.
Road 2 Recovery teammates Matt Dewitt (left) and JC have unmatched ambition. Photo by: Tiffini Skuce
Returning to Leadville the following year, JC was determined earn his buckle. He spent the early part of the year racing endurance events and went to the 2013 Leadville with ambition, shaving nearly 15 minutes off the previous year’s time and earned his buckle. The pain, suffering and hard work had become an addiction of sorts and a new goal was needed.
THE LA RUTA EXPERIENCE
“Right after my sub-9 Leadville, I thought I was pretty tough,” JC admitted. The first day at the 2013
La Ruta de los Conquistadores MTB stage race was 45 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing. It was in the jungle and had massive amounts of hot, wet, and extremely muddy hike-a-bike sections. One section was so bad that he lost his prosthetic in the mud and spent a lot of time digging it back out. He sat nearly an hour at one of the rest stops battling dehydration and fatigue. His stump was raw from the moisture and gritty mud, but he wasn’t about to give up. He finished stage one in 11 hours and 40 minutes making the cutoff time by less then twenty minutes. That afternoon he had special appreciation for his friends, who had hung around waiting for him at the finish.
At the start of stage two he was sore and mentally out of it, just wishing it to be over. He’d been told that the second day would be easier because they’d be climbing into cooler temperatures and less hike-a-bike. His prosthetic had worn his stump really raw from the mud and friction. He was emotionally worn out and rode the entire stage solo, but he was able to channel what little bit of energy that was left to finish the stage.
Day three was the flattest but longest day. JC started the day looking forward to wrapping the race up. Just as hot and humid as the first two days it wasn’t going to be the easy day he had looked forward to. The course ran along railroad tracks forcing him to bounce along with his prosthetic rattling on his stump like a jackhammer. Making matters worse, he was forced to walk his bike over the bridges so as not to tip over or fall through the railroad ties. Fortunately, his friends decided to all ride, suffer and finish the last day of this epic race together. The culture, amazing food and good-willed villagers made the race an experience of a lifetime.
JC and Rebecca Gross hammered to third overall in the CoEd Pro category in the 2018 Breck Epic, a testament to their grit and determination. Photo by: Linda Guerrette PAYING IT FORWARD
Motivated for the 2014 race season JC’s goal was to set a personal record time at Leadville. Pre-season preparation consisted of a number of endurance races and he was on track. As the season progressed, his goals would change. JC met Matt Dewitt through Road to Recovery and decided to pace the double arm amputee through the Leadville Trail 100, just as Gustafson had done for him two years prior. Dewitt was an Iraqi veteran who had lost both arms just below the elbows in an IED explosion. He had finished Leadville the year before in 11 hours and 6 minutes for the 100-mile effort with two hooks holding on the bars. He literally did Leadville no handed. JC who had planned on racing the event competitively was able to change his focus and share his experience with Matt, proving once again the kind of fortitude he possesses. The duo finished the Leadville Trail 100 in 11 hours and 15 minutes. JC says, “It is good to suffer by yourself, but suffering with someone else is far more rewarding.”
In 2015, JC found himself in college with a new focus on his future. His riding was suffering because of homework and JC didn’t have any time for the R2R rides he’d done in the past. He joined Team Helen’s and started his season racing solo at the
24 Hours in El Pueblo, logging in over 180 miles. This race was extremely taxing from less preparation than the previous years’ schedules. He was hoping to finish under eight and a half hours, but with less training time available this wasn’t a reasonable goal. JC maximized his time and training and finished Leadville with a personal best of 8 hours, 48 minutes, earning himself another coveted buckle.
Now after completing La Ruta and four Leadville 100s, it was time for a new challenge. The
Breck Epic stage race was the goal of 2016, and JC finished with a solid solo effort. There are so many fast people racing that a podium was way out of the question, but the experience would build a foundation for a solid team effort in 2018. College was his main focus in 2017 and time off the bike was necessary to transfer and concentrate on good grades. The future was important, and school had become harder, requiring more time and effort.
In 2018 JC was invited by
United States Military Endurance Sports to race with Rebecca Gross in the Duo Co-Ed Pro category. Both were military vets. Rebecca is a national and world champion cyclocross racer, collegiate national champion mountain biker and a USA Cycling coach. JC found himself in good company having only five months to get whipped back into shape. Rebecca set up structured training for JC to prepare for the Breck Epic. Her fitness from racing ’cross is amazing and she is a heck of a climber. Prior to the Breck Epic the two hadn’t ridden together as Rebecca is from Golden, Colorado. All of their interactions were done through online communication. On day one, right out of the gate, JC tried to keep up and Rebecca was killing him. He bonked hard during that stage, but managed to survive and finish the day. They had to adjust their strategy, as there was no way he could keep this effort for the entire six days of racing. They figured out a game plan; JC would set the pace on the climbs and then draft on Rebecca any time the trail leveled out. She is a solid descender, so he couldn’t even depend on the downhills to recover. The pair finished a solid third overall in the Duo CoEd Pro category. JC exclaimed, “I left it all out there!”
This year JC is focused on finishing school, getting his BA in psychology and racing a few select gravel bike races. The
Belgian Waffle Ride is next on the calendar, and hopefully in the future the Dirty Kanza. Long-term goals include Race Across America (RAAM) on a team first and then someday solo. Once he completes his degree, JC will be attending a graduate program in occupational therapy so he can someday have his own practice. He says, “I’ve had so much help and support in my past. I’ll continue to volunteer with Challenged Athlete Foundation, who have done and continue to do so much for me, and pay it forward.” This from one of the most motivated, competitive and humble bicycle riders you could ever hope to meet. His journey has been a rough road, but it has built and established his character. He doesn’t see his loss of a limb as a handicap but rather as a challenge. He is the guy who you feel guilty complaining around, because he simply allows you to be positive and see nothing but the value of life. Because if Juan Carlos Hernandez can go through life with all this adversity and find positive in all of it, then those of us without these hardships have no excuse than to better ourselves every day!
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION