He Lost His Leg, Then Rediscovered the Bicycle. Now He’s Unstoppable.

peter flax
·26 mins read

From Bicycling


Leo Rodgers is in flight. He’s bouncing and sliding in soft sand along an abandoned railway line that runs north from downtown St. Petersburg. As we zigzag past castaway boxcars plastered with graffiti and the agitated guests at a dog kennel, Rodgers hucks his bike off every huckable curb.

Many people who ride a lot know what it’s like to sit on the wheel of someone like Leo Rodgers—someone you can trust to pick a good line and call out obstacles and do his or her share of the work and probably drop your ass if they wanted to. Someone who emanates delight. Someone who sits on a bike like that’s where they belong, their upper body still and relaxed as the miles click by.

It feels at this point both necessary and a bit superfluous to mention that Leo Rodgers is a tall black man with long hair and one leg. There is no pedal or crank-arm on the left side of his All-City bike; his left pant leg is neatly knotted a few inches below the hip. Rodgers, 35, lost his leg 13 years ago, the result of the sort of motorcycle crash in which you are lucky if it merely changes your life.

Join me in resisting the urge to frame this as a story about loss, because once you get to know Leo and ride with him and see all that cycling has given Leo and all that he’s given back, you’ll start to discover some of the beautiful things you can only find after losing something. Maybe, like me, you need a reminder of all the places the bike can take us.

Bikes have transported Leo to many meaningful places. They’ve also sent him to the ground many times. This morning, right before we set off to ride, Leo and I talked about crashing. “Falling is just part of riding,” he said. “I feel like once I get my one in, I won’t fall any more that day.”

All of Leo’s cycling friends have a story about him crashing. Not crashes that reflect a lack of skill or judgment; rather ones that reflect a lack of fear—and also an excess of audacity.

There was that time they were racing full blast down the slick, circular ramps of an empty parking garage and Leo slid out and face-planted into a wall. The time he was clipped by a van in Miami Beach during Art Basel and he joyously popped up to cheers. There was the time he was on the tall bike near the waterfront and he went down in a slick corner with 10 other riders like it was a slow-motion Tour de France sprint finale.

These stories are not cautionary tales. They represent how Leo rides a bike—with complete abandon.

After 45 minutes of off-road meandering, we veer from the railbed and cut toward the freeway. Rodgers has earned Paralympic glory and held his own at grueling gravel events like Dirty Kanza and Grinduro, but he’s truly in his element here, careening though the quiet brick streets of his Florida hometown.

Photo credit: Bob Croslin
Photo credit: Bob Croslin

Eventually, we get to the edge of I-275, and pedal up a tight triple-decker corkscrew to reach a footbridge over the highway. It’s a fun little effort for me, but for someone muscling a fixed-gear bike with one leg, it looks like a grind. At the top, Rodgers is panting and smiling hard.

After a short break, we descend the steep corkscrew back to the street. Leo leads the way. Though it’s a cinch on a bike with brakes, it’s a tougher challenge on a fixie. Leo has no interest in cautiously backpedaling from the top; instead he tries to skid down the ramp as fast as he can. About two thirds of the way down, his rear wheel slides out and slams into the chain link fencing, sending him over the handlebar and onto the pavement.

“Score! I got my one!” he shouts. There’s the start of a minor bruise gestating under his eye. But he laughs, jumps back on his bike, and takes off.

As we pedal away from the highway and into a leafy neighborhood, I remember something he told me at breakfast. “I’ve spent a lot of time doing crazy stuff and learning to fall,” he said, talking about his inevitable bike crashes and quite possibly his whole approach to life. “A big part of falling is always being mentally prepared to get up.”

[Gravel! is the ultimate guide to the gear, training, and strategy to master the art of unpaved riding!]

Leo Rodgers is glad he has few firsthand memories of the biggest fall of his life. This much is clear: Rodgers has always been a skilled thrill seeker who liked to go fast. As a kid, he launched BMX jumps around the neighborhood. And Leo recalls spending $450 in high school on his first real bike, a Redline single-speed. His father, Eddie, says he can still picture Leo doing wheelies around the block on that bike. Eddie is a retired helicopter mechanic who served in Vietnam. He has always loved motorcycles, so it’s no surprise that his kid took an interest in riding and tinkering with motorbikes, too.

Photo credit: Bob Croslin
Photo credit: Bob Croslin

Eddie meets me at a swank bike shop in St. Petersburg called the Bikery—an airy space where you can sip a proper macchiato or buy a Moots or ogle vintage steel Merckx race bikes on the walls—where his kid is a fixture. Eddie’s lived in the neighborhood long enough to remember when the pristine shop used to be a motorcycle repair shop. He also remembers when Leo became interested in motorcycles and when he bought his son a 1,000cc Suzuki just after high school. “I remember the first time Leonard fell,” he says. (Everyone in Leo’s immediate family calls him Leonard.) “He was trying to do tricks on the bike and fell backwards onto the pavement. At least he bought a chest protector and a helmet after that.”

Eddie’s voice drops as he recounts the day of Leo’s crash. It was December 1, 2007. He and Leo and other family members had ridden to Tampa on two motorcycles. From there, Leo took off to hang out at a riding event with friends. Leo’s older sister, Jennifer, remembers hearing Eddie tell him to “pad up.”

Leo, who makes no excuses for the recklessness of his youth, says he was popping wheelies at over 100 miles an hour on a wide, flat stretch of Fowler Avenue just off I-75. It was hardly the first time he’d attempted such a feat. He recalls having an awareness that the bike’s headset was loose, the kind of minor problem that would need fixing in the morning, but when he came down from a wheelie the vibration was not minor. “The bike was shaking,” Leo says. “And I couldn’t save it.”

The next thing Rodgers remembers is awakening in a hospital bed.

Fortunately, he can’t remember launching into and then over the guardrail that sliced into his left thigh. He was bleeding badly and floating in the Tampa Bypass Canal, a manmade waterway that manages overflow from the nearby Hillsborough River. Some of his companions stopped and looked down into the murky darkness; one made the brave decision to clamber to the shoreline and wade into the water—alligators are common in the area—to pull Leo to safety while someone else called 911.

The urgent phone calls started flying. Someone called Eddie and he called his ex-wife, Winona, Leo’s mother. Winona woke up Leo’s sister, Jennifer, and soon everyone was racing to Leo’s side. Jennifer and Winona were in the car when her mother’s phone rang—it was a hospital chaplain. “My mom panicked,” Jennifer says, remembering how she reassured her mother but was also “going a little crazy” herself.

At the hospital, Winona, Eddie, Jennifer, and other friends and family waited for hours as Leo underwent emergency surgery. Both Winona and Jennifer say that on at least one occasion, Leo had to be resuscitated because his heart had stopped. “One doctor told us they had to stop working on his leg because his vitals were so bad,” Winona says.

After a number of hours, a surgeon came out and said the doctors would have to amputate Leo’s leg below the knee; later, he returned to say they’d have to amputate higher due to the extensive tissue damage and infection risk. “That night I was prepared for Leo to be a paraplegic,” Eddie says. “I was thinking he’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”

When the final amputation procedure was complete, and Leo’s vitals were stabilized, doctors told the family they’d put him in an induced coma. It was morning now and the sun was up. Jennifer can picture her brother in a hospital bed. “I don’t know how to put this—he was glowing,” she says. “It was like this light was over him. It was beautiful.”

Photo credit: Bob Croslin
Photo credit: Bob Croslin

Leo Rodgers has a three-way hex wrench in one hand and a top tube in the other. He’s a couple of hours into his Friday shift at City Bike Tampa—the kind of fashionably low-key urban shop stocked with steel bikes and a thoughtful array of Brooks saddles and colorful Chris King headsets.

Someone just dropped by the shop to rent a bike. Leo leans his crutch on the counter, hops over to where the rentals are hanging, grabs an All-City Space Horse with wide knobby tires, and rotates to set it down by the customer. Everyone in the shop pauses for three seconds to watch Leo pull off this ballet on one leg as if it’s his normal routine. Which it is.

After he’s done setting up the rental, he returns to his stand and resumes tinkering with a disassembled Razor children’s electric motorbike. The bike had stopped running, but just an hour later, Rodgers—who stands about 6 foot 4—is zipping it up and down the block, his face wide with a shit-eating grin.

Rodgers rides his bike to work without fail. (Eddie once gave his son a used pickup truck but Leo didn’t like using it and eventually sold it.) This daily commute is hardly an easy spin. Leo lives on the other side of the sprawling Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. It’s a solid 25-mile ride each way, highlighted by the wildly exposed Gandy Bridge, which hovers over the water for four miles. Drivers often veer into the shoulder and whip out smartphones to take photos or video of the guy with one leg on a bicycle motoring over the crossing.

This kind of gonzo commuting would be noteworthy anywhere, but maybe more so in Pinellas County, where Leo lives, and the Tampa metro area, which statistically are some of the most dangerous places for cycling in the entire nation. Last year, 45 cyclists were killed riding in Florida’s so-called Bay Area. In a community where lots of people wonder whether they really should venture out on a bike, Leo is an inspiration to start pedaling.

Leo isn’t in a bike tribe—he’s in all of them. He likes to go out at night in khaki shorts and smash it with a fixie crew and he likes to do hard paceline training rides with the local spandex roadies and he likes to go out for gravel epics with dudes who consume a lot of CBD chewies. He does alley cats and pub crawls and off-road centuries. He noodles around the waterfront on a tall bike he helped fabricate.

Above all, Leo is defined and nourished by speed. “You know if he’s leading a ride, it’s going to be hard and maybe a little crazy,” says James Luedde, a photographer who met Leo a few years ago. Luedde joins the Wolfpack rides around Tampa on Wednesday nights. “It can be intimidating because he can do stuff on a bike that I and many other people can’t do.” Leo can do a mean one-legged trackstand and ride while sitting on his handlebar and he’s been known to launch himself off three-foot ledges on a road bike.

On the Wolfpack ride, and on periodic “hood rides” through St. Petersburg, Leo leads friends and acolytes through some of the region’s scrappier neighborhoods. “Everyone knows Leo,” says Luedde. “People cheer from their porches.” Without explicitly trying, Leo makes a powerful statement every time he pedals through his community—that people of color and people with adaptive challenges not only can be a part of bike culture, they can help guide it and expand it.

Take Leo’s friend TJ Nguyen, who comes from a Southeast Asian American family and moved to the Tampa area five years ago from a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles. “I came to Florida to get away from stuff,” he says. Nguyen randomly met Leo one night a few hours before Critical Mass. Before long, with Leo’s guidance, he had dropped $150 for a single-speed on Craigslist.

Nguyen and Rodgers describe each other as brothers. Recently, they did a hard 48-mile gravel ride called To Hell and Back; at the last minute, they decided to ride it on a tandem. More often, they barrel through Tampa and St. Pete after dark, in a manner that outsiders might dismiss as dangerous or unlawful. “It’s pure adrenaline,” Nguyen says. “Some people like skydiving; we like to ride hard. It’s an outlet for all of us.”

As Rodgers got involved in Florida’s alley cat racing scene, he developed a friendship with urban-riding legend and filmmaker Lucas Brunelle, who’s based in Miami these days. “As a rider, that guy is a 10,” says Brunelle. “Very few riders establish rapport with drivers like he does—most people aren’t really willing to engage people on the street like that.”

Photo credit: Bob Croslin
Photo credit: Bob Croslin

After his crash, Leo remained in an induced coma for a week. When he regained consciousness, one of the first things he did was try to rip all the wires and tubes out of his arms. “There were so many emotions that flooded me,” he recalls. “I felt anger, frustration, stupidity—I was just so mad at everything.”

Leo’s mother, Winona, was braced for the worst. “Seeing my child with a missing leg was devastating,” she says. “But he didn’t seem bothered by the amputation—he just wanted to know where his bike was.”

It’s hard to imagine how Leo felt as he lay in a hospital bed before his release. He was a 22-year-old black man of limited means with an infant son and no job or left leg or outlet for his thrill-seeking. There are so many directions his life could have gone rather than toward bicycle evangelism. It easily could have marked the start of a long-term downward slide.

But in the weeks that followed, Leo emitted relentless positivity. “He’s the most positive person I’ve met in my whole life,” says Bob Croslin, a photojournalist who’s ridden with Leo many times. “When we talk man to man, we talk about his struggles,” says Nguyen, “but I’ve never seen him angry.”

Jennifer remembers one uncharacteristic moment when Leo lost his cool. It was a couple of weeks after his release from the hospital. Leo’s wounds had become infected, and he had to return to the hospital for treatment. “I told him, ‘You need to be thankful you made it. You almost didn’t make it,’” she says.

Leo remembers the discomfort and grievances he felt, beset by medical problems and uncertainty. As he destroys a platter of eggs and pancakes at a St. Petersburg diner, Leo tries to explain how he dug himself out of the frustration. “I know I’m headstrong,” he says. “But I knew I almost died. I really had to ask myself, ‘Why am I even here?’”

Leo is a charismatic and chatty extrovert, but when it comes to existential questions about the art of falling down and getting up, he is a man of few words. “I know now that my purpose in life is some kind of inspiration,” he says. “I’m working on it.”

The physical rehab turned out to be the easy part. Leo worked for months to learn how to walk with a prosthesis. Figuring out what to do with his life was much harder.

Leo had lost a leg but not his thirst for speed and thrills. For a time, he tried to scratch that itch racing remote-control cars. It turned out to be more expensive and less visceral than he hoped. He drove a taxi for a while. Then in 2008 he moved to Orlando, to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. After he earned certifications to work on Suzukis and Yamahas, he scored a job wrenching motorbikes.

But one day in 2010, he rediscovered the old Redline single-speed, the one on which he used to ride wheelies around the block. It lit a spark in his brain. He could mount and dismount it even with one leg, and he could turn smooth pedal strokes (although he found using a crank arm and pedal on the other side annoying, so he took the whole crank arm off). “It was like I got my freedom back,” he says. “It was being back on a motorcycle, only now I was the motor.”

Many adults who ride bicycles can relate on some level—the way bike rides evoke the childhood liberty of cruising the neighborhood. But for Leo the freedom is literal. Leo learned early on that he doesn’t like to wear a prosthesis. “It sucks. It’s painful. I don’t want to lug around this ball and chain,” he says. “Also, I think people should just accept me as I am.” After several years of walking around with one, Leo set it aside. He now has crutches stashed all over town—at work and the houses of friends and family—so he can show up on his bike and get along. Friends have seen Leo ride into a convenience store and roll through the aisles.

Leo’s mother says she used to worry when her son would refuse to let her park in a handicapped space at the supermarket; it’s hard to stop babying your baby. But now she understands, especially after seeing all the videos of what her son can do on a bike. “He’s still the same Leo as before all this,” Winona says. “The only thing missing is a limb.”

About four years ago, Leo started working as a mechanic at City Bike Tampa. He’d been let go from his job fixing motorcycles and had fallen in love with bikes. Still, he has challenges, some of which are easier to explain to a stranger than others. “There are hard moments when I have to figure shit out,” he says. “Like if I stay at an Airbnb with people, and the floors are slippery, or everyone is staying on the third floor—simple shit like that is hard for me.” Left unspoken are things like finances and the sideways glances he receives all day and his desire to spend as much time as possible with his two sons, 15 and 5, who live with their mothers.

When asked to explain how he stays so positive, why he seemingly shields his family from his struggles, Leo shrugs. “What my family went through, it wasn’t easy,” he says. “I definitely don’t want them to see me fail.”

A year or two after he got back on his Redline, Leo was strong and confident enough to start joining group rides. Soon he was leading hard fixie rides around Tampa, and it didn’t take him long to find track racing. Not surprisingly, he found some success. He competed four times at the U.S. Paralympic Track Cycling Open—the national championship for disabled track riders—and came away with eight total medals, including one Stars & Stripes jersey for winning the one-kilometer time trial in his class.

As he dove deeper into the scene, Leo started meeting people he otherwise would never have met. Like Todd Key, a rider from Scottsdale, Arizona. Key lost the use of his right hand after falling from a tree at age 7, and then lost his right leg to cancer at age 17. Meeting Leo at a Paralympic track nationals made an immediate impression on Key. “It’s a wealthy white person sport, so he really stood out,” says Key, now 59. “I noticed that he needed help.”

Key supported Leo as best he could—with transportation and lodging, sometimes with airfare or equipment. He says Leo never asked for anything (“he’s a proud man”), but Key also saw that Leo sometimes showed up at events without a clear plan to cover basic expenses. “Spending time with Leo showed me the realities of my privilege,” Key says. “But as someone who’s been disabled since I was 7, I felt connections, too—like the way people can treat you like an outcast who’s not really expected to amount to something.”

Key was impressed with Leo but felt like his obstacles to becoming a world-class Paralympic contender were formidable. “He doesn’t have the right equipment or coach or training regime to put it all together,” Key says. “Plus he’s gigantic, on the track he’s like a giant sail, and he doesn’t have the equipment to get aero.”

In the end, Key and Rodgers made one amazing connection. One day, talking in the pits at the velodrome in Colorado Springs, Key realized that he and Leo both wore a size 45 shoe. And that one of them had a right leg and the other a left. Since then, the two men from different worlds have begun sharing cycling shoes. “Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing,” says Key.

Photo credit: James Luedde
Photo credit: James Luedde

For a couple of years, Leo aspired to compete at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, but over time his interests shifted elsewhere. For one thing, the nearest track—the velodrome at the Brian Piccolo Sports Park in Cooper City, Florida—sits 250 miles from his home. Between the logistics and the finances, Leo’s preoccupation with track racing started to wane. “It’s more like a roadie scene on the track,” he says, adding that he likes his bike races with a beer or two. “Plus, it’s a hard discipline to get noticed in.”

So Rodgers made a decision that many cyclists have made in the recent years: He got into gravel. Whenever possible, he heads up to the dirt roads sprinkled throughout the more rural areas 25 or 30 miles north of Tampa. “I fell in love with gravel right away—the way you have to use all your skills,” he says. “Plus I want to travel more and become part of a culture I help create.”

Last year, Leo was invited to join a team sponsored by Brooks and took part in two of the marquee gravel events in the U.S.—Dirty Kanza in Emporia, Kansas, and Grinduro in California’s northern Sierra mountains. He was recruited by Ronnie Romance—a man whose real name might be Benedict Wheeler and is known as @ultraromance on Instagram. Ronnie is at once an authentic symbol of an evolving cycling culture and an evocative made-for-Instagram confection. In other words, someone Leo would like to emulate.

Ronnie had followed Leo on Instagram and reached out after Brooks asked him to set up a team for Dirty Kanza. They hadn’t met in person until they got to Kansas but wound up sharing eight intense hours in the saddle during the race after hooking up around mile 60. It was the kind of beautiful ordeal that has made Dirty Kanza so beloved. In the scramble to prepare for the event, Leo had switched pedals and now had a horrific hot spot festering on his foot. “It was really bad,” recalls Ronnie. “All the power to propel Leo forward for 200 miles was being transferred through one foot to a tiny little pedal. I was thinking, my God, I hope this doesn’t turn into an emergency.” And on an oppressively hot day, it kept getting worse. Many CBD edibles were deployed and many laughs were had, but “when we took a break around mile 130, his foot looked gnarly,” Ronnie says.

Ronnie pulled out a map and proposed a shortcut that would slice 20 miles from the distance to the finish. It was a good idea that likely backfired. “We immediately hit mud,” he says, observing how Leo’s handicap poses unexpected challenges. “Leo had to hop through the muck.”

Leo and Ronnie pressed on under an expansive starry sky until the lights of Emporia shimmered in the distance. “We’d depleted all our brain cells at that point,” Ronnie recalls, noting that as they approached the edge of town and the crowds and the cheering grew louder, Leo started riding faster. People were calling out his name as he sprinted across the finish line, smiling even as he was collapsing.

Some people actually asked out loud if Leo, who cut part of the course, should have been allowed to cross the finish line, as if a black man with one leg from Florida who rode 180 miles with a tumor-like boil on his foot and hopped through miles of thick mud didn’t capture the spirit of gravel racing in its purest form. Leo says he’s looking forward to coming back and riding the full 200.

Things went better at Grinduro, though it was far from a cakewalk. A marshal let Leo through a checkpoint even though he’d missed a time cut, and he wound up alone on the course for hours. “I was in the middle of nowhere, which I’ve done, but never somewhere with bears around,” Leo jokes. He rolled into the finish chute, tired but elated, then collapsed. Ronnie remembers being at the finish line, fretting about whether Leo was going to be OK. A DJ was playing and folks were drinking beers, and Ronnie says that within 15 minutes Leo was at the party.

After we ride through St. Petersburg, Leo invites me to his house for a beer. Excited to have company, his pit bull, Pretty Boy, wags and moans enthusiastically enough to get banished out back. Leo sits on the living room couch as he helps me survey the jumble of bikes clogging the living room and front porch.

His old Redline is amid the clutter. So is his Specialized Langster Steel, his first real track bike, which has been reconfigured with a 20-inch front tire and a big plastic basket. (“My laundry bike now,” he laughs.) There’s an All-City Gorilla Monsoon with wide tires and a dropper post; and a pinkish Crust Bombora, the bike he raced at Kanza. There’s a Fuji track bike and an All-City track bike and this crudely made tall bike. It’s a modest home with an immodest collection of bikes.

Leo sips a Heineken and recounts stories about each of these bikes. They help tell the story of his life, as do the shelves of his refrigerator. Life is good and life is hard. “He shouldn’t be struggling to make ends meet, but he is,” says Luedde.

Bikes have been at the center of Leo’s life for more than a decade, and they’ve given him so much—a career, a way to get around, a way to express himself, a community, a purpose, a way to see the world. A way to help people. A way to change the face of cycling.

Thanks to bikes and his enormous spirit, Leo has come so far since the day he woke up in a hospital bed and ripped all the wires and tubes out of his arms. But he’d like bikes to take him further. And he has an increasingly clear picture of where he wants to go.

One person who is helping Leo find focus is Al-Aakhir Rogers, PhD. Rogers was driving in Tampa one day in 2018 when he saw someone riding a bicycle with one leg and was flabbergasted enough to “bust a U-turn” and shoot a cell-phone video. Rogers—a life coach of sorts—tracked Leo down, and a mentorship was born. With Dr. Rogers’s help, Leo is trying to chart a path toward something larger, some combination of advocacy, public speaking, sponsorship, and social-media penetration. “I think Leo knows exactly what he wants, but the unknown is intimidating,” says Rogers. “Leo has grown in leaps and bounds, but the reality is that change is difficult.”

Two people who fully understand all that Leo can accomplish and all the obstacles he faces are Lucas Brunelle and Ronnie Romance—personalities and brands on the fringes of traditional bike culture who’ve made a life and a living being distinctively awesome.

“Man, sponsorship is a difficult game,” says Brunelle. “But there’s real potential. He’s someone who is not afraid to go against all odds and take huge risks.”

Ronnie Romance sees the appeal, too. “At Dirty Kanza he was like one of 10 black people; and he’s a black man who’s handicapped,” he says. “The future of cycling is diversity—not just with race but adaptiveness, too. Any brand should be proud to have him represent them.”

Up above I-275, after Leo Rodgers has grinded his way up that tight triple-decker, he leans into his handlebar and catches his breath.

We pause on the pedestrian overpass, surrounded by chain-link fencing with tractor-trailers barreling north and south like freight trains. We talk about some of the places the bike has taken him—down grocery-store aisles and lonesome dirt roads, the tight turns of faraway velodromes and ultimately an unmapped route toward another life.

In a minute, Leo Rodgers will clip back in and careen down the ramp. He will fall and he will laugh and he will get up and he will continue riding.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story used a phrase with racist origins to describe Leo’s riding style. We deeply regret our mistake and have been having conversations with the black cycling community to address this failure. We are also taking a hard look at our own editorial culture to make sure it reflects the diverse, inclusive community we serve. —Bill Strickland

You Might Also Like