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Afghanistan veteran starts anew at S&W Sports bike shop

  • Bill Whitcher works in his shop at S&W Sports in Concord with his son Will, 10, on Thursday, April 24, 2014. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Bill Whitcher works in his shop at S&W Sports in Concord with his son Will, 10, on Thursday, April 24, 2014. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Photographs of Bill Whitcher's kids hang on the wall of his bicycle workshop at S&W Sports in Concord. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Photographs of Bill Whitcher's kids hang on the wall of his bicycle workshop at S&W Sports in Concord. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Bill Whitcher's work table at his shop at S&W Sports in Concord. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Bill Whitcher's work table at his shop at S&W Sports in Concord. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Bill Whitcher works in his shop at S&W Sports in Concord with his son Will, 10, on Thursday, April 24, 2014. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Photographs of Bill Whitcher's kids hang on the wall of his bicycle workshop at S&W Sports in Concord. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Bill Whitcher's work table at his shop at S&W Sports in Concord. Whitcher, a Marine that was deployed into combat zones twice, started his own business building custom bikes.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Billy Whitcher sat in his back-room studio at S&W Sports in Concord, surrounded by tools he uses to build custom bicycles.

But his mind was in another place, in a memory of the machines that killed many of his friends and his cousin, Cpl. Scott Dimond of Franklin.

“I can remember walking into villages where it’s all quiet,” Whitcher said. “Just imagine the sun being out there, the birds chirping, although Afghanistan is not beautiful, it’s all dirt and mud, but it’s beautiful.”

But the quiet wouldn’t stay. “Just machine gun fire, mortars, rockets, coming from everywhere. It takes a toll on you.”

He brought his mind back to the shop. Johnny Cash was playing on the stereo. His gaze turned to the tools in his shop, these machines that build bikes instead of break bodies.

“This, for sure, is better than therapy,” he said.

Whitcher is a 45-year-old Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He is also the newly established owner of Guipago Custom Cycles, the business he has started since coming home from his last tour in 2011.

“I knew that chapter had to be finished,” Whitcher said.

“So here I am now.”

Whitcher grew up in New London, but he’s lived in Concord for about 16 years. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school, then the U.S. Army Reserve. Later, he worked as a state trooper. He grew up racing bikes – mountain bikes, road bikes, any kind of bike. It didn’t matter.

“It’s just the freedom of being out there, it’s you and this metal machine against 500 people,” he said of racing. “It’s who’s got the good lungs and the strong legs and a good bike.”

In 2008, Whitcher deployed to the Helmand province of Afghanistan, where he served as a staff sergeant and trained members of the Afghan army. His cousin, Dimond, deployed with him.

“So I had a pretty rough tour,” Whitcher said. “My cousin went with me, Scott. I talked him into going, and he got killed. And I took his body home. I lost a bunch of friends in that tour, in the Helmand Province.”

‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

Whitcher came back to New Hampshire for his cousin’s funeral in 2008. While he was on leave, another bomb exploded underneath the car in which Whitcher would have been riding.

“My whole gun truck got killed, and I’m thinking, if Scott didn’t get killed, that would have been me,” Whitcher said. “Then you try and put that all in perspective and figure that out, and what’s the reason? But man, that’s a tough thing to (do), you know. That sucks.”

Another Johnny Cash song – “Sunday Morning Coming Down” – started playing on the stereo. The volume was low, but the lyrics were there: “And Lord, it took me back to something that I lost somewhere, somehow along the way.”

Johnny Cash songs play all day long in the shop, because Whitcher said the music keeps him calm as he works.

“So anyway I came home, I took Scott’s body home,” Whitcher said. “And (my son) Will . . . he’s dead serious, 5 years old. He says, ‘Daddy, can you take me to Afghanistan with you so I can get you home safely?’ ”

Whitcher told him no.

“And he goes, ‘Daddy, I got that Batman Nerf gun,’ and I start laughing, and he goes, ‘I’m serious, Daddy, it hurts when you get hit with that.’ Like he had no idea, and I’m laughing. He’s 5 years old.”

Will is now 10 years old. Next to the folding chair where Whitcher sat in his shop is the metal frame that would become Will’s new mountain bike. The father and son would weld it together later that day.

“For me, building these things, you know, I did multiple infantry tours, so I’ve had some pretty rough times in Afghanistan,” Whitcher said. “You know, a lot of death and destruction. So when I come in here to work, it’s totally therapy for me.”

Whitcher left for his second tour shortly after returning from his first. When he came home in 2011, he knew he couldn’t be a state trooper again. He couldn’t carry a weapon on a daily basis anymore.

“I don’t dwell on it because I know better,” Whitcher said. “Now you’ve got to start a new chapter, and you’ve got to look back and (ask) what makes you happy?

“Biking, for sure. Cycling has always made me happy.”

‘I chased it’

By then divorced, Whitcher turned to the vocational rehabilitation program for veterans through the VA Medical Center in Manchester. He used his military benefits to take nine courses at the United Bicycle Institute in Oregon in 2013, and he said the VA program helped him finance the equipment he needed to get Guipago Cycles off the ground when he came home from school in December.

Because of the injuries he suffered in Afghanistan, Whitcher can’t race the way he used to. But he’s not slowing down – he’s building his 16th bike since starting the business about six months ago.

“I chased it,” he said.

He set up shop in S&W Sports in Concord, owned by Tim Farmer. They’ve worked together in the cycling community before, but now Whitcher runs Guipago Cycles out of a converted storage room in Farmer’s store.

“He has quite the state-of-the-art operation in there,” Farmer said.

Over the years, Whitcher has run clinics for hopeful bikers, from police officers to young kids and homeless adults. He has an easy rapport with his students, Farmer said – and now with his customers.

“Billy’s really good at working with customers to make them feel like they designed the bike. . . . You can tell he’s a good soul,” Farmer said.

Whitcher starts each bike with a conversation. He asks his clients whether they’re looking for a racing bike or a bike to ride for leisure, whether they want a mountain bike or a road bike. He listens to them describe past injuries. He measures their bodies and plugs the dimensions into a computer-aided design program.

“Every bike you do, you learn something new to take on to the next bike you build,” he said.

Each bike takes about a month to build and costs up to a few thousand dollars. A newly welded frame sat on the work table, near a set of steel bars newly cut for Whitcher’s next order. As he points to the different machines that help him slice and shape the metal, a tattoo of a bicycle on Whitcher’s left wrist peeks out from underneath his sleeve. Framed pictures of Will and his 20-year-old daughter Corinna, who is a welder in the U.S. Navy, watch over his work.

“I just totally fell in love with . . . building something with your hands and riding it,” Whitcher said. “It’s an artwork, it really is.”

Whitcher himself makes time to bike four or five times a week, preferably in the quiet of the woods. He wants the fledgling company to stay small. He doesn’t tout his own skill. There’s no sales pitch, no bragging.

“Sometimes I’ll leave at 7 at night, and I can’t wait to get back at 7 the next morning,” Whitcher said. “I don’t want to lose that.”

Because it’s not about the business or the job. It’s about the therapy, the freedom, the good lungs and the strong legs. It’s about a good bike.

“I don’t do it for the money,” he said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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