Penn Hills biker with multiple sclerosis subject of documentary |
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Patrick Varine

Italian film director Lucia Marani was immediately captivated when her father began telling her about a man he met the day after Christmas in 2007. The man was riding his bike in the pouring rain along the Tyrrhenian coastline.

“My father told me about this ex-Olympian baseballer for Italy, Italian-American, struck with (multiple sclerosis), preparing for a legendary bike race in France. I was already captured by his story,” she said.

Marani’s father had met Penn Hills native Tony Lonero, who has dual citizenship and has lived in Italy since the late 1980s.

Marani is hoping that Italian and American film audiences will be equally captivated by her documentary “Ride to Finish,” about Lonero’s extraordinary life.

Lonero was quite a story even before the events that inspired the documentary. He was the youngest boy ever to play American Legion baseball in Penn Hills. Between 1978 and 1981, Lonero led the Chipola Junior College Indians to two state final appearances, and was awarded a full scholarship to Louisiana State University.

In 1982, Lonero played professional baseball in Italy with the Nettuno Indians, who are essentially the Yankees of Italian baseball, having won 18 championships since 1948. Lonero also played on Italy’s 1984 Olympic baseball team, which finished fifth. Since retiring from baseball in 2000, Lonero has started an Internet design and hosting company.

The story could stop there, but it doesn’t.

Lonero, 51, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago.

“In 2001, I had come home from walking and was doing some stretching, and I fell over,” Lonero said. “I couldn’t get up and my leg wasn’t working. That was the first symptom.”

Because of the lesions on his spine, Lonero said he was unable to run or walk for exercise, but one day he discovered that, for some reason, riding a bike did not cause any inflammation or pain.

“My doctor said, ‘Do what makes you feel good, but you gotta move,’ ” he said.

That was 2002.

By 2003, Lonero was participating in the 776-mile Paris-Brest-Paris cycling ultramarathon, one of the world’s oldest cycling events. In 2003 alone, he biked more than 1,580 miles.

“Tony’s story is so incredible not because he has MS, but because he has a different approach to the illness,” Marani said. “He lives so intensely; every moment is precious. He never stops, he never resigns, he never regrets.

“Filming Tony was great fun, although it was a very demanding project. Following a cyclist day and night, rain or sun, for days, nonstop, is really hard, but it makes you understand how deep the motivation is that moves people like Tony.”

Some of that motivation has come from Lonero’s mother, Plum resident JoAnn Bary. In fact, when it comes to the number of miles traveled, Bary might give her son a run for his money.

“I used to be a marathon runner,” Bary said. “But I ended up with some stress fractures, so cycling was easier on my joints.”

Lonero is setting new standards for himself as well. He is already gearing up for the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris event, but depending on how he feels, Lonero plans to partner with one of his closest friends in Italy, Paolo Bronzetti, and attempt the annual Race Across America, held in June and billed as “the world’s toughest bicycle race.”

Lonero said he plans to enter the 3,000-mile, 12-state marathon and raise money for multiple sclerosis research along the way. If he is successful, he would be the first person with MS to complete the race.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Lonero• He would give it all up at the drop of a hat.

“The movie’s great, the bikes and the sponsorship and the support I’ve gotten is great, but I’d give it all back to wake up without MS someday,” he said.

Marani said a firm release date for “Ride to Finish” has not been set yet — Lonero attended a showing on Jan. 22 in Marani’s hometown of Rome — but she is hoping the documentary will have a spring 2011 premiere in Italy, and an English version is in the works for release in the United States.

” ‘Ride to Finish’ is not just a motto (with Tony), but a sincere philosophy of life,” Marani said.

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