72 of cycling, working for a cure

By April Dahlquist

Hitting the Pacific Ocean, Brad Topol, senior in engineering, was as far west as he could go. After bicycling for 72 days, Topol and the other 20 members of the Illini 4000 team finished their cross-country journey from New York City to Seattle, Wash.

Combining his love for cycling and motivation to fundraise for cancer research, alumnus Jonathan Schlesinger co-founded the Illini 4000 organization in 2006.

The organization has raised more than $60,000 this year with the help of the Board of Directors, donations and the cyclists for the American Cancer Society and Camp Kesem. In the Illini 4000’s first year in 2007, the organization raised slightly less on their cross-country journey.

“Anyone can do this if they have the passion to stand up and fight cancer,” Schlesinger said.

Each cyclist has to fundraise $2,500 and prepare to ride 80 miles a day, both intimidating numbers, Topol said. Schlesinger admits the trip preparation and the journey are seemingly impossible tasks.

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    “You get this feeling that riding is your only option. You have to do it. You’re tired and it’s hard, but you need to get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’,” Topol said. “But when I’m done every day, I’m proud of myself and I know that it’s worth it.”

    The other goal of Illini 4000 is to connect with cancer survivors and to raise cancer awareness.

    “We met people in every town we were in and heard stories about how cancer has affected them,” Topol said. “It really made the trip that much more meaningful to hear these people opening up to a complete group of strangers.”

    To show how cancer affects all walks of life, the cyclists interviewed cancer survivors and visited oncology wings of hospitals along the way. The Illini 4000 has an ongoing multimedia project, the Portraits Project, where a picture of a cancer survivor is displayed along with their story, Schlesinger said. They hope to have the project featured in a hospital or in the Illini Union Art Gallery.

    “It’s more real to see people instead of numbers and statistics,” Topol said. “We can say this person is a survivor, and that spreads hope.”

    During the ride the group works together to ensure all the cyclists are safe. One of the team safety rules is to ride in groups of three or more. This way, cyclists in the back warn the front of passing cars while the front alerts the back of potholes.

    The team does half their ride in the morning, stops for lunch and finishes their ride by evening. They usually stay overnight at a church.

    “This trip has definitely changed my perspective of the American public and the American individual and how giving and generous people can really be,” Topol said.

    Having organized and participated in the ride for two years, Schlesinger passed his leadership torch on to Topol and 2007 cyclist Sean Laude. The two will co-direct the 2009 ride. They hope to have the team more socially bonded before the actual trip begins, to educate the inexperienced cyclists about bike mechanics and to fine tune the organizational details of the trip.

    They are recruiting members now for the 2009 summer ride and encourage anyone who is interested to check out their Web site: Illini4000.org.

    “One cross-country bike ride is the trip of a lifetime. It’s hard to believe that you’d have two trips of a lifetime,” Schlesinger said. “It’s kind of like winning eight gold medals at one Olympics.”