Across the country in 72 days

Members of the Illini 4000 ride down Lincoln Avenue on their way into the Alumni Center in June 2008. The group successfully rode across the country in 2007 and is recruiting new members for a 2009 ride Erica Magda

Members of the Illini 4000 ride down Lincoln Avenue on their way into the Alumni Center in June 2008. The group successfully rode across the country in 2007 and is recruiting new members for a 2009 ride Erica Magda

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.

Combining his love for cycling and motivation to raise funds for cancer research, alumnus Jonathan Schlesinger co-founded the Illini 4000 organization in 2006. They made their first ride in the summer of 2007. The organization has raised almost $60,000 this year with the help of the Board of Directors, donations and the cyclists for the American Cancer Society and Camp Kesem.

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

Co-directors for the 2009 ride, Topol and 2007 cyclist Sean Laude, are currently recruiting for next summer’s ride.

This year they hope that the team forms a social bond before the actual trip begins, to educate the inexperienced cyclists about bike mechanics and to fine tune the organizational details of the trip.

Cyclists who want to participate in the ride attend group meetings throughout the year and complete spring training to physically prepare for the ride.

Each cyclist must raise at least $2,500 and prepare to ride 80 miles per day, both intimidating numbers, Topol said.

Schlesinger admits the trip preparation and the journey itself are seemingly impossible tasks.

“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. 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 his or her 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, Topol said. He added that 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 of 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.

Looking for a team of 20 cyclists, Topol stresses that no previous biking experience is necessary and biking is the only way to see the country.

Topol and Laude encourage anyone who is interested to check out their Web site, Illini4000.org, or attend the informational meeting Tuesday Sept. 2, at 7 p.m. in room 319 of Gregory Hall.

“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.”