Illini 4000 riders make stop in Champaign on their cross-country bike ride for cancer


Photo Courtesy of Mike Rotter

Illini 4000 riders in New York City on May 18, the first day of their 78-day cross country bike trip.

By Eunice Alpasan, Staff writer

From New York City to San Francisco, 17 University students are trekking a 4,787-mile bike ride journey across the country to raise money for cancer.

Last Tuesday, riders from the nonprofit organization Illini 4000 made a stop in Champaign during their 78-day cross-country trip. They were greeted with a welcome reception from the community hosted by the The Cancer Center at Illinois at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.

Founded in 2006, the mission of Illini 4000 is to raise money for cancer research and patient support services, while also spreading awareness through annual cross-country bike rides. This year is the organization’s 13th ride.

Mike Rotter is an incoming junior in the College of Education. He is also one of the two ride leaders for this year’s Illini 4000 team.

“All of this is so that one day we can live in a world where cancer no longer exists,” Rotter said.

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A typical day for the riders starts at 5:45 a.m., in which they ride their bikes for about eight hours while taking occasional rest stops and opportunities to explore the area. The riders also get to meet people along the way who have been affected by cancer, whether they were affected personally or know a loved one who has been affected.

Members of Illini 4000 document the stories of those who have been affected by cancer and post them on the online platform, The Portraits Project. The riders try to get one portrait for each day on their trip.

“We like to think of it as an online haven of hope where people can come online and see people who have gone through something similar to them,” Rotter said. “They can get some guidance from them and even just see that they’re not alone in this battle and that there are people out there who are willing to listen to them.”

The riders are typically done with the day by 10 p.m., where they will usually sleep at a church or a YMCA that has agreed to host them for the night.

“I wasn’t expecting people to be that nice,” rider Sisi He said. “In a way, it kind of restored my faith in humanity.”

So far this year, the organization has raised over $60,000. It hopes to reach $80,000 by the end of the summer.

Some of the money will go to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, patient support services like American Cancer Society Hope Lodges and the Prairie Dragon Paddlers, a group of breast cancer survivors who participate in dragon boat races throughout the Midwest.

The riders motivate themselves throughout their journey by remembering loved ones who have been affected by cancer. Every morning, they will dedicate their ride to someone who has been affected.

This year, Rotter is riding for one of his professors, Dr. David Zola, who passed away from cancer in the fall.

He said she is riding for one of her mentors, Dr. Ann Nardulli, a University professor who died from cancer last summer and for Cheryl Merkel, a person from the C-U community who became part of He’s extended family when she first moved to the U.S. for school. Merkel died from cancer early this year.

He is a doctoral student studying Molecular and Integrative Physiology. Another reason she wanted to embark on the cross-country bike ride is to remind herself about the bigger picture of her research by getting to meet people throughout the country who have been affected by cancer.

“I don’t really see patients on a daily basis, so I’m really sheltered from what it actually is,” He said. “For me, it’s a way that I regain my motivation, why it is important that I’m doing this.”

He said she hopes to incorporate what she learns from these interactions with cancer patients into her research.

The Illini 4000 riders all first met in September. Throughout the school year, the members got to know each other through attending team meetings and training. However, the physically and mentally draining cross-country journey these riders face together over the summer has made them closer in their relationships.

“I’m almost getting to the point that I can hear the sound of a person snoring and tell who that is,” He said.

The bike route across America is a little different every year, Rotter said. Unlike last year, the route goes more north into states like Montana, Washington, South Dakota and Minnesota.

“You’re traveling across America. It really feels very freeing, and you see a lot of different communities. You see the country,” Rotter said. “It feels great to be moving every day and not stay in the same place.”

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