UI cyclists go extra mile

After six inches of snow on a Saturday morning, two dozen or so students are pedaling away on stationary bikes, envisioning a 4,500-mile ride from New York City to San Francisco that will vie for the longest charity bike ride in the nation. At more than double the distance of the Tour de France, the mere thought is daunting.

“Daunting as hell is an understatement,” said Eamon O’Hara, junior in LAS and a member of the Illini 4000 participating in his first cross-country ride beginning May 24.

The Illini 4000 for Cancer, entering its fourth year, is a nonprofit organization composed of UI students devoting their summers to the coast-to-coast journey and devoting themselves to supporting cancer research.

“Cancer affects everyone,” said the organization’s president, Conor Canaday, junior in LAS. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, what ethnicity you’re from, or what you eat, you can still be affected by cancer.”

Canaday, one of a handful of the group’s 30 members who has completed the journey in the past, devotes his campaign to finding a cure for the disease that took his grandfather’s life last year.

“Shortly before I signed up for the Illini 4000, my grandfather was diagnosed with throat cancer. I knew that the battle he was about to face was going to be much harder than what I could expect, so I found myself thinking about that as I trained for the ride,” Canaday said.

Canaday’s grandfather died just before the team left for the journey that Candady would personally dedicate to his grandfather’s memory.

In this way, the Illini 4000 keeps its goal in perspective; the ride is secondary to the cause. A central part of the organization’s mission is the Portraits Project, in which the group collects the stories of Americans along its route who have been afflicted with cancer.

“It is a crucial part of our campaign to raise awareness of cancer and we intend to share these stories in an engaging and thoughtful way,” said Sean Laude, senior in Engineering and the group’s senior adviser.

The team does not stop at raising awareness — they also raise a lot of money. With about three months left before their departure from Central Park, the riders have raised about half of their targeted amount, $100,000.

“We’re on track to break all ‘I4k’ records for fundraising,” Canaday said. “That’s a testament to the kind of team we have this year.” Members of the Illini 4000 are expected to raise $3,000 each in order to take part in the ride, and the group has benefited from the largesse of corporate sponsors, including That’s Rentertainment, VeloSpace.org, and W.E. O’Neil Construction. Canaday also stressed that the Illini 4000 has a totally unpaid staff, unlike many other philanthropic rides.

Though each rider makes an altruistic commitment, equally critical to the project is his or her physical commitment. Team workouts begin at the start of second semester and practice rides on real bikes do not begin until after spring break when the temperature warms up, but most riders have taken on their own personal training regimens.

“It really is a huge process and as much as I’m training five days a week, they made it clear to us that no matter how hard we train, we’re still not really going to be ready,” O’Hara said. He said riders who have completed the voyage in the past told him he shouldn’t expect to be really comfortable until the pack reaches the Midwest.

“By the time you reach Chicago, you are fit as hell and become just crazy enough to want to keep going,” Laude said. “In all seriousness, the day’s ride is broken up into units and riders are afforded the chance to stop, rest, and eat enough to meet their 6,000 calorie per day requirement.”

Yet, despite this temporary adoption of the Michael Phelps diet, some first time riders have fears about summoning enough energy to take on the rough terrain they will inevitably encounter.

“The hardest part for me is going to be riding through the mountains,” said Gabrielle Fairbairn, sophomore in ACES. “I think that’s going to be very mentally challenging.” O’Hara echoed Fairbairn in her concern about the psychological toll.

“I’m going into literally a vagabond lifestyle, sometimes not knowing where we’re going to be sleeping that night,” O’Hara said. Though the team schedules ahead to sleep in various recreation centers, churches, and homes of those willing to house the group, a certain degree of uncertainty further factors into the Illini 4000’s element of adventurism.

That said, during their ride the herd is followed by a support vehicle that carries some of the riders’ equipment and provides assistance in the case of emergencies. In the three expeditions that have taken place since the organization’s inception — except in the case of family emergencies — everyone has completed the ride.

Among the three previous rides, all beginning in New York City and finishing in San Diego, Seattle and Portland, respectively, this year’s route to San Francisco is the longest. “That’s about (another) day’s worth of riding, or if you divide that up by 72 days, that’s just a couple of miles a day,” Canaday said.

Of their many stops along the way, one that sticks out is Rochester, Minn., home to the Mayo Clinic.

“That’s kind of a big deal for us,” Canaday said. “We talk to physicians and researchers. It’s really awesome.” In previous years, the team had toured the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

As the team’s ambitions grow, so has interest in the organization. A selective application process is in place so the organization can keep its cap at 30 riders.

“There’s a lot to consider,” Canaday said, “How they work with the team, what their approach is to the organization, and what motivates them is a big thing for us.”

“We’re all doing this for selfless reasons,” O’Hara said. “We all have our personal reasons for why we want to do this.” A straight shot from New York to San Francisco comes to about 3,000 miles, but O’Hara noted the symbolism of riding beyond that.

“You have to be able to go and do that extra work if you really want to make that statement and really want to fight cancer,” O’Hara said. “Going that extra thousand miles shows our dedication and how much we’re willing to make that stand.”