Illini 4000 prepares to bike across the country

Illini 4000 members will bike through 13 states on their 4,519.1 mile journey starting May 23.

By Brittney Nadler

They end at the Golden Gate Bridge, weave past accident-prone casual bikers, and glide down one final hill before reuniting with their families on a beach after 73 days apart.

They are Illini 4000, a registered nonprofit and Registered Student Organization that raises money for cancer research, patient support and services through annual bike rides each summer.

On May 23, 28 students will embark on a 4,519.1 mile journey from New York City to San Francisco. But between getting lost, changing the course for safety reasons and going off path to see spectacles, the mileage can vary.

They begin by recruiting at the start of the school year, and by early October, the team is finalized. Each potential member goes through an informal interview before they’re selected.

Then, the training begins.

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“(The first day of training) is funny because usually the team barely knows each other. They’ve maybe been to one or two meetings together,” said Kenny Shaevel, director of marketing and senior in Engineering and LAS, who rode in 2012 because his father was a cancer survivor. “They get to know their teammates as they do push-ups together.”

The team begins by meeting twice a week at the Activities and Recreation Center on Saturday mornings and once in smaller groups throughout the week, Shaevel said. They jog, run and cross-train.

After spring break, the biking begins. They bike in and around Champaign County and always begin at the Armory.

“On Saturdays, we do a big team bike ride, and they get longer, so our first one is 30 miles, the next one is 45, and they go up by 15 miles up to 90,” Shaevel said. “During the week, we do 20 to 25 mile rides in smaller groups.”

Since it began in 2007, 198 students (including this year’s team) have ridden and raised more than $800,000. Each member is required to raise at least $3,500 throughout the year. This year’s group has already raised more than $85,000.

After a year of preparation, their journey begins in New York City. Josh Weisberg, director of logistics and sophomore in Engineering who rode in 2012, describes the first day as the toughest.

“They’ll have 80 miles and about 4,500 feet of climbing, which is pretty significant, and that’s from going up Manhattan,” Weisberg said. “It makes Illinois look super flat, but it’s nothing compared to the West, where they’ll be climbing mountains.”

Weisberg is in charge of routing the trip and explained that there are many unexpected difficulties, such as last year’s wildfires. Currently, Weisberg said one of their intended routes is blocked and they are “out of reroutes,” meaning all nearby alternatives have also been deemed unsafe.

The group will bike an average of 71.9 miles per day for seven hours a day. They will pass through forests in Colorado and climb mountains that don’t flatten or go downhill. They’ll also pass through deserts and the hole-filled roads of California, which Weisberg described as Swiss cheese-like.

Preparing for hills is difficult in Champaign, where there are hardly any slopes to practice on, said Tory Cross, president and senior in LAS, who rode in 2012. Shaevel said he used parking garage inclines to prepare for his ride.

Come rain or shine, Illini 4000 bikes through all conditions unless there is a safety threat, like lightning.

Illini 4000’s trip allows them to cross paths with dozens of people across the country who have also been affected by cancer. They document these experiences through a project called The Portraits Project and typically collect between 40 to 60 stories each summer, Cross said.

Cross recalled a couple she met in Minnesota during her ride in 2012. Tracy Shaw and her husband, owners of a gas station, asked what the team was doing and read their jerseys. Tracy broke down in tears and went into the back of the store.

“Her husband came back and explained their son had passed away from prostate cancer when he was four, which is extremely rare,” Cross said. “So it’s things like that where we stop and we just talk to people and people start talking to us.”

Sarah Halko, senior in LAS, will be riding this summer. When Halko was in eighth grade, her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, but it was detected early. He is now in remission.

Her grandmother is the one who continues to push her to ride. She passed away over winter break and never had cancer but was touched by the cause and what her granddaughter was trying to do, Halko explained.

“Even when a lot of people were saying, ‘Can you do this? It’s going to be hard,’ right away she said, ‘You can do this. It’s going to be a great thing,’” Halko said.

When the 73rd day hits and riders return to their everyday lives, riders like Shaevel remember what inspired them.

“I’ve never really been super athletic, and I’ve always hated the outdoors, but what attracted me to Illini 4000 was that it worked for a cause I was really passionate about,” Shaevel said.

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