World’s longest annual charity bike ride cruises through Prairie du Chien
By Correne Martin
Just like cancer patients have days where they may struggle to keep going, so do the bicyclists on the Texas 4,000 summer charity ride from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska, who passed through Prairie du Chien last week.
“That’s been our analogy for the trip, said Neha Ali, one of the riders. “Whenever we have a rough day and we feel like we can’t go any more, we think about people who are fighting cancer and how they have to be positive to make it past the difficult times.”
Twenty-seven riders made their way through Prairie du Chien Friday as part of the longest annual charity bike ride in the world. A total of 79 cyclists—all University of Texas (UT) students—have committed to the 4,000-mile journey in this 11th year, on three separate routes: Sierra, Rockies and Ozarks.
The trio of routes is important “so there’s not such a big group of us together (on the roadways) and also to reach out to more communities with our mission, which is ‘Fighting Cancer Every Mile,’” said Ali, a biochemistry/pre-med major at UT.
Starting together at the University of Texas at Austin on May 31, the crew of 79 riders split on day two into the smaller Sierra, Rockies and Ozarks teams. The Ozarks blaze a trail through East Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota before crossing the border into Canada and crossing the provinces and territories of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon.
“Our last day in America will be, fittingly, July 4,” Ali stated. “We have moments throughout the ride where we look back at where we’ve been and it’s so surreal. I can’t believe we’ve already ridden to Wisconsin. I didn’t know any state could be so green and so pretty.”
About a third of the way toward their goal, the riders traveled from Madison to camp at Wyalusing State Park near Bagley on Thursday night, after a 105-mile day. In Montfort, Tower Junction provided them a free lunch and Rural Route 1 Popcorn gave them dozens of pounds of popcorn. They also took in over $120 in personal donations at area rest stops on Thursday.
For their last few miles coming into Wyalusing, several of the cyclists sped into the area at about 17 miles per hour. Then, on Friday, they hit the road again for the 70-mile trek to La Crosse. They will pass through Rochester and Minneapolis after that before heading toward the Canadian border.
“We’re looking forward to crossing the Canadian border. That’s when I think it will really sink in for us,” Ali said.
The Ozarks pack expects to reunite with its teammates in Canada to ride the last nine days together into Anchorage on Aug. 8.
According to Texas4000.org, the Texas 4000 is a competitively-selective 18-month program designed to cultivate the next generation to lead the fight against cancer. The program empowers each student to raise $4,500, ride 1,500 training miles with his or her team, volunteer more than 50 hours in the community and play an active role in planning every aspect of the ride to Alaska by attending weekly meetings and taking leadership positions within the team.
“We applied in September of 2012,” explained Alex Patlan, fellow cyclist and deaf education major at UT. “Out of over 300, only 100 were picked.” Then, after some dropped out due to injuries or other commitments, the group was narrowed to 79.
“In January of 2013, we started meeting every week and doing a lot of training,” he added. “Eventually we worked up to a test of 100 miles in 10 hours. Our bodies just become machines.”
“Your body gets used to the cycling. We have special creams and ways of massaging our legs that help,” noted Becca Hoffman, another rider and UT public relations major.
Believe it or not, previous cycling experience is not a requirement for the challenge. The fundraising, training and volunteering all take place before the summer ride even begins.
“I actually just learned how to ride a bike on Feb. 1 of this year,” Ali said. “We’re definitely not all professional cyclists.”
“That’s what is so great about the Texas 4000. It’s all about our mission, not our level of fitness,” Patlan stated.
The riders arrange all accommodations in advance during the training year. They rely on the generosity of host families, churches, rec centers and schools for shelter and are prepared to camp when housing is not available. Riders also provide their own support, rotating through the duties of driving the support vehicles, setting up rest stops, securing food donations on the fly and preparing meals that are not provided.
“We have been so amazed at the generosity of people across this wonderful country,” Ali said. “The food donations are really nice for us to get a break from PB&J.”
Locally, Bird Skemp at Huckleberry’s Restaurant donated turkey and vegetarian wraps, fresh fruit and cookies to the Texas 4000 as well as fried cheese curds—a first for most of the riders. She also worked with the Prairie du Chien Rotary Club, which contributed a $50 gas card to the effort.
“When I first got an email from [Neha Ali] about this, I wondered if it was legitimate. Once I got checking into it more, I knew we wanted to help,” Skemp said. “We do all kinds of fundraisers and I’m so happy we’re able to support these kids. They’re so uplifting and an inspiration. They just made my day.”
The group that passed through Prairie du Chien had two 12-seater vans and a small car. The support vehicles carried the food, equipment and other extras needed along the trip.
Messages of prevention and early detection are shared through educational programs given by riders in the many towns they ride through. These programs often begin powerful conversations and allow individuals to share how cancer has affected their lives. Community members can also sign the team’s dedication banner, which the riders carry on their journey to Alaska in memory or honor of that individual’s fight. Skemp hopes to continue following along with this year’s riders online and would like to even host a community Texas 4000 rally in 2015.
Wherever they are along their way, the riders begin each day with breakfast, packing and then gathering in a circle to reflect on their shared mission to fight cancer. Everyone shares ride dedications for the day. They usually leave for the day’s travels around 7 a.m. and finish around 5 or 6 p.m.
Texas 4000 awards grants to organizations with a focus on cancer research or cancer support services. Examples include the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Livestrong Foundation, University of Texas at Austin Department of Biomedical Engineering and others. In the beginning, the team’s goal was to raise $500,000. They have surpassed that with $580,000 currently and hope to push the total to $600,000 by the end of the 70 days. If they do, Texas 4000 will have raised over $4.5 million for cancer research in 11 years.
After the 2014 Texas 4000 crew finishes its trek in Anchorage, some will fly home, while others will ride back in the support vehicles. In Texas, their journey will culminate with a formal Tribute Gala and distribution of their donations.
To find out how you can help the Texas 4000 team or to follow along with the riders, visit Texas4000.org.