Riders’ trek takes on cancer

FAIRMONT – Thirty-one days ago, a group of 22 college students from the University of Illinois set out from New York’s Central Park intent on riding across America.

The team has pedaled through downtowns, industrial parks, small towns and countryside.

On Monday, they stopped in Fairmont on their way to Jackson.?They will continue their tour of the country until they reach San Francisco – 4,188 miles from where they began.

The students are raising funds for various cancer research organizations, including the American Cancer Society and Camp Kesem, for children of parents fighting cancer.

The group is a non-profit called “Illini 4000,” and has taken the ride every year for seven years. Money raised from a previous ride established a Camp Kesem chapter at the university.

Chapter president Gregory Colten said most of the riders have personal stories relating to cancer, inspiring their ride.

“For me, it was my dad, who died of brain cancer,” Colten said. “This is a fight. There is room for more efforts. I can’t fight cancer; I am studying physics. So this is a way I can contribute.”

Many of the riders weren’t cyclists when the group began training in October. So they studied basic bicycle maintenance, road safety and handling various traffic conditions.

As they go, they talk to people they meet about cancer, and collect stories in video interviews about how it has affected lives. Those interviews will be shared online and on campus.

The group accepts donations for its cause, along with contributions of food and shelter.

“We crash on the floors of churches,” Colten said. “Any money we save by having food donated or a floor to crash on is more money for research.”

A board of directors, also students, calls ahead to arrange accommodations for the cyclists, keeping the group on a steady pace.

So far, the riders have not had any trouble on their journey. The weather has been mild, and they have not had to ride through severe weather. Injuries have been held to a minimum, with only a few stitches required.

Many people along the route -?at bike shops and convenience stores – recognize the group from previous years.

Larry Vogel, owner of The Bicycle Shoppe in Fairmont, remembered past groups and greeted the cyclists with familiarity.

“He said, “Oh, you are here from Illinois,’ and welcomed us in,” Colten said.

The students rested at the shop before Vogel took them out for tacos and then sent them on their way.

The group has raised nearly $110,000 at this point, nearly halfway through its ride. The riders expect to get to San Francisco on July 31, 69 days after leaving New York City.

To donate to the cause or read the group’s blog, visit www.illini4000.org