A 4,800-mile tour: Bicyclers have raised more than $1 million for cancer research

RANTOUL — Sometimes they play My Cow. Other times it’s Hot Seat.

When a bicyclist is pedalling 4,800 miles — even if it’s for a good cause — the miles can get repetitious. And music and smart phones only go so far.

Twenty-seven students or recently graduated students from the University of Illinois are wending their way cross country toward the west coast.

On Thusday morning, the group took a break from their travels with a stop on North Maplewood Drive extended, north of Rantoul, having left a few hours earlier from the U of I. Their destination by day’s end — Kankakee.

By Aug. 4, the bikers will be rolling across San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, the end of a trip that started May 21 in New York City.

Trip co-leader Zack Zlevor said traipsing across the country on two wheels is kind of “like (seeing) the country’s back yard.”

There are plenty of fringe benefits to counter the aching muscles and endless miles such as a good tan, plenty of camaraderie and a chance to find America. But the Illini 4000 allows them something far greater than any of those. It’s a chance to help others.

In its 11th year, the ride has raised more than a million dollars for cancer research and support. Most, if not all, of the riders have someone affected by cancer. This year they have raised $100,000 to fight the disease.

Zlevor said the brother of a friend of his was a cancer victim — understandably changing his friend from a happy-go-lucky type to more of a somber person.

Zlevor said it also provided a “beautiful” glimpse at how the community supported the family.

After reaching Kankakee, the 27 pedaled to Chicago before heading to Madison, Wis., and then to Minneapolis, South Dakota, Mt. Rushmore, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Yellowstone Park before the ultimate destination of San Francisco.

The bicycle organization, all student-led, originally traveled 4,000 miles a year, hence the Illini 4000 name. The name was not changed when the group upped the ante by making the 4,800-mile cross-country trips.

“We ride in groups of three to five for safety reasons,” Zlevor said. “We talk to people (who have been affected by cancer) on the ride. Many survivors tell their stories, which becomes part of The Portraits Project — a profile  of cancer across America (portraitsproject.org) — designed to help the interviewees and others.

Along the way the riders stay overnight in the least-expensive places possible. They roll out their sleeping bags in churches, high schools and other venues that open up to the young people.

A van accompanies the riders, and the bikers take turns driving the van. About once a week, the riders take a day off.

A blog of each day’s trip is provided daily at illini4000.org.

Blogger Phil Kagebein wrote of his surprise at the beauty of New York state.

“Living in the suburban bubble of Illinois my whole life, all you hear about is Times Square and the rest of NYC,” Kagebein wrote. “Never about how beautiful riding along the Hudson River is, how breathtaking the mountains/hills are, how there are actual mountains and hills in New York, something which Illinois severely lacks.”

He said his favorite was Bear Mountain, which he described as a scene “straight out of Jurassic Park. My group (hummed) the theme song a lot that day.”

On June 4, the day when the riders reached their first 1,000-mile mark, blogger Maggie Benson wrote about the 100 miles the group rode between Columbus and Richmond, Ind.

Many of the riders spent the 20-mile intervals between rest stops talking or listening to music.

“By the time the team regrouped at the stayover together, all of us looked pretty defeated,” Benson wrote. “From sore bottoms to extreme hunger and tiredness, everyone seemed ready for a 10:00 bed time.”

Buoying the group’s spirits on June 6 was the promise of “the food, pool and showers” at the Rockville, Ind., stayover.

“We were extra motivated to finish (the day’s) ride as soon as we could,” Benson wrote. Conditions were ideal, in the 70s with only a slight wind.

Benson said the 18- to 23-year-olds turned into a group of middle schoolers when they were able to spend a few hours in a church community member’s backyard pool, followed by a three-course meal.

The following day the group looked forward to reaching the U of I campus.

“See ya tomorrow, Alma Mater,” Benson wrote.

Helping to pass the time were the games.

My Cow involves riders calling out dibs on the bovines. A rider may double his or her amount if a church is spotted. The cows of other players can be “killed” if a cemetery is spotted. And the cows can be saved from from the cemetery if a rider says “save cows” before other players do.

The Hot Seat game, meanwhile, consists of singling out one person in the group and having the other riders ask as many personal questions, which can be as intimate or silly, as they please.



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