The University of Texas

Alaska Bound: Students bike 4,500 miles across continent
to raise money and awareness in the fight against cancer

Shelley Vinyard was in her second week as a freshman student at The University of Texas at Austin when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It came as a shock to Vinyard and her family, who banded together to support her mother through surgery, chemotherapy and daily radiation treatments.

Vinyard’s mother survived the cancer, and the experience gave Vinyard a new perspective on what she wanted to do with her life.

“I’m so thankful that my mother’s still with me,” says Vinyard, who just completed her third year majoring in sociology and psychology, “and the experience made me realize I want to help other people with cancer and give them the support my family was given.”

This summer, she’ll do just that, and she’ll do it from the seat of a bicycle.

Vinyard is one of 45 cyclists riding from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska, with the Sense Corp Texas 4000 for Cancer, the longest annual charity bike ride in the world. Now in its fourth year, this student organization has raised about $800,000 for the American Cancer Society and has spread information about cancer prevention in tiny towns like Shonto, Ariz., and Penny, British Columbia, and major cities like Denver and Seattle.

Leaving from Austin on June 2, the cyclists will take two routes across the continent—one through the Rockies and the other up the Pacific coast. They’ll average 75 miles a day over 70 days, riding six to 12 hours a day.

People across the western half of North America may see these intrepid cyclists zipping by, wearing their jerseys blazoned with burnt orange. They may interact with them too. The ride is only one part of the Texas 4000 mission. Education is the other.

“A huge part of what we do is present a program in the cities and towns we stop in,” says Daniel Kietzer, a third-year student in anthropology and this year’s ride director. “Every night we try to give a presentation on cancer prevention, be it at a church congregation or someone’s place of employment. Sometimes it turns into every night and every morning before we leave.”

Cyclists also visit children’s cancer wards at hospitals, meet with cancer experts, keep blogs, snap photos and talk to local media. They sleep in tents with host families or organizations, and they’re up every morning at 5 a.m.

If it sounds grueling, it is. And yet if you talk to any one of this year’s Texas 4000 participants, they’ll tell you they couldn’t wait to get in the saddle.

That’s how Chris Condit felt when he founded the organization in 2003. Then an undergraduate student in the College of Engineering, Condit got the idea for a charity bike ride while vacationing with his family in San Francisco. There he saw a minivan with bicycles on top and discovered the cyclists had ridden from Maryland to California to support cancer research.

His curiosity was piqued.

Condit is a cancer survivor, having undergone a year of chemotherapy and radiation to fight Hodgkins lymphoma when he was only 11. He recovered, but he never forgot the other children who were fighting cancer with him, many of whom were far more ill.

“There were so many kids who weren’t getting better, and it was just wrenching,” Condit says. “That was when I had it in my heart that I was going to do something. But I had no idea how it was going to play out.”

It played out in the creation of Texas 4000, modeled in part on the Hopkins 4000, the ride from Maryland to California that Condit had encountered, and inspired by seeing fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong win his fifth Tour de France in 2003.

Since coast-to-coast wasn’t an obvious option from Texas and Condit wanted the ride to be unique, he had to create an alternative route.

“I thought, ‘What’s the farthest place I can get from Austin, Texas?’” he says. “I looked at a map and there, Anchorage, Alaska, was as far as we could go.”

Anchorage turned out to be 4,500 miles away, making Texas 4000 the longest charity ride in the world, and one of the longest bike tours in existence.

That first year, Condit wasn’t so sure people wouldn’t consider his idea crazy. To his surprise, 120 people applied for just 42 spots on the Texas 4000 team.

Participants, most of whom are students at the university, are chosen by application. The majority have had a direct experience with cancer, whether having survived it themselves, witnessed friends and family fighting it, or lost loved ones to it. Their commitment to and enthusiasm for the cause is the most important part of their application.

Once accepted, participants must raise $4,000 for cancer research, ride 1,000 miles in training and complete a 100-mile ride before the departure date. Twice-weekly training sessions help prepare them for the summer.

Sometimes that means surviving training disasters. Like a number of her teammates, Vinyard hadn’t been on a bicycle since she was a kid. Her early training was exhilarating.

“I wondered why I hadn’t done this in 10 years, because it’s incredible,” she says. “The feeling of the wind against your face and the experience of powering yourself up to 50 miles per hour is so exciting.”

That was until February, when on a training ride Vinyard rode too close to a teammate and caused a three-way accident in which she fractured her elbow and broke her nose. She ended up with blackened eyes and a cast, but as soon as she could, she was back on the bike.

Her determination, like those of her teammates who get back in the saddle after injuries or long days of blistering weather or rainstorms or muscle fatigue, comes from never forgetting the real purpose of the ride. Cyclists remember that no matter how arduous the journey in front of them, it’s not as hard as battling cancer.

Daily ride dedications keep this at the forefront. Every morning each group gathers to share the names of those they ride for. The cyclists dedicate their ride to a different person each day, perhaps a relative fighting cancer, perhaps in memory of a friend lost to cancer, perhaps to honor someone they’ve never met but whose story they’ve heard.

For Lily Gross, who completed the ride in 2006, the ride dedications were the key element of the day. Gross is a fourth-generation cancer survivor, herself surviving retinoblastoma, a rare childhood cancer of the eye, as an infant.

“The ride dedications are your entire motivation for the day,” Gross says. “Amid all the chaos of getting ready to ride, the group comes together and you talk about why you’re riding, why you’re about to do this crazy thing. It’s very grounding. You ride for the person whose name you give.”

While the miles are daunting and the schedule intense, participants say the Texas 4000 offers them experiences they’d never have otherwise. They get to lie down in the middle of the loneliest highway in the world in Nevada and cycle past bison in Wyoming, explore Glacier National Park, straddle the Great Divide in cycling shoes and coast beside the Pacific with the Golden Gate Bridge rising ahead.

You can’t cycle 4,500 miles and not return changed by the ride.

“I’ve taken away a million lessons, from administrative to athletic, but the thing that keeps coming back to me is the passion,” Gross says. “Be passionate about something, whether fostering dogs or helping out neighbors or working with an organization like Texas 4000.”

For founder Condit, who is now married and a graduate student in biomedical engineering who hopes to work on cancer research, seeing the Texas 4000 go on without him is rewarding. He hopes more universities will create their own charity rides.

Reflecting on his own ride three years ago, he knows that like every other participant, the ride from Austin to Anchorage was just the beginning of a journey.

“Going on the ride symbolizes a first step in fighting cancer. It’s making a big statement that we’re going to work to change things,” Condit says. “This is the first thing we’re going to do in a lifetime of fighting cancer.”

Students interested in applying for the 2008 Texas 4000 for Cancer ride can download an application (Word).