UI cyclists stop in Urbana on their way to California

UI cyclists stop in Urbana on their way to California

URBANA – Cyclists who are a fourth of the way through their cross-country ride said Sunday the lengthy trek through Pennsylvania was the first shock of the trip.

"Pennsylvania was a problem – 400 miles of hills," said University of Illinois senior Nick Ludmer, who signed on for the Illini 4,000, a 4,000-mile bicycle ride to raise money for cancer research, with his roommate, Anish Thakkar, a key organizer. He's one of 18 participants, most UI students or alums, making the 65-day trek that will end Aug. 4 in San Diego.

"But we got over them," said Ludmer, who stopped with the group Sunday for a reception at the Campbell Alumni Center. "Now we have the Rockies to look forward to."

Thakkar, who graduated in May, said he and Jonathan Schlesinger, also a UI student, spent more than a year organizing the trip, which started May 25 in New York.

He said his work at UI laboratories sparked his interest in cancer research.

"Most of my work at the UI has been related to early detection," said Thakkar, who earned a degree in electrical engineering. "What I saw is there's not enough funding for research to be done. There are amazing things going on in laboratories, but projects live and die by their ability to secure grants."

He said he and Schlesinger started lining up students for the trip and earlier this year, everyone started working out on stationary bikes at Campus Rec Center East. After spring break, the cyclists moved outdoors to train for the trip.

"We encouraged everyone to bike 200 miles a week," Thakkar said. "This project requires a big time commitment."

Riders signed up sponsors, and they've been collecting money along the way. So far, they've collected about $40,000, and Thakkar expects the pot to grow. Some money will help the UI start its first Camp Kesem this summer, for children whose families are affected by cancer, and the rest will go to the American Cancer Society earmarked for research, he said.

"I'm amazed to see how we made an idea grow and how doing something like this can affect people in a positive way," Thakkar said.

He said riders are also interviewing people in the towns where they stop along the way who have been affected by cancer and taking their pictures for a display they will make and post at Provena Covenant Medical Center, a major trip sponsor. Other major sponsors include Champaign's That's Rentertainment and Hendrick House.

Allison Heim is recording the ups and downs, literally, on her blog, which focuses on food and hospitality, at www.allisonacrossamerica.blogspot.com.

She said one highlight was the end of a 160-mile day in the rain when she discovered cocoa was waiting for the riders. A day she'd rather forget was a 90-mile ride through the hills of Pennsylvania.

"I was crying," said Heim, who will next attend the University of Arizona to pursue a doctorate in marketing.

"I put emphasis on accomplishing goals," she said. "I care about making a difference."

Ludmer and Thakkar said the group carries camping gear but has only had to use it twice because churches and other organizations invite them to stay over, treat them to meals and donate to their cause. On rest days, leaders try to locate places in advance.

Ludmer said when the group ended up stranded one day in Hawley, Pa., a woman named Florence Brown invited everyone to stay at her brother's home, and Brown cooked pasta.

"The first day, we had a blowout on the support vehicle," he said. "The minister of a church knew a tire guy. The tire guy replaced it free and donated $400 to us. Total strangers have been incredibly generous. "

Junior Sean Laude said he's had nine flat tires on a bike he bought on eBay. He christened the bike in Lake Michigan and will do it again in San Diego.

"I'm looking forward to dipping my front wheel in Mission Bay," Laude said.

Ludmer also plans to end his journey with a splash.

"There's been a running gag that I'm crossing America on a Big Wheel," he said. "So at the end, I'm going to wear a cape, a leather pilot's hat and goggles and ride a Big Wheel off a pier in San Diego into the ocean. I have to live up to the gag."

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