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University of Illinois students who are cycling across the U.S. this summer for the Illini 4000 organization will ride into Champaign-Urbana today.

The student-run organization raises money for cancer research and patient support services with an annual ride from New York City to San Francisco. The cyclists started their journey on May 17 and are scheduled to ride into San Francisco on Aug. 3.

For Zane Inman, a rising sophomore from Paxton, the trip is a personal journey. Inman had just turned 16 when his father died from lung cancer.

"This has already changed my life significantly and I’m only 16 days into the ride," he said Sunday.

When Inman went to the first meeting for Illini 4000, he thought he was joining a casual cycling club.

Then the members of the group started a presentation on the cross-country trip.

"I didn’t even know this was a cross-country cycling club. This was not what I meant to sign up for," he said.

"Then they started talking about cancer fundraising. I felt I was put there for a reason."

Inman said his father loved riding bikes on short, casual rides with his kids.

But Inman has never been a serious cyclist.

"I went from a couch potato to a soon-to-be cross-country cyclist," he said.

"To be honest, I don’t even like cycling. it’s wildly inefficient, it’s expensive, it’s boring. I’m not doing this because I like biking. I don’t absolutely hate biking, but when I get back, I’m probably never going to touch my bike again."

In addition to supporting people affected by cancer, the good things include getting to know the other riders, who have formed a close-knit group.

"I’m surprised at how close I’ve gotten with my teammates just in these short two weeks. We’re constantly shooting the breeze, sharing things about ourselves. This is already my family," he said.

The team began indoor training last October, meeting twice a week to run or do other cardio workouts to stay fit.

They began biking in March, with a 20-mile ride during the week and a long ride on the weekend.

Their first long ride was 35 miles in temperatures in the 40s, wind and rain.

They built up from there to completing two 90-mile rides.

Inman took a three-week break from cycling for finals, before the team left Central Park in New York City on their first day for a 60-mile ride.

"That first day was definitely a shock for me. It was only 60 miles, but hills were very different around New York. Training in Illinois, you can’t really train for hills. That first day, I was dying. It was by far the most physically and mentally exhausting ride I’ve ever done. I was beaten down," Inman said.

But, he added, "we’re all getting stronger, so it’s getting easier in a way, but each day has its own unique challenges."

Inman has done service work before, including trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

But this trip is different, and not just because of its length and strenuous physical activity.

"It’s the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing something good. This is by far the most important work I’ve ever done," he said.

"Nothing matches this level of commitment and the effect we’re having on people."

Before their trip, the cyclists met with a scientist on the UI campus whose research is supported by one of the organizations for which the Illini 4000 raises money.

"Seeing this tangible research had an effect on me," Inman said.

"I’m actively helping. It’s a great feeling."

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.

Welcome to C-U:

What: Reception for the Illini 4000 riders

When: 4 to 6 p.m. today

Where: Alice Campbell Alumni Center, 601 S. Lincoln Ave., U.

Wait, there's more: Cyclists are invited to ride along with the Illini 4000 team as they leave C-U at 7 a.m. Thursday from the Campbell Center.

Photos: Top: Illini 4000 members Mark Backas and Zane Inman work to change a flat tire during their cross-country ride. Bottom: Zane Inman poses next to the city sign in Zanesville, Ohio. Provided by Illini 4000

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. Her email is jheckel@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on twitter (@jodiheckel).