Illini 4000 participants on last leg of cross-country bike ride to fight cancer


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Living off the land and putting in 90 miles Tuesday put Illinois bicyclists to the test in the quest to raise money for cancer.

In the Illini 4000, University of Illinois students and alums are riding to raise funds for cancer research and patient-support services.

They should be finishing Thursday in San Francisco.

Ryan Watkins, 19, of Bloomington, a freshman in the Gies College of Business studying finance, said he joined the effort because he has several family members who had cancer and wanted to be a part of the fight.

He said he has enjoyed the challenge — even on long, empty hauls.

Watkins is one of about 20 Illinois students alums in the ride, which began in New York City in May.

"We're at a Taco Bell in the middle of nowhere, California," he said during a brief rest stop 76 miles into the long day.

"But they do have cell service," said Maggie Piazzi, a sophomore in marketing from Libertyville.

Three years ago, her dad was diagnosed with carcinoma. He received a dual liver-kidney transplant, "and he's doing great," she said.

Rachel Curtis of Champaign is a senior in marketing and business management.

"I saw the Illinois 4000 at a volunteer event sophomore year, but didn't end up doing it until senior year. I've really enjoyed being outside," she said. "Nobody in my immediate family has cancer, but friends of the family and some other friends do."

This year's group has raised more than $110,000.

That means averaging 70 miles in five to nine hours a day from New York to California.

And 11 rest days in between.

You would think that Colorado or California would be the tests, but riders said bucking headwinds, especially in flatter states like Nebraska, took the most out of a lot of them.

Piazzi said desert California has an unusual effect.

"It's a hair-dryer," she said. Curtis agreed.

Living off the land? Wild blackberries by the side of the road.

Piazzi said the proof that she had showed good judgment was that everyone who ate them was still alive.

"I Googled them; there was nothing that looked like them that was poisonous," she said.

"And they were delicious," she added.

The Illini 4000 supports cancer research and support nationally and locally.

Groups they are supporting include the American Cancer Society, Camp Kesem, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the Ishan Gala Foundation, the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, TLC Camp and UI researcher Brendan Harley.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).