After traveling 1,300 miles with just a few inches of rubber between themselves and the sometimes scorching road, a group of college students pedaled into Palos Heights last month roughly one-quarter of the way to their final destination.
The riders on the Ozark Route of the Livestrong Texas 4000 for Cancer passed through the Chicago area beginning with the cyclists’ arrival in the southwest suburbs on June 22. The 24 University of Texas students who embarked from Austin, Texas, on June 1 were in the area for a three-night stay, and the Second City served as sort of a landmark on the group's 4,600-mile trek to Anchorage, Alaska, in the name of raising money toward cancer research. Chicago is the largest city through which the students will travel, and while here they took the only two-day break scheduled during their journey, and had the opportunity to relax and explore the city.
The respite began after a ride from Champaign to Palos Heights, where the students stayed for a night at the home of Ann Engelmann, the aunt of Texas 4000 participant Tina Beigelbeck of Petaluma, Calif. The group arrived in Palos around 5:30 p.m., June 22, led by Engelmann, who is an avid cyclist and joined the group in Gilman to partake in the ride to her home. The contingent had planned for the longest single-day leg of the trek – 120 miles from Champaign to Palos – but the ride was interrupted by a passing squall that forced the group into vans for a more than 30-mile stretch.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Engelmann, who raised her arm in triumph as the group rode into the Ishnala subdivision from 131st Street. “Today was kind of an easy ride. Flat, nice roads, no issues other than the weather. They’re doing it for a good reason; so, yeah, it’s very cool.”
The students were each required to train for 18 months and raise at least $4,500 for cancer research before setting out for Alaska. The Ozark group plans to meet students riding the Texas 4000’s Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain routes in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in late July, and bike the last 10 days together to Anchorage. They were scheduled to ride through Minneapolis on Wednesday, cross the U.S.-Canadian border into Manitoba on Sunday, and arrive in Alaska’s largest city on Aug. 9.
Each student has his or her own reasons for riding in the Texas 4000. Beigelbeck is doing it in memory of her father, Tom, who died of a heart attack when she was 16. She and Engelmann, Tom’s sister, have always been close, and the bond between the two women has grown stronger since his death. Beigelbeck during her childhood spent significant time in Palos Heights, and the excitement of meeting up with her aunt and riding into the city enveloped her as she crossed a pedestrian bridge from St. Louis into Illinois on June 20.
“It was really cool being able to ride with my aunt,” she said. “It’s a very surreal feeling when you know you’re biking to Alaska, but then part of that bike ride is to the place where you spent your summers. It’s a very special day for so many reasons.”
Rene Castro of San Antonio was inspired to ride to Alaska by the experience of losing a friend to cancer when he was 13 years old. The ride can be grueling at times and weariness can set in when biking nearly 100 miles, he acknowledged, but his teammates and thinking of people fighting cancer or those who have lost loved ones to cancer motivate him to press on.
“We’ve met people on the way who have a story to tell about a family member who has cancer or may have died of cancer,” Castro said. “We think about those people, and when [riding] gets hard I think that it’s hard to go through [having] cancer. Someone with cancer would do anything to do what I’m doing, to feel what I’m feeling, even though it’s hard, because it’s life. The pain that I feel I can feel because I’m alive. I can be on the road thinking of that for those last two miles, and it’s all worth it. You have to think about those things.”
Castro had never visited Chicago before last week, and was looking forward to the two-day break and the chance to explore the city. He had allocated money specifically for traditional Chicago foods such as pizza and hot dog, he said.
Whatever challenges the students face on the 4,600-mile journey, the whole experience is one of learning and self-discovery, and “every day is a good day,” Castro said. He recalled one day riding 98 miles through the Ozark Mountains to Eureka Springs, Ark. The group spent that night in tents next to goats and an electric fence, in a field owned by a man who lives in a teepee.
“We look back on those days and we laugh about it. It’s fun,” Castro said. “I would do this again but only if I did it with this group of people. We mesh very well, and we all add something to the group. We’re all very, very close. We sleep together, we eat together… sometimes we shower together.”