Twenty-four college students who rode their bicycles out of Austin, Texas, earlier this month are scheduled to pedal into Palos Heights Saturday evening as they continue on a 4,500-mile trek to America’s Last Frontier.
The University of Texas students comprise the Ozark Route contingent of the Livestrong Texas 4000, a 4,500-mile bike ride from the capital of the Lone Star State to Anchorage, Aka. The cyclists hit the road June 1, and will upon hitting the Chicago area have completed roughly one-fifth of their journey, and are planning a two-day respite in the largest city through which they will pass along the way.
“It’s the only place we’re taking a two-day break,” said Tina Beigelbeck, a resident of Petaluma, Calif., the director of the Ozark Route team.
The team anticipates arriving in Palos Heights between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday after a 120-mile ride from Champaign. The students will be staying with Beigelbeck’s aunt, Palos Heights resident Ann Engelmann, who has planned taste of Chicago feast featuring deep-dish pizza, and Italian beef and sausage. Engelmann plans to meet the team in Gilmore and ride the 75 miles into Palos.
Beigelbeck is excited about coming to the Chicago area, where she spent a lot of time as a youth and which she considers a sort of second home. The extended stay in Chicago, where they will stay in a married couple’s apartment Sunday, will allow the riders to see the city from more than just their bicycle seats.
Chicago will serve as a sort of landmark for the group. The riders will have the chance to catch their collective breath and rest their bodies before heading into the next phase of the ride, which will include stops in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis before heading into Canada. The 3,500 miles between here and Anchorage will traverse two nations, some of North America’s highest mountains, and hundreds of miles of untouched wilderness inhabited by bears.
Beigelbeck and her fellow riders hit the trail June 1 boosted by adrenaline and the excitement of their journey finally being underway. The students had trained for 18 months, logging a minimum of 1,500 miles to get themselves into peak physical condition for the intercontinental excursion; but it did not take long for them to understand how grueling riding 4,600 miles in would actually be.
“I realized on Day 2 that nothing I could have done would have prepared me for this,” Beigelbeck said.
The students burn an estimated 10,000 daily while averaging between seven and 10 hours, and 75 and 85 miles each day, with the longest leg thus far being a 98-mile ascent into the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas. The cyclists, exhausted after battling the hilly terrain and climbing more than 1,000 feet, spent that night camping in a farmer’s field alongside goats and an electrified fence.
Beigelbeck referred to the opportunity to ride in the Texas 4000 as “a gift,” and said the experience is humbling, and demanding on the body and psyche. More than a few team members, including Beigelbeck, have cried on their bikes from the toll the challenge is placing on every aspect of their being, she acknowledged. Each participant rests once every 10 days, and can take a day off whenever necessary to rest or recuperate. Beigelbeck was resting Monday when she called from the team’s van.
“Today it’s my knees and yesterday it was my elbows,” she said of the physical aches and pains she has recently dealt with. “Riding a bike for seven to 10 hours every single day, it definitely takes a toll on your body.
“Emotionally, mentally, physically – it’s a metaphor for battling cancer,” she continued as she articulated just how exhausting of an endeavor the ride has been. “What you do when you hit rock bottom, that really defines you and your spirit.”
Through the struggle, Beigelbeck can feel her body growing stronger as it is hardened by the road; and while being drained physically and emotionally, the riders are refueling with the generosity of people who are complete strangers to most of them. The team has been staying each night with hosts – a farmer near Eureka Springs, Ark., a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Rolla -- who provide them a place to sleep and often feed them. Riders have also benefitted from the kindness of people they have met along the way.
“We’ve had people that just hand us $10 bills and say, ‘God bless,” she said.
Each Texas 4000 participant had to raise a minimum of $4,500 that will go toward cancer research, but the students have more to offer than just the donations they procure.
“What we have to offer is our youth and our bodies, to be able to do this ride across the continent,” Beigelbeck said.