Sunscreen, check. Energy bars, check. Spare bicycle tires and pump, check and check.
This weekend, 69 students from the University of Texas will roll out of Austin on bikes, ticking off the first miles in their 4,687-mile summer commute to Anchorage.
The trip marks the 10th edition of the Livestrong Texas 4000, which expands from two to three routes this year and adds 20 cyclists to its roster. Since its inception, the event has raised $4 million for cancer research and support services.
The cyclists will pedal away from the University of Texas campus on Friday. Saturday, the public is invited to join them on the first real leg of their journey, riding from Cedar Park to Lampasas in the Atlas Ride.
After that, the team will split into three groups. One will head west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and another will aim for the Rocky Mountains. For the first time this year, a third group will cut across the midsection of the country in the Ozarks route. The three groups will merge and ride the last 10 days into Alaska together.
“The goal was to increase the number of people who we could touch along the summer ride,” said program director Lance Pyburn. “In order to do that, we wanted to cover entirely new territory.”
The cyclists range in age from 19 to 30. They’ll pedal an average of 70 to 80 miles a day for 70 days, with a handful of rest days tossed in.
“Between getting up in the morning, doing their regular ride, taking care of (support and gear), interacting with their hosts and making sure they’re ready for the next day, it can be a very long day,” Pyburn said. “They tend to do it all with smiles on their faces because they’re all riding for very specific reasons. It’s definitely not a summer vacation.”
Bucky Ribbeck is one of two cancer survivors making this year’s trip. A high school baseball player, he was diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric bone cancer in 2009.
“Cancer took baseball away from me, and that was a huge part of my life,” he said. “I put the time and effort I used to give to baseball into fighting cancer. That’s why most of what I do now is focused on fighting back. Texas 4000 is just another amazing way of fighting back and showing people who have cancer that people care; we’re trying to make a difference.”
Along the way the cyclists will slather on more than 4 gallons of sunscreen, slurp up more than 700 gallons of sports drinks, eat more than 5,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 10,000 energy bars and change an average of five flat tires a day. They’ll face cramping muscles, rain, wind, snow, heat and hills, too.
“As we get closer, excitement about the ride turns into a little bit of nerves,” Ribbeck said. “There are a lot of risks and hazards we’ll meet along the route. We’ve been having training on how to deal with bears if you’re approached and trying to nail into everyone’s head safety on the road.”
Despite the challenges, more than 260 students applied to participate and about 90 were selected. A few dropped out for personal reasons. To prepare, they had to log 1,500 training miles with their team, complete a hilly 100-mile ride in 10 hours or less, and attend skills clinics and a training camp.
“A lot of them hadn’t even been on a bike before,” Pyburn said.
Each rider also must raise a minimum of $4,500 and complete at least 50 hours of volunteer work to join the ride, which is more than twice as long as the Tour de France. Along the way, they’ll camp, stay with host families and sleep on floors in churches and school gymnasiums. They’ll also lead educational programs in the communities they visit. Each morning, the cyclists will gather in a circle and dedicate that day’s ride to someone facing cancer.
“They train for the ride, they plan the ride and they go out and do an almost impossible task, all because they want to let people know they’re here for them in the fight against cancer,” Pyburn said.
Organizers say the Texas 4000 also serves as an 18-month leadership development program for the students who participate. “In addition to raising money for cancer research, we’re also developing the next generation of cancer fighters,” said Jen Garza, executive director of Texas 4000.
If you go
To sign up for the Atlas Ride on Saturday, go to www.texas4000.org/atlas/register. Registration is $60 ($70 after May 30) and includes entry into the ride and a finish party with barbecue, drinks and live music. Cyclists choose from 25-, 50- or 70-mile options.