For more than a dozen years, a group of college-age bicyclists riding coast to coast for cancer has selected Paonia as one of its stopovers. Last Thursday, the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults' 4K for Cancer bicycle tour arrived in Paonia just before dusk, where they were greeted by Pastor Steve Dunkel and several of his parishioners. As they had for the last 12 years, the exhausted cyclists were treated to a big supper and a place to rest.
The 20 riders, college students from throughout the country, are one of four teams cycling cross-country to raise funds and awareness for young adults affected by cancer. They started their 4,000-mile, 70-day trip by dipping their bicycle tires in the Atlantic Ocean at Baltimore, Md. The trip ends when they reach the Pacific Ocean at San Diego, Calif.
In between, they will touch more than a dozen states and meet many people along the way. To qualify for the ride, participants must obtain sponsorships and make a personal commitment to raise a minimum of $4,500 and collect donations along the ride, said Maine resident Glen Lumbert.
While one team member is a four-time cancer survivor, riders themselves don't have to be cancer survivors, said Lumbert. However, each must have been affected by cancer in a deep and personal way. Riders also dedicate their journey to someone they know whose life was affected by cancer, said Lumbert, who dedicated his trip to his grandparents, who are among many of his family members affected by the disease.
It's a bike trip, "But what we're actually here for is to support cancer patients," said Lumbert.
Since Johns Hopkins established the annual ride in 2001, 4K for Cancer has raised more than $2 million. Along the way riders raise awareness and support for cancer patients ages 18-35, with about 90 percent of money raised going directly to cancer patients between the ages of 18 and 35. Cancer is the leading disease killer among 20- to 39-year-olds, according to the Ulman Fund, and it's the least likely age range to have health insurance.
The entire trip is a gigantic undertaking, said Lumbert. Two support vans travel with the group. They cover between 8 and 100 miles per day. Some days are more challenging than others. The day before arriving in Paonia they reached the summit of 11,991-foot-high Loveland Pass, the highest point of their trip.
While it's physically tiring, the hardest part of the trip is the mental challenges, said Lumbert, which also gives them a sense of what it means to be survivors. On days when riders just don't want to get on their bike, they can remember the people for whom they ride and how hard it is for them, and realize they don't have it so bad. "Like cancer, you can't just say, 'Not today,' " he said. "You've got to get up and face it."
Along the way they also visit cancer centers and meet patients. They also award scholarships, and had recently presented one to Gunnar Eton, a star high school athlete diagnosed with Stage III testicular cancer at 17 who will play football at Kentucky this fall.
They sleep in community buildings and YMCAs, but churches are their biggest supporters. On Thursday, parishioners had dinner waiting, and Friday morning they arrived at the church at 5 a.m. to prepare breakfast and send the group on its way. They also gave them bags of cherries for their journey.
People are so generous, said Lumbert. "We get to see all the good in the world that people provide."
Riders try to get started before the heat takes over, but without fail they gather in a circle, say a prayer, and dedicate the coming day's ride to someone facing a tough challenge. On Friday, one rider dedicated the day to his mother, whose most recent brain scans revealed no more tumors. Some included church members in their dedication. The group as a whole dedicated its day to Anne Davis and Laura Stark, whose names were written on van windows. While riding with a group cycling from Virginia to Oregon with "Bike and Build," to raise awareness for affordable housing, they were struck three days earlier by a car near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Davis was killed and Stark was seriously injured.
Riders also write the names on their calf. That's the part of the body that tends to hurt the most, said Lumbert. "Then when we get tired, we think of that person," and of what they are going through, and realize their personal struggle to keep pedaling isn't so difficult after all.