Texas 4000: Students Bike Cross-Country for a Cause
The last time Tonya Chen owned a bike was when she was in elementary school. Now, the recent University of Texas graduate is biking from Austin, TX to Anchorage, AK as part of Texas 4000 for Cancer, the longest annual charity bike race in the world.
“At first it was a little hard,” Tonya said during her rest day in New Orleans, Day 10 of the 70-day journey. “I’d always forget to clip out, and I’d fall on my side, but it was quick to learn how to balance. After those few initial falls, I got the hang of it.”
Tonya, who graduated from Bellaire High School in 2015, is one of 83 UT at Austin student cyclists participating in this year’s ride, which kicked off on May 31 and ends on Aug. 9. But Texas 4000 is more than a bike ride. The UT program runs for 18 months and involves a competitive application process with essays and interviews. If selected, students must commit to three semesters of a program that includes volunteering more than 50 hours in their community, completing 2,000 training miles and planning all aspects of the summer ride – from finding hosts to stay with, to fundraising a minimum of $4500 per person, to seeking sponsors. Remarkably, cycling experience is not a requirement for participation – in fact, some of this year’s riders had never been on a bike before.
As a novice cyclist herself, Tonya was initially unsure of whether she’d be up for the physical and emotional challenge of biking across the country, averaging about 80 to 100 miles per day. When Tonya first heard about the program during her freshman year of college, she “thought it was crazy.” She recalls meeting a Texas 4000 participant during her first week as a student in UT’s McCombs School of Business. She asked him, “Is that even possible?”
“I really respected him for it,” Tonya said. “Even though I believed in the cause, I didn’t have that push back then.”
A personal connection gave Tonya that extra push. She was already closely familiar with the fight against cancer – she had grown up proudly watching her father, Xinpu Chen, work on cancer research in Houston’s medical center. But it was when a close family member was diagnosed with cancer during her junior year of college that she decided to apply. Watching an individual battle the disease inspired her to give back however she could.
And through several months of training, Tonya became more comfortable on the bike and ready for the journey. She and the other newer riders were often supported by more avid cyclists on the team, including Caroline Bik, a participant who is also from Houston. Caroline had been a cyclist for nine years and had participated in six BPMS 150 races prior to applying to Texas 4000. She says she’s enjoyed the process of mentoring newer riders.
“It’s really cool to watch people grow as cyclists,” said Caroline, who graduated from Westchester Academy for International Studies and is now working on a degree Aerospace Engineering. “Being able to help and coach people along the way has been a very rewarding experience.”
Caroline and Tonya are both among the 27 riders on the Ozark Route, one of the three different routes Texas 4000 participants can select. The Ozark Route goes through East Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota before crossing into Canada where, on Day 60, the Ozark riders will convene with riders on the other two routes – Sierra and Rockies.
Along the way, the riders stop at hospitals and community centers, donating funds for cancer research and sharing a message of hope with those impacted by cancer. So far, Caroline and Tonya both said the best part of the trip has been the people they’ve met along the way.
“People are so willing to open up their lives to you,” Caroline said on Day 15, after arriving in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “Yesterday, we stopped at a McDonald’s to get some ice water. The manager told us about her son battling cancer. People are just very open and kind when they hear about what we’re doing.”
Each morning, before they start their ride, the riders say a “dedication,” indicating who they are riding for that day. Caroline said they dedicated their Day 15 ride to the McDonald’s manager after hearing about her son’s story.
At each stop, riders stay with hosts, who range from school and churches to individual families with rooms to spare.
“Meeting people and hearing their stories and why they decided to open their hearts to us is really inspiring,” Tonya said. “We have hosts who give us their beds and feed us in the morning. Having that network really grounds people.”
Continue following Tonya and Caroline’s journey to Alaska here.
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