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Illini 4000 Trek Across America

For the second summer, a group of (mostly) University of Illinois students are bicycling across the United States to raise money for cancer research, as well as other causes. The Illini 4000 is making its way from New York City to Seattle, and they took time out in Urbana on Tuesday night for a reception at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center. They began their trek on May 23 in New York City, and had just passed the 1,000-mile mark on Monday, according to Matt Cillick, who will be a sophomore in Aerospace Engineering at U of I.

The idea for the Illini 4000 began in the spring of 2006, when Jonathan Schlesinger and Anish Thakkar were studying in Singapore and throwing around the idea of a cross-country bike trip. When they returned, according to ride co-leader Nicholas Ludmer, “they were talking in the kitchen, saying, ‘hey, what about that bike trip we talked about,’ and I was there in my boxers cooking macaroni and cheese,” and from that humble beginning, they put their plans into action. The 2007 ride went from New York from San Diego, and raised nearly $50,000 for the American Cancer Society Research Fund and Camp Kasem.

This year, Schlesinger and Ludmer are leading the group of 20 on a more northwesterly route, which allows them to “sample a different part of the country, and avoid the desert,” said Ludmer. They are scheduled to arrive in Seattle on August 2 after passing through Chicago, Madison, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, crossing the continental divide three times in Montana, and weaving up the Pacific Coast from Portland, Oregon. Ludmer added, “We jazzed up the route from last year, when we pretty much went straight west from New York. This year, we’re visiting more major cities, more urban environments.” The urban environments have resulted in the only traffic-related issues in the ride so far. “Amy [Swanson] got hit by someone’s mirror and fell off her bike” in New Jersey, Cillick noted. “Her wrist swelled up, but she’s doing ok now.”

The group, made up of twelve men and eight women, is averaging about 80 miles per day. They stay in churches, in alumni’s homes, or with whomever will put them up, trying to conserve the money spent so that more of the funds they raise go to the beneficiary organizations. Schlesinger commented, “Things are going extremely well. People have really rolled out the red carpet for us, giving us food, shelter and emotional support.” They have not had to camp thus far, but expect that to change as they move into the more sparsely-populated parts of the country.

They travel along with their support vehicle, a van donated for use on the trip by Mooney Chevrolet in DeKalb. “The van holds our gear, food and the bike of the person who’s driving,” said rider Ben Horns, who’s transferring to MICA (in Baltimore) from the U of I. They rotate drivers, which has sometimes been dictated by whose bike is in need of repairs that they can’t make on the road. Brad Topol and John Kolinski, recent U of I engineering graduates, are experienced mechanics and handle most of the wrenching duties. It sounded like most of the maintenance issues to this point had been minor, along the lines of blown tires and broken spokes.

As in any group, there are different levels of experience and fitness. The lead group averages about 15–16 miles per hour, depending on terrain, according to Kolinski. “We try to take a break every 20 miles or so,” he noted. Cillick added, “We stay in groups of at least three, and no more than six or seven.” A normal day sees them departing at 7:30 a.m. and arriving at their destination between 3 and 5 p.m.

Even though the Rocky Mountains are larger, the Appalachians are the more difficult for the riders. “Mentally, the Appalachians are the biggest barrier [for less experienced riders],” said Ludmer. “They are early in the trip, and it’s many people’s first experience with an incline. On our training rides, the only hills we ride are on the interstate overpasses.” The weather has also been more of an obstacle than expected. “We’ve had twice as many rainy days so far as there were all of last year,” said Cillick.

The three original organizers, Ludmer, Schlesinger, and Thakkar, had all been personally affected by cancer in their own families, and decided that cause would be the focus of their fundraising efforts. The Illini 4000 has raised more than $56,000 so far this year, but they are continuing to raise funds toward their goal of $75,000. Their website,, has more information on how you can help, as well as rider journals, photos and lots of other interesting information.

In other bicycle news:

Kids’ Bikes: If you’ve got any old, outgrown kids bikes sitting around in your garage, basement or wherever, The Bike Project could put them to use. They are working on several projects to repair bikes for kids for different causes, and the stocks of bikes are low. You can drop them off during open hours at the Independent Media Center (Sunday afternoons, and Wednesday and Thursday evenings) in Urbana (in the basement of the old post office at 202 S. Broadway), or arrange for a pickup. Also, they are always in need of bike donations of any size, shape, or condition, so keep that in mind as well.

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