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Riders Go Cross-Country for Cancer PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Tushar Rae   
Wednesday, 08 July 2009 05:38

Drew Wessels and Danny LeonardThe two men came to the cross-country bike ride in different ways.

For Danny Leonard, a cancer survivor in his late 60s, the idea for a second cross-country ride arose from a conversation he had two years ago while running on a treadmill next to a young man preparing for a marathon. As the men ran next to each other for almost two hours, the young man explained to Leonard that running the marathon would be his way to raise awareness for leukemia and lymphoma research. The conversation left Leonard wondering what he could do to advocate screening for and raise awareness about the disease he had battled -- non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He decided to place an advertisement on Craigslist looking for a Christian who was interested in riding across the United States to raise awareness of the importance of early detection.

For Drew Wessels, an Augustana College graduate and Bettendorf native in his early 20s who stumbled across the listing while looking for a job, it was an opportunity to honor the grandfather he lost to leukemia three years ago.

But for both men it was the right time for the ride. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Leonard being cancer-free, and of his first ride across the country. Wessels, whose summers were usually consumed by basketball or school, found himself with a rare free summer. "The one time I actually had the opportunity, that something like this came by is pretty neat," Wessels said. 2009 also marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

After a meeting in early December 2008 in South Carolina -- where Wessels had just completed his Masters in Business Administration at the Citadel and Leonard owns a music school -- they agreed to ride across the country to raise awareness about leukemia and lymphoma.

The initial plan for the ride had the men starting in San Diego on April 24 and finishing on June 6 outside Charleston, South Carolina, with stops in several major cities along the way. The men planned to ride close to 3,000 miles over 40 days and spend four days resting.

Wessels, who had never ridden long distances before, fell into a regime of riding a stationary bike and lifting weights to prepare for the ride. "How do you train to bike cross country?" he said. "I don't think there is enough you can do to train for it." A three-year starting guard on Augustana's basketball team, Wessels realized that all the knowledge he had gained through basketball would be useful as he conditioned for the long ride. "I knew how to read my body," he said, "whether I was pushing it too much or I wasn't pushing it enough."

Having already ridden across the country once, Leonard knew what he would need to do to prepare. But after a heart attack two years ago led to bypass surgery and left him with a quarter of a working heart, he also knew the second ride would be more physically challenging. Leonard recovered quickly from his heart attack and in six weeks was back on his feet and working out again. Six months before the ride, he was in a workout routine that included the gym and riding close to 100 miles a week.

But it did not take long for Leonard's health to affect the ride. On the first day, in the hills around San Diego, Leonard struggled, and was forced to a speed of four to five miles per hour.

Hills would continue to be a thorn in the men's sides. Wessels recalled a day halfway through the ride when a combination of steep hills and an unforgiving headwind slowed the men to a near standstill. "You had to peddle to keep going downhill," he said. "That is how bad the wind was."

That ride wore down Leonard enough that at the end of the day he was taken to the hospital as a precaution. Leonard's five-day stay in the hospital put the ride on hold and left Wessels in a state of uncertainty. "I was really nervous that he might not be able to ride," he said.

Wessels took the opportunity to drum up attention from the network-television affiliates in the El Paso region and to do some sightseeing.

About halfway through the ride, the men made two major changes to their plans: They moved the route of the ride away from major cities to avoid heavy traffic and decided to start raising money for cancer research. Their goal was to raise $30,000 by encouraging 1,000 people to donate $30 each. They have so far raised roughly $3,600, Leonard said.

The survival stories, as well the stories of those who didn't have long to live, are "probably [what] I will carry with me more than anything else," Leonard said. For him, the value of the trip comes from the people he has reached and the people who have reached him. "They help me so much," he said, "and make me realize how fortunate we are. And people who are healthy, how fortunate they are."

Leonard shared with those he met on the trip how religion helped him through his fight with cancer. "If you get a disease -- fight it," he said. "Never give up, never quit. And put all your faith in the Lord. That is what I did -- I didn't want to die ... . I got on my knees and cried out to God. I will never forget that. And he answered that."

Across the country, the men were received with generosity and hospitality, Leonard said. Several times they were given free rooms and found that strangers had paid for meals. "It is phenomenal," he said. "People are so good. All of the way across the country, people were so good to us." He recounted a situation when he and Wessels spoke with two men, one of whom shared that his mother was suffering from cancer, and as he spoke, he started to break down. Before the strangers left, they paid for the riders' meal and thanked them for their encouragement and support.

Wessels also found that meeting people trumped the other experiences of the ride. "Biking was a blast; it really was fun. But it was more of meeting people," he said. He remembers having two flat tires on an 80-mile ride, only to have the same Dish Network truck driver stop both times to help -- once to change a tire and the second time to offer a ride to the local gas station. By the second time he stopped to help, the driver had also alerted members of the local media.

During the ride, the men also found time to enjoy the lighter side of life. When their police escort shut down Highway 80 for close to 10 miles as they rode into Mississippi, the traffic jam created by the closure pushed the rush-hour traffic on a Friday evening almost right back into Louisiana, Leonard said.

"We received several middle fingers" Wessels said, as he chuckled. "People were furious, as I am sure I would have been."

By the end of the ride, the men had dipped their tires in two oceans -- the Pacific at San Diego, and the Atlantic at Folly Beach, South Carolina -- and ridden approximately 2,800 miles through nine states. The ride finished on June 13, lengthened by Leonard's stay in the hospital. As the men rode to Folly Beach, they were accompanied by a police escort and more than a dozen other riders.

Now that the ride is over, both men have gone back to their normal routines -- Leonard has returned to teaching music, and Wessels plans to continue his job search by sending out close to 400 résumés before the summer is over.

But Wessels also plans to return to the Midwest to ride in RAGBRAI as well as run the Bix 7. And if the chance arises and time permits, he plans to ride cross-country again in the next 10 years.

"I would have dipped my tires in the Atlantic Ocean and gone right back," Wessels said. "You have to be pretty competitive and willing to push yourself to bike across the United States. And a little bit crazy I think."

Wessels and Leonard received funds from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to make the journey possible. The bikes for the ride were donated by Schwinn.

For more information on the ride, visit DannysRide.org.


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