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Everywhere Clare Crotty and her friends go lately, they are turning heads.
“We kind of make a scene,” Crotty said. “It’s a group of college students with dirty cycling gear.”
Crotty, a senior advertising student from Orland Park, is one of 83 students from the University of Texas at Austin split among three routes that all started at their collegiate home base on June 1 with a plan to finish 70 days later in Anchorage, Alaska, as part of the effort to “engage communities in the fight against cancer” known as the Texas 4000.
That they draw so much attention is kind of the point. The riders – split into three groups to maximize coverage of the country – spend some time in big cities but they also take to the back roads and two-lane highways, giving them an opportunity to meet some of those heads they turn. They share their mission, hear stories, and raise both awareness and funding for the fight against cancer.
And that is particularly important on Crotty’s “Ozarks” route of the 4000, as a stretch of the South into the Midwest is known as the “cancer belt” – as Crotty put it, “the most cancer-stricken stretch of the country.”
Along the way, Crotty is riding in honor of “the strongest women I’ve ever gotten the chance to know” – a too-long list of friends and relatives who are either battling or have succumbed to cancer. Among them is the late Ashley Gustafik, of Orland Park, a family friend who died at age 16 following a long battle with leukemia.
With Ashley at the forefront of her mind during the ride and family waiting to host the Ozarks bikers in grand fashion, Crotty said she is looking forward to a ride back into Orland Park the evening of Friday, June 28. But getting there has been more than a walk in the park, and there is still plenty of riding to do after the reprieve.
Emotions and the need for motivation can be high when one is riding, on average, 80-100 miles a day on a daunting schedule that runs through Aug. 9, with weather conditions always uncertain.
“We hit a lot of heat leaving Texas,” Crotty said, noting that had thankfully been the worst of the elemental woes on the early stretch of the trip. “Our route has been really lucky with
Crotty’s opportunity to stop back in Orland Park is a rare one. Many of the students at the university were Texas born and bred, so if anything they got to stop by their homes near the start of the ride but do not have an “Orland Park” on the horizon. Instead, they often must rely on each other for that extra kick to get through a day.
“Our teammates have been amazing,” Crotty said, in that regard. “It’s nice to rally together for a cause.”
They help lift each other, in part, by reminding themselves of their reasons for riding. Before every single ride, they get into a circle and talk about who they are honoring that day. Those ride dedications may be close, personal causes, such as Crotty’s aunts. But they also ride for people they meet along the way and sometimes get requests for a ride in someone else’s honor.
A big part of the Texas 4000 is raising money to further the cause. After the ride is over, money will go back to communities with which the team has interacted, into research and support grants, and to childhood cancer facilities. And in the interest of making sure the money being raised is maximized, Crotty said the group relies on donations for food.
They also have a clutch sponsorship from Clif Bar & Company. And host sites are secured for each stop, from families and churches to YMCA facilities, which Crotty said are “awesome, because we get to use their showers.”
But the money is not the only part of the mission.
“Even if people are unable to donate, we would still love to take their ride dedications and carry their stories with us to Alaska,” Crotty said.
Not for nothing, this is a group of college students who are getting to see a good swath of this country and soon Canada, as well. They have eaten jambalaya in the South, etouffee in particular in Louisiana. They got to see Graceland while in Memphis, and made a stop in St. Louis, all within half a month of leaving Austin.
“It’s way more fun than I expected it to be,” Crotty said of the ride, noting she has been surprised by some of the scenery. “Mississippi and Arkansas were unbelievably
Along the way, they are “inspiring hope in communities we reach and trying to spread knowledge,” Crotty said.
That “knowledge” goes beyond mere awareness. Crotty said they are encouraging people to adopt life changes that can help reduce their risks for cancer. They will continue to do so before the 4,500-mile ride
And that ride is not easy, even for someone such as Crotty, who joked that she “dabbles” in marathons. For a ride more than double the length of the Tour de France and touted as the longest charity ride in the world, the team prepared starting in the first semester of 2018 as part of an 18-month program. First, they learned about the organization and its mission; then, they each logged 2,000 miles on bicycles and tested to make sure they could handle 100 miles under the 10-hour mark. They continue to pick up leadership and problem-solving skills along the way.
Kathy Crotty, Clare’s mother, said she was not surprised at all when she heard her daughter wanted to take part in this ride.
“She’s a goal-setter,” Kathy said. “And she works to accomplish them.”
And Kathy, a teacher at Liberty School who had Ashley as a student, is undeniably proud of this particular goal. The fight against cancer is a cause that has hit too close to home too often, she said.
“It’s really touched our family,” she said.
The day Clare Crotty returns to Orland Park, she will be riding 127.3 miles from Champaign to get there. But she said she hopes to be home between 6:30-7 p.m.
The Ozarks group is to ride into town from near 183rd Street and Wolf Road, head eastbound on Orland Parkway to 104th Avenue, take a trail and road over to 159th Street for a quick exchange to Ravinia Avenue northbound, eventually take the pedestrian bridge over LaGrange Road, and then work through areas near Colonial, Heritage and Evergreen View parks, ultimately ending up in Ishnala.
When they arrive, Kathy said she is hoping the community comes out to greet the riders, as friends and neighbors plan to do. The family is to welcome all 27 riders with a barbecue that evening, before they split up between a few homes in the family.
“We’re very excited,” Kathy said.
It is safe to say Clare is excited to be coming home, too. The group will have traveled roughly 1,900 miles by the time it reaches Chicago. And the prospect of the stop in Orland Park has been a light to guide Crotty on darker days.
“Any time I’m sad or need more motivation, I think about riding into my house and seeing my family,” she said.
Take this ride farther…
To read Clare Crotty’s story in her own words, keep up on her journal, see her travel map and donate, visit www.texas4000.org/rider/2019/ozarks/clare-crotty