The Texas 4000 Crew Remembers a Ride Unlike Any Other

The only thing harder than biking thousands of miles across America and Canada? Not biking thousands of miles across America and Canada—after you’ve spent more than a year of your life training to do just that.

So it was in 2020 for the UT students meant to participate in the Texas 4000, an annual charity ride—“Fighting Cancer Every Mile” is its slogan—that has seen hundreds of cyclists trek from Austin to Alaska since its founding in 2004 by Chris Condit, BS ’04, MSE ’11, and Mandy Condit, BS ’05. Collectively, the event has raised more than $12.1 million, both from the ride itself—each of the current 85 participants personally secures at least $4,500 in pledged donations—and an annual tribute gala. It’s a fundraiser, an awareness-raiser, and a consciousness-raiser all in one, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for the riders. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s 4000, like so much else in life, became distanced and virtual, with online fundraising, indoor training rides, and group chats conducted via Zoom and Facebook Live.

Those riders would have given anything to collapse at the end of a 135-mile ride, fix a flat tire in Oklahoma on a 100-degree day, or be drenched by campground sprinklers at 4 a.m.—all things that happened in 2021. Shreya Pandiri was one of a small number of riders who could try again after 2020, as most had either graduated or simply couldn’t repeat what is usually an 18-month commitment, from sign-up to fundraising to training to volunteer work to trip planning and logistics.

“I was pretty defeated when I found out we weren’t going to ride [in 2020],” says Pandiri, BSA ’21. “But there was never a question of whether or not I would defer.”

Pandiri first heard about the Texas 4000 as a student at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy high school—one of her teachers, Charlie Barnes, BS ’12, Life Member, was a 4000 alum. Pandiri’s mother, Aruna Vemulapalli, is a breast cancer survivor who was originally diagnosed when her daughter was 11 years old—too young to really know how to support her mother, or deal with anything other than her own overwhelming emotions. But now, as an adult, the Texas 4000 is a way to honor her, along with her grandmother, Hema Pandiri, who died of cancer when Pandiri was in third grade.

Most, but not all, of the Texas 4000 riders have a personal connection to the disease—parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles, friends, and in some cases, themselves. Many don’t have cycling experience. But everyone is committed to the cause, and everything this unique event offers: community, leadership skills, physical and mental challenges, and the chance to see cities, beaches, rivers, national parks, and mountains across the country.

Unfortunately, COVID still loomed over 2021. Before the ride, it just made sense for the students to extend their volunteer efforts, which are usually exclusively for cancer organizations, to COVID-19, especially given the virus could present an even greater risk and burden to cancer patients and their families. Because of pandemic-related supply chain issues, they had to deal with bike shortages, relying on loaners all year to train. And when it turned out it would be impossible to ride through Canada with the borders still closed, the traditional Austin to Anchorage journey became an Austin-and-back loop, with four different routes—the Rockies, Ozarks, Sierra, and Smoky Mountains—taking the Texas 4000 to some places in the U.S. it had never been, especially in the middle of the country and along the East Coast.

Not getting to Alaska was a blow for both the riders and the many Texas Exes Alaska Chapter members who had grown accustomed to greeting and hosting them each year. But the round-trip also meant friends and family could more easily meet them at the finish line, right back on campus.

And while the first half of the ride took place in what was supposed to be the “normal” vaccinated summer, by the second half, with the Delta variant, it was back to masks and social distancing. A traditional annual visit to Brent’s Place in Aurora, Colorado, which provides housing and support to children and families with cancer, couldn’t be made the way it usually would; many outreach programs were held outdoors. And the tribute gala, normally held in Austin post-ride every August, had to be canceled for a second year.

But wherever they went, there was always “a community ready and excited to see us,” says biomedical engineering student Bennett Stirton, referring to the people, many of them alumni, who would host and feed the riders all over the country. “There’d be, you know, 10 people there smiling, waiting to make us dinner. And they always had stories of their own.”

Not everyone actually had to ride 4,000 miles (though counting their training runs, many claim an annual tally of 6,000). The cyclists average 70-80 miles per day, with one full day off every 10 days or so. Each rider also gets days in the support and gear (SAG) van, though everyone agrees that job is more mentally exhausting than the physical demands of biking—because it includes emergency bike repairs and first aid while also scaring up snacks, water, and lunch. “You’re responsible for the success of the ride that day,” says Branch Archer, a fifth-year environmental engineering and Plan II student from Amarillo. People are also constantly honking at the SAG van, which is understandable since it has “honk if you hate cancer” written on the back. “We’ll forget it says that and be like, ‘What are we doing wrong?’” Pandiri says.

Some participants are still in the thick of grieving a loved one, which can be intense, especially alongside the physical and mental challenges of the ride itself. But that’s where the camaraderie and emotional support of your fellow riders comes in—along with the inspiration of the people they are honoring with the ride. Each day of the 4000 there is a ride dedication circle where someone will tell a story about why they ride or who they ride for. It can be a friend or family member, but it could also be someone they met at a gas station—invariably, people see the bikes and jerseys and approach with their own personal cancer story (and sometimes a donation, too). Many riders also Sharpie the names of these people on an arm or leg.

“You’re going up a tough hill, just trying to grind through it, and you’re looking down to be reminded of why you’re doing it,” Stirton says. “Just the smallest gesture of dedicating a Sunday bike ride to somebody’s aunt you’d never met before could be emotional.”

But Stirton also had a more personal, and physical, remembrance, too—his mother, Sarah, died of cancer in 2017. She loved to travel, and so she traveled with him. Stirton carried a pouch with her ashes and scattered them whenever a place or moment felt right. “Where I was really thinking about her,” he says. In Depoe Bay, Oregon, he even found himself in the same beachfront parking lot where his family wound up on a minivan trip a few years ago.

Branch Archer rode not only for family members, including his mother, Carajean, a breast cancer survivor, and two aunts, Elizabeth and Evelyn, who died of the disease. He also rode for climate change awareness—a natural fit when you’re traveling great distances without a car, but also one that made sense within the larger cause.

“People don’t often acknowledge that there is a pretty big connection between climate change and cancer,” Archer says, referring to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions can themselves be carcinogenic. “I thought about it every single day of the ride. It was on my mind all the time.”

Eventually, it was on everybody’s mind, as wildfires in Montana and Utah forced the Sierras and Rockies riders to cancel days (they made it through Oregon and California before the smoke got worse there). You can bike in a heatwave with hydration, pace, and rest. You can’t bike through wildfire smoke when the air quality index is dangerous for exercise. In some places it was so bad that they couldn’t sleep outside. They’d already had to find a whole new network of hosts for the new parts of the route, and then do it all over again when social distancing became necessary once more. But people opened their backyards, schoolhouse gyms, and churches for indoor camping.

In Ennis, Montana, a town of less than 1,000 people near Yellowstone National Park, they called the local Presbyterian church, where a brand-new pastor who was not much older than the students, Mary Grace Reynolds, took them in. Pandiri says that Reynolds herself was having a tough week, and the unexpected arrival of the students, in need of community and shelter, gave a little extra sense of purpose. She joined them for one of the ride dedications, a woman of the cloth embracing another type of ritual and sacrament.

For the riders, the Texas 4000 is a formative and transformative experience, and the stuff of lifelong friends. “It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done,” Archer says. That meaning is also a testament to the power of a larger whole, whether you’re navigating COVID-19 precautions, sweating through a 100-mile training ride, or holding loved ones with cancer in your heart.

“There was an unspoken understanding of why everyone was there,” Pandiri says. “I think I really underestimated how much easier something that is so hard is when you’re surrounded by people who are there for the same reason.”

Credits: Celesia Smith (2), Lauren Takata, Jenna Guzman, Grace Ann Hornfischer, Shelli and Tony Meneghetti

 
 
 

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