“Livestrong riders in town today”

For the past six years, Bozeman’s Vickie Wilkson has spent this time of year planning how to feed almost two-dozen very hungry people.

On Sunday, Wilkson and her husband Jon will again host a barbeque that is becoming an annual event. Although feeding the 22 cyclists riding in the Livestrong Texas 4000 is becoming a regularity, the cause the visitors are riding for remains special.

The 22 riders are part of a group of 45 University of Texas students who are participating in the eighth annual event, which is the longest charity bicycle ride in the world. The group will enter Bozeman on their 30th day of a 70-day bike trip that started in Austin, Texas, and will end in Anchorage, Alaska, on Aug. 12. The 4,687-mile ride is a bonding experience for riders, but it’s also a philanthropic effort that’s helped raise more than $2 million for cancer research.

The Wilksons began providing both barbequed food and bedding during the trek six years ago at the request of Susan Harke, the couple’s niece and a University of Texas student at the time. Vickie said the couple readily opened up their home because cancer has hit their family hard.

“Our oldest daughter died from cancer and our son is very sick right now,” Wilkson said. “That’s our primary reason to continue with it. We have a lot of people in our family who have been affected by cancer and that seems to be the same way with everyone. So this is just a small way we can contribute and help out.”

The desire to contribute to the cause has been contagious in the Wilkson’s Triple Tree neighborhood. All 22 riders on the Rocky Mountain route (the other 23 riders are riding on the “Sierra” route across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California) stayed at the Wilksons’ house the first year they stopped in Bozeman. Now, after the riders eat at the Wilksons they go to various houses throughout the neighborhood for a spot to sleep.

“Everybody here has really supported it,” Wilkson said. “They let kids into their homes to spend the night with them and they make them feel welcome.”

The Texas 4000 was the brainchild of former UT student Chris Condit. Diagnosed at age 11, Condit is a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor. The cross-country ride has turned into a full-fledged non-profit organization working in cooperation with the Livestrong organization.

Livestrong is a branch of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The organization first gained prominence when it released the now-iconic yellow Livestrong bracelets. Created as a fundraising effort in cooperation with Nike, the fundraiser’s initial goal was to raise $25 million. That goal was met in six months. To date, the $1 bracelets have surpassed 70 million in units sold. Armstrong, a cancer survivor himself, is most famous for winning seven consecutive Tour De France titles between 1999 and 2005.

“We do programs throughout the ride talking about cancer prevention, early detection and living a healthy lifestyle,” said Jamille Ruebsahm, who has served as the organization’s executive director for the past three years. “Given our mission, our partnership with Livestrong came about by both being very focused on the fight against cancer but also attacking it from a lot of different angles. We thought of the best way to work together, so we formed a partnership,”

More than 300 UT students apply each year to be a part of the team. Between 45 and 60 are selected to make the ride based on “their character, their focus and their ability to carry out the Texas 4000 mission.” Ruebsahm said riders aren’t always seasoned cyclists.

“We can teach you how to ride a bike, but you need to have the character and be here for the right reasons,” Ruebsahm said.

During the majority of the group’s 70 stops, the riders give presentations and tell testimonial stories for host families and anyone else who wants to participate. The programs also serve as an opportunity to collect donations.

Among this year’s riders are: Nahil Haman, 19, whose grandmother has beaten breast, colon and skin cancer; Brooke Milbauer, 21, whose father passed away 10 years ago after a battle with metastatic melanoma; and Ana DeMetz-Pope, whose grandmother died of ovarian cancer and has a 10-year-old cousin who was diagnosed with cancer five years ago but is now free of the disease.

“The primary focus of the program is to share the mission and let people know that they are riding for them, fighting for them, but definitely secondary, it’s right there, if you want to contribute to the fight, here’s how,” Ruebsahm said.

The Texas 4000 has given donations to the American Cancer Society, Livestrong and the University of Texas biomedical engineering department, among other causes. This year’s team has a $350,000 fundraising goal during the ride. Thus far, the team has raised $200,000.

Riders will arrive at the Wilkson residence this evening after riding 132 miles from the Wyoming portion of Yellowstone National Park. Monday, they will ride 98 miles to Helena.

Before the group departs each day, they gather and have a ceremony to dedicate the day’s upcoming ride to someone whose life has been affected by cancer.

Six years ago, Susan Harke met her future husband during the summer-long ride. Their situation was not unique, according to Ruebsahm. All riders may not find love, but each one’s life is no doubt influenced by the experience.

“For the riders, it’s a life-changing experience,” Ruebsahm said. “They look back on it…we say they will never go to a job interview or on a first date again without talking about the summer they rode their bike to Alaska.”

By Colter Nuanez