St. Joseph graduate bikes to Alaska to raise funds for cancer research

Standing in a circle outside the Lyndon B. Johnson water fountain in Austin, Jonathan Hyak linked arms with 68 20-something cyclists.

Holding his teammates’ forearms – each of them university students and clad in blue and white Texas 4,000 biking apparel – Hyak listened as each cyclist paused to dedicate their ride.

Some dedications were light and succinct; others were emotional, uttered with quivering lips.

Hyak was the last to speak.

“Even though I lost my grandfather to cancer, I’d like to ride for my grandmother, who lost her life partner,” said Hyak, 21, now a third-year molecular biology and political science student at the University of Texas at Austin. “She’s been able to bounce back and love like no other.”

A harsh sun beat down on the lawn as two loudspeakers streamed Fun.’s “Some Nights” through the crowd. At the start of the following day, the riders would begin the Texas 4,000 – a 70-day, 4,500-mile journey from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska.

“It’s amazing to see how many people are willing to donate their time and money to this cause. It shows a lot of people want to do good things, and sometimes, you just need to get in their face, shake their hand and ask, ‘How do you want me to help?'” he said.

For every mile Hyak and his teammates ride, another dollar is raised for cancer research in Texas.

Together, the team will travel three routes north across the United States and into Canada, stopping in about 70 cities along the way.

But a love for service projects and volunteer work wasn’t always Hyak’s passion. Only a few years ago, he said, he would rather do anything else.

If it wasn’t for St. Joseph’s mandatory community service requirements, he may have never matured into his passion for volunteering. He may have never applied to ride the Texas 4,000.

“I dreaded service work when I was freshman at St. Joe. But then something clicked. By my senior year, I came to appreciate it,” he said. “I realized you could have fun doing something good for someone else.”

Just about everyone on the 2013 team is riding for someone with cancer. Sometimes, the riders are celebrating their own cancer battles. Sometimes, they’re riding for those still fighting.

Others are riding for those who lost the fight too soon.

Evan Rowley, 22, a public relations and psychology undergraduate at UT, said he decided to ride the Texas 4,000 for his mother, who died in 2003 from a rare form of salivary gland cancer.

“A friend told me about Texas 4,000, and I basically said, ‘You don’t understand, I haven’t ridden a bike in years. I don’t camp and I’m not outdoorsy,'” he said.

But Rowley’s friend urged him to reconsider and informed him he would not be the only beginner on the team.

“I’m super excited about this trip. We’ve been working for more than 18 months to train for this,” he said “Most people aren’t cyclists before they start this.”

Hyak, too, trained for the ride for more than a year.

He considers the trip a chance to grow and “find himself,” though, as an agnostic, he’s not certain the trip will stir any spiritual revelations. Still, he credits his Christian roots for his interest in serving others.

“It goes back to my Christian upbringing and that Christian morality,” he said. “Even just going to St. Joe, there were a lot of moral directives to do something good with our lives.”

The riders are giving up their summer vacation to brave the elements in one of Texas 4,000’s three fundraising routes.

The Sierra route sends bikers north through California and Washington state.

The Ozarks route directs cyclists through the Midwest.

Hyak’s route, the Rockies, travels through Colorado and Wyoming.

All three paths join in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

“We’ll meet up in Whitehorse (Canada) and ride the nine days together,” Hyak said. “We’ll be sleeping anywhere along the trip – in churches, on gym floors, and a lot of nights we’ll be camping.”

Hyak said 96 cents of each dollar donated goes directly to to MD Anderson in Houston, and cancer researchers at the University of Texas.

Hyak said his group has already raised about $400,000.

“We hope for it to be closer to $600,000 by the end of the ride,” he said.

Hyak alone has raised $4,500 and continues to seek sponsors for his ongoing journey through the summer.

The 70-day trip will end in Anchorage, Alaska, with a similar party as the one he experienced at the fountain two weeks ago.

He’s nervous about how the trip will change him.

But mostly, he aims to inspire hope in cancer patients all over the nation and let them know there are 69 Austin cyclists fighting and riding alongside them through their battle.

“I want them to know we’re doing everything we can to fight this disease and that we have their backs,” he said. “This can inspire hope. It does inspire hope.”

By Jennifer Lee Preyss

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Victoria Advocate