“Fighting cancer every mile” isn’t just written on the side of two support vans, it’s something the University of Texas students live by.

The mission of Texas 4000, the longest annual charity bike ride in the world, is to cultivate student leaders and engage communities in the fight against cancer.

On July 8 a group of 25 students stopped in Walker — day 39 of a 70-day trip that began in Austin, Texas, and will concludes in Anchorage, Alaska. This was the first time the Texas 4000, or TK4 for short, has stopped in Walker. Since the Texas 4000 began in 2003, about $10 million has been raised for cancer research.

“We spread hope and knowledge to the communities we stop at,” said Ozarks Route Team Leader Tricia Dillawn, who lost two grandparents to cancer, including one very recently. “It’s so cool to see people get inspired by what we do.”

The nearly 80 students began the cross-country trek June 1. On day two the three teams split into the Sierra, Rockies and Ozarks routes. On day 61 the groups reunite in Canada to ride the last nine days together into Anchorage.

The squad that came through Walker consisted of 25 students — nearly all juniors and seniors — many of which are either pre-med or in other science-related fields.

“It’s been so touching to meet people in the communities we go to, and have them feel so inspired by what we are doing,” Dillawn said. “It really feels like a privilege what we get to do, and to have the physical capabilities to do this.”

Dillawn said the 18-month training program begins when the Texas 4000 competitively selects the University of Texas students. The students must each raise $4,500, volunteer more than 50 hours in the community for cancer research, ride 2,000 training miles with their team, and play an active role in planning the ride to Alaska by attending weekly meetings.

The group provides their own support and gear (SAG), with students rotating through the duties of driving the two vans, setting up rest stops, securing food donations and preparing meals that are not provided.

“We try and cut down on expenses wherever we can. People are incredibly generous. We get food donated to us along the way,” Dillawn said.

Several host families, businesses and community members put together a barbecue at Walker City Park July 9. Live music was also provided and the group gathered on the beach for a photo.

“You all came out to visit with us, make us food and play live music. We get to stay with host families tonight, and get to know them and their stories. It’s special to us,” Dillawn stated. “This trip has been so life-changing. It’s the coolest thing we’ll ever do in our life. All the people we meet inspire us. It’s really touching to be able to ride for people that I know and people that we meet along the way.”

The riders begin their day gathering in a circle to reflect on their mission to fight cancer. They are joined by the hosts families to share a ride dedication for the day — usually made in honor or in memory of a loved one or someone they have met along the ride who is fighter cancer.

“You are our inspirations,” said Jan Vondenkamp, one of the host families, during the dedication circle held in front of Walker City Hall.

So far the group has raised about $600,000 and continues to raise money during the ride. A gala is held the end of August back in Austin where all the riders, friends and families are invited. A silent auction normally brings in another $100,000.

Host families help out

The journey from Texas to Alaska relies on the generosity of each community the riders stop at. Riders arrange accommodations in advance during the training year, relying heavily on the generosity of host families, churches, schools and YMCA’s for a place to stay.

Paul Nye, the owner of Back Street Bike and Repair in Walker and coordinator of the Walker event, was first contacted back in November and a short time later he started reaching out to the Walker Bicycle Committee, friends and community leaders to help out.

The Chase of the Lake donated five rooms and eight other host families volunteered to put up the students. They were Steve Bilben, Terri Bjorklund, Darren and Kandi Kelderman, Paul and Linda Nye, Gregg and Roxie Parks, Al and Joan Sanford, Mark and Jan Vondenkamp and Simon and Lynn Whitehead.

“These students are highly motivated. They are riding 4,000 miles through every kind of condition you could imagine. The mental exertion alone is phenomenal,” Nye said. “They were impressed with the welcome and support they got from this town. They said this was their favorite stop so far.”

The welcome included a barbecue at city park with live music performed by Jeff Menton, Nye and Keith Thunem.

A letter given to Nye signed by all the college students said it was an absolute joy to visit Walker. “The music, food, the people … the team has been so touched by this experience and we will never forget any of you. This community is something special, and [we] hope our time with you is something you will not forget either.”

Nye has already extended an invitation for the 2020 group to come back to Walker. If that happens, Nye will be asking both the Chamber of Commerce and community for donations to support the riders with another welcome party.

“It will be easier to get the people on board next year,” Nye added.

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