PHOENIX — Long before your coffee probably started brewing, about a dozen men and women have been waking up at four in the morning, loading up their bikes and heading to various meeting spots around the Valley. Some started doing it at the beginning of the year, others far longer.
Last weekend, they prepared by riding the winding roads through Fountain Hills.
“We want to simulate, as best we can, the terrain we’ll be riding in America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride,” said Joe Zazarra, one of the coaches helping new and experienced riders for Team In Training.
“Today, it’s 80 miles,” he said last week. “The last big training ride before we head to Lake Tahoe for the century ride on June 2.”
Most everyone on the team has a personal reason to ride.
“My brother-in-law Pete Karches,” said Jamie Burgess as he snapped on his riding shoes. “He died in 2006 from Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia [CLL] and left behind my sister and four young children.”
Andy Gordon began riding four years ago after losing his wife, Sue, 13 years ago to Multiple Myeloma (MML).
Saturday morning, the team is riding as a tribute to 6-year-old Will Martinez. He was diagnosed on April 1 with an aggressive form of leukemia.
“He’s having a rough go of it,” said one of the riders as they passed out rubber “Will Power” bracelets to each teammate.
It’s these pep talks that remind them why they ride the next three hours.
“We’re trying to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society so that top scientists can find cures for cancer,” said Burgess before he straps on his helmet. “And it’s working.”
Burgess is sort of a ring leader of fund raisers on the team.
“This will be my seventh year, I have raised over [$250,000] total,” he said without blinking. “And I’m on track to raise $50,000 this year.”
At last check, Burgess’ fundraising site shows he’s about $3,500 from his mark.
“Jamie is the man,” exclaimed Gary Zwillinger, one of three partners in the law firm Zwillinger, Greek and Knecht, who is willing to climb onto an 18-pound road bike at 5 a.m. and ride.
Six other colleagues from their law firm are raising funds and riding.
“We’re a team within a team,” said Burgess. “We call ourselves ‘Team ZGK.'”
“There’s a lot of billable hours on those rides,” Zwillinger joked, who rides for a friend battling cancer.
Between the attorneys and the entire group they’re on track to raise nearly $250,000 this year.
“Hopefully, that will put leukemia and lymphoma out of business one day,” said Zazerra.
It’s definitely helping. Those dollars are partly why Andy Gordon was able to join the team three years ago.
Ten years after his wife Susan died, a doctor told him, “You have ‘MML.” It was the exact same blood cancer that killed her a decade earlier.
Only this time, “I went through a stem cell transplant in 2010 and I’ve been in complete remission ever since.”
It was an option afforded through advances made in blood cancer medicine thanks to aggressive fundraising efforts like Team In Training’s.
“They didn’t have the treatment when my first wife was alive,” he recalled, “So it’s a direct result of the research that’s been done.”
Gordon choked up to think about this being his third year in remission.
“From stem cell transplant to a 100-mile bike ride…”
Sunday morning, the team’s hard work will pay off as they ride around Emerald Bay in Tahoe, Nevada for what is appropriately dubbed “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride.”
To learn more about Team In Training and ways to support research for blood cancer cures, visit the Team In Training website.
To go directly to Jamie Burgess’ fundraising site within Team In Training, click here.
Or to go Andy Gordon’s site, click here.
To make a general donation to the entire team, call the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at (914) 949-5213 and asking to sponsor the Arizona TNT Most Beautiful Ride in Lake Tahoe 2013.