FORT KENT, Maine — I’m going to be right upfront about it: There is nothing good a person can say about cancer. It’s a disease that, like a thief in the night, steals futures, dreams and those who are loved the most.
The one thing it can’t seem to steal, however, is hope, and there are infinite numbers of things to be said about those people who encourage and support that hope.
Like the members of Spokes for Hope, a group of seven bicyclists spending five days this Labor Day weekend cycling the 400 miles from Fort Kent to Kittery bringing attention to a variety of cancer-fighting causes.
I was lucky enough to ride a short distance with the group Thursday as they left the St. John Valley and was completely humbled by their single-minded determination to forge ahead as the mercury rose into the 90s.
The trek took them out of Fort Kent on Route 161 south to Caribou and then Route 1 to Houlton.
It was a hot and muggy morning but happily there was a tailwind pushing them along and any cyclists will tell you there is nothing sweeter than the feel of a wind at your back.
“We started Spokes for Hope last year in memory and in honor of a lot of our loved ones and their battles with cancer,” Jonathan Kelley, co-captain, said on the eve of the group’s departure. “We really thought it was important to continue.”
Each of the riders and two support vehicle drivers are completing the odyssey as the first fundraising step to participate in larger, national cancer awareness events sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Livestrong Foundation, the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer, Hope and Healing, Children’s Hospital in Boston and the Ronald McDonald House.
“All of us have been touched by cancer in some way,” Kelley said. “I said, ‘Let’s pick a fight and do this.’”
Co-captain Stephanie Caverhill, a spokeswoman for Hope, agrees.
“My grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer just as I was doing the Trek Across Maine for the Maine Lung Association,” Caverhill said.
“Cancer touches everybody,” Kelley said. “We all know somebody — a friend, a neighbor, family member or church member who has it.”
In Kelley’s case it is the loss of his father to mouth cancer six years ago and his uncle’s more recent diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that spur him on.
“A lot of why we do this stems from the fact we are healthy enough to do it,” said Penny McHatten, a longtime cyclist who is driving one of the two support vehicles this weekend. “If you have the wherewithal to ride three days or five days in a row, that’s a gift you’ve been given, and you should share that gift.”
All of the bikers and drivers are from central Aroostook and also are promoting next year’s Ride Aroostook, a two-day bike ride in support of Camp Adventure, which is for children dealing with Type 1 diabetes (www.ridearoostook.org).
Kelley and Caverhill said they and their fellow riders — Jeff Bennett, Kyle Washington, Brent Jepson, Brent Grass and Dan Jandreau with second support driver Denise Young — are committed to sharing that gift of health.
Based on last year’s ride, it’s a well-received gift.
“People were actually throwing money at us along the way,” Young said. “At one point at a stoplight someone tossed a $20 bill in through my open window.”
The cyclists receive shouts of encouragement, thumbs up and even police escorts as they make their way south.
“In Kittery last year on Labor Day Monday it took us an hour to get past the outlet malls because of traffic,” Kelley said. “We ended up with a firetruck next to us and those guys were yelling what heroes we are and we told them, ‘No, you guys are the real heroes.’”
The riders say those who are fighting cancer inspire them.
“It’s going to be hot when we start this year,” Kelley said. “There are going to be difficult climbs and times we want to take a break, but I just keep telling myself the people who are fighting cancer can’t ever take a break, and that keeps us rolling.”
Day one for the riders ended in Houlton — 107 miles from Fort Kent — as temperatures soared into the 90s for the fourth straight day.
“We went through 5 gallons of Gatorade before we got to Presque Isle,” McHatten said from her mobile phone on Thursday. “But they are pushing through it.”
Pushing through it is something cancer patients and cyclists know all about.
I thought a lot about that as I turned around after about 6 miles to pedal back toward Fort Kent and the group continued south. It would have been fun to ride a bit farther, but time and schedule constraints cut my ride short.
It was a hot and challenging 6-mile ride back to my car as I now rode into the headwind, but I felt inspired by McHatten’s words reminding me how lucky I am to have the option of riding — or not.
Cancer has its own schedule, and its victims can’t take time off if they don’t feel like having cancer for a day or a week.
But thanks to a group of dedicated cyclists, they can have hope and the knowledge that every so often, they’ll catch a tailwind.
To follow the group’s progress or to learn how to help them support their causes go to www.spokesforhope.com.