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Cyclists gear up for 540-mile ride across New York to combat cancer

Phil Zodda (left) with other cyclists at the halfway mark of the 2018 Empire State Ride.
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More than 180 cyclists will don spandex and hit the saddle for a daunting seven-day cycling journey from Staten Island to Niagara Falls on July 28, in a race to fight an even more grueling challenge — cancer.

The 540-mile annual Empire State Ride was conceived in 2014 by Terry Bourgeois to raise funds for cancer research — and has grown exponentially since his inaugural ride, he said.

“Every year, this ride brings its participants an experience that will stay with them the rest of their lives,” says Bourgeois. “We keep saying it’s a ride cyclists must try once in their lives, but the impact — on you and on cancer — increases exponentially the more you do it.”

This year, organizers hope to raise more than $1 million from riders and sponsors — which will go to supporting cutting-edge cancer research at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, according to the organization.

Riders push themselves to the physical limits during the exhausting cross-state ride, but find inspiration to keep pedaling from those who have conquered cancer, according to one rider who will make his second voyage this year.

“The idea of what they’ve gone through — this ride is nothing compared to hours of chemothera­py,” said Brooklynite Phil Zodda. “I’m not a cancer survivor, but when you’re riding side-by-side with someone who has gone through that, you can’t feel bad for yourself — those mountains flatten out.”

After exhaustive days of non-stop riding, cyclists will make six overnight stops along the meticulously planned route at camp grounds in the Hudson Valley, Albany, Utica, Syracuse and Rochester until they reach the waterfall wonder of the world on Aug. 3.

“It’s really more of an adventure as opposed to a race,” said Zodda. “It’s long and difficult, but I found it to be extremely rewarding.”

Each night features a cancer-surviving guest speaker who inspires their fellow riders with their stories and speaks of the importance of raising funds to combat the disease — which claims the lives of around 600,000 Americans each year, according to government statistics.

“It’s not so much the illness, as much as it’s about processing the word ‘cancer.’ Hearing those stories helps,” said second-year rider Scott Cohen from Fresh Meadows. “You make a wonderful bond with so many people who are there.”

Cohen says cycling, and the Empire State Ride specifically, helped him through his personal journey through bouts of health troubles — including skin cancer, diabetes, and weaning himself of opiates.

“The cycling was one of the key ingredients that’s got me healthy,” he said. “It’s like an addiction, but it’s a good one. It’s amazing for the body and mind.”

While the trek may be tiring, Bourgeois said that helping combat the disease is the only reward they need.

“Every day, every hour, brings us surprises. But at the end of that day and that hour, what matters is what we’re doing to end cancer by raising critically needed funds for research, and helping Roswell Park get one bike ride closer to a cure,” he said.

Reach reporter Aidan Graham at agraham@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–4577. Follow him at twitter.com/aidangraham95.
Updated 11:22 am, July 24, 2019
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