They rode 4,000-strong, creating a human avalanche of bodies, helmets, bicycles, and yes, joy.
There was a palpable sense of mission, purpose and delight just after dawn on Sunday, July 10, as bicyclists from throughout the region converged at the foot of Benjamin Franklin Bridge to participate in the American Cancer Society's Bike-a-Thon. The bridge crossing was led by cancer survivors against an auditory backdrop of the "Rocky" theme.
By day's end, the 33rd annual event, which followed a 62-mile course from the bridge to Lenape Park in Mays Landing, N.J., had raised more than $1 million for research, education, patient advocacy and patient services. Since its inception, the annual Bike-a-Thon has raised about $9 million to battle cancer.
For Randy Weinstock, the event actually began a year ago, just as the 2004 Bike-a-Thon ended. Weinstock, who co-chaired the massive fundraising effort, will be the first to tell you that planning it is a Herculean task.
But he said it's all worth it.
"Riding became a passion for me about 10 years ago. I did my first ACS ride in 1996, and loved the camaraderie of the riders and also their cause, which touches so many," explained the Center City man, a technical recruiter for textiles and apparel firms whose job allows him the flexibility to take on the volunteer effort.
As he became more involved over the last several years – serving as co-chair for the past four – Weinstock, also an active member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, got to know ACS staff members. He shared their dream of seeing the event break the $1 million mark, which happened just last year.
"One of the things that makes this ride unique is that participants ride in teams, many of them sponsored by various businesses. So you become part of a larger whole, and that adds to the spirit," he said.
"In the end, this whole experience is really all about people. It's about the hours and hours put in by volunteers and staff, just because they care. I'm just so happy and proud to be a rider."
Rabbi Andrew R. Sklarz of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington shared those sentiments, but for vastly different reasons.
Four years ago, this busy father of a 6-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son walked into his doctor's office for a regular check-up, expecting to be told he was in robust health. Instead, he was ambushed by the news that he had chronic myelogenous leukemia – and was headed for a bone-marrow transplant.
His own brother turned out not to be a suitable match, and that devastating blow seemed the end of the line, except for possible therapy with drugs so powerful that the rabbi would be saddled with constant flu-like symptoms and intractable depression.
"My salvation turned out to be a drug that was fast-tracked by the FDA, which I was able to obtain at Sloan-Kettering in New York – the very place where I had counseled cancer patients as part of my chaplaincy work."
Today, Sklarz is regarded as healed. He has gained a new appreciation of every aspect of life, even as he's added "cancer survivor" to his identity.
"I prefer to look at my diagnosis not as a curse," said the rabbi, "but as a blessing that has brought greater meaning and purpose to my life."
And as far as the Bike-a-Thon goes?
"How incredibly awesome it is for me to say that I was among the participants," said Sklarz. "While participating in anything of such magnitude is meaningful and important for anyone, for me it was pure exhilaration.
"The Bike-a-Thon represented a celebration of life and hope for the future for all who have been touched by cancer."
The Hills Seem Steeper
He was just 14 when his mother Sarah died of breast cancer. That was 45 years ago, but Mark Abrams of Cherry Hill, N.J., a systems analyst for Computer Sciences Corporation, cannot forget how devastating that loss proved to be.
"Decades later, my father died of prostate cancer. And a few years later, my only sister died of a recurrence of uterine cancer, meaning that my entire immediate family has died of cancer," he explained. "Now, my stepmother is battling lymphoma."
So Abrams, an avid cyclist, began riding with the ACS Bike-a-Thon about eight years ago – and has never stopped.
"I ride for all those people, and it lets me think and feel that I'm doing something for them, for me, and so many others," he said.
Admittedly, the rides have gotten more daunting as Abrams gets older. At 59, the hills seem steeper, and there are more rest stops for the computer expert.
Still, there's no dimming of enthusiasm for the goal.
"Even when I hurt," affirmed Abrams, "I feel a connection to others. And at the starting line – when I see literally thousands of other people doing this – I realize how much cancer affects so many others.
"For all of us, I hope and pray that I can keep riding for many more years."