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A message of hope to go across country; Bikes: A Mount Airy family plants to travel from California to Virginia to raise money for cancer research.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The entire McQuin family of Mount Airy fought alongside the oldest son, Bobby, as he battled leukemia. Now that Bobby is in remission, the family has taken on a new project: a cross-country bike tour to raise money for cancer research.

Everybody is going on the trip, which starts in San Diego next month and ends in Virginia Beach, Va., in July. "Everybody" means all 10 McQuins: parents Bob and Beth; Bobby, 19; Sean, 17; Megan, 15; Craig, 9; Amy, 7; Todd, 5; Shannon, 18 months; and Larisa Stone, 29, their foster daughter.

"As we approached Bobby's fifth year of remission, we wanted to do something to commemorate that and to remember all the kids we have known who have died," said Sean.

Bobby, a college sophomore, expects the 4,300-mile ride to be another life-changing experience, not unlike the leukemia fight that consumed his childhood.

"The trip will be like my diagnosis and treatment," he said. "It will take a long time. There are many unknowns. It demands determination, strength and sheer will to keep going. I'll need a lot of help and support."

Bobby has dubbed the four-month trip "One Voice Across America: A Ride to Fight Childhood Cancer," and he is collecting pledges for every mile.

"So much of this trip is like our fight with cancer," said his mother, Beth, 39. "The whole cancer experience affects the whole family dramatically. There is such an analogy here."

Bobby was 8 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Through grueling chemotherapy and five years of radiation therapy, the family stayed by his bed in the hospital when he was being treated.

The cancer recurred in 1993; Bobby's last option was a bone marrow transplant.

This time, the McQuins moved into a Ronald McDonald house for three months, and they visited him every day. And they helped buoy his spirits. Humor, even a little fraternal teasing about "bald Bobby, pale as a ghost," had a positive effect, he said.

"Sean can goad me into just about anything," said Bobby. "With him along on the bike trip, I know I will finish."

Sean, Megan and their father, Bob, 42, will pedal with Bobby -- single file for safety's sake.

Craig, whose bone marrow saved Bobby's life, expects to bike about half the distance each day and then ride with his mother and younger siblings in the family van.

The McQuins leave Mount Airy on Feb. 28, traveling by car with bike racks to California. The itinerary includes visits to children's cancer centers.

"We want to show off Bobby, show them you can get through cancer," said Sean. "Leukemia killed his immune system, basically made him a shell. But look at him now."

A robust young man clad in colorful bike togs can be an inspiration for those just diagnosed and for their parents, said Bobby. "I can show people it can be done," he said.

"This is not a death sentence," he said. "You can fight this and you can beat this."

The visits will "give back to all the organizations who have helped us through the years," including the Make a Wish Foundation and Ronald McDonald houses, where families of long-term patients stay.

When Bobby was hospitalized at Children's National Medical Center in Washington for the transplant, his family was "two minutes from the hospital," said Sean.

Since the McQuins established a World Wide Web site (www.onevoiceusa.com), they have had e-mail requests for visits from many families coping with childhood cancer.

"We have had heartbreaking messages from families and donations to encourage us," said Beth. "I am so glad we are doing this for them."

For the past six months, the McQuins have transformed their home into a training center. The living room is filled with bikes; the dining room is covered with maps detailing their route. The children are home-schooled, and their mother has incorporated the geography of the trip and the dynamics of biking into her lesson plans.

"It is not as hard as it looks on the map," said Sean. "The hardest part is getting up every day and saying, 'I am going to go 50 miles.' We will have to try not to think how bad we ache. It won't matter anyway, because we said we are going to do this."

Attitude plays heavily into the success of these trips, said Kevin Condit, a cross-country cyclist and marketing director for Adventure Cycling, the Montana company that helped plan the McQuins' route. Even on the southern route in springtime, the family can still expect to hit bad weather, possibly snow.

"This is a physically challenging endeavor," said Condit. "The effect is cumulative. The first day is not so tough, but the 37th day is. Really, physical ability has less to do with it than mental attitude. A family that had the emotional strength to fight a disease together probably has the mental toughness it needs."

As long as they can maintain 300 miles per week, the McQuins should reach their destination by early July.

"We have to be flexible; it's not so much per day as it is per week," said Beth. "Cyclists have warned us that we will have to adjust our plans for the weather."

The McQuins rate themselves intermediate cyclists, and they expect to ride the 50 miles a day on mostly paved roads such as Route 27, which runs in front of their Carroll County home. Any roads with a posted speed limit of more than 55 mph will be off limits.

They ride five days a week to train and can all spill off the mileage from their home to various destinations. To Frederick and back is 40 miles; to Westminster is 36.

"We always had bikes," said Sean. "Like martial arts, it was part of our P.E. exercise for home school. But now we are getting into serious riding."

Bike time is critical training, Condit said. "You have to build up with the repetitive exercise, re-create what you will be doing."

Craig's training hit a glitch recently, when his bike was stolen from the front porch. But a local bike shop donated another.

Workouts begin at 6 a.m., with weights, aerobic exercises and swimming.

Bob McQuin, a telecommunications analyst for Marriott hotels, hadn't been on a bike since high school, but he has lost 20 pounds training on the oldest bike in the house.

"Every time I look at a topographic map, I am leery," he said. "But I will keep up even though gravity is not so kind to me."

Throughout the trip, Beth will teach, cook, launder and drive the support van.

"There are stretches of more than 100 miles where there will be nothing," Beth said. "Cities will be few and far between."

"We may have to make friends quickly and stay with them," said Sean.

That can happen, said Condit, who spent 90 days on the TransAmerica trail in 1993. The McQuins' route will take them through small communities, where Condit said they will encounter "a fantastic amount of kindness."

Maps detail the best roads for cyclists -- where traffic is minimal and shoulders are broad and "hopefully smooth," said Megan. They will not cycle during rush hour -- although it is difficult to imagine traffic jams across the Texas badlands.

They each will carry identification, small tools, water, nutrition bars and cell phones. Mom plans to give the cyclists a two-hour head start, time she will use to teach the younger children. Then, she will meet them for lunch, rest period and schoolwork.

"She never lets us off," said Sean.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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