Alison Zhao is not what you'd call an expert cyclist or even a biking enthusiast.
Until March, in fact, the 20-year-old college student hadn't been on a bicycle since middle school.
But with a few months of training ("What is it called? Spinning?" she responded when asked about her preparations) Zhao joined a group of 25 students yesterday who began pedaling 4,000 miles across the country to raise money for cancer treatment and raise awareness about the disease.
"It was kind of spontaneous. But I wanted to take a more active role in the fight against cancer," said Zhao, whose grandfather died of lung cancer several years ago. "I never felt like I did enough."
The group of students, mostly from the Johns Hopkins University, ceremoniously dipped the back wheels of their bikes into the Inner Harbor yesterday morning just before starting their journey. They plan to dunk their front wheels when they end their 60-day trip at the Golden Gate Bridge, where the San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way, they'll ride 70 to 110 miles each day while crossing 12 states. They'll stop in 53 cities and towns, bunking at churches, YMCAs, community centers and the occasional camp site. They'll share their stories and those of their friends and loved ones whose lives have been affected, or ended, by cancer. And they'll encourage the people they meet to take advantage of every test, every screening and every precaution that can lead to early detection or prevention of the disease.
"It's important for communities to know that they're not alone," said Anna Johnston, a 20-year-old Hopkins student whose grandmother survived breast cancer and whose uncle died three years ago of melanoma that spread through his body. "Hearing stories of recovery, you learn that great things can still happen against all odds."
The annual bike trip - called the Hopkins 4K for Cancer - started in 2001 when two students, including one whose father died of the disease in 1995, decided to blend their desire to help fight cancer with their dream of biking across the country.
Since then, the 4K riders have raised $511,000, with much of it going to the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge, a center that offers free housing for out-of-town cancer patients undergoing treatment in Baltimore. Many Hopkins students who participate in the bike ride also volunteer at the center during the school year.
For the past two years, donations also have gone to the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
With the sun still low on the horizon and the air crisp and cool, riders began arriving at the Inner Harbor early yesterday. Gathering between the two pavilions of Harborplace, the parents, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends of the cyclists mingled together in a sea of Blue Jays blue and T-shirts emblazoned with the cycling group's logo - a stretch of road that loops from the Golden Gate Bridge into a cancer ribbon and then the Baltimore skyline.
"It's scary," said Christian Weaver, 20, whose girlfriend of nearly two years was heading out on the bike ride while he stays back in Baltimore to take summer classes at Hopkins. "I've never been away from her for this long. At first, when she signed up, it seemed so far away. But now ... she's actually going across the country for two months. I have faith she can do it, though."
This year's group of 10 female and 15 male riders includes students riding in honor of grandparents who died of cancer, aunts and family friends who beat breast cancer and a best friend who survivied leukemia. It includes a Massachusetts native inspired by his father and Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, both of whom fought non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And it includes a graduate student who intends to pursue a career in health advocacy and a neuroscience major who hopes to advance cancer treatments through a career in biomedical engineering.
Several of the students spoke of knowing that no matter how difficult their days on the bikes are - even as they climb grueling mountain roads or cross blazingly hot stretches of asphalt in the Nevada desert - the struggle pales in comparison to those of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
"I think that if people can go through something as bad as cancer, I can pick up biking and ride these 4,000 miles," said Ankit Sharma, 22, a cycling novice who graduated in May from Hopkins with a degree in engineering mechanics.
Judy Penati, a 19-year-old sophomore whose grandfather underwent treatment for prostate cancer, described the cause as "magnificent." Through her months of training, a friend mistakenly thought that she was training for a 4K bike ride - that is, 4 kilometers.
"He finally said, 'Why are you doing so much work for two miles?' " she recalled, laughing as the riders prepared to dip their wheels in the harbor, just in front of the Constellation. With roughly 3,998 more miles than that ahead of her, Penati adjusted her helmet and wheeled her bike toward Pratt Street to begin the trip.
"I have heard that the first few days are quite demoralizing," she said. "But I can get through because I'm not biking for myself."
Riders with the Hopkins 4K for Cancer will be contributing to a blog as they pedal their way across the country. Find it at http://4k4cancer.blogspot.com.