On a rainy Friday afternoon, hundreds of people lined up along a road at the University of Alaska Anchorage. They waved orange longhorn flags and shook cowbells. Yeah, that’s right — symbols from the state’s arch rival, Texas. They anxiously awaited the arrival of 70 bicyclists.
“You have the hot coffee?” Michele Hauser asked her husband. “It’s cold here. It’s 105 in Texas.”
Hauser stood in the crowd, holding balloons and a sign for her daughter. It’s been more than two months since her daughter set off on the 4,600 mile journey from Austin to Anchorage.
“I just can’t believe she made it,” Hauser said. “I was so concerned about them riding on the highways so long. And you know as a mom you’re like is she eating enough? Is she drinking enough? Are they getting any sleep?”
The Texas 4000 was founded in 2004 by Chris Condit, an electrical engineering student at the University of Texas. Condit was diagnosed with cancer at age 11, but managed to beat the disease. He wanted to find a way to support people fighting cancer, so with help from other students, he founded the longest charity bike ride in the world.
Most of the riders were not cyclists before getting involved with the Texas 4000. But Scott Crews, the executive director of the organization, said that jumping into a challenging situation is what makes this experience meaningful.
“Really the bike ride is a metaphor for the fight against cancer,” Crews said. “You don’t know every day what you’re going to face. You may get out on the road and there’s extreme weather conditions.”
Before setting off from Austin, each rider helps raise money to support cancer research and patient support services. This year the organization has collected more than $700,000 for groups like MD Anderson Cancer Center and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.
Participants are split into three teams, each with a separate route to Alaska. During the journey, teams ride up to 120 miles a day, sleeping at camp sites or staying with hosts who volunteer to put them up. At towns along the way they present donations to hospitals, speak with cancer patients and give presentations on cancer awareness.
The sound of sirens announced the arrival of the riders. After a fire truck and an ambulance rolled by, the crowd went wild as the three teams pedaled down the final stretch.
At the finish line the riders ditched their bikes and congratulated each other. Some laughed, some cried, but everyone was exhausted. Each team gathered together for a celebratory chant before reuniting with friends and family.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep us off the bike!” they cheered.
Many of the riders had personal connections to the cancer. Jeff Conley, a junior at UT, decided to ride the Texas 4000 on behalf of his grandmother. She passed away from lung cancer the day they set out from Austin, but Conley was able to find strength with help from the people he met along the way.
“The hosts we stay with, the people we meet, we’re only with them for a day,” Conley said. “And how much they can give us and how much they make this entire ride possible — it’s tremendous, it’s overwhelming. And just you kind of continue that generosity and pass it on to others, and continue fighting the good fight.”
Eventually Michelle Hauser found her daughter Aliyah in the crowd.
Aliyah said that over the summer, her team has practically become a second family for her.
“Throughout the summer we all learn how to love each other, and we’re constantly trying to love each other well,” Aliyah said. “And I think moving forward I want to be able to love people in my life really well.”
Aliyah said that the teams go through a lot together. Along the road there were many emotional conversations with people fighting cancer, and others who had lost friends and family to the disease.
Aliyah is excited to be finished, but said she will be sad to leave her teammates.
“When you build relationships like that and a community like that where you live with the same people for that long, it’s very hard to walk away from,” Aliyah said.
Although the ride may be over, she said the experience will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Steve Cruise as the executive director of the Texas 4000. Scott Crews is the executive director.