The first few days of the ride will probably be easy. Texas is fairly flat, so cycling through the state should be a breeze. Even Oklahoma and New Mexico should go quickly and without incident.
There may be days, though, when Gabriela Torres may rethink her decision to ride 4,500 miles across the United States and Canada to reach her goal: Anchorage, Alaska.
Days when she has to fight the pain as she pedals and climbs mountains. Days when she has to cycle against 20- or 30-mile-per-hour headwinds. Days when she’ll want to throw in the towel, or only be able to bike 60 miles instead of the 80 miles planned.
She says she will keep going, though. For her, it’s the only way to turn her anger into something positive.
Recently, cancer hit Torres hard. The Edcouch native didn’t have the disease, but in 2011, one of her best friends, Ruel Bobet, was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
“His father is currently battling cancer,” said the 21-year-old University of Texas at Austin student. “But then he was diagnosed himself … and his mother just got diagnosed with cancer, as well, about four months ago. I can’t imagine what that’s like and this is the least I can do.”
In 2011, both Bobet and Torres joined Texas 4000, a nonprofit organization aiming to fund the fight against cancer. University of Texas students run the cycling group, which, for the past 10 years, goes on an annual 4,500-mile ride from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska. Each student raises $4,500 to donate to the organization.
Torres’ personal goal is $10,000. She’s about halfway there.
“I initially joined Texas 4000 because my grandfather passed away due to lung cancer, but we didn’t find out he passed away for that reason until after his autopsy,” Torres said.
Her reason for cycling with the group changed when she took an emotional ride with Bobet through the last 10 months of his life.
“He was from Katy, and I was in Katy every other weekend,” Torres said. “… We were really, really close. He was my best friend on the team. He often spent the night at my apartment and we hung out a lot.
So when he was diagnosed, I was very much a part of it.”
From May 2011, through January 2012, the UT student received treatment at MD Anderson, one of the recipients of Texas 4000 donations.
Bobet endured radiation, chemotherapy and surgery to no avail. Months before he would ride alongside Torres last summer, he succumbed to the disease.
“The last time I saw him face to face was at MD Anderson when they told him there was nothing else they could do for him anymore,” Torres said. “He fought it bravely, and was very positive throughout the entire thing. Ruel always kept his spirits up.”
Although Torres has been inspired to live her life as Bobet did — with a smile every day — she can’t help feeling confused and upset.
“I’m very angry about it, and I still don’t really understand why it happened. He was my age — 21 years old … I think it just lit a fire under me. I became very serious about training and about, I think, kind of getting revenge,” Torres said. “I know it sounds silly, but that’s the only way I can put it. And the only way I’m able to transform all this anger that I feel because of what happened to him into something positive is through Texas 4000.”
Torres wasn’t always an athlete. She learned how to ride a bike when she was 16. She wasn’t physically active. Texas 4000 completely changed that for her, though.
After Ruel passed away, Torres wanted nothing to do with her bicycle or biking for about a month.
“I started seriously training in March,” she said. “I’ve been cycling four times a week ever since then. I’m running a half marathon, something I never thought I’d be doing, in February.”
During her winter break, Torres biked 85 miles from Edcouch to South Padre Island — her longest ride yet. It’s all in preparation for the 4,500-mile ride she’ll complete in the summer.
More than 70 students will take one of three routes: the Sierras, along the Pacific Coast; the Rockies, along the Rocky Mountains; or the Ozarks, along the Ozark Mountains.
They will ride 60 to 125 miles each day, stopping every 20 miles for rest, water and snacks.
“Alumni riders have always said that there’s no real way to prepare for something like this, but you obviously have to be at a certain fitness level to complete this,” Torres said. “It’s going to be the hardest thing I’ll ever do, and it’s going to be beautiful, and there will be a lot of climbing.”
Cyclists on the Rockies route, which Torres will be taking, will ride through more than half a dozen states, a handful of western Canadian provinces and the Yukon.
“You just take it day by day, just like a cancer patient battles the disease day by day, and every day is different,” Torres said.
Throughout the year, travel committees within the Texas 4000 group plan the stops along the routes, such as host families willing to take in 25 cyclists for an evening. If they don’t have a host, the group will set up camp somewhere along the way. The only hotel the group stays in is Anchorage, Alaska, which is donated.
“We try to get as much donated as possible so that we don’t have to spend any money because we don’t have it — we’re a nonprofit,” Torres said. “Every single year, we have not spent a penny on food, from what I understand, or on housing. We just have to figure it out.”
This year, Texas 4000 members hope to raise a total of $600,000.
Torres plans to join the donations committee to help decide where the money will go.
After a long year of training, Torres sees now how she can help her friend Bobet, and others who are battling cancer.
“It just changes your life,” she said. “You just have to become healthier, and you want to because you’re an advocate for health. You’re telling people to be healthy and that the way they can beat the odds and not get cancer … is through living a healthy lifestyle. Before Texas 4000, I wasn’t doing that, and through this, it’s definitely been a change of lifestyle.”
Although Bobet won’t be joining Torres on her ride through the Rocky Mountains, Torres said he will be with her in spirit.
“He wanted to do this more than anything and I’m taking him with me and I think that’s how it’s affected me,” she said. “I’m very upset, but at the same time, I live my life with a smile on my face every day because I know that’s what he would’ve wanted. And that’s how he lived his life.”
Amy Nichol Smith covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. She can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4420.