Maggie Piazzi is ready to see the inspiration for her riding as part of the Illini 4000 after she crosses the Golden Gate Bridge and finishes her 4,711th mile of riding on Thursday.
Waiting for Piazzi, a Gies College of Business junior and Libertyville High School graduate, will be several members of her family, including her father Chris. Piazzi’s dad was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) three years ago and received a dual liver-kidney transplant this past February. He is healthy now.
“Seeing him when I cross the bridge, I feel like I’m going to break down in tears,” said Piazzi, who is one of about 20 Illinois students and recent graduates to be participating in the cross-country bicycle ride, which began at New York City’s Central Park on May 18.
The Illini 4000, which began in 2007, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting the American cancer experience through The Portraits Project—a collection of narratives that demonstrate how Americans respond to cancer based on their unique life experiences and individual beliefs—plus raising funds for cancer research and patient support services, as well as spreading awareness for the fight against cancer through annual cross-country bike rides.
Piazzi is one of three Gies Business students or recent graduates to participate in this year’s Illini 4000, joining sophomore Ryan Watkins and new alumna Rachel Curtis. Watkins, a Normal Community High School graduate, and Curtis, a Champaign Centennial High School alumna, have loved the journey across America on two wheels.
“What motivates me to get through those tough long days on the bike is thinking about the cancer survivors, patients, or caretakers we meet along the way,” Curtis said. “The struggles of people battling this terrible disease is nothing compared to the struggles we face on the bike. It puts our struggles into prospective.”
Added Watkins: “I ride for all the members of my family who have been affected by cancer. In particular, my grandfather died as a result of esophageal cancer six years ago, and seeing what the disease did to a loved one made me want to make sure no one ever has to suffer through that someday.”
This year’s Illini 4000 group raised more than $110,000. They rode for 65 days – about 5 to 9 hours each day, averaging 70 miles—taking 11 rest days in between. The quest took them through numerous states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and finally California.
Piazzi earned eight varsity letters at Libertyville High School in golf, basketball and lacrosse, which she said helped her prepare for a 70-plus-day bike ride. Still, she, Watkins and Curtis all said the toughest part of the trip was riding into headwinds, especially in flatter states like Nebraska.
“It always feels like you’re going backwards,” Piazzi said of riding into the wind, and noted she much preferred to ride on hills and mountains including the highest point they visited – the 11,307-foot Berthoud Pass in Colorado.
Throughout the trip, the Illini 4000 group stayed in only one hotel, instead sleeping in churches, YMCAs, and outdoor camping spots. The three Gies members were constantly amazed by the generosity of strangers offering to buy them food or provide shelter.
Piazzi plans to spend more than a week with her family on vacation after she finishes her multi-month ride.
“I’m super excited to see my family and be reunited with them,” she said. “They say this trip changes your life. I’ve done it and I do feel different. Changing the way you live day in and day out and doing it for a great cause and seeing your actions make a difference every day, it’s such a cool thing.”
For more information on the Illini 4000, visit illini4000.org/mission/.