By the time Jon Schlegel had arrived in Milford, Utah on July 28, he had learned a few things: what a bike looks like when it explodes, what Foam Henge is, and what alpacas smell like at night.
"One guy’s bike just exploded when we were climbing a hill," said Schlegel. "I honestly don’t know how it happened. Luckily, we had a bus driving alongside us so it wasn’t too bad."
Schlegel and eight others are biking across the United States to raise money for the American Cancer Society’s Bike-A-Thon. The undertaking, founded by Schlegel and Jerry Dischler, is called the Penn Ride for Cancer, after one of Schlegel’s alma maters, the University of Pennsylvania. The journey has taken the riders 3,000 miles across the Appalachian hills and Colorado mountains and will lead them through the Nevada desert before their ride is over.
Among the natural — and manmade — wonders the riders have passed on their way is southwestern Virginia’s Foam Henge. According to Schlegel, Foam Henge is a tribute to the ancient Stonehenge structure in Salisbury, England, but made entirely of foam. "It was huge," he said.
In all, since they started June 1, Schlegel and the other riders will have covered 4,300 miles from Philadelphia to San Francisco by the end of the tour.
Schlegel, 27, grew up in Vienna and graduated from James Madison High School before attending the Georgia Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. He founded the project in memory of his father, Howard, who died of malignant melanoma in 1982.
"He always gave back to the community. He touched a lot of kids coaching baseball," said Schlegel of his father, who had lived in Vienna for 20 years and who was a Vienna Little League coach for many of those years.
"(Howard) would have loved something like this," said Schlegel’s sister Jeanne. "He was a good athlete himself, playing tennis in college. He was always very active, he loved this kind of thing. He would’ve been proud."
"If I’m going to do (the bike ride), I have to have some purpose behind it," said Jon Schlegel. "Cancer is something that touched my life, and it’s something I’m interested in helping defeat."
TO DATE, said Jeanne Schlegel, the riders have raised over $50,000. Each rider raised $3,000 on their own, and sponsors such as McKinsey & Company, Drive Sports, the American Cancer Society and Adventure Cycling Association have also contributed money or equipment.
"I’m very happy he’s doing this, the American Cancer Society is very happy he’s doing this," said Colleen Fitzwater, vice president of marketing and communication for the American Cancer Society. "We’re glad he’s supporting cancer patients and cancer research with this project."
Schlegel’s mother, Marie, had reservations about the trip when Schlegel first brought it up.
"When he presented the ride to me, he called and said, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ I thought it was interesting, I said, ‘I don’t know,’" said Marie Schlegel. "But when I thought about it later, it seemed really cool that he was doing it for his dad, that it would be an adventure."
"He really got it into his head that he was going to put this project together," said Jeanne Schlegel. "He did a lot of the work himself, really did a great job, and even on the days when he thought the project was not going to go well, he never thought of not going."
"He did it all himself," said Marie Schlegel. "The only thing I’m giving him is moral support."
"It’s amazing, they have practically no overhead," said Jeanne Schlegel, who is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and a Vienna resident. "By the time they had got to Kansas, they only had spent $200. They’ve had so much charity from people across the United States in terms of lodging and food."
Free lodging is where the alpaca barn comes in. One night, said Jon Schlegel, he and the other riders spent the night in a Colorado barn to escape a hailstorm. The barn’s owners, as it turned out, were also alpaca breeders. The riders have also stayed in laundromats, campsites and hotel rooms donated to them by local citizens.
"It’s cool to see how the topology of the country changes, and also how the people change," said Jon Schlegel. "Westerners seem more environmentally conscious. They have more environmental wonders to protect."
"They all went to a rodeo, and three of the riders participated in the rodeo," said Jeanne Schlegel. "It’s a good education for them ... it’s shocking for them to see the Western country."
"It’s the last period where I’ll have three months in my life to be able to do this," said Jon Schlegel. After graduating from Penn this year with a master’s degree in business administration to supplement his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, Jon Schlegel will move to San Francisco to work.
"It’s a symbolic move, biking from Philadelphia to San Francisco," he said.