Put away the Passover dishes, take out the cycling gear.
That was the order of business for 251 Jewish women — 19 of them from North Jersey — getting ready to participate in the Tour de Simcha bikeathon planned for July 19.
Each woman commits to raising a minimum of $2,500 from sponsors for the benefit of Chai Lifeline, an international nonprofit organization whose many services for Jewish children with life-threatening illness include kosher summer sleepaway camps: Camp Simcha for children with cancer and blood disorders, and Camp Simcha Special for children with chronic conditions. There are separate sessions for boys and girls.
Training begins post-Passover to make sure everyone’s in shape for the ride, which is scheduled for the middle of Camp Simcha Special Girls. The women finish the 75-mile journey (shorter routes are available) by riding triumphantly into the camp in Glen Spey, New York, to the great delight of campers and staff.
“We cheer them on and dance with them,” said Mindy Tyner, coordinator of Tour de Simcha, describing the happy scene over the past five summers of the bikeathon’s existence.
“Last year we had 170 riders and raised almost a million dollars,” she added. “This year our unofficial goal is one-and-a-quarter million, which goes toward Chai Lifeline’s $23 million budget. A nice chunk of that is for the free Camp Simcha programs for 430 kids from all over the world.”
A 180-mile men’s ride, Bike4Chai, started a couple of years before and is timed for the middle of the boys’ session in August.
Remarkably, nine of the registered Tour de Simcha riders are 60 and older. We spoke to three of them from Teaneck: Joan Enker, Chaya Goldsmith, and Susan Alpert.
“I had a long hiatus of 17 years since I last biked, but I used to bike and wanted to start again,” Ms. Enker said.
Yet her old Trek bike might have stayed in mothballs if it weren’t for a visit to Camp Simcha last summer to see her daughter, Jennifer, a pediatric oncology nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering who has volunteered at Camp Simcha for a decade.
“She has talked about Camp Simcha for years but I was never there,” Ms. Enker said. “Last summer my husband and I went to visit, and I had to lift my jaw off the floor when I saw the camp. They have a helipad and an ambulance and an infirmary that is functioning like a hospital. Jenn has talked about some of the issues they have to deal with. But these kids are really in camp, like kids who don’t have cancer, even if they’re walking around with an IV pole.
“Every accomplishment is celebrated by the whole camp, and there’s so much spirit and compassion and caring.”
Ms. Enker had found her inspiration for joining Tour de Simcha. “I felt this would be a great thing to do, having seen this place and what it takes to run it,” she said. “Life throws us many challenges we don’t want, and this was a challenge I chose.”
She didn’t started training until the beginning of May. “I waited until I was certain I would feel comfortable. I’m 66 and I can’t be cocky about it because that’s how you get injured,” she said; she has had back problems. “But I took a few rides and it felt great, so I got serious about it.”
Chai Lifeline provides a coach to answer questions and distribute suggested training schedules. In addition, riders form neighborhood WhatsApp groups to communicate with the coach, with one another, and with neighborhood “ambassadors” who provide encouragement. Many of the women train in groups or pairs.
Ms. Enker recently went with her Tour de Simcha group to ride at the boat basin in Englewood. “We did 10 miles altogether, with 5 of the miles uphill. It felt absolutely exhilarating to know I could do this. I rode up another hill when I got home, just because I could.”
Ms. Goldsmith, 60, has done the 40-mile Tour de Simcha route the past three summers. She found out about it during an online search for charitable bike rides.
“Tour de Simcha is very tough because of the July heat, extreme elevations and distance to cover in a short time,” she said. That is why she recommends that potential participants test-drive the route beforehand.
The hilly ride starts at Crystal Springs Resort in Vernon at 6:30 a.m. The women spend the previous night there, are treated to a pasta party, and hear a camper talk about Camp Simcha.
Every 10 to 12 miles along the route, there’s a rest stop and all riders have the option of finishing the route in a support vehicle. Everyone meets up half a mile from camp and arrives as a group at 3 o’clock. By that time, the temperature can climb pretty high.
Ms. Goldsmith said she had been an avid cycler as a child but hadn’t ridden in a long time. “I had to get a new aluminum-and-carbon bike because my old one was too heavy to get up hills. Now I have an all-carbon bike with electronic gears.”
The first time Ms. Goldsmith participated, she became riding partners with Leslie Morrison of Passaic, the only other new rider from northern New Jersey that year. They still cycle together.
“Our training rides vary from flat road to a five-mile hill with 1,283-foot elevation,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “We also ride in many other organized rides, like the Hudson Valley Ride and the TD Five Boro Bike Tour.”
This year Ms. Goldsmith successfully encouraged several other Teaneck women to register for Tour de Simcha, “because the experience is amazing and the reward for doing the ride is the happiness we bring the campers.”
One of those friends is Susan Alpert, 68.
“At my age, it’s important to think outside of your normal box and push yourself in different ways, mentally and physically,” Ms. Alpert said. “Chaya has been riding three years, and some other friends decided to do it, so I thought it was a nice thing we could all do together. I could get some exercise and do something meaningful for these kids at the same time.”
Ms. Alpert hadn’t been on a bicycle in about 45 years, aside from a short ride around the block 15 years ago. So she bought a new bike and tested it out.
“The first time I zigzagged for a few minutes and then it came back to me. I got that feeling of freedom I remember from when I rode as a kid. My body had to get used to it, but I figured my thighs hurting is nothing next to what these kids in Camp Simcha face every day.”
Unfortunately, however, during her third training session she took a spill in Saddle River Park after finishing eight miles out of a planned 20. Though the cast will be off her leg by July 19, she will have to drive, rather than cycle, to Glen Spey.
“I spoke to Mindy Tyner, and she said we’d put the pledges I raised toward next year,” Ms. Alpert said. “I’m sending a note to everybody who donated to tell them I’m going to be riding virtually. My heart is still in it — although my leg isn’t.”
Ms. Tyner admires Ms. Alpert’s devotion to the cause and invited her to attend the pre-bikeathon pasta party in Vernon. Ms. Alpert would have been the oldest participant this year. That distinction now belongs to a 67-year-old rider.
Ms. Tyner reports that Tour de Simcha bikers have ranged in age from 9 to the late 60s. “We had one woman who signed up when she was 50 years old, and she had never worked out a day in her life,” Ms. Tyner said. “Her longest training ride that first year was 11 miles and she did 22 miles on the ride before hopping into one of our support vehicles. The next year she rode 50 miles!”
Supporters can contribute to Tour de Simcha at www.tourdesimcha.org. All donations are 100 percent tax-deductible.