Rabbi Aaron Spivak of Monsey did not learn to ride a bike until three years ago, when a good friend came back glowing from the annual 180-mile Bike4Chai fundraiser on behalf of Chai Lifeline, a New York-based international support network for children with life-threatening or lifelong illnesses and their families.
“The next morning I took my son’s bike and went to an adult bike-riding class in the Bronx, and I haven’t looked back,” said Rabbi Spivak, 39-year-old teacher, author, and mental-health counselor.
In 2016 and 2017, Rabbi Spivak rode in Bike4Chai on his own. This year, however, he is co-captaining the brand-new Team Rockland, a group of 24 local men planning to do the full route, starting in Princeton on the morning of August 1 and ending on the afternoon of August 2 at Camp Simcha Special in the Catskills. Simcha is a free overnight camp for 120 boys with chronic illnesses and medical challenges; Chai Lifeline’s various Camp Simcha summer programs for boys and girls serve about 500 campers.
All told, some 550 cyclists will participate in Bike4Chai in this, its ninth year.
“Bike4Chai and its sister ride for women, Tour de Simcha, bring out the best in people,” Rabbi Simcha Scholar, Chai Lifeline’s executive vice president, said. “Participants are competing not to win but to inspire their communities and the families of Chai Lifeline. With every mile, they help children facing serious pediatric medical challenges and their families to access crucial programs and services that enable them to find joy and hope in everyday life.”
Over the July 4 holiday, 230 women took part in the 75-mile Tour de Simcha, raising more than $1.2 million. Bike4Chai raised $8.4 million in 2017.
Rabbi Spivak saw that riders organized into teams had more fun and fundraising clout, so he started Team Rockland, whose members range in age from early 20s to 60s.
“The camaraderie, mixed with a bit of peer pressure and competition, spurs members of a team to really achieve more than they would have as individuals,” he said. “And to go to a business and ask them to sponsor Team Rockland rather than an individual rider gives them more incentive to sponsor. Our goal this summer is to raise a quarter of a million dollars. Many members told me they raised so much more money than they have in the past due to the encouragement and support of the team, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Team Rockland member JJ Eizik, 27, of Monsey, will make the trek on an adaptive hand cycle. Mr. Eizik was diagnosed with cancer when he was 16. He has survived five bouts of the disease; his left leg was amputated, but that doesn’t keep him down.
“I think that it is important for people to see that no matter what life throws at you, if you want to do something for yourself or for others, you can do it,” Mr. Eizik said.
Mr. Eizik, a sous chef at Nobo Wine & Grill in Teaneck, has been training for his sixth Bike4Chai with certified triathlete coach David Roher, also of Teaneck, whom he met on the ride two years ago. The farthest Mr. Eizik has ridden in past events is 140 miles. This year, he intends to go the full distance.
Mr. Eizik explained that he feels indebted to Camp Simcha, where he spent six summers — two as a staff member. As of this writing, he’d gathered $10,600 in pledges, a personal high.
“When you’re thrown into the world of cancer it sort of strips you of your childhood,” he said. “Camp Simcha really gives that back to you and lets you be a kid — a normal kid — and have fun. And they do it for hundreds of kids each year. Bike4Chai is a way to raise money and give back to the organization that gave me so much.”
It was easy to learn how to ride a hand cycle, but not easy at all to build up the requisite strength to do an endurance ride, Mr. Eizik said. “Over the past years I’ve trained as much as I can. Now I try to ride two or three times a week. Once a week when I’m off work I do a long-distance ride of 30 to 50 miles.”
In addition to the 24 Team Rockland members, individual men from Suffern, Spring Valley, and Monsey are gearing up for Bike4Chai. Altogether, 51 Rockland residents are registered for the ride.
There also are 34 riders registered from Bergen and Passaic counties.
Brian Haimm of Englewood, a board member of Chai Lifeline and Bike4Chai, has participated every summer since 2011. At first, he saw it as a worthy way to get into good physical condition. Since 2014, he has dedicated his efforts to Evan Levy, the son of a close friend, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 2. Evan died 18 months later.
“Evan’s family, in conjunction with Chai Lifeline, has established the Evan Levy Fund, with the sole purpose of alleviating some of the monetary pressure that families in crisis face,” Mr. Haimm, 49, the father of four children, said.
“This bike ride has now become personal. I ride for Evan and his grit and his toughness. I ride for every child warrior battling cancer. I ride for the parents that struggle to pay the bills while they care for their child.”
Since 2011, Mr. Haimm, a finance executive, has raised more than a million dollars for Chai Lifeline. “This is our ninth year and our goal is $9 million,” he said. “We hope to raise $10 million next year.”
Though the ride takes place in the summer, the logistics are a year-round job. So is the physical preparation.
“I do strength training and light riding in the winter, and then from April until the event I ride about 200 miles a week,” Mr. Haimm said. “I have a coach and a bunch of friends I ride with.”
Joining the 550 cyclists — mostly from New York and New Jersey — this year are 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans; 17-time Tour de France competitor George Hincapie; 2012 Giro d’Italia Grand Tour champion Ryder Hesjede; Christian Vande Velde, a retired American professional road-racing cyclist; former New York Giant Amani Toomer; former New York Ranger Mike Richter; actor Sean Ringgold; and members of Israel’s professional cycling team, Israel Cycling Academy.
For Mr. Haimm, the looks on the campers’ faces when the cyclists roll into Camp Simcha is what makes the challenging ride worth every drop of sweat.
“Every year I promise I’m not going to cry,” he said. “But you’re so overwhelmed with joy and emotion when you see the children cheering you on, you can’t help getting choked up.
“You know that you did it to put a smile on those children’s faces.”
Riders can be sponsored through the website, www.bike4chai.com.