Every year, undaunted by hills and valleys, cyclists pedal their way through three states.
“It’s the same basic route every year,” said Melanie Kwestel, communications director for Chai Lifeline, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the idea that seriously ill children need and deserve as happy and normal a childhood as possible.
Bike4Chai, the group’s annual cycling event now in its seventh year, raises money to provide emotional, social, and financial support to children with life-threatening or lifelong illnesses, and their families. This year’s ride took place August 3-4.
“The route runs through Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York,” Ms. Kwestel said. “But every year we vary it because the bikers ask for more challenging routes. The first year, a guy said it wasn’t hilly enough. Someone else wanted the 180-mile route to be longer.
“This is a group of people who are extremely competitive with one another,” she added.
Fortunately, the riders, “a lot of top business guys,” compete not only to ride the farthest but also to raise the most money for the organization. Some are part of the 100K club, raising more than $100,000 to benefit sick children. Their efforts extend throughout the year, and they’re not just in conjunction with the race.
The race concludes as riders pass through what Chai Lifeline calls “The World’s Greatest Finish Line,” the entrance gate to Camp Simcha Special, Chai Lifeline’s overnight camp for children with chronic illnesses and medical challenges.
“As the riders get stronger every year, so must the challenge,” rider Yehuda Blinder of Englewood said. “Though every participant recognizes the B4C ride is about the kids in camp, their families, and the organization, it’s still great for riders to feel a true sense of accomplishment at the finish line.”
Mr. Blinder has been a Bike4Chai participant since 2011, but a supporter of Chai Lifeline for at least 20 years. He first became acquainted with Camp Simcha when a group of friends dedicated a basketball court there in memory of a close friend “who passed away from cancer at a young age in 1987. That was my first exposure to the organization, and I’ve been more or less involved ever since.”
Mr. Blinder said he rides throughout the year, “most frequently with fellow B4C riders Brian Haimm, Chaim Wietschner, Yossi Cohn, and Richard Schenkman.” He also participates in group rides with the Tenafly Roadawgz, a local riding club. Chai Lifeline, he said, does “an incredible job for the riders, from the accommodations to the food and support. No other ride is comparable. And the finish line celebration is the greatest in the world!”
Mark Sultan, also from Englewood, has been participating in Bike4Chai since 2012 as part of Team SYclist, a group of Syrian Jewish riders. “I do it for the cause,” Dr. Sultan said. “It’s just amazing. If you’re lucky enough to witness the camp in action at any time, you see what incredible work the people there do — the administration as well as the volunteers. It’s awe-inspiring.
“It’s an organization that puts helping people at the forefront of its goals and does an amazing job in achieving that goal,” he continued. “There’s very little ego in the administration. They’re not looking for accolades.”
Of course, Dr. Sultan also participates because of his “love of riding, and the feeling of camaraderie.” Since he rides with both “the Englewood group” (which includes riders from Teaneck) and the Syrian group, “I straddle the border,” he said, noting that the Syrian group includes riders from Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as from Bergen County.
Acknowledging the increasing difficulty level of the ride each year, Dr. Sultan said, “There’s a lot of testosterone on that ride. We like to be challenged.” He agreed with Mr. Blinder that “organizers do an incredible job in picking the route.” While the number of riders has “grown exponentially, their safety record is quite amazing.” (This is an all-male ride. A women’s ride, Tour de Simcha, was held in July, and 200 women raised $1 million.)
Many of this year’s 500 participants cannot ride the full course. “They can call up at any point and say, ‘I’m done,’” Ms. Kwestel said. “Vans come to pick them up with their bicycles. They do as much as they can, but they all end up at the camp. They go there together.”
One participant knew from the start that he couldn’t finish the race. Yossi Rotberg was born with physical challenges that delayed normal development. He began walking when he was 5 years old, and he learned to ride a bicycle when he was 9. Growing up in Lakewood, the home of Chai Lifeline’s New Jersey regional office, friends inspired Mr. Rotberg to join Team Lakewood in riding for Chai Lifeline.
Raising $18,000 — new cyclists are asked to raise a minimum of $5,000 — Mr. Rotberg was philosophical from the start: “I don’t know if I’m going to complete Chai Lifeline’s ride, but I’m going to complete my ride,” he said before the ride began.
The participants include both corporate and honorary teams. There are a number of Bergen County riders, from Bergenfield, Englewood, Teaneck, Tenafly, and Woodcliff Lake, and some from Passaic as well. This year, there were 33 cyclists from Bergen and Passaic counties.
“They’re such a committed group,” Ms. Kwestel said of the riders. “The number one team is Team Meridian,” which, as of this weekend, had raised more than $900,000. Team SYclist had brought in some $620,000. As of this writing, the total amount raised by participants was just short of $6 million.
Joining the 500 cyclists were Cadel Evans, who won the Tour de France in 2011, 17-time Tour de France competitor George Hincapie, and three former NFL players — Amani Toomer, Tony Richardson, and Alan Veingrad.
Ms. Kwestel has deep admiration for all the riders. “They’re committed to the event and to the children,” she said. “To do this, they get up at 4 a.m. for training rides. They ride into camp and dance with the children. This truly is the world’s greatest finish line. The cyclists will be enveloped in a great hug by 120 campers, many who need wheelchairs, respirators, or other medical equipment to survive, and 200 staff members.”
“The kids know they’re doing it for them,” she said. “They’re pumped up. It’s a major celebration. When the riders come into camp, they see a huge arch that says ‘Finish Line: Bike4Chai.’ There is also singing and dancing.
“There’s nothing Chai Lifeline does not do to help kids and families.”
Volunteers visit hospitals to cheer kids up and provide support for parents, and the iShine program provides after-school programs for children living with illness or loss in their homes,” she continued. Every year, the Englewood community creates a “Friends’n Fun Weekend” in memory of Sari Ort, for girls who are battling cancer and other serious illnesses. This year’s commemoration was on April 2.
Chai Lifeline has affiliates not only in the United States but in Canada, England, Israel, and Belgium as well, and the organization serves 5,000 families around the world each year. All programs are free. “Illness is so expensive,” Ms. Kwestel said. “Everything [from Chai Lifeline] is free. For kids who don’t come from here, we pay their airfare from their home city. And someone is there to fly with them.” The camp is kosher and provides a Jewish environment.
For more information about Chai Lifeline, go to chailifeline.org.