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Riders Bond, Push Hard During LOWVELO

group of cyclists sit on their bikes at the lowvelo 19 starting line

LOWVELO proved to be an exhilarating community-building experience.

Ninety-seven miles into a 100-mile bike ride, Rita Barbagallo of Georgia ignored the pain in muscles that she didn’t even know she had. She had just three miles left in what was her first century ride. She psyched herself up. She could do this.

But then, something felt way off. She pulled off to the side to check out her bike. She had a flat. “‘OK. That’s it,’” she thought.

It was just the excuse she needed to climb into the support and gear (SAG) truck that was following her and be taken to the finish line. Everyone was waiting on her so they could go home as she was the last rider on the Jerry Zucker 100-mile route – one of three available to the nearly 600 riders participating in LOWVELO, an outdoor bike ride held last weekend to raise funds for cancer research at Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. As the SAG driver helped her fix her tire, she told him she had done enough and was packing it in. But he just shook his head. “He would have none of that,” she says, smiling.

“If it weren’t for that push, I wouldn’t have made it. You don’t realize the difference one person can make. I was exhausted,” she says. “Sometimes in life we get so insular – just the fact that there was this one person pushing me helped me finish that ride. It showed how there really is humanity in people.”

That there’s strength in numbers was a big theme of the ride, which was billed as a ride – not a race. It was a way for people to come together and bond over one cause. Barbagallo, who was riding for a college roommate with stage 4 cancer and a colleague who recently lost his mother to cancer, is about 60% of the way to her fundraising goal of $1,500. She and other riders who haven’t met their fundraising minimums have until Jan. 2 to raise money. She’s not worried. If she can finish the 100-mile bike route, she can finish the campaign.

“They use to call it the ‘C-word,’ and no one talked about it,” she says. “We’ve come a long way. Now if we could just take it to the finish line.”

That’s exactly the point, says Hollings Cancer Center Director Gustavo Leone. Having seen the success of this fundraising model at other cancer centers across the nation, he wanted to try it here. Hollings is the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center and aims both to reach the medically underserved as well as lead the state in advancing cancer research.

“This was an amazing ride, and I felt great starting and finishing. I love the volunteers, the smiles, the happiness – the staff, the riders. It was a phenomenal day, and I’m just so proud of the team coming together and doing this. This is a big deal,” he says of the inaugural event.

Leone, who rode the 100-mile route, says it brought the community and cancer center together in a powerful way, and it appealed to a broad range of riders. The youngest rider was 15 and the oldest, 79.

“It’s a lot of people and a lot of organizations,” he explained. “I think this is something the community can be proud of. I’m so eager to take all those funds that people pedaled hard for and put it to good use. This is a good thing for the community, and it’s a bad thing for cancer.”

LOWVELO rider recruiter manager Shannon Rice agrees. Many people in the ride were cancer survivors or rode because someone in their lives had been affected. The best part for her was meeting all the riders and volunteers and learning their stories.

“Knowing the challenges they faced as the ride approached and seeing them cross the finish lines brought tears to my eyes,” she says. “It was amazing to see all the smiling faces and tears of success as their friends and families hugged them at the finish lines.”

One of those riders was cancer survivor MaryNell Goolsby. Just 10 months after having undergone major surgery to treat her distal cholangiocarinoma, a type of bile duct cancer, she decided to ride in LOWVELO. She loved the bonds she formed with other riders, volunteers and researchers at Hollings Cancer Center.

“I thought about how the scientists and researchers must feel every day knowing that they are making a positive difference in the lives of so many with all of their hard work, and I felt honored to be able to play some small role in helping them to work toward achieving their goal of finding a cure for cancer.”

Goolsby’s treatment required an intensive operation known as the Whipple Procedure, which involved a 6-inch incision through her abdominal muscles to remove parts of her pancreas, stomach and small intestine, her gallbladder and bile duct. Still, Goolsby signed up for LOWVELO, wanting to focus on a positive goal, and hoped that she would be up for the challenge of the Boeing 50-mile route. During the ride, energized by the enthusiasm and support of others, she bypassed the turn off for the 50-mile finale and went for the 100. “I thought that someone will receive the horrible diagnosis of cancer someday and may hear my story – hear about me riding 100 miles less than a year after my surgery and two months after finishing chemo, and it may give them hope. What a wonderful gift that allows me to give to others.”

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