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Strangers' generosity moves cross-country cyclists

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | 1:25 p.m. CDT; updated 2:46 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 6, 2011

COLUMBIA — Lounging on the sidewalk and joking with friends during a Fourth of July celebration, the group of young adults didn’t look like hardcore cyclists doing a 4,700-mile bike tour.  Bike-shortstan lines peeking out of goofy American flag apparel were the only clues to their true identity.

Bess Kretsinger, Emily Downing, Brendan Murphy and Emily Canfield rode into Columbia on Saturday as part of their cross-country bike tour.  The group started their trip on the East Coast in May and is hoping to finish in Los Angeles by August 18. 

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The tour promotes Falling Whistles; an organization advocating for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Although they are now riding for Falling Whistles, group members were initially drawn to the bike tour for the learning experience it would provide. They didn’t realize just how much they would learn.

“I’m excited to get back. I feel like I’ve grown up a lot, and I’m excited to see how it transfers to everyday life,” Canfield said.

The cyclists spent months planning their trip, but things haven’t gone as expected. Two groups were supposed to start on the East Coast and meet in Colorado to finish the trip together. Within the first few weeks though, all the cyclists biking with Downing dropped out. 

After the others quit, Downing, a 20-year old MU junior, rode from North Carolina to Indiana by herself to meet the remaining cyclists.

“I couldn’t tell my parents because I knew they would freak out," she said.  "I actually didn’t tell them until recently, when I met up with the rest of the group.”

Physical, mental and economic challenges are to blame for the group's downsize, but the remaining four are confident they will complete the tour. 

“By this time, if you wanted to stop, you already would have," Downing said.

The cyclists cover between 35 and 80 miles per day, depending on where their next stop is.

“At first, it’s a huge shock to your body, but it just takes some time to get used to the fact that you can do this,” Canfield said.

They said their biggest obstacle now is the mental challenge of biking eight to 12 hours every day.

Although the tour has been difficult so far, the group was amazed at strangers’ generosity.

“This trip for me is really learning about humanity,” Kretsinger said.

Strangers are constantly offering to help, and the group receives texts almost daily from people they’ve met so far.

Murphy explained that one day the group biked 80 miles to Gary, Ind., to catch a train to Chicago.  Once arriving at the station, the cyclists were told they couldn’t bring their bikes on board, so they instead camped behind a motorcycle bar called Leroy’s Hot Stuff.  The next day the bar owner, Leroy himself, worried their route to Chicago was too dangerous, borrowed a truck to drive them to their next stop.

“Usually when people offer to help, we’re already set up, but it still touches you,” Murphy said.  “That’s the greatest part of the tour, just meeting people that are so nice.”


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