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Local cyclists take on miles of roads in the pursuit of helping others

Jim Vail and the MO Hab Riders

Jim Vail, 81, maintains a physical fitness program that includes a lengthy annual bike ride to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.

At an age when many are retired and thinking about scaling back their physical activities, Jim Vail kicked his up a notch or two. Some 20 years later, he hasn’t stopped and, in the process, has helped to raise some $400,000 for Habitat for Humanity.

Vail retired in 1995 after teaching industrial technology at Lafayette High since 1961.

Three years later, in 1998, Vail and his wife, Linda, heard the assistant pastor at Manchester United Methodist Church tell of his plans to ride his bike across the state to raise funds for the Habitat program. Concerned about the possibility that the minister would be making the trip alone, Linda suggested her husband go with him. So Vail purchased a bike and a few months later pedaled with the pastor and a few others from St. Charles to Kansas City.

That journey marked the birth of the MO Hab Riders. The organization’s members have made similar long-distance rides annually since then. The 2019 bike trip was a 250-miler from Pontiac, Illinois, to a welcome center just over the state line in St. Louis. At least that’s how it originally was planned. 

Flooding in area brought the ride to a halt at a fast food restaurant on the Illinois side, but Vail is sure the group actually covered more than the scheduled 250 miles at a pace of some 50 miles daily. 

The annual fundraising bike trips involve more than the ride itself. Three months before the trip, the MO Hab Riders begin a conditioning program with weekend jaunts of increasing distances designed to get them in shape for the five-day, 50-mile-per-day pace needed for the June trip.

In addition, Vail participates in informal rides organized on an ad hoc basis by group members. He also frequents the fitness center at Meramec Bluffs where he and Linda now live, or goes to The Pointe in Ballwin for workouts on a stationary bike and with weights. It’s no surprise Vail maintains a weight of about 160 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame. 

“I used to be 6 feet tall but I’ve shrunk a bit,” he laments with a smile. “But I can still wear the same clothes I did when I graduated from college.”

Since 2000, Vail also has participated seven times in the annual ride across Iowa sponsored by the Des Moines Register. The event draws some 15,000 participants.

He confesses that during this year’s MO Hab ride he had to walk his 24-speed racing bike up one particularly difficult hill. But at the age of 81, he has no plans to halt his biking and fundraising efforts. 

“At my age, I just tell people I want to continue as long as I can,” he said.

Tricia Whelan and Pedal the Cause

Tricia Whelan

The weekend of Sept. 28-29, riders in the annual Pedal the Cause event will regroup at the Chesterfield Amphitheater for another bout of fundraising in support of Siteman Cancer Center and Siteman Kids at St. Louis Children’s Hospital through a cycling challenge. Founded in 2009, with the goal of using 100% of public donations to fund research, Pedal the Cause has raised over $24 million to date.

Chesterfield resident Tricia Whelan is one of the cyclists who annually pedals for the cause.

“Every year I go, and I cry my eyes out because all the kids gather at the Chesterfield Amphitheater the night before [the event] … there are these 100 or so kids all fighting cancer, and they have their Pedal the Cause shirts on,” Whelan said. “They’re the real warriors.”

While Whelan has been participating for the past five years, her initial venture into the realm of bicycling challenges came in 1993 when she and a couple friends began fundraising for the MS150 Ride, a cycling challenge of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

When asked to give, Whelan went the extra step. “I said, ‘I’ll do better than that, I’ll ride in it.’ I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Whelan said. “I had no idea the bike needed to be fitted properly, so my knees were killing me, but I made it. That was the first time I’d ever ridden a bike since I was a kid. There’s were a couple hills that I had to get off and walk.”

Whelan went on to ride in the event for the next 15 years, clocking in distances of between 75 miles a day to 200 miles in a weekend.

“I had such a good time that I rode it every year,” Whelan said.

While Whelan cut her cycling teeth fundraising for the MS150, she says Pedal the Cause is more personal, inspired by her mother’s recovery from breast cancer.

“That was about 14 years ago, and she survived it,” Whelan said. “I started riding because I knew that money would go toward breast cancer. [But] once you do one, you can’t stop!”  

In 2018, Whelan was honored as a St. Luke’s Hospital Healthy Woman Award honoree. The award recognized another cycling feat – her biking across the entire state of Wisconsin in one week, just before her 59th birthday. The ride was part of the annual Ride Across Wisconsin event. That year, Whelan and her cycling group rode about 300 miles from one end of Wisconsin to the other.

“I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and I go with the same group of people from St. Louis,” Whelan said of the Wisconsin event. “We get there on a Saturday, and you leave on a Saturday, but you ride every day in-between. It’s a blast, because I’m meeting with all my friends who ride. There’s a real camaraderie.”

Conditioning periods for events varies from rider to rider, but in order to train for events like Pedal the Cause, Whelan cycles year-round. She also does weekly rides with her local cycling group, where they bike 30 miles from Chesterfield to the Central West End. During some cycling events or rides with friends, she can get up to speeds of about 15 miles per hour, with some faster riders moving from 17 to 18 miles per hour.

When not cycling, Whelan serves as the vice president of Lindell Bank and engages in frequent volunteer efforts with the Chesterfield Parks, Recreation & Arts board.

“My big secret?” Whelan asked. “I have a lot of energy.” 

For individuals interested in taking up cycling as a hobby or competitive sport, Whelan shared a piece of advice.

“Find a group of people to ride with, and a find a group that rides at your speed,” she said. “That way, you always have people around you, and there’s some safety in numbers.”

Sharing the road

Cyclists and vehicles are often at odds when it comes to sharing West County roads. 

Drivers, who worry about the danger of traveling alongside cyclists, ask why, with so many paved trails in the area, cyclists choose to ride on area roads that are frequently hilly and without shoulders. Cyclists reply that the trails, such as the many local greenways developed by Great Rivers Greenway, are great but don’t offer the challenges necessary for cross-country ride training or practicality when commuting by bicycle. 

In Missouri, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, meaning they have access to the same roads and must obey the same traffic laws. Additionally, like cars, cyclists are not allowed to ride/drive on sidewalks – answering another oft repeated question. The Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation notes that, for teen and adult bicyclists, studies show riding on the street with traffic, not against it, is far safer than riding on the sidewalk. Still, there are dangers when cyclists and cars share the road.

On Sunday, June 23, Chesterfield cyclist Timothy R. Thornton passed away after having been struck by a vehicle on Route 100 in Wildwood. Thornton, 64, was an avid rider and, according to Pedal the Cause, a member of  its Alberici Corporate Challenge team. An attorney, he assumed the role of chief operating officer for the Greensfelder Law Firm in 2006. Additionally, he was the firm’s leading construction attorney. In his obituary, Thornton’s wife, Terry, wrote, “You always said that you wanted to be remembered as a man who always thought of others first, and himself, second.” She noted that “in peak season” Thornton could ride 100 miles per day. 

The Missouri Driver Guide, published by the Department of Revenue, offers the following tips for motorists when encountering cyclists on the road: 

• When passing, if possible, give a full lane to bicycles. The bicycle is generally a slower moving vehicle and this may require motorists to slow down. Motorists should wait for a clear stretch of road before passing a cyclist in a lane too narrow to share. 

• If the vehicle is following a bicyclist and needs to make a right turn, it must yield to the cyclist. 

• Cyclists often travel at surprisingly fast speeds. Motorists making a left turn should be absolutely certain they can make the turn before the cyclist reaches the intersection. If not, they should yield to the cyclist. 

• Bicyclists change speed and lane position when encountering bad road conditions, such as manhole covers, diagonal railroad tracks, road debris or in strong winds. Motorists should be ready to react. 

• Motorists should check for passing bicyclists before opening a car door into a traffic or bicycle lane. 

A bicycle lane is a portion of a roadway designated by striping for use by bicycles. Motorists may cross a bicycle lane when turning or when entering or leaving the roadway; however, they must yield to bicyclists in a bicycle lane. 

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