By Brett Ratner
Imagine you're an avid, lifelong cyclist and runner, clicking off miles like they're nothing.
Then one day you start noticing debilitating pain, fatigue, numbness, tingling, and muscle spasms.
At first you can power through. But as time goes on, the pain starts to feel like an electric shock, and the fatigue weighs you down like a ton of bricks. Eventually, the symptoms simply become too difficult to manage. You have no choice but to give up doing the things you love.
Scott Hinton, who in 1998 was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, knows these feelings all too well.
Fortunately, his athlete's spirit would not accept defeat, and a few years ago, he discovered hand-operated cycles as a viable means to become physically active again. The hand cycle demanded he rebuild quite a bit of upper body strength. But through grit and determination, Hinton worked his way up to 25-mile trips, then 50, and finally a 75-mile ride which included hills that would challenge any cyclist.
This summer, Hinton will be lining up his hand cycle alongside thousands of bicyclists. Ahead of him awaits miles of scenic, rolling country roads. Taped to his hand crank, inches from his face, sits a sticker that reads "I think I can I think I can."
Hinton's objectives are twofold: Complete a 100-mile "century," and demonstrate his appreciation for his fellow riders raising money to fight multiple sclerosis.
The event will be the Bike MS: Tour de Farms, which will take place on June 25 and 26 in Dekalb, Illinois.
Celebrating its 35th year, Tour de Farms is a fully-supported, two-day fundraising ride featuring a wide selection of single-day distances ranging from 15 to 125 miles. In the afternoon and evenings, participants will enjoy food, beverages, live music, and a sense of camaraderie that can only come from riding bikes in support of a good cause.
"Since I sit just inches above the ground on my hand-cycle, the atmosphere at the starting line was overwhelming," Hinton said of the 2014 and 2015 editions of Tour de Farms. "The mixture of energy, excitement and positive vibes almost brought me to tears. Everyone was so supportive and helpful."
Hinton at the start of the 2015 Tour de Farms, en route to completing the 75-mile loop on a hand cycle.
Last year's ride featured over 2,000 participants and raised $1.5 million for the National MS Society.
Hinton said he knows from first hand experience how much that money means to people suffering from MS.
"I have lived with MS since 1998, but I will admit that I didn’t at first realize how much of an impact the efforts by the National MS Society had on my well being" Hinton said. "When I look in my medicine cabinet at all of the drugs and treatments that I depend on, I now know that the research that went into developing these drugs was funded in part by riders at earlier Bike MS events."
Another benefit of the research, Hinton added, is a recent finding from studies conducted at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign funded by the National MS Society. These studies concluded that intense aerobic exercise can slow the progression of the disease. This knowledge has enabled Hinton, under medical guidance, to use cycling as a means to dramatically improve his quality of life.
While improving the lives of others is worthwhile in and of itself, what also makes Tour de Farms special is the quality of the ride.
Regardless if you're a relative beginner, an intermediate cyclist, or your aim is to hammer out long distances at high speeds, Tour de Farms has something for everyone.
And since there are fully stocked rest stops every 10-20 miles, mechanic stations, more than 50 motorcycles patrolling the route, and 25 radio-dispatched SAG (support and gear) vehicles, all you have to do is concentrate on pedaling your bike and having fun.
Chicago's Spidermonkey Cycling comes out in force for Tour de Farms each year.
"Riders feel very safe and very supported. It's comforting since you're never alone," said Joe Siok, Co-Chairman of the Tour de Farms Volunteer Committee. "You won't go more than a mile or two without seeing support personnel. And if you have any difficulties, there's a phone number you can call, and SAG will be there in minutes."
The routes themselves form a "figure 8," with each loop starting and ending in Dekalb. On day one, riders head north and can choose between 15, 35, 50, 75, 100 and even a 125-mile "double metric" distance. If that's not enough riding, day two offers southern routes with 15, 35, 50, and 75-mile options.
A large number of area companies form corporate teams.
"We have some people who really want to put some miles down," Siok said. "You're just out in the country on smooth roads with very little car traffic. You can ride all day if you want."
To help keep you fueled, the event provides two full lunches, a Saturday evening dinner and a Sunday morning breakfast. There's also complimentary beer, plus a lot of participants grill out and many are eager to share.
"It's the only ride where you can gain weight," Siok joked.
Hinton relaxing at a rest stop with his daughter and a newfound four-legged friend.
Melissa Foley, who serves the National MS Society's Greater Illinois Chapter as the Development Manager for Bike MS, described in detail the purpose behind all the pedaling.
"Bike MS: Tour de Farms raises over $1.5 million annually, which goes directly towards the Society’s mission to help all individuals affected by MS to live their best lives," Foley said. "These funds are vital to the progress that we are seeing in MS research, including new treatments and medications, and the funding of research grants that will help to one day stop MS in its tracks, restore what has been lost, and end MS forever."
While working to ensure a brighter future for those who suffer from the disease, Foley said a lot of MS Society resources are dedicated toward easing the burdens people face today.
"In addition to the big picture of the disease, these funds are directly supporting people living with MS in their own communities across Illinois through support groups, financial assistance for emergency and quality of life needs, and informational programs for individuals and families," Foley added. "Through the availability of these resources, people affected by MS are being connected to programs, education, and peer support that provides them with hope, strength, and a sense of community."
The end of the ride means the start of a fun-filled evening.
Siok, whose mother suffers from MS, first got involved with Tour de Farms in 1999. He has ridden and volunteered ever since. Siok said the good that the National MS Society does provides plenty of inspiration for him to pedal into a headwind, or spin up a hill.
"We ride for people who can't," Siok said. "You and I might take for granted that we can do a ride like this. At the end of the day, we are here to help fight this disease."
In addition to this sticker, Hinton finds inspiration in the people who take part in Tour de Farms each year.
Hinton said he feels equally inspired when he's riding Tour de Farms.
"One of the things that amazed me as I rode was when the riders without MS would thank me for coming out to support them in their efforts," Hinton said. "I mean, come on. It is the least I can do. I don’t think they realize what a difference they make for people like me who live with MS."
Visit BikeMSIllinois.org learn more about Bike MS: Tour de Farms and other events organized by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
About the author:
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.