Pedaling for Pennies – One man’s journey to cure cancer on a bike
James Rienstra’s father Wally was a month away from retirement when he died from pancreatic cancer.
“From the time he was diagnosed to the time when he took his last breath was six short months,” Rienstra said. “It just went too quick for me… he worked his whole life, he had his fishing boat ready and when he passed away it kind of threw something off for me. And my head said that you have to make everyday worthwhile.”
Rienstra, a 38-year-old from Zimmerman, Minnesota and former professional BMX biker, decided that he had to do something to make a difference in the world. Three years ago, he bought a touring bike and started peddling to Alaska.
“My life changed after that,” Zimmerman said about his first 75-day journey. “I never raised a dollar for a fundraiser before, and I just planned to bike from Minnesota to Alaska with a $3,000 goal, and by the time I got back that $3,000 turned to $17,000 and in my head I saw it as my niche in the world.”
He said that he felt like he had found his calling, and decided to turn his next trip with his Surly Long Haul Trucker road bike, dubbed the “Mother Trucker,” into an epic journey from Minnesota to the tip of South America. For two years he worked construction almost seven days a week while planning his trip.
“About four months ago I decided it was time and said, ‘See ya mom!” said Rienstra.
“I knew there was a chance of him getting hurt or meeting some bad people… but it’s for a good cause, and it’s just so wonderful that he can actually feel like he was a part of something,” said his mother, Lynn Rienstra. “I know he has to do something – it’s just worrisome for me, but I know he’s got to do it and he is raising money. But boy, if they can do something and find a cure, nobody else will have to go through what he did when my husband died, and so many people are in the same boat.”
He arrived in Hermosa Beach last week and left Tuesday morning heading south. He has biked 3,300 miles and estimates that the journey will cover 15,000 miles and take well over a year. Since starting four months ago, he has raised $18,600 for the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund – a cancer community in Minnesota that funds research and programs relating to the cancer community.
“When I’m peddling I want to know where every dollar goes,” said Rienstra, who picked the Randy Shaver Cancer fund (RSCRCF) because of their commitment to using the donations responsibly. “I wanted to know that it doesn’t go to a plaque or a statue… I don’t see a penny of the money; it all goes to cancer research.”
Roseann Giovanatto-Shaver, the Executive Director of RSCRCF and wife of retired Minnesota KARE 11 sportscaster and cancer survivor Randy Shaver, met Rienstra shortly before his first tour.
“He was there when his father took his last breath (eight years ago), and it made a huge impact on James,” said Giovanatto-Shaver. “He struggled to understand why, so he wanted to do something. Everybody responds, reacts and deals with cancer differently and what I found is the person that passes is one thing, but the real hardships and heartaches are the people that are left behind, and that’s certainly the case with James.”
She added that he originally wanted to bike west because one of the last fishing trips he took with his 59-year-old father was to Alaska.
“He literally sent an email to me and said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but my father passed away of cancer and I have and idea, can I meet with you?’” said Giovanatto-Shaver. “I totally thought he was crazy, I was like ‘You want to ride your bike from where to where?’ The bottom line is that it wasn’t so crazy. He ended up riding his bike and meeting super cool people along the way and created such a buzz around the community.”
He even had a crowd of more than 2,000 community members – along with a police escort – lining the streets of his hometown cheering him on when he began his trip to Alaska.
“We’re a pretty small community,” said Tammy Kriesel, the fundraising director of Pedaling for Pennies. “All the elementary school and Sr. high students were out there lining the street – it was like a ticker tape parade, kids were reaching out giving him high fives, it literally brought tears to my eyes.”
She added that people in Zimmerman (pop. 5,246) are in awe of his endeavour, and even though most people are supportive, many people comment that he must be crazy to bike so far.
“The good will that it brings out in people is amazing,” said Kriesel. “It brings out the good in everybody, even people who hardly know anything about it just get drawn in because cancer affects so many people.”
Kriesel plans on holding an arctic plunge in February in Zimmerman to raise additional funds for the cause.
“To me this is incredible and we’re so blessed to benefit from his efforts,” said Giovanatto-Shaver. “He’s a great young man. He’s highly spirited, but very gentle. Think about riding your bike through the mountains in Wyoming – it’s incredible what he’s accomplished and his legs have not given out.”
His blog orinally had a small following, but as he rode across the country his followers quickly grew to more than 30,000.
“I try to write everyday, depending on internet,” Rienstra said. “I tell people what city I’m biking to and the total miles and add in pictures.”
Last week, he biked from Santa Barbara to Hermosa Beach. In an entry titled, “Day 107/Refugio camp – Santa Barbara, CA / 20 Miles (Total 3,300),” he wrote:
“Fell asleep early last night and I was awake before the sun was rising. I start organizing the tent and packing my sleeping bag, when the color of the sky lit up with reds and yellows. I grab the camera and take a long, peaceful walk down the beach after breakfast. Another day of not having to bike too far, so I take my time enjoying the start of the day. Only 25 miles to Santa Barbara and a nice tailwind gets me there fast. Josh gives me the address; I find the house with ease and pull the Mother Trucker around back.
Friends come and go, or so they say. My friends seem to come and stay, and I’m all right with this saying. In the last 100 days, old friends have pedaled with me, new friendships have grown, and old memories rekindled after overdue reunions. It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen Josh, and it’s been too long.”
While biking across the country he has had multiple flat tires, been pushed off the road by cars and semis and said he is frequently chased by dogs. Often times he stealth camps – pitching a tent after dark and leaving before sunrise.
“The most amazing thing has been the people,” Rienstra said. “Once I pulled over for a drink of water and all of a sudden an RV with a sweet old couple asked if I wanted a beer and a steak. Random people let me stay at their house when they hear what I’m doing, they buy me dinners, let me stay in their camp grounds; people have been amazing.”
According to Rienstra, his mom has been supportive of his two-wheeled adventures and throughout his trip he periodically picks up care packages sent by his mother with food prepared by his aunt.
“Typically I can stuff 12 or 13 of these little tiny sandwich bags folded in half,” said Lynn. “All he has to do is add water… and of course we have to send a little bit of candy.”
She hopes that he’ll be able to call his family for Christmas.
“She’s been okay up until now, now that I’m 120 miles from Mexico,” said Rienstra who is planning on journeying across the Pan-American Highway to eventually end up at the southern tip of Chile. “There are good people and bad people everywhere… But sometimes I hear my dad sitting on my shoulder telling me not to be a knucklehead.”
Throughout his journey he has serendipitously met up with people multiple times, including a family who travel the country in an RV with their homeschooled children.
“One day they came up to me when I was shivering in my tent and said, ‘It’s so cold, we brought you some warm muffins.’ Then I saw them right in the middle of nowhere and for a third time in Big Sur,” said Rienstra. “They gave me their kid’s Halloween candy because they were allergic. So far I haven’t encountered any bad people except for a bum going through my saddlebag, but we ended up having dinner together.”
His goal is to eventually raise $100,000.
“There is something that must be very cathartic to him about this as part of the healing process for him,” said Giovanatto-Shaver. “I feel like when you have something bad happen to you in your life you’re always searching for the good, and honestly I think the good really rules in the end, and it certainly does in this situation. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s so gentle and kind and hardworking and determined.”
Along with updating his blog, Rienstra can often be heard on local Minnesotan radio stations.
“Heard you on 93X this morning and sent a donation your way. Lost my mom at age 54 to breast cancer. Cancer is a b$#tch. I admire your courage to make this journey. Stay safe and good luck!” commenter Dee wrote in response to one of his recent blog updates.
He said that one of the harder parts of biking cross country isn’t the physical exertion of biking, but dealing with vehicles.
“I’d rather take two days out of my way on a dirt road than bike on a highway,” said Rienstra, who perilously biked the winding Highway 1 in Big Sur. “At first it’s nerve wracking, especially because people don’t pay attention.”
While biking through Yellowstone he survived a surprise blizzard, and peddled through a heavy downpour from Malibu to Hermosa Beach.
“I don’t usually plan my day until I’m on the bike,” said Rienstra, who said that he mostly uses maps but turns on his GPS in a pinch. “Most days I just head west.”
For Rienstra, it’s been difficult to keep up with the blog.
“Once I get there and set up my tent, try to find a shower and eat, that’s the last thing I want to do after a 50 mile day,” said Rienstra. “But there’s some days when I want to write about the day in full detail and try to let the reader know what I’m going through. I feel blessed because I’ve seen more in my four months than a lot of people are going to see in their entire lifetime.”
He added that after a hard day, reading emails from his supporters are what helps keep him peddling.
“I’m proud of him, and of course I miss him,” said Lynn. “But he has met so many nice people. They’ve invited him into their homes and given him food, even money for heavens sakes.”
Visit pedalingforpennies.info to donate and read his blog.
“He’s just so selfless,” Giovanatto-Shaver said. “In this world of negativity it gives you so much hope, and that’s the best word to explain cancer in general – all people want who are diagnosed want hope, and that’s what his ride provides.”ER