Bucket list bike ride on Route 66 to help cancer patients

He was to be on the road at dawn Saturday, pedaling away, determined to bicycle a good 100 miles. That accomplished, Vince Cooke will stop for the night, satisfied with his journey’s start.

And he’ll tell himself: Only 2,350 miles to go.

“This is my last hurrah,” said Cooke, of Woodstock, Md. At 56, he is challenging Route 66, the fabled byway that starts in Chicago and ends at the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. Cooke plans to cycle it all — an eight-state trek that will take him across the Continental Divide and through the Mojave Desert — in 28 days.

En route, he’ll post blogs on the internet in hopes of raising $10,000 to help cancer patients cope with the disease. Donations will go toward a patient navigation and survivorship program that guides victims through the maze of treatment options and also funds their physical and mental therapy afterward.

“Basically, my daily blog will say, ‘I’m busting my butt — now crack open your wallet,’” he said.

It’s a trip Cooke, a mechanical and electrical engineer, has toyed with taking for years. Completed in 1926, Route 66 was, in its heyday, a bustling thoroughfare — author John Steinbeck called it “The Mother Road.” It has since been displaced by colorless interstates. What’s left is the road less traveled, marked by kitschy attractions that have piqued Cooke’s interest: a wigwam motel, a Cadillac graveyard, an ostrich petting zoo and the world’s largest rocking chair.

“Route 66 has always been kind of a romantic and historic place,” he said. That parts of it have been absorbed by interstates won’t stop him. He’ll ride the parallel access roads instead.

“There are going to be obstacles, sure, but the adventure is how to overcome them,” Cooke said. On his 27-speed Fuji touring bike, he’ll climb from about 600 feet above sea level in Chicago to nearly 8,000 feet in New Mexico.

“That’s no problem, because the (elevation change) takes place over 1,800 miles,” he said. And the 300-mile ride through the Mojave seems less daunting to Cooke, knowing his wife will be near in their Jeep. Michele Cooke helped plan their itinerary and will meet up with her husband daily for lunch, dinner and their overnight accommodations.

“This is a bucket-list thing that’s been riding around in his brain,” she said. “I admire him for doing this and I want to support him. I know I’ll be doing a Laundromat tour of Route 66. But if he doesn’t leave me in the desert, I’m good.”

Both carry stacks of business cards that read “Ride with Vince, Route 66 to Kick Cancer’s Butt” and list his Facebook page (Rt66tokickcancer).

Brittany Wilson called Cooke “an awesome person for growing awareness for our program.” Wilson is fundraising and recruitment coordinator for the Columbia chapter of 24 Hours of Booty, the national nonprofit for which Cooke is riding. The organization takes its name from three annual events — one in Gateway Park in Columbia — in which cyclists ride in a closed 2-mile loop for as long as 24 hours straight to raise donations for cancer survivorship programs.

Cooke accomplished that in 2008, riding 320 miles in 24 hours while stopping three times, each for a 20-minute catnap. Two years ago, he completed a 1,100-mile trip in 11 days, cycling from home to Niagara Falls, Detroit, Pittsburgh and back.

On this trip, Cooke expects to average 15 mph while riding seven hours a day. A retired Navy commander — he served aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, in the Mediterranean — he began cycling in earnest 20 years ago, after leaving the military.

“It’s a great stress relief,” he said. “I don’t listen to music while riding; I think. Then I spend a lot of time trying to remember the things I’m thinking about, like, ‘How do they make molasses?’ or ‘Where does vinegar come from?’ Or maybe I’ll plan out the rest of my life. Riding Route 66 should be relaxing; I can let my mind wander because I don’t have to worry about directions.”

Before leaving Chicago, Cooke planned to ceremoniously dip his bicycle tires in Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park, near the start of Route 66. Should he complete the trip, he said, he’ll do the same in the Pacific.

Those who know Cooke don’t doubt the outcome.

“He’s a very positive person,” said Brenda Ruby, a member of the Potomac Pedalers. “His optimism makes him believe he can do it, and the hard work gets him there.

“Most people think cycling is a physical thing, but training only gets you so far. You have to have mental fortitude, and Vince absolutely does.”