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Cross-country cancer rider visits Vail

Matt Zalaznick/ Assistant Editor/Local News
Steve Sroka, 21, of Maryland, is riding from his home state to Oregon ÑÊand perhaps farther Ñ to raise money for cancer research. His trip was inspired by his friends' illnesses.
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The puny Appalachian Mountains are harder to ride than the majestic Rocky Mountains, says one bicyclist who has climbed both ranges.

Stephen Sroka, 21, is riding from Maryland to Oregon –and perhaps farther – to raise money for cancer research. He passed through Vail late last week.

“The Appalachians are much harder than the Rockies because the grades are different,” Sroka says. “You’ll see 13 percent grades, which are ridiculous, and there’s no sense of accomplishment – you bust your butt to get up to 4,000 feet.”

There were more “ups and downs” in the East Coast mountain range. But coming through the Rockies, Sroka says, he kept riding up – and up and up and up – got to 10,000 feet and could head downhill again.

“The Rockies are gorgeous,” he says. “It’s been a long climb, but it’s well worth it.”

Big goals

Sroka, who recently finished community college, says he was inspired to make the arduous trip after a friend and his friend’s brother came down with cancer.

“I had a buddy who lost his brother at the age of 22 to testicular cancer and a couple months later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease. He survived that and a month later came down with testicular cancer and he survived both,” Sroka says. “And that’s why I’m riding.”

Sroka, who is from Baltimore and has worked for the Black and Decker Corp., left Annapolis, Md., on June 21. He says he hopes to raise $100,000 for cancer research and the Ulman Cancer Foundation for Young Adults

“I have a goal of $100,000. If I achieve that goal by the time I make it to Oregon, I’m finished,” Sroka says. “If I don’t have my goal, I’m going to ride down the California coast.”

The way his funds are looking, he may have to take that ride down the California coast.

“All in all, I’ve had a good time. I’m a little upset the fund-raising’s not going too well,” he says. “I’ve had my ups and my downs. It’s definitely getting cold –that’s one thing that doesn’t make me happy, but I haven’t had any snowstorms.”

New experience

Sroka says he has been biking all his life, but is not the type to set off on such an adventure on his own.

“Mentally and physically, it’s a challenge. But it’s more of mental challenge breaking away from family and friends and getting used to sleeping in a tent or in individuals’ houses,” Sroka says.

“Since I’m all alone and pulling over 100 pounds of equipment, I’m fully self-contained and I have no one to relate with,” he says. “I can call friends and family back home, but it’s not the same thing as seeing a concrete face.”

While the weather has gotten cold on his ride, Sroka says he’s happy not to be on the East Coast when Hurricane Isabel made landfall Thursday.

“I’d rather be at 8,000 feet than at sea level with 100 mph winds,” he says.

This is also Sroka’s first trip through much of the country, he says.

“Everyone said, “You’re going to hate Kansas.’ I loved Kansas, especially eastern Kansas,” Sroka says.

During the trip, Sroka explored places he might want to live and careers he might want to pursue. He has made many stops at local Rotary Clubs to raise funds.

“It’s just been a great experience. I’m meeting a lot of wonderful people,” Sroka says. “It’s given me a lot of time to think and a different perspective on places I might want to live.”

Patient persistence

Along with seeing the country, Sroka says, he’s learning to take his time.

“I’ve learned to practice patience. If I’m going 13 mph, to go up to 15 mph I have to exert so much more energy,” Sroka says.

Sroka is fueled by the inspiration of his friends’ battles with cancer, but also by his love of music. He played bass guitar in a band called Steakhouse. He has brought several CDs along on his trip.

“There are days I feel so relaxed I just want to listen to Otis Redding, some classic music that’s just timeless,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to pop in some Pearl Jam or Tool, and it rocks you through the day.”

What wasn’t so successful were the “Learn to Speak Spanish” CDs he brought, with of course the aim of learning Spanish.

“When the sun’s beating down your neck and the wind’s breathing in your face, all you hear is “where,’ “where,’ “where,’ “donde,’ “donde,’ “donde,'” he says. “It doesn’t work too well.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

More information about Stephen Sroka’s cross-country ride for cancer research can be found on his Web site, http://www.bikecoasttocoastforcancer.com.


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