In RIDE #72 (published in 2016) we covered the Tour de Cure event. It was the 10th anniversary of a special charity ride that has accumulated almost 25 million dollars in funding over the years. There are many charity initiatives linked with cycling but this is something special…
Tour de Cure Riding to cure cancer
Exercise, a good diet and a healthy lifestyle can all help ward off an illness that affects many in our society. Riding a bike does help but that’s not why hundreds of cyclists set off on a journey from Brisbane to Sydney. Rather they did this as part of the 10th annivesary of a remarkable charity event called Tour de Cure.
– By Rob Arnold
“This family of Tour de Cure has now, for a decade, changed the face of cancer in Australia. You guys have made a massive difference.” Professor John Rasko of the Centenary Institute is speaking to a packed room at the Hawks Nest Golf Club. It’s the penultimate night of the 10th anniversary of a charity ride that was established to raise funds to try and achieve a most ambitious objective. The aim isn’t to ‘raise cancer awareness’ – that was a slogan used by another organisation that was involved with cycling for a long time. We are well aware of cancer. And for all the foibles that Lance Armstrong may have, the message spread by Livestrong shouldn’t be underestimated.
Cancer affects so many people and you’d be blessed if no one you know has been struck down by it. And that’s why the aim of Tour de Cure is bigger than awareness alone. Of course, over the past decade, the event has delivered a strong message to thousands of people explaining what can be done to prevent cancer but there’s much more to it than this alone. The noble long-term aim is a significant one: to find a cure for cancer. Rasko is one person who understands that a group of riders can make a difference.
After 10 editions of Tour de Cure almost 25 million dollars has been raised. And in the course of that time, the funds have “achieved 18 cancer breakthroughs through our research partnerships”. That’s a statistic that the co-founder of the ride, Geoff Coombes, is particularly proud of.
For Rasko and many others who are working day-to-day in the quest to find a cure for cancer, the funding cannot be underestimated. And during his presentation to hundreds of tired riders he offers his gratitude.
“May I thank each and every one of you who have ridden, who have extended your time, energy and emotions, called upon family members and anyone else to raise money to fund good works in cancer to make people’s lives better, to make public health better, to give a good health message to the young. And importantly to create the discoveries for the future upon which so much is built.”
Riding can be good for the soul but on its own cycling will not cure cancer. That’s not what this charity is about. But the bike plays a part in not just spreading the message of what can be done to reduce the risk of getting ill, but also inspiring people to donate money for research.
The breakthroughs that Coombes cites don’t come easily and it might be years before the results of the research can be used in clinics, longer even before it can “cure cancer”. But funds have to come from somewhere or else this disease, and its many guises, will continue to be the scourge it is.
“Why is it important?” asks Professor Rasko. “Because governments in Australia underfund medical research.”
He previously explained some of the results of research that’s been done thanks to funds raised by Tour de Cure. His answer is a sad indictment on government policy that doesn’t properly consider the numerous benefits of investing in a healthy future. Rasko continues with his presentation and manages to raise some eyebrows in a crowd that had, over the previous week, heard many stories about cancer. Part of the nightly ritual on the charity ride is listening to speeches about a range of topics relating to their quest for the week. They eat dinner, award some prizes to riders and volunteers, enjoy the camaraderie, and learn.
At Hawks Nest, Rasko explains the plight of the policy conjured by a government that had, days earlier, pledged 50 billion dollars on building submarines in France.
“I speak a lot about medical research nationally and internationally,” he says, “and the sad truth is that when you speak to members of the public and ask them, ‘What percentage of health dollars should be spent on medical research?’ Usually people come up with, ‘Well, maybe 10 percent should be spent on investing in the future…’
“That sounds reasonable.” There’s a lot of nodding. No argument in the room: 10 percent seems fair. Right?
“We spend 0.2 percent of our national budget on health and medical research funding. So it’s absolutely essential that good corporate citizens, philanthropy and the general public put their hands in their pockets and fund medical research so that the future is better for our children.”
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There are many ways to be involved in the initiatives of Tour de Cure and the organisation’s many side events. And most of it involves donating to the cause in some way or another. This year there were 222 team members in what is called the ‘Signature Tour’, including 13 cancer survivors. To complete the full ride, 1,500km from Brisbane to Sydney with many deviations along the way, participants had to raise at least $12,000 each.
It is also possible to be a guest rider and/or sponsor one of many revenue raising events. As a guest of Team Lexus, I got to ride along for two of the 10 ‘stages’.
During my two days on the tour it was impressive to see the full production of a charity initiative. The riding is very well organised but it’s not a basic itinerary and, for anyone interested in signing up, be prepared for some considerable chamois time. Early starts and late finishes are standard even if the cycling itself is only a relatively short trip. This year the stage distances varied from 101km to 214km (with an average of 152km per day), but that’s the easy stuff. It might be a tour but it’s not just about riding.
The dinners are essentially a rare moment to relax but even then there’s a lot to learn. Speakers explain the impact of cancer and talk about research, funding allocations (or both) as well as many other topics. They talk, you listen and eat. And then comes another round of fundraising.
In Hawks Nest, for example, luggage allocation penalties were applied and fines issued to anyone who exceeded the 10kg stipulated for each participant. This happened when dessert was served and it added another few hundred dollars to the coffers. Then came the charity auctions – two cricket bats signed by Doug Walters were bought by the same guy “so I can play a proper game,” he later insisted… the longer the night went on, the more money was conjured out of those in the room.
For its part, Lexus is credited as original sponsor, the first to support the event’s inaugural edition in 2007, and its fleet of vehicles was highly visible throughout the week. On the Friday morning, Simon Blackett from the car company handed over another $40,000 cheque. He got to smile for a few seconds on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program at the same time that Adobe chipped in $50,000.
Step right up folks, come along for a beautiful ride! And be prepared to spend! It might not come cheap but there is a great cause to support and plenty of willing participants. It is a charity, after all. Still, it’s an amazing experience and one that is likely to keep you coming back for more.
The energetic host of Sunrise, Mark Beretta, said: “I find it exhausting.” It’s not only the riding. It’s the long days, short nights, and a program that leaves little time for much other than raising money. And a bit of laughter on the way. But, he insists, “I get so much more out of it than what I put into it. Physically it pushes me to my limits but the experience, the scenery, the kids that we meet at schools, the encouragement we get from people along the way, the cause… it’s all so powerful. It’s an addictive experience.”
He’s done seven and is already thinking about the eighth. “I just almost can’t imagine life without it now. It is such a highlight of my year.”
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Of course it helps if you get to ride in near perfect weather with great vehicle support and with fabulously catered for food stops every few hours. Everything is perfectly organised and it’s clear that charity rides have a great deal to offer. The Tour de Cure is first-class and inclusive all the way, everyone from survivors of cancer who want to put something back into the support network that got them through their ordeal, to company executives who realise that fat cheques shouldn’t just be part of their salary packages are part of the peloton.
The co-founder Geoff Coombes joins the riders and is one of the many support staff who ensure the cycling is done in the safest possible conditions. This year there were five pelotons of around 40 riders that set off at 15-minute intervals. They rotated rosters a little every day even though there were teams, based largely on sponsorship initiatives, that spent much of the 10 days together.
Adding to the thrill of it was the inclusion of a couple of special guests: in 2016 including former Olympic rower and all-round good guy Drew Ginn. He is a mountain of a man and a formidable rider who never seems to stop. Apparently, once the Tour de Cure was over, his aim was to keep riding – all the way to Melbourne… and do so without stopping. What was it Beretta said about being pushed to the limit?
Ginn blended in with everyone else: same outfit, same pace, same constant grin, same routine in the evening… he just did everything with such ease that it was obvious he is made of something special.
The other ‘celebrity’ rider was some guy call ‘The Jensie’. Apparently he wasn’t a bad bike rider. If you didn’t know it, you could easily be fooled into thinking he landed on this earth to be a charity worker. Nothing is a problem for him! He was often the first on the scene in the morning and the last to leave at night. He would sign autographs, smile for photos, set the pace, help the struggling riders and just generally go about his job as being a Cool Guy.
It comes naturally for him but be wary: when chamois time extends beyond 12 hours, even he can get grumpy.
The Tour de Cure participants had bags of fun but it’s a business and there’s a mission statement you can’t ignore. It is clear that cancer affects a lot of people although Coombes didn’t start the ride 10 years ago because he knew someone with the illness, he has since been affected by it. His lofty aim rolls off his tongue with ease: “find a cure for cancer”. It’s not going to happen overnight but it cannot happen without funding. And research. And commitment. And an unwaivering attitude towards all that needs doing.
“When we first started the Tour de Cure, we wanted to help an Australian health issue and cancer jumped out at us,” said Coombes of the early days. “None of us were personally afflicted at the time but since then it has become personal with loved ones and people close to us who now make us very committed to curing cancer through cycling.
“I think cycling and cancer have probably had a big connection in the last decade, I dare say, on the back of Lance [Armstrong] and what he did way back in his ‘Good Years’ before it went sour.
“There are plenty of groups out there at the moment that are using cycling as a way to raise funds and we wish them well and would ask that they do it well.
“It’s a sport that lots of people are enjoying getting into but we need to understand our space on the road and leave it a better place from each event that we do out there. More groups will no doubt try and take it on and I hope they just do it to a level that we’re all proud of.”
Charities crop up all the time. There are rides of many descriptions for many causes and it’s difficult to decide which one to support and why. But organisers of the Tour de Cure are proud of what they’re doing and, listening to the likes of Rasko and others, it’s easy to understand why.
“We’ve always been really committed to that trust and the integrity of who we are and what we do,” said Coombes who recognises that some ‘charities’ are not quite so charitable. “If you lose that trust and don’t value it, then you’re not going to be in this game for very long.
“We’ve always had a lot of transparency and worked with people to make sure that they could see what we were doing. The results, the year-on-year growth, and the way we invest the funds shows that those funds are making a difference. I think that’s the key part to remaining consistent and remaining relevant to a lot of people.”
If you doubt the Tour de Cure’s relevance, then consider some of what Rasko had to say. He summarises the benefits very well because he and other scientists can see a tangible return from the funds raised on this hugely successful ride. “You guys are all making a difference,” he said.
“Some of the discoveries that are being made today won’t find their way to the clinic for five, 10, 15 years, but I can guarantee you that the knowledge that is generated by the discovery research that is being undertaken will make a difference. And Tour de Cure is represented in all of those discoveries, certainly from my point of view.
“Every publication that comes out of the research funded by this ride has ‘Tour de Cure’ proudly noted. And those publications are read by scientists and clinicians around the world and they see these transformational discoveries.”
Rasko’s commentary concludes this review of what was a remarkable 10th anniversary ride. One that highlights the way cancer affects the community and how raising revenue can help at least try to find a cure.
“They are working on a new mechanism of killing cells. It’s a new way of inducing cell death that’s entirely different to the way the current chemotherapy has been developed,” explained Rasko. “You think to yourself, ‘Why would we be interested in cell death? We’re interested in keeping cells alive or growing…’ but a cancer is guilty of this horrible crime of not behaving in a social manner.
“It’s a single cell in our body that makes a decision that it’s not going to cooperate with all of the other cells in our body. As a consequence it grows in an unrestrained way.
“The idea that bone marrow transplantation is based on is: why not switch on the body’s immune system to attack those abnormally proliferating cells and destroy them…? That is curative in many diseases but the price is: when you turn on the immune system powerfully it can sometimes attack normal cells in the body in addition to the cancer.
“What if we could make the treatment more specific? What about instead of blowing up an entire nuclear bomb on a city, we use a cruise missile just to hone in on the bad part and leave the rest safe?
“That idea comes under the heading of ‘Immunotherapy’ and it’s really become quite specific; there are two different mechanisms that we work on. The first is really intuitive because our immune systems are constantly in balance. We don’t want to turn them up too much because we might get autoimmune diseases… We don’t want to turn it off too soft because we become susceptible to infections, bacteria, viruses and funguses and so on.
“So the body is perfectly balanced but in a person with cancer we want to switch it on stronger. In order to do that – over many, many years – we’ve tried to use drugs that are capable of improving the immune system.
“Then somebody decided that a really good idea would be to actually try and slow down the brakes, like driving a car with the handbrake partially on; what about if you take the handbrake off and the immune system goes crazy and then destroys the cancer? That’s the background to revolutionary drugs that are being used in the clinic right now… ones that were invented in Australia about 25 years ago.
“The idea that you can take a drug that is not proliferating too fast but dying too slow. They’ve developed a drug that’s targeted against the very gene, or protein that’s coded by a gene, that causes that cell to survive more. In other words, take away that benefit that the cell has, kill that cancer cell by depriving it of this ability to survive.
“That’s an Australian invention that started 25 years ago in Melbourne at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. We’re doing the same thing again with a new range of drugs that are revolutionising cancer care in so many different areas. There are now targeted, personalised therapies that are improving the lives of so many people.”
And all of this happens because people care about other people. That’s one of the many things I learned while riding my bike on a couple of sunny days in May.
– By Rob Arnold
(Applications are now being accepted for the 2017 Tour de Cure. Click here to find out more.)