Arch: Cyclist puts future on hold for a good cause

He graduated from the University of Illinois eight days ago with a degree in industrial and systems engineering and already he has been hired by General Mills to work at the company’s Cincinnati facility.

But before reporting to work, Andrew Kerr told his new employer he needed some time off.

For maybe just a quick vacation to clear his head between school and the new job?

Nope.

Maybe a little time to relocate from Illinois back here to Ohio?

Oh no.

The Centerville High School product informed General Mills he needed the whole summer off.

He’s part of the Illini 4000 Bike America Team that will pedal across the United States, not only to raise funds for cancer research, but to spread awareness with its Portraits Project, which documents the influence the disease has had on various people they meet along their cross-country trek.

Kerr said he had to commit to this year’s Illini 4000 — an annual trip Illinois students have been doing for nine years now — several months ago, long before he accepted a job.

“By doing that it meant I’d have to take a job that would allow me to start in August,” he said. “In some sense I was prioritizing the Illini 4000 over any job opportunity. If a company wasn’t willing to do that, I couldn’t accept. And I was willing to do that. This ride was that important to me.”

General Mills understood.

Kerr leaves today from New York City — astride his Trek Domane 2.0 — and will arrive in San Francisco on Aug. 2. He and the 28 other riders hope to average 75 miles a day for the next 75 days.

They’ll go through 14 states, pass through the Miami Valley along Route 40 on June 6, cross the Mississippi River, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and finally the Golden Gate Bridge.

“In high school I was the type person who liked to connect with people and help people,” Kerr said.” I carried that with me to college and then over the past couple of years I discovered my love of cycling.

“The Illini 4000 allowed me to kind of combine those two loves into something pretty meaningful this summer.”

Call it the Summer of Love, but really it’s something that began long ago.

His mother, Laurel, works with the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and his dad Matthew, the CFO of the Huffy Bicycle Company, explained the impact:

“In some respects, both of our children grew up watching their mom work with the Alzheimer’s Association and they became very sympathetic for people in need.”

‘Total engi-nerd’

Andrew’s older sister, Lila, a graduate of Rice University and, at 25, already something of a world traveler, works for a non-profit, global health organization in the southeast African country of Malawi.

“In the early part of his life, Andrew, in many respects, lived in the shadows of his sister,” Matthew said. “She was born smart. For example she got a perfect ACT score. He made up for that by working harder and with his leadership ability.”

At Centerville, Andrew, who, is three years younger than Lila, said he weighed 240 pounds compared to the 172 he weighs now.

He played the French horn in the jazz band, the mellophone in the marching band. He was also a member of the school’s Science Olympiad team and even today on his Illini 4000 profile page he describes himself as “a total engi-nerd” who has been “competing on science teams and sporting a calculator watch since high school (and yes, I do use the calculator function!)”

That love of science paid tremendous dividends for him. His Centerville team won the national Science Olympiad two years in a row, one of which was held at the University of Illinois.

“The stars and the moon aligned for him that year,” his dad said. “Illinois gave the members of the national championship team a full tuition ride, so that kind of picked his college for him. And the thing is, Illinois has an outstanding engineering program.”

While in college, Andrew heard of the Illini 4000, which was begun by two students there in 2006 and launched its first coast-to-coast ride a year later.

Since then the ride has raised over $650,000 for various cancer organizations, including the American Cancer Society and a camp dedicated to children battling the disease.

The Portraits Project is chronicled in word and photo on the group’s website (Illini.400.org) and selected works are exhibited at the Krannert Art Museum on the University of Illinois campus.

“We stop and talk to people we meet and document their stories, so we’re kind of painting a picture of the American cancer experience as we ride our bikes,” he said. “It was appealing to me to meet all these people from different backgrounds and different parts of the United States.

“There’s so much you can learn from actually sitting and talking to people, and that’s a pretty rare thing to do in this day and age … especially for somebody at my age.”

Kerr said this project has added resonance for him because several family members, including his grandparents and great aunt, battled cancer.

“I know there’ll be times on this ride when it will be tough,” he said. “I know there will be times when my legs are on fire and screaming at me, times when we’re going into a 30-mile-an-hour head wind on the Plains or going up an incline in the Rockies, but that’s when you have to put it in perspective.

“You may be hurting, but think what you’re doing this for. There are people suffering from cancer and going through chemo and that should motivate you to keep going.”

Months in the gym

Andrew said he spent part of the winter deep-frying Oreos.

It’s not that he was trying to get back up to 240. He and some of the other Illini 4000 partners were trying to raise funds for their trip.

Each rider is asked to raise $3,500 and to do that they take pledges — you can support him on the website — and they do fundraisers.

“We deep-fried Oreos and sold them to students walking by on the Quad on campus,” he said. “We made a few hundred dollars a couple of times.”

He laughed when asked about the temptation:

“Oh my God they are so good. You can feel your cholesterol rising as you take a bite, but they are so delicious.”

Rather than snack, the riders — some of them getting on a bike for about the first time — were required to spend at least three hours a week for several months in the gym doing cardio and core work. It was only after spring break that they began doing distance rides, starting at 30 miles and each week going up another 15 miles until they hit 90.

Today’s opening leg has the riders going from NYC to Beacon, N.Y. They’ll eventually head into the western part of the state, then come down through northeastern Ohio until Zanesville and then begin the trip west.

Most nights they plan to sleep in churches. Kerr said for lunch every day they are allotted two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

He said they want to make sure all the money they raise — and their goal is $150,000 — goes to cancer projects. He’ll record his exploits on a blog that can be found on the Illini 4000 web page.

Once he gets to San Francisco, though, he still won’t head straight to his General Mills job. He has one other stop back in northeastern Ohio.

“I’m in my cousin’s wedding first,” he said with a chuckle, “and that’s important, too.”

The Summer of Love will continue.

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