Every summer fundraiser needs its swag bags, and the 100-mile Long Island Bike Challenge, in which cyclists will be battling heat, thirst, and mental and physical exhaustion on a marathon ride from Wantagh to East Hampton on Aug. 6, is no different.
And so Edward Diller, 61, the founder and director of the challenge — informally dubbed “Bikes Battle Cancer” — is spending the months before the event “wrangling” sponsors for swag bag goodies. Boxes of 400 mini Clif energy bars, brand-new squirt water bottles and other freebies for the riders’ gift bags were already piling up in his dining room and garage in May.
“We’re getting stuff delivered every day,” says Diller, an adjunct professor of health education at Nassau Community College and Queensborough Community College in Bayside. He’s sitting in his North Bellmore kitchen with his wife, Ann, 60, a legal secretary who helps coordinate all of the event’s moving parts. “One hundred pairs of Thorlo socks just came in today,” Diller says.
Among other things, sponsors are asked to contribute bagels, butter and cream cheese for about 100 breakfasts; oranges, peaches and plums for quick energy boosts, peanut butter, jelly and whole wheat bread for sandwiches, and about 2,000 bottles of spring water for hydrating at roadside water stops.
Sponsors are important to any fundraiser, Diller says. “We call them, we cajole them, for financial and in-kind product support,” he says, and many eagerly respond. This year, sponsors will contribute about $5,000 in goods for the fundraiser.
Time off from teaching allows Diller to spend most of his summer break directing the challenge, which in the past five years has raised and donated $100,000 to Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.
“We are the beneficiary of all of the proceeds raised by the Bike Challenge,” says Dr. Marc Symons, 63, co-director of the Brain Tumor Biotech Center at the Feinstein Institute. “The money has all gone to research to help us to identify and develop new treatments for brain tumors, breast cancer and a number of other cancers.”
Diller says, “Everybody knows somebody who’s been afflicted with cancer.” In his family, his sister, a pediatric oncologist, is a longtime breast cancer survivor, and his father had prostate cancer. Diller honors them each year by riding the full 100 miles on his 30-speed titanium Litespeed road bike.
Each rider must provide $500 in donations to qualify for the challenge. More than a fundraiser, the event has become an annual tradition for many Long Islanders ages 50 years or older who spend their summer getting their hearts, minds, legs and knees ready for the long haul on a hard bike seat.
This year, a majority of the dozens of riders registered so far are 50 and older, Diller says. “You have to get your legs ready,” says Diller, who has been riding a bicycle for 30 years and takes a 20-mile jaunt to Jones Beach before teaching class during the academic year. To train for the challenge, he says, “I tell people you should be riding three or four times a week, with Sunday your longest ride. By the time you get to July you should have been on the bike a couple of times for four hours.”
Completing the event is “a psychological game,” he says. “I tell people to ride from water stop to water stop, get off the bike, rest, and ride another 20 miles.” The 100-mile course is one way. A bus takes cyclists back to their starting point, if they’re not met by friends or family members.
Diller grew up in North Bellmore and graduated in 1973 from Mepham High School. He earned a bachelor of arts in history in 1977 from SUNY Albany and a master’s in public health in 1984 from Columbia University in Manhattan.
The idea for the challenge occurred to him about six years ago. “I wanted to combine two great passions in my life, which, besides my family, are biking and health,” Diller says. He chose to benefit the Feinstein Institute because he wanted to help his fellow Long Islanders. “I really did want this to be a local event. I didn’t want to do this for a national organization,” Diller says. Northwell is “the biggest employer on Long Island, they are growing, they have the Hofstra University medical school, so I thought this was a good fit.”
Signed up for this challenge is Edward Langone, 52, of Lindenhurst, who says that running injured his calf muscle and Achilles tendon. He’s going for the century — 100 miles in bicyclist lingo. “I couldn’t run anymore without risking further injury,” says Langone, a computer engineer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a member of the Lindenhurst school board. “Riding is the perfect exercise, you can get a very intense workout,” he says.
The ride begins at 6 a.m. at the Wantagh Long Island Rail Road station. The route goes to the Bethpage Bikeway and then to the Long Island Expressway service road; riders travel through Suffolk on less-traveled roads to the South Fork. Major intersections all have traffic lights, Diller said.
Riders who don’t want to go the full distance can start in Medford for a 100-kilometer (about 62 miles) route, or in Westhampton for the 40-miler, which is the most popular option of the challenge. Every 20 miles there’s a water stop where volunteers hand out fresh sandwiches, sliced fruit and drinks. Two bike shop vans offer mechanical support, swooping in to help fix flats, reattach chains and unstick gears.
Along the way, the scenery changes from suburban sprawl to pine barrens to Hamptons charm. The sights include Dune Road mansions, a windmill, farmland and beaches.
“You are really on the back roads, which are very peaceful, with lots of nice scenery. You go by the water a couple of times,” says William Fuessler, 59, of Wantagh, a management consultant for IBM. Fuessler will be taking his fifth 40-mile challenge and says that there’s little traffic, even though it’s high summer season. “It’s a Sunday morning, most people are sleeping in,” he explains.
The ride ends with a welcoming lunch at Most Holy Trinity Church, a white-spired East Hampton chapel where barbecue from Famous Dave’s restaurant will be set out for the exhausted road warriors.
Among them will be Joseph Mills, 61, of Huntington, a chiropractor. Mills has been riding 30 miles two or three times a week in training for his third challenge. The first year he participated, it was his first bike ride since childhood.
“I never did 40 miles before,” he said. However, he says, “as a martial artist, kicking and punching and stretching my whole life, I just get on the bike and start going.”
He almost dismounted at the sight of the Ponquogue Bridge, the soaring span over Shinnecock Bay in Hampton Bays. “I freaked out,” he recalls. “It was intimidating.”
He made it over the bridge but says he was exhausted at the finish. “It was torture at the end. My legs were tired.”
Last year, Mills and two teammates finished the 40-mile route from Westhampton. This year he’ll again tackle the 40-miler, with his sights on a longer goal. I’m not ready for the century, but I would like to do that in my lifetime.” he says. “I know I could do it if I trained for it.”
Cyclists can pedal the entire 100-mile ride, or opt for shorter distances in the Long Island Bike Challenge for cancer research.
WHEN | WHERE Aug. 6, Wantagh to East Hampton
ADMISSION Free to watch. Participants must obtain a minimum of $500 in pledges to ride.
— JIM MERRITT