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Article Published August 13, 2019
Med Students End Coast-to-Coast Ride in Old Saybrook
Aviva Luria, Staff Reporter

It was a late Monday afternoon in early August, and a small crowd stood on Plum Bank Road in Old Saybrook, awaiting the Cyclopaths. Cheers rang out as the first of them drew into focus: a young woman in a bright green shirt and bike shorts, pedaling toward Town Beach and grinning with joy and excitement. She was followed by three others, similarly clad and just as elated.

The four 20-somethings, all first-year medical students at UConn, had ridden their bikes from Anacortes, Washington, a 57-day trek covering nearly 3,600 miles. All are from Connecticut: Keanna Chang, the woman leading the Cyclopaths for this last leg of the ride, is from Old Saybrook; Justin Hoffman is from North Haven; Yoga Kammili is from Danbury; and Liz Rodier is from Avon.

This was the 14th year of Coast to Coast for a Cause, a UConn Medical School tradition of a cross-country ride raising money for a charity of the bicyclists’ choosing. Medical students get a summer break between their first and second years and this group of four, who’d dubbed themselves the Cyclopaths, had not simply survived a challenging, often grueling journey. They’d raised nearly $13,000 for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Paul Newman’s summer camp for children with serious illnesses. (Donations are still being accepted.)

Raising money for an organization that helped children was important to Chang and Hoffman, both of whom want to work in pediatrics in some capacity.

Chang graduated from Old Saybrook High School in 2014. As a pre-med major at Cornell, she got her EMS certification in the summer after freshman year and spent subsequent summers and school breaks volunteering with the Old Saybrook Ambulance Corps.

“For as long as I can remember, [doctor has] been the only steady thing that I’ve ever wanted to be,” Chang said.

Occasionally, her thoughts turned to becoming a pilot or even a professional tree climber—she taught tree climbing as an undergraduate.

“As I went through college and was doing my pre-med prerequisites, I thought [becoming a doctor] was a great way to combine my love of science, my love for working with others, [and] my love for giving back to the community that I’m in,” she said.

“It’s also a little bit of teaching, too, because I love teaching,” she continued. “It’s not like you’re teaching in a classroom, but if you form a good relationship with your patient, you have to teach them about their condition or about how to take care of themselves...[A] good physician will be able to explain things well.”

Help Along the Way

Chang’s parents, George Chang and Lynda Kieffer, who live in Old Saybrook, avidly followed the blog the Cyclopaths kept up throughout their journey—as loyal supporters, not as fretful parents.

“There’s four of them, so I think that makes a huge difference in terms of the safety,” said George Chang. “They were riding across America. They’re not doing this in Central America or something, so even if it’s hard, it’s still home.”

“And they’ve said repeatedly that they’ve had so many just really generous, helpful people along the way,” Kieffer said. “People they didn’t know. Just strangers. Volunteers that let them come stay in their house—the Warm Showers hosts.”

“The Warm Showers Community is a free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists,” according to the Warm Showers website Hosts and cyclists sign up online. Cyclists then contact potential hosts along their route to ask if they can stay with them.

The Cyclopaths’ blog is filled with stories about generous Warm Showers hosts who fed them, gave them a place to sleep, and, yes, provided them with warm showers. One host’s Idaho farm had an outdoor composting toilet, out in the open, with no walls or curtains around it. At another farm, their dinner included cheese made that day with milk from their host’s dairy cow. At the Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, the students were hosted by monks.

Starting the trip in Washington presented challenges right away: Their route led them through the Cascade Mountains. Day Two took them from Rockport to Diablo, Washington, up to the entrance of North Cascades National Park for another nine miles of climbing to the visitor center.

“From there, the day got a whole lot more challenging,” Keanna Chang wrote on June 13. “It was only 10 the campsite in Diablo, but the distance between each mile marker felt like five miles, and I was pedaling so slowly it was hard to bike in a straight line. The sun was blazing down on my back, and from my shadow in front of me, I could picture myself as...a drunk pack mule, with my wide panniers and swaying to and fro.”

Uphill Battles

Rainstorms, hail, flat tires and other bicycle mishaps, routing issues, minor injuries and wasp stings, a fever, bad roads, and heat were all on the agenda, but the worst conditions the riders faced were headwinds and mosquitos, which were particularly fierce in Montana and North Dakota.

“At 17 miles per hour, there were still a few mosquito hitchhikers, but with warnings from the person behind, it was relatively possible to stave them off,” Chang wrote in Montana on Day 22. “Between 13 and 17 mph, they attacked, but we fought back, fists pounding on backs, hands slapping on thighs. Under 13 miles per hour, it was game over. They swarmed, and we were at their mercy.”

Spirits were overcome and then lifted by a beautiful view, a rest day, or unexpected generosity. The group connected with a tandem-riding father and daughter duo who twice paid for surprise hotel rooms and dinners. Strangers offered them insect spray, shelter from a thunderstorm, ice cream, or a place to stay. And they adjusted their route to visit with family and friends.

“Honestly, anybody can do this,” Chang said at Town Beach on the final day of the journey. “It’s hard, but I think anybody—as long as you know that you’re going to be sitting on a bike for 10 hours. You know, just put your mind to it, you can literally do anything, even if it’s one pedal stroke at a time, if you have to break it down that much.

“When we first started, we would look at the whole summer, and be like, ‘Wow—this is a lot of mileage to cover,’” she continued. “But then we’d stop thinking about it that way and start thinking of it by weeks or then by days and then on the really tough days by the hills we had to climb or by miles on the windy days.

“And so I feel like that can be applied to any problem in life,” she said. “If you look at the whole thing, it’s going to seem impossible, but if you break it down, into itty, bitty bits, then all you have to overcome is that one thing, then the next thing, and the next thing, and before you know it, you’re there. You’re done.”

All 57 days of the Cyclopaths’ blog can be found at Donations are still being accepted at Twenty percent of the funds raised will defray the costs of the trip with 80 percent going to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.