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Cyclorama: All roads lead to Tucson for Rotary leader


I first heard about El Tour de Tucson in the unlikeliest of places, on a water taxi in Thailand. In May 2012, during the Rotary International Convention in Bangkok, I was sharing a river boat with a group of Rotary members from Arizona. Among them were Ernie Montagne, a past district governor, and his wife, Sally, who would become a district governor herself in a couple of years. They knew I was an avid cyclist and told me enthusiastically about Rotary clubs in southern Arizona that had begun using the annual Tucson ride to raise money for polio eradication.

By the time our ferry ride was over, I had eagerly agreed to join them, and in November that year I participated in my first El Tour de Tucson, a rigorous 102-mile ride staged against a backdrop of mountains, desert, and cacti. Since then, I’ve made the ride nine more times, missing only 2020 when it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During those years, my Rotary teammates and I, including my colleagues at Rotary International, have raised about $61.1 million to end polio. El Tour, as I’ll explain, was also the site of my two most memorable rides, albeit for very different reasons.

I wasn’t always the passionate cyclist that Ernie and Sally Montagne encountered that day on the Bangkok ferry. Of course, riding a bike was a part of my childhood, as it was for most of my friends. My generation, we all grew up on bicycles. We’d grab our bikes and zoom around the neighborhood. These days, that can seem like a lost art from a long-gone era.

Image credit: John Hewko

A couple of photos from my childhood spring to mind. I remember one of me and my sister learning how to ride a bike on a sidewalk in Detroit, where my father worked for General Motors. I distinctly recall the circumstances behind another photograph from when we lived in Ohio: I was 12 or 13 then, and my family had taken our bikes out one summer afternoon on the ferry to Kelleys Island in Lake Erie. The island's quarries made it fun to bike around. And there I am, a suntanned kid wearing glasses, a white T-shirt, and jeans — hardly the slick cycling outfit I don today — straddling a bike with fenders and, if those weren't enough extra weight, what appears to be a 10-pound tire pump strapped to the back rack. I've got a big, happy smile. Given the chance, I'd pedal back to those days in an instant.

Even though I was an athlete growing up, I drifted away from cycling. My big sport was lacrosse; in high school and college, I was co-captain of the lacrosse team. I also played hockey and squash, but after graduation, I became a runner to stay fit. But since my 20s, I've been plagued with arthritis, particularly in my right hip, and the pain finally reached the point where I couldn't run anymore.

My wife, Marga, wasn't into running. She preferred cycling, and one day she suggested that I join her and see if I enjoyed it. And though my biking sprang from a necessity to find another way to stay in shape, it turned out I really loved the sport, which is a great cardiovascular workout. While strengthening muscles and tendons, the activity is easier on the joints. And more importantly, it gave me something I was able to do with Marga. We spend a lot of time biking when we travel to our place in Park City, Utah, or, like last summer, when we visited Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. It's fun just to tool around. As you unwind and focus on the breathtaking scenery around you, you kind of lose yourself. That's one of the things I love about cycling.

Here in Evanston, Illinois, where I live and where Rotary International has its headquarters, there is a series of largely uninterrupted roads that run north along Lake Michigan toward the Wisconsin border.

Image credit: Alyce Henson

That's my standard route when I can squeeze in a ride after work: 21 miles from home to the North Shore suburb of Lake Bluff and 21 miles back again.

When I really want to push myself, I join my weekend riding crew, an intense, but not overly aggressive, group of lawyers and executives riding fancy bikes. When I first showed up 12 years ago with my mid- to low-end Giant bike, they teased me, "Nah, you can't ride with us on that thing." I did upgrade my bike, settling on a good, high-end Giant. We usually ride in pace lines, one cyclist riding behind the wheel of another, concentrating on that person in front of you to make sure you don't crash. My right hip has been replaced and my left shoulder, so I have no safe side to fall on.

The benefits of these rides go beyond the physical; like meditation, cycling relaxes the brain and delivers a sense of calm and well-being.

During the winter, I move indoors for stationary rides. With an online training app connected to my laptop, I put the back wheel of my bike into a docking hub. I can choose on the computer all types of rides that emulate real ones.

All this is in preparation for my big annual ride: El Tour de Tucson in November. While living in Washington, D.C., I had done a couple of great century (100-mile) rides: the Civil War Century in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the Sea Gull Century along Maryland's Eastern Shore. But El Tour has been my focus for the last 10 years, and from an endurance and athletic point of view, it was the scene of two unforgettable rides.

One never really knows how the fall weather will turn out for the tour. Regardless, I always bring a plethora of warm- and medium-weather gear. I wear layers so I can pull down my arm sleeves as the day gets warmer, and carry two water bottles and a bag full of snacks, which I munch on every half-hour to reach energy targets and stay hydrated.

The 102-mile ride starts at 7 in the morning, and some years it can be 45 degrees, and other years it can be 65, getting hotter as the day goes on. But the ride in 2013 was nothing like that. Tucson is known as the city of sunshine, but that year it was windy, freezing cold, and pouring rain, just as it had been the day before. Water streamed down from the mountains, and there were times you had to get off your bike and wade through water up to your knees. The organizers rerouted slower riders because the path became treacherous. My teammate, Bob McKenzie, who has cycled across America multiple times, pulled me through. It was the hardest 100 miles, but camaraderie among like-minded Rotary riders endured.

Image credit: James S. Wood

While we use El Tour to raise money for polio eradication, my personal goal for each tour was to break the five-hour mark, which earns a rider the platinum classification: For the next three years you're entitled to start up front with the professional riders. Those personal and anti-polio goals overlapped when many enthusiastic Rotary members pledged to double or triple their donations if I reached the elite level. And in 2015 I finally achieved that, crossing the finish line at four hours and 55 minutes. Crawling off my bike, I just sat for an hour. Exhausted as I was, I felt a surging sense of elation.

In 2017, I had hip replacement surgery, and keeping under the five-hour mark became too difficult, but I wasn't short on motivation. Rotarians who have put their weight behind our cause have completed events far more arduous. Minda Dentler, one of our Rotary polio ambassadors and herself a polio survivor, was the first female wheelchair athlete to successfully complete the Ironman World Championship triathlon (which involves swimming 2.4 miles, hand cycling 112 miles, and pushing a racing wheelchair for 26.2 miles). Such stories of perseverance inspired me throughout the tough post-surgery rehab sessions and long training rides.

Last year I finished at 5:48 or so, and soon I'll be fighting just to crack six hours. Regardless, I will always keep in mind that finishing the ride with my teammates symbolizes Rotary's determination to finish what we started over 35 years ago and eradicate a human disease for only the second time in history. That should carry me over the finish line.

With the arrival of spring, a season of rejuvenated hopes, it's time to head outdoors, get back on my bike, and make those hard, joyous rides up and down the North Shore, solo and in line with my hard-riding pals. It may not seem like it now, but 18 November lies just over the next hill. See you in Tucson.

John Hewko is general secretary and CEO of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation.

This story originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

This year’s El Tour de Tucson is Saturday, 18 November.