New Haven woman bikes for cancer cure

NEW HAVEN — Linda Sweeney used to bicycle alone. But that changed one fateful week last year, when her favorite  uncle, Jack Hurlbut, learned he had lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that more than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with annually.
The following day, a friend invited Sweeney on a bike ride. A New Haven resident, Sweeney had never ridden with anyone before and told her friend that she wasn’t sure whether she was a fast or slow bicycling companion. That ride turned out to be the start of a journey that will take Sweeney to Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border on June 2 to attempt a 100-mile ride around the lake with an estimated 4,000 other bikers in the 22nd annual fundraiser to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Her cycling companion that day told Sweeney about the event after she shared the news about Uncle Jack.
“I believe in things happening for a reason,” Sweeney said in a recent interview.
Uncle Jack wasn’t the first member of Sweeney’s family to be affected by blood cancer. In 1960, before Sweeney herself was born, her six-month-old sister Theresa died from leukemia.
“In 1960, 80 percent of children with leukemia died, whereas now it’s around 4 percent,” said Sweeney. “(Theresa) was one of the 80 percent.”
Jack Hurlbut, a long-time resident of St. Albans, died on Dec. 21 of last year. Though only about 9 percent of males diagnosed with lymphoma die in the United States, “he was also part of that percentage,” Sweeney said.
In the face of the hardship and grief that comes with the loss of a loved one, Sweeney has taken on the daunting 100-mile ride through the steep, high-altitude mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe to give her family hope, and to do her part to raise money for cancer research and treatment.
“I believe we can find a cure,” she said.
Sweeney has pledged to raise $8,000 for the Vermont Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through individual and corporate donations to sponsor her ride. She has raised $6,200 so far, and needs to pull in an additional $1,800 at her final fundraiser, a benefit performance by the Tim Brick Band at the Eagles Club in Vergennes on April 20 at 7 p.m.
Sweeney met Tim Brick last fall at the crafts fair at Mount Abraham Union High School. She was raising funds for her ride with a table full of donated crafts when the two struck up a conversation. Sweeney remembers not selling a thing at the crafts fair that day.
“But it was worth it,” she said with a laugh. “I met him. He came to me and offered to do this (performance).”
The Tim Brick Band has won rave reviews in Vermont papers for its old-school country with a hint of rock. Sweeney is a big fan of the music and hopes to fill the 400-person Eagles Club space to capacity.
“He makes me want to dance!” she said.
In the coming months, Sweeney’s focus will be on preparation for the race — practical matters like fundraising and fitness, as well as emotional preparation.
“When I started bike riding it was just for fun. I certainly didn’t imagine going around Lake Tahoe, with all of its challenges in itself. There’s a switchback mountain. At Mile 70, there’s an eight-mile climb. I was like, can’t you do that eight-mile climb at Mile 10?”
During the winter months, Sweeney has trained with weights, and taken spinning classes five hours a week at Middlebury Fitness, where she said the staff has been incredibly supportive of her cause. As the race gets closer, Sweeney will start riding more and more outside.
“Next week, I’ll be out there riding 30, 40 miles at a time,” Sweeney said. “I’ll build myself up a week at a time by 10 or 15 miles, so I hope I’ll reach 100 miles between now and then.”
Sweeney also acknowledges that she has some emotional preparation to consider. The event is a gathering of thousands of cancer survivors, family members and supporters. Her Uncle Jack had planned to come watch her ride.
“(The ride) is very emotional,” she said. “My aunt will be there with me, because my uncle and aunt had talked about coming with me when he was in. So that will be sad, yet great at the same time that she’ll be there with me.”
Tickets for the Tim Brick Band performance to benefit Sweeney’s ride are currently available for purchase. Sweeney regularly updates a blog on her website, www.helplindaride.org.

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