BOSTON — To raise money for cancer research, Tom Peled has been known to push limits.
In early September, the 26-year-old Israeli celebrated his birthday by biking for 26-hours, non-stop. Starting in Hartford, Connecticut, the charismatic Peled biked 160 miles to New York City, with just a couple of bathroom breaks.
The birthday odyssey was all in a day’s work for Peled, considering the past two years. Since 2011, he has crossed two continents on his bike – named Amanda – including the hottest summer on record in Death Valley.
On Friday, Peled and six teammates wrapped their second “Bike for the Fight” US tour in Washington, DC. Since starting from Toronto in August, the team biked more than 1,500 miles, visiting college campuses and Jewish communities along the way. There are another two weeks of off-cycle fundraising events and though they’ve raised some $80,000 so far, the team hopes to break its 2012 record haul of $100,000.
The journey wasn’t completely linear, as the Israelis flew back to Toronto last week to lead a charity spin-a-thon. The three-hour event yielded a whopping $40,000 donated toward cancer research — a record coup for the tour.
Peled’s path to extreme cycling started ten years ago, when his father Rami Peled was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. Initially affecting the stomach membrane, the cancer is diagnosed in only about five Israelis each year.
“My father was the kind of person who you meet and after just five minutes, you feel you’ve known him all your life,” Peled said.
As the biker finished high school and entered the Israeli army, his father battled cancer. Instead of dying within months – as doctors had predicted – Rami fought back. He continued to enjoy life, including a penchant for public singing and celebrating family milestones.
“The worse my father’s physical condition got, the better his spiritual condition got,” Peled told The Times of Israel.
“My father was not ready to give up, and he maintained constant faith that he could overcome the disease,” Peled said. “He bravely went through several surgeries and hospitalizations.”
Early in 2011, Peled’s father finally succumbed to his illness. He had outlived the doctors’ initial prognosis by eight years.
Several months later, Peled decided he needed a challenge to cope with his loss. Wanting to channel his grief into something positive, he took his bicycle and flew to Germany.
‘The worse my father’s physical condition got, the better his spiritual condition got’
During a three-month solo journey, Peled biked from Germany to Spain’s west coast. His odyssey of “hope, grief and life” took him through London, so Peled wasn’t looking for the shortest route across Europe. He passed through six countries and logged more than 3,000 miles, often in cold, rainy weather.
“What I found to be truly remarkable and unexpected was the warm and enthusiastic response of local residents who I met along the way,” Peled said. “These strangers became fast friends, assisting me to complete my challenge.”
Inspired by his European adventure, Peled returned to Israel and created a nonprofit, “Bike for the Fight,” to raise funds for cancer research. He decided to spend the summer of 2012 biking from Los Angeles to New York City, and raise as much money and awareness along the way as possible.
During his first US trek, Peled and three Israeli biker friends held dozens of fundraising events at Jewish community centers and major sporting events. The team was stopped by police officers no fewer than five times, usually for riding on major highways.
The ride began ominously on just the second day, as Peled and team biked through the hottest summer on record in a parched Death Valley. “It was 108 degrees and all of a sudden, one of the bikes just exploded from the heat,” Peled said.
“So my friend on the bike had to spend the rest of the day running,” he added with a grin.
As the journey concluded in October, more than 40 bikers joined Peled’s team for the final stretch into Times Square.
What started as Peled’s fantasy wound up raising $100,000 for the Israel Cancer Research Fund. Since 1975, the organization has given more than 2,000 grants to outstanding cancer researchers throughout the Jewish state.
‘It was 108 degrees and all of a sudden, one of the bikes just exploded from the heat’
“If you have a little bit of chutzpah, you can reach anything,” Peled said. “People want to do good, they just need to be pointed in the right direction.”
When meeting with groups, Peled shows a half-hour PowerPoint presentation about “Bike for the Fight,” starting with his father’s story. He talks about “the three F’s” of individual crisis response – freeze, flight and fight – and recounts his two-wheel journey from grief to triumph.
As one might expect, Peled’s presentation is full of biking metaphors and on-the-road anecdotes.
“When I’ve biked across the US or Europe, I am living the whole range of emotions every day,” Peled said.“Biking is like life itself, in that sometimes you are coasting easily, and other times you are struggling up hills.”
During his just-wrapped tour, Peled and friends visited some of the best known US colleges, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia. With a new academic year and the Jewish high holidays, Peled’s message resonated strongly on campus, said some of his hosts.
“Tom Peled’s visit came at a crucial time for my students,” said Jen Gutman, a program manager at Boston University’s Hillel House.
Last month, Gutman invited students to meet Peled and his team during their stop in Boston. With only two days’ notice, more than 50 students crowded a small conference room to hear Peled’s story.
“When Tom speaks about his mission and personal story, the passion and energy are contagious,” Gutman said. “This is such an important message for students at the start of a new year, because they need plans and inspiration to put their own dreams into action.”
When students asked Peled about the future of “Bike for the Fight,” he did not wax about potential treks across South America or Australia. Instead, Peled urged students to launch campus-based versions of his nonprofit, and contribute to the fight against cancer in their own way.
“I know my father is watching over me with this project,” Peled said. “Knowing who he was, he would say that if through his death other people will be saved from this horrible disease, then it was worth it.”