Chicagoans biking around Lake Michigan for charity

(Allen Kuo / Venture Expeditions…)
July 09, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

Ben Skoda hadn’t biked more than 10 miles at a time before the summer of 2010.

The only reason he owned a bike in the first place was because he decided to buy one with his $600 winnings from his faculty’s “Biggest Loser”-esque contest. He was on a health kick, so why not?

The Ukrainian Village resident never imagined he’d be perched on that very bike’s seat for seven weeks, pedaling more than 5,000 miles from Seattle to New York City with a Christian fundraising organization called Venture Expeditions.

Skoda, 34, now Venture Expedition’s communications coordinator, will embark on his fourth trip with Venture on July 14, leading a group of eight cyclists--including four Chicagoans--on a journey circling Lake Michigan.

The team will pedal nearly 1,000 miles during their 13-day trip, visiting churches and community groups to rally support for their cause along the way.

The tour will benefit two education-based causes: Chicago’s By The Hand Club and supporting Venture’s community center in Southeast Asia, which offers educational support to underprivileged children.

In fact, it was the tour’s education-focused fundraising that helped convince Skoda’s wife, Sarah, to join to expedition.

“He was just like, ‘Hey, what about this trip? I’m going and you should too,’” said Sarah Skoda, a 28-year-old first-grade teacher in Bucktown. “I’ve always wanted to do one, so it made sense for this to be the one.”

But much like her husband, Sarah Skoda was far from an experienced cyclist before she signed on. That seems to be a trend with Venture’s participants.

“I don’t consider myself an adventurer, not by any means,” Ben Skoda said. “And you’d be surprised, that’s the case with most. You’d think everyone would be adventure junkies.

“But we target a lot of college kids and teachers to go because they have the summer to dedicate to something like this. Most never imagined doing something this extreme in their entire life.”

Such is the case with Sarah Skoda.

“I don’t really like to run, no,” Sarah Skoda said. “I go to the gym and work out a couple times a week, maybe. I’ve never done something like this, never thought I would.”

Sarah Skoda said she bought her first road bike last year, never traveling more than 20 miles before this summer. She went on a 75-mile ride last week and has logged nearly 300 miles during training.

“This is a huge deal for me,” Sarah Skoda said. “I’m hoping that the beauty of it all will motivate me to go faster and keep going. And on top of that, you’re riding for the kids too. You have to keep that in mind.”

Mallorie Hsieh, a 24-year-old teacher joining the Lake Michigan tour, said the most she biked before going on her first Venture tour last year was getting from class to class while attending college at Michigan State.

“I love the cause and what Venture stands for,” said Hsieh, a Pilsen resident. “Plus, biking seems really doable to me. A marathon just sounds impossible. It’s always really fun. But it is a long, long way.”

But Hsieh and company won’t be navigating that “long, long way” totally on their own.

Ben Skoda and two other co-leaders will take turns driving a 15 passenger van that's equipped with a trailer to hold the rider’s equipment. The drivers will go ahead of the bikers, pick up groceries and set up a lunch stop at that day’s halfway point.

“Will realize more people would participate if it was a little, little less of an adventure,” Ben Skoda said. “But it’s still a pretty big adventure. No doubt about that. And that’s the point. There’s something significant that happened when you sacrifice your legs, lungs and comfort on behalf of a cause. It really is a life-changing experience.”

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