SUN CITY CENTER — The pack of cyclists, all in their 60s and 70s, pedaled at a comfortable pace in preparation for an ambitious journey that lies ahead.
Four of the riders have well over a combined century's worth of cycling experience. And then there's Mike Libenson, the oldest of the group at age 72 and newest to the sport. He's also the one with the biggest motive.
Sammy Rotman, Libenson's granddaughter, is the reason behind the bond recently formed among these retirees. When 9-year-old Sammy died two years ago of osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, Libenson was forced to confront reality and ask a question:
He came up with two possible answers: Either life is a crapshoot or there must be some divinity behind tragedy. Libenson, a retired psychologist, chose to go with the divine route.
Maybe Sammy died so that others will not have to. That's what Libenson hopes as he and the Sammy Rides team prepare to travel 2,400 miles by bike in the spring to raise money in a fight against pediatric cancer.
Their cross county trek will start in Sun City, Ariz. and finish in Sun City Center, where the riders live. They don't want Sammy's death to be in vain.
"We're going to make sure as much as we can that other kids who are suffering like that have a better shot at making it," Libenson said.
With about 200 days until the trip starts, the five cyclists meet twice a week for an organized training ride. Last weekend, I joined them for almost 28 miles, which was enough distance to chat with each of them.
As we started out riding through Sun City Center, surrounded by golf courses, Libenson took his spot in the back. A green-yellow neon flag that matched the bikers' Sammy Rides T-shirts waved from his recumbent bike.
Though Libenson has trouble hearing and has only been cycling for about six months, he considers himself the eyes of the group. He constantly looks in his mirror, checking for approaching traffic.
"Car back!" he yells, accompanied by a few toots of his bike horn. He even blew the horn as we passed a couple walking on a neighborhood street. "I'm just making sure they know we're coming."
His cautious efforts might be a little over the top, I thought at first (Hey, I'm only 24 and am fairly new to cycling myself. What do I know?). Then the next morning I was reminded that road cyclists can never be too careful. A man on a bike was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident not far from where I had been riding.
Jim Wheeler, the group's navigator, led the way as usual. He pointed out potholes, glass and other debris. Wheeler, 70, is a seasoned cyclist who means business.
"If they'd like to sit around and relax, we've got to get somewhere," he said. "I'm going to be pushing them."
Oh yeah, and Wheeler rides with an African parrot, Harry, on his shoulder. Harry whistles and ducks at the sight of larger birds.
Wheeler and the others have helped Libenson grasp the basics. They taught him the correct way to pass someone and how to effectively use his bike's gears. He's gradually becoming more comfortable with the thought of riding across the country.
When he gets tired, he thinks about what Sammy endured. The chemotherapy, the radiation, having a leg amputated.
"I know how she suffered and agonized through those torturous years," he said. "So this bike ride, I mean that's nothing."
Libenson kept a bit of distance between himself and the next bike for most of the ride. Until the rain came. Leading up to our turnaround point at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin, he bolted to the front as if reaching the finish line of a race. He needed to remove his hearing aid so it didn't get wet.
The rain didn't last long. But a little inclement weather is only practice for the cold and wind they can expect in New Mexico and Texas.
Sammy Rides has raised about $75,000 through donations, Libenson said. Their goal is to reach $1 million. It's not clear yet exactly how the money will be used. Team Will, a California-based organization that raises money for childhood cancer research, will distribute the proceeds.
The cyclists will begin their trip in March and plan to finish it by May. Along the way, they will encourage others to join them, even if for only a few miles.