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Amherst men bicycle cross-country to aid cancer research

  • Bob Newcomb and Eric Heller, both of Amherst, pose for a portrait Friday with their bikes. They are riding in the Coast to Coast to Cure Cancer starting next month.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bob Newcomb and Eric Heller, both of Amherst, pose for a portrait Friday with their bikes. They are riding in the Coast to Coast to Cure Cancer starting next month.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Newcomb and Eric Heller, both of Amherst, are riding across country to raise money for cancer.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bob Newcomb and Eric Heller, both of Amherst, are riding across country to raise money for cancer.
    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Newcomb and Eric Heller, both of Amherst, pose for a portrait Friday with their bikes. They are riding in the Coast to Coast to Cure Cancer starting next month.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Bob Newcomb and Eric Heller, both of Amherst, are riding across country to raise money for cancer.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

Heller, the deputy director of the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, and Newcomb, head coach of the UMass women’s swimming and diving team, are longtime participants in the fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, but this year are expanding their roles beyond the typical two-day ride into what they are calling the Coast to Coast to Cure Cancer bike ride.

Heller, 59, said he has long thought about doing a ride across the United States after doing weeklong 500-mile excursions beginning a decade ago.

“It was always in my head wondering if I could do this, and I said to myself, Set a date or otherwise it wouldn’t happen,” he said.

It will mark his 20th year participating in the ride.

He found a willing partner in Newcomb, 54, a frequent training partner. They discussed the idea at the Lady Killigrew Cafe at the Montague Bookmill, and then convinced their wives and families they could do it.

Newcomb and Heller will be among an estimated 5,500 cyclists, from 26 states and eight countries and ranging in age from 13 to 88, expected in this year’s bike-a-thon. Event organizers have set a goal of $38 million to support adult and pediatric cancer research and patient care.

Heller and Newcomb’s plan, though, is among the most ambitious.

They both ride for family members. Heller rides and raises money in memory of his mother, Pearl Heller, who died from endometrial cancer in 2007.

Newcomb rides in memory of his mother and father, Mickey and Bud Newcomb, who both lost their lives to cancer. He will have a photo of them displayed on the back of his jersey.

In their combined rides over the years, they have raised a total of nearly $117,000.

Newcomb and Heller started their training this year as soon as the weather allowed and will be averaging 80 miles a day on the trip.

The journey will start along what is known as the Lewis and Clark Trail, which follows the Columbia River. They will use maps published by the Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit cycling advocacy group of Missoula, Mont.

“Adventure Cycling chooses roads less populated by heavy trucks and which are more scenic,” Heller said.

Both Heller and Newcomb expect to be challenged, particularly as they ride through the Rocky Mountains. “It will be very strenuous going up the hills,” Heller said.

In Montana, the route connects to the Northern Tier, which extends to Buffalo, N.Y.

“We’re praying for two months of the prevalent west wind at our backs and then we’ll be happy,” Newcomb said.

Heller said he expects the ride to get easier each day as both cyclists will get stronger.

About every seventh day they will take a day off and expect to get back to Massachusetts with four days to spare before the Pan-Mass Challenge, which takes place Aug. 3 and 4.

“We will get there just in time to ride in the 34th annual event, our favorite weekend of the year,” Newcomb said.

During the trip, they will hand out business cards and post fliers about Pan-Mass in restaurants, cafes, hotels, supermarkets and campgrounds they visit.

In the first half of the trip, Heller’s wife Yehudit will be driving a car filled with clothing, spare bicycle parts and snacks. The second half, Newcomb’s wife Judi and daughter Olivia fly into Bismark, N.D., and take over for the remainder of the trip in the support role.

“Both our wives and my daughter Olivia are Pan-Mass volunteers. This has been a good family event for us,” Newcomb said.

People can follow Heller and Newcomb’s ride at www.c2c2c2.org and get regular updates from the riders, including blog entries and photographs. Newcomb will ride with a camera attached to his helmet. People are also welcome to leave messages and the names of loved ones they want remembered.

Neither Newcomb nor Heller have set specific fundraising goals.

“The idea is to raise as much as possible,” Heller said. “This will be more than we’ve typically raised. We’ve already surpassed what we bring in in a regular year.”

Heller said the Pan-Mass Challenge has been an uplifting experience since the first time he rode in it in 1994.

“It’s such a phenomenal weekend and such a great feeling,” he said.

He said it gives him the chance to meet people and listen to stories about how they are affected by cancer, which give him extra determination as he rides.

Newcomb started riding when he turned 50 and found cycling on Cape Cod inspirational.

“It’s very emotional when riding through the dunes,” Newcomb said. “It’s a weekend that’s about something really, really bad but is surrounded by so much good.”

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