Freedom in each turn of the pedal on cross-country bike ride

July 16, 2020
Nan Robinson rides her bike on a sunny day
Even though COVID-19 stopped her cross-country bike ride, Nan Robinson loves the improved physical health and positive mental outlook she has gained since she took up cycling. Photo provided

“Man plans. God laughs.” This well-known Yiddish proverb feels truer than ever for Nan Robinson, whose cross-country bike ride to celebrate her 60th birthday was abruptly shut down on March 18 due to COVID-19. Robinson, an avid cyclist who rode 100 miles in the inaugural MUSC Hollings Cancer Center LOWVELO bike ride in 2019, had begun planning the trip in 2018 and was on day 14 of the journey when she got the news.

“It was such a disappointment,” said Robinson. “But the decision was made for us.”

Robinson has kept a great attitude, despite her plans being ruined by the pandemic. She said that cycling has had a positive effect on her physical health as well as her outlook and perceptions on getting older. At 60 years old, she’s in better shape than ever — conquering a portion of a cross-country cycling trip; signing up for 100-mile bike rides, including Hollings Cancer Center’s LOWVELO event; and making choices every day to support the athletic lifestyle she initially stumbled upon and then fully committed to.

If possible, she will fly back across the country in 2021 to complete her birthday challenge. Over the 17 days and 777 miles she rode, Robinson said she felt peaceful every day and can’t wait to finish what she started.

What got her hooked

If you would have mentioned a cross-country bike ride to Robinson six years ago, she would have laughed her head off. Like most kids, Robinson grew up riding a bike around her neighborhood for fun. When she reached adulthood, the childhood hobby took a back seat to typical tasks like working and taking care of her four children. She admits that exercising simply wasn’t a priority. As the years went by, she blamed her aches, pains and minor physical problems on her age.

“I thought there was nothing I could do about it; that’s just what happens when you get old!” she recalled.

One day in 2014, something happened that would eventually prove her wrong. Her son Joseph decided he wanted to go for a bike ride. A teenager riding a bicycle sounded harmless enough, but Robinson was reluctant to let him go alone. Joseph has Type 1 diabetes, and she was concerned about his blood sugar suddenly dropping while out riding by himself. After grabbing her old three-speed Schwinn, she followed him on a short ride in the country. Her son ended up doing fine, and Robinson decided she enjoyed it enough to buy a new bicycle and keep riding. She didn’t want to ride alone though, so she found groups to ride with, like the Rock Hill bike club, which took her under its wing and taught her the ropes of cycling.

Robinson viewed riding as just something fun to do. She never set out to become a cyclist or to get fit, but both of those things slowly but surely happened anyway. She realized if she was going to have enough energy to keep riding, she had to take better care of herself. She changed her eating habits and decided to start treating food as fuel to keep her cycling, and within one year, she had lost 60 pounds.

"You can’t get out and ride without taking care of yourself. It's all about balance. And then the more you ride, the healthier you get because your lungs get stronger, and your heart gets stronger. And now, I can ride really hard and not get out of breath."
— Nan Robinson

“It just happened when I realized I had to fuel my body properly. Like, you can't get out and ride on an empty stomach. You can’t get out and ride without taking care of yourself. It's all about balance. And then the more you ride, the healthier you get because your lungs get stronger, and your heart gets stronger. And now, I can ride really hard and not get out of breath,” Robinson said.

It didn’t take long for Robinson to become hooked, and she started seeking out and completing local rides. In the summer of 2018, she also started following the blogs of other cyclists, which is where she got the idea for her 60th birthday challenge. She happened upon the blog of a local cyclist, Paul Neal, who was 68 years old at the time. In his blog, he shared that when he was 18 years old, a “bratty teenager,” he hopped on his bicycle and decided to ride West. He rode from Rock Hill, South Carolina, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And at some point along the way, he promised himself if he was still alive in 50 years, he would do it again.

“He didn’t have it all planned out, but he did it at 18 and then again at 68. I thought, this is just the coolest thing,” said Robinson.

After Neal returned from his second cross-country bike ride, an opportunity presented itself for Robinson to meet and take a picture with him. She posted on her Facebook page about “her idol” and his journey and jokingly asked, “Who wants to go ride across the country with me?”

Casually, she began to research the possibilities of such an expedition and found a group called WomanTours, an international women-only bike tour company. What was originally a joke got her thinking — “Why not me?” One of their upcoming tours was a 58-day cross-country bike ride, which would begin shortly after she would turn 60 on Feb. 2. She signed up.

In the midst of training for her cross-country ride, she heard about LOWVELO through the Diocese of Charleston; she’s worked for the Divine Saviour Catholic Church in York for the past 27 years. She joined the diocese’s team, The Holy Rollers, and chose the 100-mile route. She and three other team members completed the ride and raised $10,771 for cancer research.

“I did my research about Hollings Cancer Center, and I already knew about MUSC because the reputation is just tremendous, even though I’m in a different area of the state. The decision to ride was just like a win-win all the way around,” Robinson said.

A cancer scare

After a successful LOWVELO ride, she felt even more prepared for her cross-country trip. But a call from her doctor in Dec. 2019 threatened to ruin her plans. She was asked to come in after her yearly appointment and have a follow-up mammogram — her annual screening showed they found something. When the results were still inconclusive, doctors determined she needed a biopsy.

“And it was benign, thank God,” she said. “But I still needed surgery.”

Robinson had microcalcifications, which are calcium deposits within breast tissue. Although they are usually noncancerous, they can sometimes indicate breast cancer or precancerous changes to breast tissue. To remove them, she had to undergo a partial mastectomy, which was completed on Jan. 13. When she removed her bandages for the first time, she stood in front of her mirror and sobbed.

Yet two weeks later, although not fully recovered, her mind was set on only one thing — her ride. During her post-operative appointment, she asked her doctor if she could still go, and luckily, he gave her the green light.

“He said, ‘Look, I'll be honest with you, I've never done this kind of surgery on somebody who is about to go ride a bike across the U.S. But obviously, you're in really good health, so as long as you wear a good sports bra and don't like, jump up and down a bunch, you can do anything you want.’” Robinson laughed. “I got past that, and it felt like everything was on my side for me to go and complete my ride.”

Nan Robinson sits on her bike during a break in her cross-country bike ride 
Robinson was on day 14 of her cross-country bike ride when COVID-19 forced an abrupt end. She hopes to complete the journey next year. Photo provided

On March 4, her cross-country bike ride began. After arriving in California, her first ride was from San Diego to Alpine, a total of 38.7 miles and a 2,812-elevation gain. She and 17 other women, plus two guides and one chef, set out on an extraordinary journey. Every day was different and came with its own set of challenges. On day three, from Jacumba to Brawly, the wind was so strong that the group’s only goal was to keep their feet planted on the ground and hang on to their bicycles, which occasionally went airborne due to intense wind gusts. On day six, Blythe, California, to Salome, Arizona, one group member was surprised by a rattlesnake while taking a rest stop but luckily escaped unscathed. On day eight, while riding from Wickenburg to Mesa, Arizona, a light drizzle became a complete downpour for over 10 miles of the trip. Obstacles kept getting tossed in their way, but Robinson and her group overcame them all. Until they couldn’t.

“Yes, I knew about COVID-19 before I left, but it just wasn’t that serious at the time. We didn’t know what was coming,” said Robinson.

After working so hard and overcoming so much, Robinson never could’ve imagined a pandemic would be the reason she wouldn’t fulfill her birthday challenge. WomanTours had been closely monitoring the pandemic and making decisions day by day since the ride began. For the safety of everyone involved, the company decided to shut down the ride on March 18.

“I was disappointed, but it was also a bit of a relief because the uncertainty of it all was the worst. When they finally said ‘No, you can’t do it anymore,' at least we didn’t have to make our own decision — because some of us, we would have stayed and gone on.”

Robinson can’t wait to finish that journey and be a part of LOWVELO’s virtual ride this year where participants, including runners, walkers and cyclists, are being challenged to collectively log 31,710 miles — which represents the number of people who are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in South Carolina in 2020. She hopes that other women will read about her story and be encouraged to become more active. It has given her a new lease on life.

“It was a ride, not a race,” she said of taking up the cross-country challenge. “Each day’s goal was to pedal to the next destination. And there is such freedom in each turn of the pedal.”

About the Author

Jennifer Wilson
Development Communications Manager
Hollings Cancer Center

Keywords: Cancer, COVID-19, Fitness and Wellness