On a nice day in Riverside, it’s not uncommon to see cyclists out and about, taking in the sights of the village on two wheels. What’s not as common is setting out for a bike ride in Riverside and traveling hundreds of miles through four states before returning home.
That’s exactly what Riverside native Chris McNally did earlier this month, riding a 1,000-mile loop solo around Lake Michigan to raise money for new bicycles for residents of remote African and Colombian villages in need of transportation.
McNally, an avid cyclist since growing up in the area in the 1980s, is not new to cycling for a cause.
In the 1990s on the East Coast, he participated in the Tanqueray AIDS Rides to raise money and awareness for people living with AIDS, and he helped raise money for charity by riding with thousands of others from Minneapolis to Chicago in 2001.
But with the demands of work life and raising three kids, McNally hadn’t set out on a lengthy bike journey nearly 12 years.
Then, the pandemic hit.
With emptier roads, less time traveling for work and a little more free time on his hands, McNally was able to log more miles biking in the last two years than he’d been able to do in a long time.
It was during those quiet mornings and later nights on the open road that he began reminiscing about the fun he had cycling not just for exercise, but for a good cause.
“Over the past couple of years, I started thinking about making my training miles more purposeful, especially since I don’t race anymore,” McNally said.
Enter World Bicycle Relief, an international nonprofit based in Chicago which specializes in large-scale, comprehensive bicycle distribution programming to aid poverty relief in developing countries around the world, mainly focusing on education, economic development and health care.
“It’s a cause I thought matched up perfectly,” he said. “World Bicycle Relief has been something near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been involved with them to some extent since 2005.”
Last year, McNally decided that summer 2022 would be the perfect time to complete his longtime goal of riding around Lake Michigan. However, this time, the ride would not be with hundreds of other cyclists. This time it would be a solo, self-supported “bike-packing” adventure, riding with a tent and sleeping bag for outdoor stops when a hotel might not be nearby.
Full-time training began well over a year ago, involving everything from conditioning and route planning to purchasing new biking gear.
While McNally’s training and prep work leading up to the journey was pretty standard, a serious medical hiccup in the spring really threw into question whether he could even make the trip happen in the summer — or at all.
A muscular injury that pinched his sciatic nerve, resulting in Piriformis syndrome and landing him in a wheelchair for about two weeks this spring.
“For a while, I couldn’t even walk,” McNally said. “I was able to get back and riding again, but with this syndrome, it’s made me really sensitive to exertion, and I really had to dial in how much effort I’m putting into the pedals to be able to get the amount of miles in I needed and not get other weird side effects of going too slow while not exerting too much effort and inflammation of this new chronic injury.”
Finally healthy enough, McNally set off from Riverside on Aug. 6. Riding 140-plus miles per day around Lake Michigan clockwise, it took him one week to complete the 1,000-mile route through Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, returning to Riverside on Aug. 13.
“By the injury restricting my exertion, I think that may have been the secret to me doing 140 mile-plus days and getting to do this in a week,” McNalley said.
Each morning, McNally followed a simple routine of eating, stretching, cleaning up and prepping for the day’s ride, which normally started each day by 11 a.m. and often lasted well past 10 p.m.
With a mix of trails and streets making up his route, McNally’s adventure led him through a variety of landscapes, three rainy nights spent in hotels and four total nights camping outdoors.
Of course, one has to wonder what someone does to keep their mind occupied during all those miles and hours spent alone on the open roads.
During his training back home, McNally ensured he spent hours without music, podcasts or phone calls, practicing breathwork and minimizing distractions to be “one with the ride.”
“I usually ride with music or calls, but on this trip I never put earbuds in once,” he said. “I did play music, but just with my iPhone speaker about 40 percent of the time. Really, time flew by for lots of reasons, but I was listening to different aches and pains and squeaks on the bike. It became pretty consuming.”
Luckily, McNally had zero mechanical issues during his week-long ride, crediting the success to repair shops Gears 2 You in Riverside and The Pony Shop in Evanston for getting his bike in tip-top shape prior to setting out.
A digital strategist by day, McNally’s corporate sponsor for the out-of-office venture was Evanston-based AI company The Intelligence Exchange, which donated two bikes to World Bicycle Relief and covered the hard costs of his venture.
“Cycling is data-rich, and a lot of decision makers in tech happen to be in cycling,” McNally said of the partnership.
Through sharing news of his journey with friends, family and colleagues, McNally was able to meet his fundraising goal of $3,300 for World Bicycle Relief, enough money to fund 20 new bikes for the charity.
“I believe in the power of bicycles and their ability to change the world, and $165 helps put a brand-new bike in the field and change the trajectory of an individual’s life,” he said.
For more information about World Bicycle Relief, visit powerofbicycles.org.