Conquering cancer

NANAIMO: Sears store manager back in the saddle to battle childhood cancer.

Thomas Gemma take a break from training for a 500-kilometre ride to help raise money for childhood cancer.

Thomas Gemma take a break from training for a 500-kilometre ride to help raise money for childhood cancer.

Thomas Gemma has climbed back in the saddle to take his second run at the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride.

The coast-to-coast ride that starts from Vancouver Sept. 5 and ends 17 days later on Sept. 21 in Halifax is one of the worlds largest and longest cycling events raising money to battle childhood cancer.

Gemma will cover some familiar ground. Over three days he will ride 500 kilometres of the 1,100-km leg from Vancouver to Calgary via Kamloops, Roger’s Pass and Lake Louise.

Riders cycle as two teams in a relay style, each team alternating one day of riding with one day of rest. Each rider averages about 165 km per day. Some participants of the ride cycle across Canada, while others, like Gemma, are referred to as “stage riders” who cover shorter sections of the journey.

Vehicles supporting the ride include tractor trailers, which provide sleeping quarters for the riders.

“Tractor trailers have 2-by-4 bunk beds,” Gemma said. “They park the tractor trailers and you arrive. They usually negotiate a shower with a hotel. You go in with your sleeping bag, sleep in the tractor trailer and in the morning you take off.”

Gemma took on the challenge last year partly because he works for Sears and the opportunity was there. Plus he has been involved with other cancer fundraisers.

“I’d been involved as a director with the breast cancer Run For the Cure,” Gemma said. “I sort of stopped doing it because it took so much time when my children were young. Now that they’re teenagers, I have some time again and found cycling as a fitness option – and then I thought, what a great opportunity to work with kids who have cancer and I feel fortunate that my kids don’t.”

About 1,700 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year and there are currently more than 10,000 Canadian children fighting cancer or living with the consequences of cancer and its therapies.

“Chemotherapy is a nasty cocktail of poisons,” Gemma said. “It actually affects kids’ development and kids end up with long term disabilities because of the chemo and so on.”

One of the most moving things, Gemma said, is seeing and hearing about how resilient children can be while dealing with cancer while at the same supporting their parents struggling emotionally to come to terms with their children’s’ illness and treatment.

Gemma has been a cyclist for about 15 years, but until last year he hadn’t ridden the distances he encounters on the cancer ride or experienced the level of training needed to prepare for it. He also had to train by himself without the benefit of having more experienced riders or a trainer.

“I had no comparison in terms of what to expect with the other group,” he said.

But the experienced riders were welcoming and helpful and quickly got Gemma up to speed on anything he missed in training.

Gemma is entering this year’s ride more experienced and better prepared. He has already ridden about 2,000 km in the past several weeks of training at speeds averaging 29 km/h, which is the average speed that must be maintained to ride with the group. Training to maintain such a high average pace is hugely physically demanding and time consuming.

“I feel better and more confident this year than last,” he said.

Fundraising can be daunting as well. Each rider must raise a minimum of $5,000 to participate. Last year Gemma raised $7,000 and hopes to surpass that figure this year.

Last year’s ride raised a total of $5 million to fight childhood cancer and about $14 million since it started in 2008.

The fundraising continues until the end of September.

“I recognize that there is a ton of need for all sorts of different charities – from the food bank here, which needs our help, to every illness that you can imagine,” Gemma said. “You can’t afford to give money everywhere, but you need to decide where you can make an impact. This has huge value and that’s why I’m riding.”

To support Gemma’s fundraising effort, please visit his donation web page at

For more information on the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride website at