In support of the fight against cancer, 69 students from the University of Texas at Austin have set out on the world’s longest annual charity bike ride, braving the rain, wind, sleet, snow and, in Lufkin, the heat.

The LIVESTRONG Texas 4000 team will pedal more than 4,500 miles from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska, on their 70-day journey. The students departed from Austin on June 1 and branched into three separate routes — Sierra, Rockies and Ozarks. The 23 students on the Ozarks route arrived in Lufkin Wednesday evening, stopping at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church to enjoy food, shelter and fellowship with members of the community.

St. Cyprian’s Bernard Hylands arranged the lodging for the riders and is a cyclist, as well. He also has a connection to the cause, as he lost his father to cancer.

“As a church we’re always looking for outreach opportunities,” he said. “It’s great when something comes along like this. ... It’s nice for us to be able to help people helping others.”

The riders will continue to stop at community events that contribute to the fight against cancer, visiting with cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and family members to make educational presentations about cancer prevention and early detection. The students will also use the time to offer encouragement and hope, and share their personal experiences with cancer with those affected by the disease.

“This ride comes with some obvious physical demands and perhaps less than obvious emotional demands,” Texas 4000 Executive Director Jen Garza said. “It’s incredibly encouraging for the riders to be supported by the people of Lufkin, and have the opportunity to share their stories about how they pursue this ride in hopes of living in a cancer-free society.”

After 18 months of training, the team kicked off the 10th annual charity ride with a 70-mile community bicycle ride called ATLAS. Upon completing ATLAS, the riders headed north and branched onto their three respective routes — continuing on a trek twice as long as the Tour de France. The Ozarks route was added this year in honor of the organization’s 10-year anniversary. According to a press release, the new route will reach almost double the population of the Sierra and Rockies routes combined, which helps stay true to Texas 4000’s mission — spreading hope to as many people as possible. Along the way, the team will hit cities like Houston, College Station, Little Rock, St. Louis, Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

Megan Sinclair, the team’s assistant ride director, said she did not know anyone on the team before the 18-month training period, but now the group is like family. On just the fifth day of the 70-day trip, Sinclair said she has already had so many incredible experiences, and riding into Lufkin was one of them.

“Today was a long, very hot day, and then to come into Lufkin and be welcomed by such kind people, it was really incredible,” she said. “It always gives us like a second energy boost. ... The ride in was beautiful — some of the best roads I’ve biked on so far today, with the trees and green grass.”

Sinclair said when the team was in Houston on Tuesday, they met Mayor Annise Parker, who officially declared it “Texas 4000 Day.”

Sinclair said she expects the roads ahead to be very hilly, but she is hoping the temperatures will drop.

Rider Natalie Carreno said this is everyone’s first time to embark on the 70-day journey.

“Usually it’s all about the people that you ride with, so it’s kind of hard to have another experience like this one,” she said. “Usually people wouldn’t want to do it again, just because it wouldn’t be the same experience. They say they relive it over and over again, but they never want to redo the ride.”

Carreno said driving through Texas has been a challenge due to the heat, but it has otherwise been a great experience.

“What really helps us is our ‘Ride Dedications’ every morning,” she said. “We get into a (circle) and remind ourselves why we’re here and who we ride for.”

“The ride itself serves as a metaphor for the difficult battle cancer patients wage each day — ‘A long and difficult road, with hard days and easier ones, good days, and not so good days,’” said ride director Tina Beigelbeck. “This is a difficult trip for me on many levels. But I have known so many people with cancer who bravely, fiercely, and with determination, fought this dreadful disease. I ride for those people.”

Biegelbeck said Lufkin was an amazing place to stop, and full of smiling faces.

“Lufkin has been amazing so far,” she said. “We’ve only been here for about an hour, and it’s incredible just to see how generous everyone is and how excited they are to see us.”

Texas 4000 was implemented 10 years ago when cancer survivor and University of Texas student Chris Condit looked for a way to spread knowledge and the message of hope and charity to those affected by cancer. Since then, the organization has sent more than 350 cyclists to travel more than 1.9 million miles to fulfill his mission. These riders have collectively raised more than $4 million to benefit the fight against cancer, resulting in the funding of multiple cancer research projects at The University of Texas Biomedical Engineering Department, MD Anderson Cancer Center and survivorship programs like the LIVESTRONG Navigational Services Center.

“If any message should be endorsed, it is that the fight against cancer cannot be won alone,” the Texas 4000 release stated. “A disease this broad that spans so many lives and all ages, ethnicities, races, and genders requires the persistent strength, support, and knowledge of the entire community to overcome.”

To learn more about the LIVESTRONG Texas 4000 team, make a donation or read the cyclists’ blogs, visit texas4000.org.

Melissa Heard’s email address is mheard@lufkindailynews.com.