BEND, Ore. -

What would you do to cure cancer?  How would you get from New York City to San Francisco?  Two seemingly unrelated questions, but 20 students from the University of Illinois are answering them together. 

They are nearing the end of a 4,500-mile bike ride across country, with proceeds going toward cancer research.

"Today was 90 miles, and the past couple of days have been in the 80s, so especially with climbing, it's been really intense,” said Anne Wave, a rider with the Illini 4000 team.

Averaging roughly 71 miles per day over 71 days, these college students aren’t cutting corners on this trip.  And for some, it was a short turnaround from the gradation podium to the bike pedals.

"On Sunday (May 18) was graduating, and by Thursday I was in Union Station in Chicago getting on a train to go bike for 71 days,” Wave said with a laugh.

And for less than 24 hours, they were in Bend. catching their breath and sharing their stories with anyone willing to listen.

"In Nebraska, we got stuck in a hailstorm and had to ride through hail for about 10 miles until we could find a place to pull over," said David Walder of Oak Park, Illinois. 

What was going through his head? “Just trying not to die," he joked.

While a long bike ride may not seem life or death, the motivation behind these riders is exactly that. Many of these students have long, painful histories with cancer among friends and family.

"All of my family has been afflicted by cancer,” said Walder.  “My grandmother died from it, my aunt died from it, and my mother's been battling it for the past five years.  So this is a way to say, hey, I can do something."

The Illini 4000 team finds strength in numbers, and in stories.  As they’ve traveled across the country, they’ve painted portraits of individuals willing to share their tales of success or loss from cancer.

"Interviews of people affected by cancer, on the journey, be it a patient, doctor, caretaker, what have you," Walder said.

Residents of Bend and elsewhere had the opportunity to do the same, as the team arrived at the First United Methodist Church on Tuesday night.  They set up shop at the church, which welcomed the weary riders with open arms.

 "The thought that they are sleeping here on their way to San Francisco supporting a cause is awesome," said church member Ann Hand.  "It touches a lot of people in our church, but also the whole community, if they knew that there were people willing to get on their bikes and raise money.”

The Illini 4000 team next headed to Crescent on Wednesday.  They are scheduled to conclude their journey in San Francisco on August 3. 

To learn more about these riders, see some of the portraits they gathered from across the country, or to donate to their cause, visit their website at illini4000.org.