Vietnam Vet Continues to Bike for Children’s Cancer Research
Some of you may recall that we visited with George T. Gagnon of Mechanicsville, Virginia last year. We wrote about the 70-year-old Vietnam veteran’s participation in the Great Cycle Challenge.
The program was launched in 2015 by the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have participated from all 50 states, riding tens of millions of miles and raising tens of millions of dollars.
Well, George is now pushing 72 and he’s still at it. In fact, he raised more money (nearly $12,000 so far in 2021) than he has in any of the previous four years he’s been involved with the program.
“Because I’ve been doing this for five years now, they call me a ‘Great Cycle Challenge Champion.’ They even sent me a banner that I can set up in the front yard,” George said.
George understands the need
More than 15,700 children are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. Thirty-eight of them die every week. It’s the biggest killer of children from disease in this country.
As staggering as those statistics are, to many they are just that. Statistics. But to someone who has lost a child to cancer, those numbers are gut wrenching and heartbreaking.
George is one of those people. He lost his son, Geoffrey Thomas, at age 5 to Meningeal Sarcoma in 1977.
“It’s a very rare cancer for a youngster,” George said. “It’s something that only adults usually have.”
International race plants the seed
Through the years, George and his wife have supported a variety of cancer research fundraising events. Including the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K, in which they participated for 10 years. More recently, George has opted to ride for the cause rather than walk or run.
“Bikes were a big part of our lives growing up on Long Island,” George said. “There were a lot of sidewalks to ride on back then.
“In 2015 we had the UCI Road World Championship bike races here in Richmond for nine days. I was out there one day rooting on the bikers and I thought, ‘I need to get back into bike riding.’
“Then one day I got an email about cancer research pertaining to the Great Cycle Challenge. I looked into it and thought about how it would be a way to get back to biking while raising funds for a great cause.”
A steady pedaling progression
George became involved with the Great Cycle Challenge in 2017, riding nearly 200 miles and raising over $1,000 for children’s cancer research.
He increased his miles and money raised the next couple of years, and really stepped up his game in 2020.
Last year George rode 694 miles and raised $10,200. That placed him No. 1 in the Virginia state rankings and No. 26 nationally.
This year he is again at the top of the Virginia state rankings and 26th nationally.
Here’s how it works
“It’s an interesting marketing strategy that the Children’s Cancer Research Fund uses for this event,” George said.
“They give you all the resources you need, for your Facebook page and for your emails to potential donors. They even provide a template for your webpage where you keep your stats.
“I have a large contact list and I post a lot on Facebook, telling people what I’m doing. I tell them that if they’re inspired, they can contribute to the cause.”
The Great Cycle Challenge is normally a one-month event. Last year it was moved from June to September and extended though October due to the pandemic.
This year the event was moved to September permanently to coincide with National Cancer Awareness Month. But money can be collected through November.
Upgrading his ride
“Initially when I started I had a good old $99 Walmart special bike,” George continued.
“But then I bought myself a nice bike in 2018 with 29-inch tires – a Trek Verve 2. I’ve put over 2,000 miles on it and got the tires replaced a couple of times.
“For the most part these are leisurely rides. I average about 10 to 12 miles an hour. The farthest I’ve gone so far is 25 miles, but I’m going to aim for 30 soon when I ride on the Virginia Capital Trail in Richmond.
“There are about 50 homes in my neighborhood and they all know what I’m doing when I ride past their houses.
An inspiration to neighbors
“I think I’ve inspired the neighborhood kids and adults because more people around here are riding than ever before. Next year I want to create a team to raise funds and get t-shirts for everyone. In fact, that’s an expectation of a Cycle Champion.
“I cycle year ‘round even when I’m not in a challenge,” he added. “I have a stationary bike in the TV room that I use a lot, especially when there’s snow on the ground.
“But if it’s clear outside and no snow, I’m out there on the streets. I’m planning to start a weight workout program too.
“As I like to say, I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in, and I want to stay in good shape.”
Wearing many hats
After spending his teen years on Long Island, George started junior college but dropped out to join the military in 1969. He served as a mechanic and helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, flying 700 hours and conducting 153 combat missions.
Since being discharged in 1972, he joined the police force and earned a criminal justice associate’s degree at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia. He’s now just a few credits shy of a bachelor of science degree.
Through the decades, George has worked in a variety of fields. Including jobs in sales, plant and facilities management, factory work, and operations management.
He’s currently working part-time at a hardware store and fulltime in Safety, Security and Continuity of Operations for the Virginia Employment Commission. He was also a certified soccer referee for 30 years.
“I like to joke that I’ve had a lot of jobs but no career,” said George, who celebrated 42 years of marriage in November and has six adult children and nine grandchildren ranging in age from 24 to infant.
Strumming away since 1964
George’s lifelong interest in music has helped him raise money for cancer research.
“I’ve been playing guitar since 1964,” he said. “I still have a 12-stringer from Vietnam that I brought back and used to entertain troops on the 12-hour flight home. I played in a band for a while and I still play as much as I can.
“The Beatles were a big influence on me.” (The fact that he shares a first name with one of the Beatles is merely a coincidence.)
“I would borrow my older brother’s guitar so many times that he eventually bought me one at a Sears & Roebuck store. Currently I have two acoustic and two electric guitars, plus a bass.”
And now George’s guitar prowess is paying off for veterans. He was recently accepted by the Department of Defense in Virginia to teach acoustic guitar to U.S. veterans dealing with PTSD. The VFW he belongs to is allowing him to use an upstairs room as a classroom for the Guitars For Vets (Guitars4Vets.org) program.
Combining music with fundraising
In 2019, George discovered a singer and guitar player named Mike Masse out of Denver, Colorado on YouTube. He plays acoustic classic rock.
Mike has been putting on daily concerts since the pandemic started. He had a special concert last year to raise money for the National Tumor Society and did a cover song that he sold to help with expenses and future treatment for his son, Noah.
Noah was diagnosed with a brain tumor before his first birthday, but has survived and is now 10 years old.
“I’ve supported Mike financially and I’m now dedicating my rides not just to kids who have died from cancer, but also to those who have survived,” George said.
“Mike has been kind enough to put my website information on his, and it has resulted in some generous donations.”
Donations are welcome
The Patriot Health Alliance has helped fuel George’s rides with a donation of Patriot Power Greens, Joint and Muscle Freedom supplements, and Patriot Gold.
“I take that green scoop every day and the pill before I go to bed,” George said. “My energy is sustained throughout the day. I also put that green powder into my morning pancakes and it really enhances the flavor.”
Anyone wishing to make a donation to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund may visit George’s website at https://greatcyclechallenge.com/Riders/GeorgeThomasGagnon.
It’s difficult to imagine a more worthy cause.