The ride of his life

Posted: February 3rd, 2017 | Features, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Joyell Nevins

Young philanthropist to cycle across the country for three important causes

The Hotel del Coronado has been the backdrop for numerous once-in-a-lifetime moments over the years. This upcoming week, it will be the setting for the kick-off of Jan Gierlach’s cross-country bicycle ride from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida.

Jan Gierlach riding for good causes

The 18-year-old, originally from Barrington, Illinois, will be cycling across nine states on the lower half of the United States in the space between high school and college. The plan is to cover 3,300 miles in 75 days, making stops at campsites and homestays along the way. Everything he needs he will be carrying on his bike for the duration of the ride.

Gierlach is completing this, trek, aptly named, “Ride for 3 Reasons,” to raise money and awareness for the Les Turner ALS Foundation; the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University; and the National Hospice Foundation.

The upcoming ride has already garnered more than $600,000 for the causes.

The three organizations first received a funding boost from Bob Lee’s “Ride for 3 Reasons.” Back in 2001, Lee, also a Barrington resident, began a three-part journey to bicycle across the whole perimeter of the U.S.

He rode from San Diego to St. Augustine in 2001 (the same route Gierlach will be taking); then from Florida to Maine to Washington state in 2007; and from Vancouver, Canada, to the Mexican border in 2012. Calling himself a “peddler with a passion,” Lee chose his treks to bring awareness and fundraise for three separate causes: cancer, ALS and hospice.

As part of his preparation, Lee spoke to each elementary school in the Barrington area before undertaking his second ride in 2007. One of the classes he spoke to was Gierlach’s third-grade class.

That’s when the seed was planted.

Gierlach comes from a family of bicycle fanatics. His father is an avid cyclist and Gierlach has been riding and racing competitively since he was 11 years old. In his junior year of high school, Gierlach took steps to make the dream of a cross-country ride a reality.

(l to r) The Gierlach clan: dad Ed; sister Ashley; mom Doris; younger brother Pelle and Jan. (Courtesy Jan Gierlach)

Through a neighbor, Gierlach made contact with Lee, initially to pick his brain about the logistics necessary for bicycling across the country. But Lee had more to say about the importance of riding with a purpose than the importance of bringing the right duffel bag (although the proper equipment is certainly vital to success).

“He talked about how meaningful the ride had been for him with his ‘3 Reasons,’” Gierlach said.

Upon reflection, Gierlach realized those three reasons were personal to him, too. He lost a grandfather to cancer, a close family friend to ALS, and saw the “amazing service” of hospice first-hand when his mother was battling her own health concerns.

He turned his personal trip into another “Ride for 3 Reasons.” It grew into a website and several promotional events and media coverage. And a year later, Gierlach understands what Lee was talking about.

“He was 100 percent right,” Gierlach said. “It went from a cool trip I was going to take to something so much more meaningful.”

All of the money raised is going directly to the three charities, thanks to corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and private donations that are funding the trip itself.

(l to r) Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, director Lurie Cancer Center; Jan Gierlach; Andrea Pauls Backman, executive director of Les Turner ALS; and Kelly Fischer, chief operating officer of Journey Care. (Courtesy Jan Gierlach)

Moral support is coming from a close-knit group of family and friends.

“I’m really lucky,” Gierlach said. “My family has been so supportive from day one. Instead of responding out of fear or anxiety, they’ve been behind me, the whole time.”

The Gierlach clan — which includes an older fraternal twin brother and sister, a younger brother and his parents — will be flying out to wherever Gierlach is during his younger brother’s spring break. Then they will all ride together for that week.

Aside from that, Gierlach is making this journey all on his own. He plans to give regular updates on the Facebook page and Instagram he has created, under the handle “Ride for 3 Reasons.”

“It requires a lot of discipline, but there’s a lot of time to think,” Gierlach said. “There’s a lot of time to reflect while you ride.”

For more information or to donate, visit

—Freelance writer Joyell Nevins can be reached at You can also follow her blog “Small World, Big God” at

One Comments

  1. Kara Vitek says:

    HI! This is so awesome and so beautiful! I am delighted to read of this. The organizations Jan is raising money for are near and dear to my heart. My Dad died of ALS; this is how I have come into contact with Les Turner and have, too, donated time and money for the organization as it has had phenomenal strides in the research of ALS and comfort of PALS. Also, I am a hospice nurse; so grateful to hear that Jan had an amazing experience with hospice for his Mom (actually, this is truly so bittersweet).
    I am a cyclist, too, completing my first Ironman in September of 2016. I road the beautiful streets of Barrington, IL, numerous times in my training; the very town that Jan is originally from and I’m sure possesses many fond cycling memories from.
    I am wondering if there is map or a way to know when Jan might be riding through Illinois (or a state nearby)? I am a very good cheer-er and would love to cheer him on and offer support! This type of cycling is amazing, selfless, life-changing: Super congrats to you, Jan! Praying for you!

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