You Could Smell Humanity

In pursuit of a cure, cyclist Stan Havlick crosses six continents to benefit the Colorado Cancer Foundation It was 2004, and Havlick and three teammates were cycling coast-to-coast across Africa, a 3,000-mile journey that would deliver them from Cape Town

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Stan Havlick

She let them sleep in her woodshed. But all night long, recalls Boulder resident Stan Havlick, he could hear the young woman praying fervently that the foreign cyclists tucked soundly into their sleeping bags wouldn’t harm her.

It was 2004, and Havlick and three teammates were cycling coast-to-coast across Africa, a 3,000-mile journey that would deliver them from Cape Town, South Africa, to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They’d met the woman in a Botswanian village and asked her for shelter.

Compassion — not harm — was their driving force. They were cycling to benefit the Colorado Cancer Foundation, generating awareness and funds with every revolution of rubber tire against gritty dirt road.

The memory turns Havlick’s eyes wet, and he glances away before continuing his story. We’ve met in a North Boulder cafe, its hospitable vibe a far cry from the stark terrain Havlick often covered on six different continents between 1992 and 2006. The cycling expeditions were his idea; response to news of a family member’s diagnosis with acute lymphocytic leukemia.

Assessing his options for action, Havlick had approached doctors at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

“I said, ‘You know, I don’t have any medical skills, but I have business skills, and I know you folks need some additional resources,’” he recalls.

Advised to cultivate awareness and raise funds for a cure, Havlick immediately set about establishing the Eldorado Springs Cure, an annual 4-mile benefit run now in its 38th year of operation. He also helped found the Colorado Cancer Foundation, an organization committed to supporting education, research, and cancer patients and their families.

But speaking with Havlick — his demeanor thoughtful, his movements brimming with purpose — you get the sense he’s never been one to walk when he could run, or run when he could ride.

In 1992, Havlick decided to ride. He and his son, Justin, pulled away from Santa Monica, California, with Charleston, South Carolina in their sights. Absent the support of a SAG wagon, their panniers were swollen with water, first aid equipment, spare bike parts, and a several-day supply of provisions. They camped when they could and hunkered down in churches and YMCAs during rough weather.

The pair averaged 86 miles per day, covering roughly 3,000 miles in 36 days.

Five more expeditions followed: Australia in 1996; Asia in 1999; South America in 2001; Africa in 2004; Europe in 2006. At home between trips, Havlick gave presentations about his travels and collected donations — $5, $10 or $20 at a time — that amounted to significant support for the Colorado Cancer Foundation.

The concept was simple: Examine a map, find a continent’s water boundaries, route the shortest distance from A to B, and ride. Each journey was roughly 3,000 miles. At 4,300 miles, Asia offered up the longest route, crossing Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China.

Havlick wasn’t always an avid cyclist. His love of travel evolved at an early age, fueled by his mother’s own wanderlust and by the National Geographic magazines that littered his childhood home in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Following stints at Northern Michigan University and Wayne State, Havlick pursued a career in banking that led him to Europe and the Philippines. He later returned stateside to New York, then to Kansas City.

Eventually he heeded the call west to Boulder, partly drawn by his father’s history working as a laundry boy at Long’s Peak Inn in Estes Park. It was 1915 then, and his father’s employer was Enos Mills, founding father of Rocky Mountain National Park.

It may have been this inheritance that triggered Stan Havlick’s affinity for the mountains. A passionate mountaineer, Havlick counts Switzerland’s Matterhorn as his first major climb, followed by peaks such as Denali, Kilimanjaro, Mount Stanley, and all of Colorado’s fourteeners.

In Boulder, Havlick’s son, Justin, developed an interest in cycling. It proved contagious. Admiring Justin’s accomplishment in the historic Red Zinger cycling race, Havlick took up the sport as well, attracted to its fluidity and positive implications for cardiovascular health.

Fast-forward to 1996 and the unfurling ribbon of Australia’s Eyre Highway at night. One of the longest straight stretches of road in the world, it crosses the continent’s Nullarbor Plain, an aptly named treeless, semi-arid region nudging up against the striated cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. Havlick and two teammates dodged the oppressive heat by sleeping during the daytime hours and remounting their bikes in the evening. The edges of the road were grayed out then, the only illumination from headlamps. Everything seemed malleable in those night hours except the perimeters of the bike, its familiar handlebar and saddle.

For such a demanding endeavor, remarks Havlick, the training is self-manifesting. A certain level of health is required at the start, but the conditioning comes after beginning the task at hand.

“You can’t think about the magnitude of the 3,000 miles ahead of you,” he says. “You have to think about that day — only that day — and get that done safely and comfortably.”

It’s not the physical prowess of the cyclist that matters, he adds, but their disposition and ability to deal patiently with discomfort and unforeseen circumstances. Before each trip, Havlick vetted the attitudes of potential cycling companions in order to ensure that the group dynamic would remain positive.

His teammates varied, but on each continent, the group sought out cancer centers and oncologists, providing them with contact information for the doctors at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center to help facilitate the exchange of advice and equipment, particularly for centers struggling with outdated technology.

Every six to seven days the group rested, sometimes drawing straws to see who would get to spend limited resources on cultural experiences.

Havlick scrolls through photos, pauses at one of him in the backseat of an ultralight dipping over Victoria Falls. In another, a teammate bungee jumps over the Zambezi River. Like an aura, a rainbow parallels his arc.

But these were rare respites from the road, and the expeditions were no vacation. Shots were required for traveling. Sore backsides and knees were the cyclists’ constant companions. Prior to each trip, bikes had to be dismantled, cushioned with clothing and gear and repacked in their original cartons for shipment to foreign countries.

In China, guards rifled through their belongings. A document of safe passage provided by a Congressman eased travel through Asia, as did an additional document Havlick created that featured the cyclists’ photos and an explanation of their travels. But the intense heat of China’s Taklamakan Desert and the challenge of deciphering restaurant menus contributed to significant weight loss. A Chinese graduate student from CU was recruited for part of the ride, his linguistic skills put to use ordering nutritious food to replace lost calories.

As in Australia, there were times when the team waited out the daytime hours and resumed their journey at night.

“After cycling in pure, fresh air for hours and hours, you could smell humanity,” Havlick says. “You could smell garbage, you could smell pollution. You knew you were getting into an urban area. It was a mix [of scents], but you knew it wasn’t the purity out in the desert, cycling at night under the moon.”

In Africa, Havlick and his team frequently found themselves patching torn mosquito netting with T-shirts and safety pins. At a remote cafe, tainted goat meat caused two cyclists to fall ill. They flagged down a truck for a ride to the local hospital, where they were given IVs and later released.

Each challenge held a valuable lesson.

“The magic number for long-distance cycling is four,” Havlick shares. “If you’re traveling with two or three, and someone has a medical problem, someone’s going to be stuck alone. If you have five, six, seven people, it’s too cumbersome. There are too many decisions. You don’t get invited into a home for a home-cooked meal. You can’t get into a truck or vehicle in case you need to get transported with your bikes.”

And then there was Sept. 11, 2001. It was in the town of Puqio in the south-central Andes of Peru that Havlick and his teammates learned their world was changing. Over a small black-and-white television positioned in the corner of a modestly furnished bedroom, they listened to Colin Powell deliver news of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

“We felt so helpless because we couldn’t reach out to our families, couldn’t be with them,” Havlick says, “and it really changed the dynamics of the rest of our trip.”

But hardship, while unavoidable, wasn’t the point. Though physically and emotionally arduous, the expeditions were born out of a desire to alleviate the suffering of a global population: cancer patients. Toward that end, Havlick and his fellow cyclists relished the moments when their connections with those they met tran scended cultural and linguistic boundaries.

In Kazakhstan, children from a yurt-dwelling community gathered eagerly around Havlick’s bicycle to pose for a photo. In Poland, the cyclists encountered an oncologist who was also a cycling enthusiast. Discussions of oncology took a backseat to his endless curiosity about Lance Armstrong.

In 2014, several years after Havlick had completed his coast-to-coast expeditions on the Earth’s six “bike-able” continents, he once again assembled a team and cycled around the perimeter of Iceland. It was another endeavor to benefit the Colorado Cancer Foundation, a trip fraught with high winds and hilly terrain.

The group stopped one day at a rural cafe. Pointing out the window, the proprietress suggested they seek shelter at a humble house nearby. They knocked on its door and were met by two teenage girls. Their mother had just passed away from cancer.

“They had nothing,” says Havlick, his voice hoarse with emotion, “but they were so generous.”

There, on a foreign doorstep at the ends of the earth, Havlick and his fellow cyclists stepped inside for dinner.