When Charlie Manzoni decided it was time to kick it up a notch in his charitable work with the Children’s Cancer Research Fund (CCRF), he did it with gusto. Not only was his work for a great cause, but he did it in a pretty spectacular way.

Charlie Manzoni of Orono with his son, Nick. At age 72, Charlie completed the Great Cycle Challenge USA to raise money for children’s cancer… something Nick went through in his childhood. Contributed photo

Manzoni, who lives in Orono, has a personal understanding of what it’s like to live with a child with cancer. That direct experience, as painful as it must be, makes him an inspiration, but it also makes him much more approachable for other families living through it.

When Manzoni stepped it up, he did it with a bicycle. He had been supporting CCRF for years, but the bike ride was a whole other level. He decided to join the cross country ride with CCRF, their 5th Annual Great Cycle Challenge USA to fight children’s cancer. The ride, which was 3,400 miles in 43 days from coast to coast, would be a huge undertaking for anyone. But, at the age of 72, Manzoni faced even more of a challenge. He didn’t, however, let that stop him. He did it not only for his own son, but for other children fighting the disease.

When Manzoni’s son, Nick, went through treatment for the rare childhood cancer, Ewing Sarcoma, it was caught early, and he had excellent oncologists and surgeons at the University of Minnesota. Manzoni was actually introduced to CCRF in a waiting room. “I was interested in their mission,” said Manzoni, “They were looking for board members so I joined five years ago.”

Manzoni was very appreciative of the doctors and surgeons who helped Nick and he knew that his family was fortunate.

”We were grateful for the recovery Nick enjoyed, but during his many months of chemotherapy we saw many children who were not so fortunate,”  he said.

Manzoni had been thinking of a long bike ride at some point. “In the back of my mind, I wanted to do a bike ride across Iowa,” said Manzoni, “After that, I thought I could do the cross country thing. Our biggest CCRF event took place in June, and it seemed like a great way to put it all together.”

The bike ride itself had many challenges. Starting on the west coast and riding a bicycle to the east coast would not be easy even if there were perfect conditions — but there will also be weather challenges, equipment issues and physical injuries to contend with, as well as simply the risk you face being on a bicycle in heavy traffic. 

“There were some risky places with close car and truck traffic, and there were injuries and saddle sores early on. But, the ride itself was not too bad.” Other than some heavy rain, there was no really bad weather. There was the over 100 mile ride across the desert to Wickenberg, Ariz. though, followed by a couple more days in very hot weather that were particularly tough. “Once I got through that part, I felt really good. But, that was the biggest challenge,” said Manzoni. “Then our four or five days through Ohio were the nicest riding roads.”

Nick’s story about his battle with cancer was the inspiration for everything Manzoni has done for CCRF. A very accomplished soccer player in high school, Nick noticed a sore calf as he was going into his senior year. The doctor thought it was just swollen from possibly being kicked while playing soccer.

“About a month later, it resurfaced,” said Manzoni. “He had a swollen calf and a lot of pain. The initial reaction was the same from the doctor that he had on the first visit. But, then the doctor decided at the last minute to do an MRI and take a biopsy. That started the journey.”

Charlie Manzoni with his trusty bike.
Photo by Caryl Hunter

They received some good news in that the type of sarcoma Nick had was the best to treat, but it was still a tough battle. “The cancer had reached the bone and he had to have chemotherapy three days a week for several weeks. The hope was it would shrink the tumor and then the surgeon could cut the rest out,” he said.

The surgeon did a remarkable job, but it was a long road to recovery – and a lot of hard work. Nick was able to finish his senior year of high school, but then he took some time off. 

“He took a year off between his graduation and his first year of college and just worked on his leg,” said Manzoni. “With a lot of support he ended up going to college at Drake, where he was able to recover and play soccer.” Today, Nick is healthy and owns his own Internet-based soccer program.

The way Manzoni has reached out and done so much that will help other families dealing with such an ordeal, is truly amazing.

“The ride was a phenomenal experience,” said Manzoni. “The organizers did a tremendous job. There were good mechanics who repaired bikes as needed, and there were 15 or so of us riding together.” The group rode 3,460 miles from May 11, 2019 to June 29, 2019, with five rest days. What an accomplishment and what a difference the whole group made. “After 49 days, the adventure had to come to an end. I was so grateful that I was able to do something as physically demanding as this trip,” said Manzoni.

There were many special highlights to the trip, but a few really stand out for Manzoni. The first would be the surprise visit from his oldest son, Charlie, in June. “He just knocked on the door in Marysville, Ohio, on Father’s Day,” said Manzoni. To show up as a surprise as Manzoni was nearing the last couple weeks of the ride was truly special.

Another special moment was when the group had finished some arranged interviews for CCRF. As they were heading out of the town, Manzoni was surprised by a woman standing on the corner flagging him down.

“A woman was actually standing on the side of the road waiting for the bikes,” said Manzoni. “She knew me because of my jersey and wanted to give money to the cause. I was so surprised to see someone just standing on the corner waiting to give money.”

Manzoni encourages other people to get involved with CCRF.

“It would be great if more people who like to bike would support this cause. You can do different distances, shorter distances, or just join for part of the journey,” said Manzoni.

It was difficult at the end for Manzoni to have his bike shipped back home.

“I had to release my bike for shipping to Minnesota. I did feel a little naked without it after all those days of being inseparable.”

Charlie Manzoni dips the front end of his bike into the Atlantic Ocean at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, the end of charitable ride. Contributed photo

It’s pretty tough to top off a trip like this. The grit, the determination, and the physical exertion it took to do this ride across country are admirable. The ride started in Manhattan Beach, Calif. and ended in Revere Beach, Mass. The group’s way of starting and ending the trip also had a classy touch to it: As a ceremonial gesture, the group dipped the bikes. “We dipped the back wheel in the Pacific and the front wheel in the Atlantic,” said Manzoni. “And in Iowa we dipped the wheels in the Mississippi River.”

Manzoni enjoyed the trip immensely, the people he got to ride with, the people from CCRF, the places he got to see, and all the support he had. He has many great memories from the whole experience.

The bike dip in the Atlantic at the end and the celebration was also special in another way, which was another big highlight of the trip for Manzoni: His son, Nick, surprised him at the end by just showing up in Massachusetts. 

“He came to see me at the end and he was there for the bike dip in the ocean,” said Manzoni. In the most appropriate way to finish the tour with Nick, Manzoni said, “The final day of the tour ended with Nick and I going into Boston to watch the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team beat France.”

Nick being there at the end was the best present, said Manzoni. After all, Nick had been the inspiration for it all.