Phil Cooper, president and CEO of Lawrence Township-based , recently went from “phlabby to phit” when he fulfilled a 28-year dream by bicycling across the United States to help raise awareness and money for Multiple Sclerosis research.
On Aug. 1, after 62 days on the road, he completed his 3,780-mile trek through nine states, raising more than $32,000 in donations along the way.
Cooper first envisioned himself biking across the country back in 1984, when he was a senior in college. “It was an idea of grandeur and, without the proper training, equipment, or experience, the dream was put on hold,” he recalled during an interview with Patch last week.
Over the years, he’s participated in many charity bike rides, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s City to Shore ride in South Jersey every fall for the past 20 years.
Having seen the devastating effects MS can have, Cooper is dedicated to helping find a cure for the disease.
To continue his fundraising efforts for MS research, and to celebrate his 50th birthday this year (July 11), he decided to revisit his dream of riding cross-country and to do it with the proper training, nutrition and equipment.
On June 1, Cooper and 17 other “Bike the US for MS” riders, together with support team members, set out from Yorktown, Va. Averaging 65 miles a day, they crossed Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California before ending in San Francisco on Aug. 1.
Expect the Unexpected
In December 2011, Dr. David Eingorn of Mercer-Bucks Orthopaedics performed surgery on both of Cooper’s knees. Throughout the entire ride from Virginia to California, Cooper said, “my knees never hurt, due to his great work. It was unexpected.”
Unexpected seemed to be the theme for Cooper’s ride. “A lot of things I expected, didn’t happen.”
Accompanying Cooper on the ride was his own personal 30-foot by 10-foot recreational vehicle and a driver. The other 17 riders, meanwhile, each had a 30-inch by 30-inch cubby in the support vehicle in which all of their possessions – including tent – had to fit to be transported to each rest stop.
“It took about three weeks for the other riders to see that I was for real,” Cooper said. “I was sleeping in the RV. I was different. I was the big rich kid. It was hard for them to accept me. It was awkward.
“When I moved out of the RV around the last week of June, I got my stuff out and put it in the cubby and was just like they were. I thought it was something I would never do. I can’t sleep in a tent. I loved moving out of the RV! I found out things about myself I never thought was possible,” he said.
“Seventy-five percent of the things I brought with me I never went and used. I downsized my life. It was so cool. I went into places I never thought mentally or physically I could go. More mentally. Living in a tent is all mental.”
Support Along the Way
In addition to Cooper and the 17 other riders, there were four major support team members who had each done the ride in the past and three other support team members who alternated days riding on bikes and riding in the support vehicle.
Along the way, 22 guest riders joined the group for a day or more. Cooper said the guest riders were friends, business colleagues, members of the spin class he teaches locally, a sponsor and pest control experts.
“The thing that shocked the guest riders more than anything was that we [the main riders] don’t ride together.”
The only two times the group rode as a whole was in Pittsburg, Kan., and the final 20 miles on the last day. “It was not planned.”
At the very end of the ride in San Francisco, everyone “dipped their toes in the freezing cold water,” then Cooper turned around and they were all gone. “If we planned something as a team, it never happened.”
Nonetheless, Cooper is a planner.
Aaron and Urban “set up a very strategic nutrition plan.” Cooper ate 5,000 calories a day. His goal was to maintain his weight. “I was methodical about my eating. I made a mistake two or three times on the ride, and it cost me the next day.”
One of the riders, Brian Sink from Washington DC, choose restaurants along the way for the group. Cooper would just go in and eat.
In Middlegate, Nev., they found just one bar, an RV park, and a total population of 17.
“At the bar they had an eating contest – a pound of burger with sauerkraut, all kinds of stuff and a plate of fries. It covered from my chin to my eyes. It covered my whole face.”
A fellow rider, Alex, made it about half-way. “I polished it off. I have my t-shirt.”
Even with his reputation for being a “fantastic eater,” in the end, Cooper lost weight. He said his wife, Laura, told him he has gotten a lot narrower.
The Longest Ride
Around the halfway mark, the group was riding from Tribune, Kan., to Haswell, Colo., when fellow rider Jen Cherry from Illinois told Cooper “’I’m thinking of going onto Pueblo, Colorado. What do you think?’ We had already gone 80 miles that day and the next day was a 90-mile ride.
“At the same time Andy [Croud from the United Kingdom] heard and said he wanted to do it, too.” The benefit of riding straight through was that instead of one rest day, they would have two days of rest in Pueblo, Colo., on July 4 and 5.
They reached Haswell in the early afternoon. Cooper went into his normal hour-long end of the day routine, including changing out of his riding clothes, drinking chocolate milk, having a peanut butter sandwich, and hanging out with his teammates. He skipped writing in his blog that day (he kept up with his blog most every other day along the ride).
About an hour later he started his normal pre-ride routine. He drank a smoothie, changed into his riding gear and set out for another 90 miles. Cherry backed out of riding to Peublo that night. Cooper set out with Croud and Mike Anderson (from Madison, N.J.). Kaitlyn Smith (from Connecticut) drove a rental car for support, and Dylan Krieger drove the Phil Across America RV.
Cooper described Krieger as the “Orchestrator of Adventures.”
“It was one of three mornings [on the ride] that it started out calm and then went really bad. Then all of a sudden it would turn out to be a great time.”
It was about dinner time when they reached their first rest stop of that second ride of the day. “A massive storm blew in from Pueblo. We couldn’t stay on the bikes. We got in the RV.” The storm blew past them, so they got back out and started again, when another storm came.
They decided to “draft.”
“The three of us got behind the RV. He [Krieger] is driving about 20 mph. We are within six inches of the fender.” They rode like that for five miles. “When we got through the storm I went in front of the RV at 22 mph.” His friends continued to draft for another mile, then joined him. “We got to Pueblo about 11 p.m. That was very cool. I could have gone more – I was so pumped!”
In the end they rode 168 miles that day.
Back in Lawrence Township
On April 15, six weeks prior to the start of the ride, Cooper shut off his work email account and switched to a new phone. He gave , the family-run business his father Theodore founded in 1955, some time “to make do without me.”
He plans to return to the office on Aug. 15, four months after he left. He has not heard anything about the day-to-day operations. His executive administrator, Manny Corti, has been taking care of the business.
“My team [at Cooper] is amazing. They made it possible. I could not do it without them. I was able to completely turn off work which made me be able to ride every day and to ride effectively.”
“This was the most incredible summer and I have amazing life-long friends that I know I will keep in touch with.”
Fundraising continues. To date, Cooper has raised $32,261 towards his $50,000 goal.
He can be reached at Phil@PhilAcrossAmerica.com in order to set up a speaking engagement to learn more about his adventures.
Visit http://www.philacrossamerica.com/index.php/donate/ to donate to MS research on behalf of Phil Cooper.