WHITEFIELD —Just before dawn Thursday, six bicycle riders pedaled swiftly and silently through the sleeping town of Whitefield.
They are part of The Peloton Project, a team of 39 riders who battled snow, sleet, heavy traffic and injuries to complete a 2,500-mile trip from Calgary, Canada to Lewiston, Maine, to raise money for those affected by cancer.
Lewiston is home to the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing, founded in 2008 by actor Patrick Dempsey and his sister Mary when their mother was going through cancer treatment. The center offers free support, education and other services to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.
Wellspring is a network of similar cancer support centers in Canada. The Calgary location holds an annual Cancervive Peloton bike ride from Calgary to chosen U.S. cities.
In a peloton, riders conserve energy by riding in line and drafting off the leader. In the Cancervive Peloton, riders also dedicate their ride to cancer “warriors.”
This year, the two fundraisers combined forces. Six teams of riders left Calgary on Oct. 3 to ride relay-style 24 hours a day to Lewiston for the Dempsey Challenge, which starts Saturday.
The group rode through northern New Hampshire on its way to Maine, with some members finding refuge on short notice at the Mountain View Grand Resort after riding through rainy, cold Quebec and Vermont.
The journey is being documented by producer Laura Davis and filmmaker Ramsey Tripp with stories of cancer survivors and caregivers woven throughout.
A four-time cancer survivor, Davis said the film is a statement about “the fact the human spirit can do surprising, amazing things like riding the Peloton or surviving cancer.”
Davis is a long-time friend of Claudette Knieriem of Hooksett. “We talked about how it would be nice to have a New Hampshire connection to the project,” Knieriem said.
In April, Knieriem was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. “I called Laura and said, ‘I have your New Hampshire connection now,’” Knieriem said.
Davis asked if she’d join the project.
“When she told me what they were doing with the riders and the warriors, I got so choked up,” Davis said. “I mean, how could I say no?”
Knieriem is represented in the Peloton by husband and wife David Holgate and Jennifer Scott of Calgary.
“I have the chills when I hear from them,” Knieriem said. “We’re total strangers, but we’re sort of kindred spirits already.”
“We’ve been exchanging emails and at this point it’s like we’re old friends,” Holgate said in a phone interview from a stop near Montreal. “It reminds me of these people who have pen pals for 20 years and then finally meet them.”
Holgate and Scott are avid cyclists who planned on riding the Peloton for friends, but last November added another motivation: Holgate’s prostate cancer diagnosis.
“It made sense to do it having just gone through it a bit myself,” he said.
They’ve ridden in pouring rain and weather cold enough to freeze water bottles solid, but Holgate and his wife are happy to raise money for the cancer support centers.
“If you haven’t been there, you just don’t understand how important they are,” he said.
Riders and warriors will reunite at the welcome ceremony in Lewiston on Saturday, where Holgate, Scott and Knieriem will meet for the first time.
For more information about the groups involved in the ride and the film, go to dempseycenter.org, wellspringcalgary.com or thepelotonfilm.com.