Six local cyclists head to Israel with their Wheels of Love

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Dr. Bill Taeusch has biked from San Francisco to Los Angeles seven times — so it’s surprising to hear what’s at the top of his “Hopes List” as he prepares for another long-distance ride.

“Survival,” he says with a laugh. “Getting the ride done and being able to do it. I’m 68 and 11/12ths years of age and depending on muscle memory for this one.”

Taeusch will participate for the first time in the ninth Wheels of Love bike ride, a five-day, 300-mile trek through Israel beginning Nov. 9. The event benefits Alyn Hospital, a rehabilitation facility in Jerusalem for infants, children and teens with physical disabilities.

“It’s a great charity and a great excuse to go to Israel,” says Taeusch, who will travel with his wife, Ethel, and visit family during their two-week stay. “We’ll use any reason we can to get there. It’s also a good excuse to get in shape again. This time of year, with the short days, it’s hard to do that.”

The experience also gives Taeusch, a professor of pediatrics at UCSF and former chief of pediatrics at San Francisco General Hospital, a chance to watch Alyn Hospital at work.

“I’m excited about seeing Alyn,” he says. “We have Oakland Children’s Hospital, UCSF and Stanford, but they all mix in kids with chronic and acute diseases. I think it would be great if we could have a hospital like Alyn in the Bay Area.”

While he’s been to Israel before, Taeusch, a member of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, will have the rare opportunity to see the country from behind handlebars, surrounded by about 500 cyclists from many different countries. More than 200 will be coming from the United States, including five others from Northern California.

They are Berkeley residents Noah and Robert Alper and Harry Pollack, Ayelet Frank of Redwood City and Max Bernstein of Mill Valley.

This also is the first ride for Bernstein, a member of the Israel and Overseas Committee with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The 77-year-old decided to participate in Wheels of Love because he missed the federation’s annual trip to Israel in order to celebrate his mother’s 100th birthday.

To prepare, Bernstein gathered friends for morning bike rides through Tiburon, West Marin and Mill Valley. He also enjoys the tranquility of riding alone.

“When I’m out bike riding, nobody can reach me,” says Bernstein, an insurance consultant who belongs to Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. “For a couple of hours, I’m totally by myself. No e-mails, no phone calls, and that’s fine with me.”

Like Bernstein, Taeusch is no stranger to long-distance bike rides. He commutes to work on his bike whenever possible, frequents the bike paths and trails near his Oakland home and even keeps a spare bike at work to ride during breaks. Taeusch doesn’t depend on a health club for his training, just daylight.

But a rider doesn’t need to be a regular Lance Armstrong to participate in Wheels of Love.

Cyclists of varied skill levels and ages (the youngest rider is 17, the oldest is 82) peddle on four different on- and off-road courses. The rides start in Jerusalem, continue down to the Negev and past Masada and the Dead Sea, and end in Jerusalem. There is a challenge course for experienced riders, and a shorter, touring route that combines biking and sightseeing.

Most participants arrive earlier than the Sunday morning start time to tune their bikes, grab their jerseys and take hospital tours to meet the kids, staff and faculty. A former Alyn patient is expected to ride with the group, and for the first time, parents of current patients will join the cyclists for dinners.

“This year, we’re trying to make an even stronger connection between the kids, the families and the riders,” says Cathy Lanyard, executive director of the American Friends of Alyn. “During check-in, the level of excitement among patients, families and staff is palpable. They know what these riders have come to do for them, and that’s something really special.”

Wheels of Love riders are required to raise a minimum of $2,000 to participate. Last year’s event garnered more than $3 million, a total Lanyard hopes to break this year. She adds that it’s been inspiring to see so many riders from the United States participate and/or donate, given the nation’s current economic situation.

“You can’t go wrong for doing something you can for kids who can’t,” Lanyard says. “I’m sure many of [the riders] have given it a second or third thought to leave their families and businesses during this time. The dedication to continue to come with us — that’s a hero.”

For more information about Wheels of Love, visit www.alynride.org.