Inspiring cancer survivor lives on the open road (from October 27 issue of the Yukon News)
The season’s first snow has visions of Christmas dancing in people’s heads, and Randolph Westphal looks like a bicycle-mounted Kris Kringle stuck in traffic.
“Hup, hup,” Westphal calls to Yukon and Nanook, his two Siberian huskies, which are tethered to his bike and trotting happily ahead of him as he navigates Whitehorse traffic.
Westphal is a 47-year-old cancer survivor.
In 1988, doctors told him he had one year to live.
For more than a decade he’s ridden his bicycle — almost four times around the world, he brags, in defiance of cancer and to inspire sufferers to fight.
“They find hope in my story, and that’s what I like to do, to be an example for them,” says Westphal during a short stop in Whitehorse on Monday.
This road trip, his ninth, started on September 11 in Anchorage.
After Whitehorse, he plans to ride south through Watson Lake, Vancouver, Seattle on to Texas.
He then plans to turn northeast for the Appalachian Mountains and Halifax, before heading to Russia, and finally Europe.
“Right now I have about 135,000 kilometres behind me,” says Westphal. “When I’m finished, I’ll have more than 160 or 170,000.”
Though he rides to inspire, Westphal is also travelling for himself — to recover lost memories.
“A truck hit me and put me in the ditch,” he explains the accident in Argentina in 1996 that changed his life.
Four hours later, Westphal was found bleeding to death, and his best friend, his sled dog Shir Khan, was dead.
Westphal nearly lost his leg at the hospital.
He did lose his memory. A blow to the head gave him amnesia.
“I didn’t know who I am, what I am, what I do,” he says. “It was good I keep diaries. It took me a couple of years to know who I am. I lost something. That’s why I’m making my fourth world trip. I go in places where I was before.
“When I’m biking and see something, from my first trip here 15 years ago, it comes back, like a switch,” he says, snapping his fingers.
Westphal is a tall, thick German man with a ponytail and a sylvan voice.
Cancer and amnesia haven’t stopped him from riding his bike with his only family, his dogs.
Yukon, a male, is nine and Nanook, a female, is two.
As Westphal talks about them, a wry grin hits his face. He recently caught the two, err, in the act, he reveals under his breath.
“I don’t want puppies right now,” he whispers.
Lithe compared to the bulky Yukon, Nanook is still “a power machine” that helps pull Westphal’s bike, laden with packs, a tent, clothing and a trailer, uphill, he says.
Going downhill, both dogs jump on the trailer and enjoy the ride.
He averages about 65 kilometres a day on his Biria mountain bike, though he can go upwards of 100 if there is a hotel waiting.
If not, he and the dogs sleep along the road in a tent.
Gears, tires, tubes and the chain must be changed every 6,000 kilometres — a financial hit to someone who eats on $10 a day, and who must also feed two dogs.
“They have to eat too,” he laughs.
On the road, he gets by on the kindness of strangers. People come to him and help, he says.
Indeed, Westphal’s stay in Whitehorse is on the house, thanks to the Bonanza Inn.
And as we talk at the hotel’s restaurant, a man comes over to our table and hands him a pin. “Welcome to Whitehorse,” he says.
Westphal’s bicycle trips started before his cancer.
In 1987, he was in Colorado visiting his aunt and uncle.
He wanted to see the continent, but had no money. Because of visa troubles, he had no way to work, either.
“I figure out how can I see North America. I don’t have any money. And my uncle comes up with the idea, ‘why don’t you use a bike?’ The idea was good, but I don’t like to go alone, so I buy my first dog, Shir Khan. He was seven weeks old when we started.”
As the trip stretched into Canada, a bleeding birthmark took Westphal to the hospital, where he discovered he had cancer.
“I had to go back to Germany for operations,” he says.
After a long hospital stay, Westphal got back on his bike in 1989, riding 3,500 kilometres in seven weeks, “just to prove myself.”
In 1990, he tackled a trip in North America, though had to go back to Germany for another cancer operation.
In 1991, he was in the US and had a cancerous tumour removed for free, he says.
In 1994 he rode across Europe, his trip being interrupted by dozens more operations for skin cancer; in 1996 he almost died in Argentina; in 1998, he tackled the United Kingdom and then New Zealand; in 1999 he biked through Europe; and in 2002, he biked through Labrador.
Westphal, it seems, is determined to prove that Lance Armstrong isn’t the only cancer survivor who can ride a bike.
He tells his story to whomever will listen, including every newspaper, hospital and university along the way.
With a bum leg held together with screws and 26 operations in his past, Westphal is philosophical about survival.
He has been in hospitals for more than five years, all totaled, and had cancerous lymph nodes removed, edging him very close to death.
“They give me not long to live,” says Westphal, his voice softening a touch.
But he did.
“It’s a lot of mind power and willpower to keep going,” he says.
“I say always, ‘don’t sit in the corner and wait for your death. Open your eyes and lift up your head, the world is beautiful.’ You must take the best drug there is … life. Don’t give up.
“Nobody has 26 cancer operations and also a fatal accident behind them and gets back on their bike,” says Westphal.
“I’m crazy enough to do this.”