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Going the distance ; At age 79, Gordon Gross makes a 325-mile statement in support of the Ride for Roswell

Attorney Gordon Gross hits the road today on his carbon fiber Trek, the start of a four-day cycling trip from Ann Arbor, Mich., that will end here Saturday when he joins in the Ride for Roswell.

This 325-mile bike ride -- with a fundraising goal of $50,000 -- is not the first time Gross attempted a long-distance fundraiser. In June 2000, eight months after losing his brother to cancer, Gross pedaled across the country, averaging 74 miles a day, six days a week for seven-and-a-half weeks.

He was only 69 at the time, and raised nearly $70,000 for a number of community efforts -- including a student resource center at the University at Buffalo, where his brother, Dr. Alan Gross, taught in the School of Dental Medicine.

Today, the 79-year-old humanitarian and retired senior partner of Gross Schuman Brizdle & Gilfillan remains firm in his mission to increase cancer awareness -- one mile at a time.

"My brother was my best friend," Gross said. "He was the one who got me into cycling in the first place. Before he died, I promised him I would do whatever I could to help find a cure."

Gross is supported by his wife, Gretchen, two daughters and three grandchildren. Gretchen, who founded Audubon in College Park child-care center, is not surprised by her husband's accomplishments.

"He works out five or six days a week on the elliptical, and that's in addition to his training rides," said Gretchen. "He likes to ride by himself. On the road, he's a real loner who has an agenda and just goes. He'll be the first one out, and he may be the last one to reach the destination. He wants to do it in his own time."

Gretchen worries about her husband, but knows he will attack the course in top physical form.

"He had a knee replacement three years ago, to improve his tennis game," she said. "Normally it takes two to three weeks of rehab. They kicked Gordy out after four days. He's in in such good condition now, he plays singles."

>Cycling for dollars

Gross didn't take up cycling until he was 50, and his first bicycle was a hybrid a cross between a mountain bike and touring bicycle. Today Gross rides a custom carbon-fiber road Trek, which he modified.

"I've been riding with a lot of younger guys and they love to climb," he explained, noting that a favored training route is the 30-mile ride from the bike path in Amherst, where he lives part of the year, to Buffalo's waterfront. "It was getting a little harder for me. I bought two carbon fiber wheels, which allows 2 mph better. It's a smoother ride."

Paying $1,250 per wheel, Gross considered his bicycle (which three years ago ran him $5,200) an investment in his health, as well an efficient fundraising tool.

"He's one of about a dozen people in the history of the event who have traditionally raised more than $10,000 in a single year. He's the top of the heap," said Mitch Flynn, who helped found Ride for Roswell in 1995. "When you think about it, raising that much for anything in Buffalo is pretty amazing in one year."

Last year, the Ride for Roswell raised $2.3 million and attracted more than 6,500 riders. This year, pledge amounts have jumped 10 percent, according to Flynn. The ride offers the following distances 3-mile family, 8-mile, 20-mile, 30-mile, 33-mile, 44-mile, 62.5-mile and a 100-mile -- all leaving from UB's Baird Point.

Gross hopes to join the special 12-mile Peloton, which leaves from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute campus on Carlton Street.

Going into this year, Gross has raised a total of $106,963.49 for Roswell Park. He is dedicating the $50,000 he hopes to raise to selenium research, which has become his passion.

A team of scientists in Ann Arbor, working in conjunction with Roswell Park, is researching selenium, an essential mineral found in soil. It is known to boost the body's antioxidant capacity and is believed to help control cell damage incurred through conventional forms of cancer treatment.

"Selenium taken with chemotherapy and radiation reduces toxicity, which makes it possible to have much more chemo," said Gross. "To me this is so exciting. It may extend the lives of so many people."

>On the road again

Gross has overcome many obstacles on his distance rides, including falls, lost bikes, flat tires. He has logged thousands of miles on his bicycle, managing a profound hearing impairment through a pair of hearing aids for 36 years. He recently was one of the first in the world to obtain a hybrid cochlear implant, allowing him to hear high- and low-frequency sounds. "The implant has been wonderful for me," he said. "I had almost no high-frequency hearing."

Part of his Michigan-to-Buffalo route will take him through Southern Ontario, where there are long and isolated stretches.

The trick, he said, is to stop every 17 or 18 miles, and to keep his cell phone charged. He uses it to not only to check in with his support team but also to monitor the weather and his stock portfolio.

"We had difficulty finding hotels in Southern Ontario," said Gross, who will be accompanied on the ride by his son-in-law, Dr. Ken Weiner, a local optometrist. "We had to change the route twice. The third day will be a short day, about 70 miles. The first, in Michigan, will be the hardest, about 93 miles. On the second day we'll ride 88 miles, plus maybe 15 miles for getting lost."

Gross has embraced many opportunities in his life, and he realized the importance of raising cancer awareness through distance cycling. Still, with so many miles behind and ahead of him, what does he do to pass the time on the road?

"I might sing little ditties silly things -- but they pass the time," he said, a smile bursting across his tanned face. "What do I think about? Sometimes I don't think. You don't want to count every mile. Every once in a while, you stop and chat with someone who wants to know what you're doing and why."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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