At first glance, John Looker appears like most other cyclists on the streets of Columbus; clothed in the uniform jersey and spandex shorts combo, Pelotonia stickers emblazoned on a not-so-shiny-anymore helmet and a well-worn road bike outfitted with a saddlebag and water bottles galore.
Speak with him for 10 minutes, however, and your perception is sure to change.
I met Looker on a breezy and picturesque autumn-like day in July. The weather was as enjoyable and cheery as his attitude. But not long into our half-hour conversation, he made an impression.
“I was diagnosed in ‘95, so I’ve been battling cancer off and on since,” he said. “I actually stopped treatment in May. It wasn’t working so now I’m just riding it out, biding my time, leaving it to the hands of fate, winds of chance, whatever you want to call it.”
While Looker rides for himself, he also rides for his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, and a Texas man named David Hurst. Looker was connected with Hurst through a local Pelotonia supporter.
“In 2011, I did the opening ceremony’s video, and I came out as a terminal brain cancer patient, and that same week David Hurst was diagnosed with the same type of brain cancer,” he said. “So it almost became eerily parallel, our journeys.”
Unfortunately, Hurst lost his battle last October, so Looker’s ride this year is dedicated to him. He wears a band bracelet that belonged to Hurst and will carry some of his personal items along for the ride.
As a cyclist who has ridden every year of Pelotonia since the inaugural event, Looker knows a thing or two about what else to bring.
In his bag, he carries the essentials: extra tube, tire lever, patches, multi-tool. He takes comfort in knowing the Pelotonia sag vehicles and support are always nearby but has learned a few tricks along the way, too.
He also carries a dollar bill, as a quick-fix patch for a flat tire. And after helping a fellow rider reconnect her chain, he is never without a pair of disposable gloves.
Because he’s almost always in a group, though, he knows everyone can be dependent upon one another, which is important.
“What you don’t have, someone else will have,” he said.
He recommends all riders at least bring the basics (what he carries in his saddlebag), and get their bikes tuned up and checked in advance of the opening ceremony. Beyond preparing for the ride from a gear standpoint, Looker also advises everyone to ready themselves for a life-changing experience.
“In 2009, no one had any idea what the hell we were doing, or what the hell was going on,” he said. “You feel that charge in the air, and the hairs on the back of your neck and your arms stand up. I am part of something extraordinarily special and I would never not want to be a part of this.
“This isn’t just a ride that we get to do once a year; for me it’s a lifestyle. It changed my life.”