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ESR Rider Spotlight: Phil Zodda

Meet Phil Zodda, Athlete and dragon slayer

Phil is no stranger to competition — whether he’s competing or coaching. He’s a six-time runner of the New York City Marathon and soon-to-be five-time road warrior for the Empire State Ride. If you’ve ever been on the road for ESR, you might have seen Phil with a whistle in hand, dishing out Swedish Fish as he cheers on other riders from his bike. He slays dragons and rides for everyone else who does the same.

Dragons? you might ask. They’re Phil’s go-to metaphor for all of life’s challenges: setbacks, obstacles, hills and (especially) cancer. He rides in solidarity with everyone who wants to slay cancer for good. While he’s doing so, he’ll likely be the one helping you overcome your own dragons and conquer Empire State Ride.

“You’ll always come across someone who could use a little verbal support, a little slap in the back of the saddle, just to help them along. I enjoy picking up someone who might be solo, and they’re still out there slugging along. I just come up alongside them and stay there and pace them and talk with them,” Phil says.

The Origins of Dragon Slaying

Phil Zodda proudly holds his bike over his head at the finish line of Empire State Ride in Niagara Falls.The idea of dragon slaying came to Phil during his first year riding in Empire State Ride. Phil had just reached Albany and found himself faced with a hill that seemed to stretch for miles. At the end of the hill was the next camp. To get there, however, he had to climb for what felt like forever. His legs were wiped halfway up, but he kept pushing and pushing.

“My ego was such that I wasn’t walking a damn inch. No one was going to put me on the truck and carry me through. There were four of us, and I think two stopped at the rest stop in Albany and took the bus back to the camp. My friend and I rode onward.”

When the pair reached the top of the hill, people rang bells, cheered, gave hugs and shouted words of encouragement. A fellow Empire State Ride road warrior named Carlos greeted Phil and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a dragon slayer.’ Carlos handed Phil a patch with a dragon on it, and from that moment on, the metaphor became Phil’s mantra. 

That winter, Phil thought about his Empire State Ride experience and the feeling of accomplishment he felt from tackling a physical challenge while raising money for cancer research. It had been the first time he’d ever done anything like it, and he resolved to return the following year to conquer Empire State Ride again while inspiring others to slay their own dragons.

“I’m no one special. I am not an elite athlete. I’m just another average guy who’s out there on the course. I’m not a young fellow either,” Phil says. “If I can do it and pedal, so can you. And if there’s a reason why you’re trying it, then let’s finish what you started.”

phil's Background

Phil coached high school track for 34 years before he retired. He’s also been involved with the New York City Marathon for close to 41 years, building the finish line, working as a four-mile captain and, most recently, escorting the elite runners on his bike. A retired teacher, Phil brings his passion for guiding others to everything he does, and Empire State Ride is no exception.

Cycling is not Phil’s first sport, but he made the transition from running following orthoscopic surgery on his knee. It wasn’t really until a friend handed him an Empire State Ride business card that Phil started riding regularly, though. He had tossed the ESR card into a drawer and forgotten about it for months. When he rediscovered it, the timing felt serendipitous. At the time, his wife was overseas for their niece’s funeral. Their niece, only in her thirties, had passed away from breast cancer. Participating in Empire State Ride was the perfect way for Phil to challenge himself physically while honoring those lost to cancer like his niece.

Five years later, Phil keeps coming back to ride again.

“Together, we will slay this dragon called cancer and make the world a better place for future generations.”

Join Phil and his team of dragon slayers by registering for Empire State Ride today. Don’t wait — the last day to register is June 29.

Join Phil at this year’s Empire State Ride. 

ESR rider spotlight: Diana Flores

Diana Flores: Detective. Mother. Cyclist. Survivor. Warrior.

As a detective for the New York Police Department, Diana works for the Intelligence Bureau, detecting and disrupting criminal and terrorist activity using intelligence-led policing. The role marks a deviation from her previous job as an investigator in the field, where she faced dangerous and often life-threatening situations. Being involved in those situations taught her courage, strength and the value of doing what needs to be done — a mindset she’s embraced in all facets of her life.

When Diana learned that she had breast cancer in November 2020, that resilient mindset was tested. As the mother of a four-year-old daughter, hearing the words you have cancer was more terrifying than anything she’d ever encountered on the job.  

“Of course, I was afraid. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I can’t leave my daughter. I don’t want to die,’” she says. “When you’re living for someone who’s counting on you and looking up to you, the last thing you want to do is leave.”

Diana fought with everything she had to stay with her daughter. Over the course of two years, she underwent treatment, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Now, she’s grateful to have returned to a career she loves and a newfound purpose: fighting for other cancer patients.

From cancer survivor to cancer warrior

For as long as Diana can remember, being competitive and active have been pillars in her life. Her favorite childhood memories involved racing her brother, Anthony, on bikes to see who could make it to their aunt’s house first. They took different, more difficult routes every time. In adulthood, she sought out ways to stay active, breaking out her bike for fitness and leaning into anything she viewed as a challenge.

“Movement is medicine,” Diana says.

Naturally, when she saw an Empire State Ride commercial on TV at home in the Bronx, she knew her next journey was about to begin.

“When I found out what [ESR] was about and learned that it was for cancer research and to end cancer, I just got a feeling that said, ‘I have to do this ride,’” she says. “I was going through my chemo treatments at the time, and I promised myself that next year, if I was able to ride, nothing was going to stop me from doing it for myself and those who can’t do it.”

Empire State Ride 2022 will be her first-ever multiday tour. She’s completed other day rides, but this challenge is new to her, and nothing will hold her back. She knows she is stronger than any pain or challenge and is fighting for something bigger than herself. Diana rides today for the advancement of cancer cures tomorrow.

On Empire State Ride

Diana’s decision to participate in Empire State Ride comes less than a year after her treatments ended. She’s honoring not only herself, but her sister-in-law who survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her mother-in-law who is a two-time survivor of cervical cancer and her daughter for whom she has always fought.

“It’s going to be amazing when my daughter grows up. The technology and the medicine are going to get better. It has already gotten better. You go from people dying from breast cancer — and I know they still do — but there are so many more survivors. So, this ride is going to mean a lot.”

Diana has already started to train and dream about reaching the finish line at Niagara Falls. She’s been following Charlie Livermore’s training plan and has no doubt that reaching the falls will be one of the most rewarding moments of her life. It will take courage, strength and a commitment to doing what needs to be done, but the detective in her has years of practice at that already.

She’s thankful for the opportunity to ride and for the support of her family, especially her husband, William and her beautiful daughter. “I am just happy … happy to be strong enough. That I came out of this on top. It was a tough time, but I am happy that I am here to tell my story and that I am healthy.”

Become an Empire State road warrior and join Diana in the fight to end cancer.

Join Diana at this year’s Empire State Ride. 

Rider spotlight: Doug Field

Meet ESR Hometown Challenge Champion, Doug Field. 

Five years ago, Doug Field felt off, like he wasn’t quite himself. He found himself getting dizzy, disoriented and confused about everyday details. He couldn’t remember how to get to a restaurant he frequented in Manhattan or how navigate his way through an airport without the help of his daughter. Something wasn’t right.

Doug’s suspicions were confirmed during a visit to his optometrist. His optic nerve was badly inflamed, and he was quickly referred to an ophthalmologist and a neurologist. Tests later revealed that Doug had metastases on his brain from cancer that spread from his lungs. He had never smoked. Since that time, Doug has worked closely with oncologists and neurologists to remove the metastases around his brain and prevent the cancer from worsening.

Rising above

 

Today, Doug’s mind is clearer and more focused than before. He undergoes immunotherapy and receives infusions every three weeks, but he’s persevering and continuing to push back against his diagnosis. In fact, Doug will soon be graduating with his Master of Business Administration degree and riding in the weeklong Empire State Ride alongside fellow survivors and thrivers. 

“I feel good, and I’m grateful,” Doug says. “Now, my story is that I’m riding to help fund research to fight, have an impact and enable more people to be eligible for treatment across a range of cancers.”

Doug's 500+ Mile Hometown Challenge

In 2020, Doug completed the Empire State Ride 500+ Mile Hometown Challenge and raised approximately $10,000 in the fight to end cancer. He says that participating in events like Empire State Ride Long Island is a great way to raise funds to drive the research that helps people like him navigate their cancer diagnosis.

“I’m a direct result of research efforts,” Doug says, “My oncologist says that when she finished her oncology fellowship, the rubric showed three boxes for patients with lung cancer, meaning you had three choices [for treatment]. Now she says that it’s an entire spreadsheet of different combinations, drugs and therapies.”

Physically, Doug feels better than ever despite his condition. When the idea of cycling first came up in a conversation with a friend, Doug couldn’t imagine riding the distances he currently does. Now, he rides on the weekends with a group of cyclists and can easily cover 50 or more miles on his own. That all started from a simple desire to do something to further cancer research for future generations.

Whether you’re a novice rider or riding is part of your weekly routine, participating in the Empire State Ride Long Island is the perfect way to raise funds and work toward more clinical treatment options.

Don’t miss out — register today!

Join our 500+ Mile Challenge

If you are interested in our 500+ mile adventure across the state of New York, but worried about committing due to training and fundraising, we have the perfect solution.

Enter the Empire State Ride virtual 500+ mile challenge.

This virtual cycling challenge offers you a way to get a taste for the Empire State Ride right in your hometown. During the month of July, you choose when and where to ride 500+ miles.

By signing up for our cycling fundraiser, you’re advancing cancer research from the seat of your bike. While there are no registration fees or fundraising minimums, you can still make a difference. Your donations are impacting the future of cancer research and saving lives and many people will support that.

And that’s not all. You can also qualify for exciting rider rewards as a token of appreciation from our team!

when you raise $500

We will send you a welcome gift, complete with a t-shirt and items to celebrate your mileage milestones.

When you raise $1000

You will receive a special 500+ Mile Challenge cycling jersey.

Additionally, as a virtual rider, you still get access to all the amazing perks our weeklong and custom riders get. You can join our private Facebook group with your fellow riders to meet and share advice with ahead of the 500+ mile adventure.  

As you continue your adventure, you will have access to a fundraising coordinator, cycling coach, physical therapist and much more. Our road warriors are cyclists located all over the country and you will be part of a special group.  You choose when and where to ride and see how you stack up to other fellow riders!  

Taking on a challenge is always fun, but it’s even better when coupled with the opportunity to make a difference. This is a cycling challenge that you won’t want to miss.  

Julie’s Story: A journey of fate, struggles and a rediscovered passion

When Julie had shortness of breath in May of 2020, she thought she had COVID-19. When that turned into chest pains and her heart racing one night, she thought it was a heart attack. She told her wife who quickly called an ambulance.

Halfway to the hospital, all her symptoms mysteriously disappeared. However, the EMT explained to Julie that it was protocol to take her and check her over, so they continued on to a local hospital in Watertown, NY. 

After arriving, her vitals were checked and doctors ran numerous blood tests. While everything came back clear, the ER attending physician decided to do a chest CT scan because “crazy things are happening” in 2020. This decision saved her life.

The ER doctor told her that both lung cavities were full of blood clots and that every blood vessel inside both lung cavities had clots in them. She was immediately admitted to figure out what was going on. 

Within 12 hours, an abdominal CT scan, a pelvic ultrasound and a transvaginal ultrasound were administered and confirmed the clots were caused by enlarged cysts on both ovaries. 

Within 24 hours, a blood test confirmed Julie had ovarian cancer. 

Julie couldn’t believe it. She had no history of cancer in her family.

When deciding where to get treatment, health insurance options and opinions from friends and family pointed Julie to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York. Even though she was receiving treatment in the middle of a pandemic, she never once felt unsafe at Roswell Park due to the staff and safety protocols put in place.

“I know it’s scary as hell, but as soon as I left Roswell, I knew I would be safe.”

While going through treatment, Julie was thinking of ways to bounce back from her diagnosis. As a former athlete, she wanted to do something physical and her doctor told her how important it is to be active.

“I’m totally out of shape and full of steroids and drugs, but asking myself ‘what am I going to do when I’m done with this? What can I do physically to get on the other side?’”

Enter the Empire State Ride.

A challenge awaits

The night before her second chemotherapy infusion, Julie was reading a digital newsletter from Roswell Park when she stumbled across an announcement about the upcoming Empire State Ride. She checked out the website, read through the blogs, even watched the documentary on YouTube , and was left speechless – she had to be a part of this.

Julie knew the importance of getting her body moving while still going through treatment and decided participating in the Empire State Ride was the perfect goal.

“Everyone has this idea that when you come out of treatment, you’re a weakling and shouldn’t be doing [active things] to your body. 

“So I said, ‘This is a total reality.’ I have a stationary bike in the basement. I’ll just pedal a little bit after chemo.”

Julie on bike

That’s exactly what she did. Not only did it feel good to move, it also brought Julie back. A torn ACL from college basketball led her to discover cycling as a great form of exercise. In 1995 when she was 24, she sold her car and did a cross-country trip on her bike. She also did the Bicycle Tour of Colorado in 1997, so the Empire State Ride will be her first weeklong tour in a while. But, she was not only excited about getting back into her passion, but  also to find a way to give back to Roswell Park.

“Going through chemotherapy and cancer changes you. When I saw the [ESR] documentary, it brought tears to my eyes. It was the spark I needed to think about what was going to motivate me to get into shape in 2021 after I was finished with my active treatment. Seeing the inspiring stories of the ESR riders who rode for loved ones who they lost due to cancer was gut-wrenching. I thought, ‘What if I could ride in ESR in 2021? How inspiring would that be for riders who lost loved ones due to cancer and what about cancer survivors? What if I could inspire a cancer survivor to ride in the Empire State Ride?’

“A bike tour is a moving social event. You become friends for life with those that you meet. You get to spend time with people on a level that is not possible in today’s crazy-busy world. The feeling I had was that, ‘Yes, I can do #ESR21.”

For Julie, cancer was a wake-up call and she is determined to create what she wants out of life as a cancer survivor.

“Cancer wakes you up. It makes you focus on things you might not have been focused on before, in terms of health. I knew coming through the other side of it, I would be a different person in 2021. I knew training for this would be a huge jumping off point.”

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