Tacoma woman biking 150-mile Obliteride in honor of 28 friends, family who died of cancer

When the going gets tough Sunday on the hills between Tacoma and Seattle, Lori Grassi need only look at her handlebars for motivation.

On her orange handlebar tape, Grassi has inscribed the names of 28 friends who have died of cancer.

“It’s harder to bury somebody than it is to ride hills,” said Grassi, herself a three-time cancer survivor.

Grassi, a 52-year-old Tacoma resident, is one of more than 900 people participating in Obliteride, a bike ride quickly establishing itself as one of the Northwest’s top organized rides.

Obliteride started last summer as a fundraiser for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The 2013 ride had 691 riders and raised $1.9 million.

Most of the cyclists will push off this morning from Seattle’s Magnuson Park for a ride of 25, 50 or 100 miles.

A little more than 10 percent of the riders, however, started Saturday morning, pedaling 85 hilly miles on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula to the University of Puget Sound. Grassi is one of the two-day riders.

By the time the two-day riders finish, they will have covered 150 miles and climbed 11,777 feet. At the finish they’ll be rewarded with a concert by three contestants from the NBC show “The Voice:” Vicci Martinez and Stephanie Anne Johnson of Tacoma and Austin Jenckes of Duvall.

The concerts are perhaps the biggest reason Obliteride is earning a reputation for spoiling its riders. The Paper Boys are scheduled to perform Saturday night at UPS during a celebration for the two-day riders and their families. And for the second year, Michael Franti and Spearhead agreed to perform at a kickoff celebration Friday night at Seattle’s Gas Works Park.

“It is off the charts,” Grassi said of the ride. “Last year I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

But the real reward, Grassi says, is helping with cancer research. Riders must raise at least $1,000-$1,975, depending on how far they ride. And 100 percent of the money goes to research, ride organizer Mark Grantor said. The ride entry fee ($100-$150) and sponsors cover the cost of the event.

Grassi is a strong cyclist, said Tory Grant, who is riding with her this year. “There are a number of big rides she could be doing,” Grant said. “But she picks the one that is charitable.”

Why choose a ride that requires asking people to donate money? The fundraising requirements scare off plenty of riders, Grantor said, even though they have until Sept. 30 to reach the goal.

Perhaps it’s her profession (she’s a lobbyist for the Washington State Chiropractic Association) or maybe it’s her fearless nature, but Grassi relishes the opportunity to raise money.

In fact, she has raised more than 2 1/2 times the fundraising requirement both years.

“I want to participate in something that might help find a cure for at least some of the common cancers,” she said.

Grassi was 39 in 2001 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Next it was cervical cancer. Then ovarian cancer.

She beat them all and is now cancer free.

Survivors wear different bibs than the other riders during Obliteride, creating an atmosphere where it is easy for cyclists to strike up conversations or just pass along an encouraging word.

“It’s an atmosphere you can’t even describe unless you are there,” Grassi said.

But she isn’t riding for herself this weekend.

In June 2012, her dad was diagnosed with cancer. He died four months later.

Grassi made a list of friends and family who died of cancer. The list quickly climbed to 27. Then she remembered a friend from her time as a massage therapist.

The friend had come to her complaining of neck pain. During the massage Grassi found a lump and recommended her friend see a doctor. The lump was cancerous. Her friend was dead within a year.

Grassi inscribed a 28th name on her handlebar tape.

“It is a shocking number,” she said. “People tell me, ‘I don’t know if I have lost 28 friends ever, from anything.’ … But then they start making a list, and they realize there are so many.”

Cancer impacts almost everybody.

“All I want is a cure,” Grassi said. “… (Death) is something that happens to all of us. It would just be nice if it was from old age more often.”