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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Churning the Chains for Charity

The rain was no surprise; it had been raining all day. Each hill crested revealed a bigger brother quivering on the horizon behind a curtain of water. And, as a truck labored up the incline belching acrid, yellow smoke, the cyclists left coughing in its wake began to wonder what they were doing there. "I was told that Russia was flat," one biker muttered darkly as she struggled to find an elusive lowest gear.

But as Suzdal came into view -- a cornucopia of cupolas on Poklonnaya Gora -- the clouds miraculously parted and the sun struggled through. The 50 cyclists in the Downside Up Charity Bike Ride from Vladimir to Moscow had made it through the first of three days of riding to the relative comfort of Suzdal's concrete tourist complex.

"Don't ever forget to stretch those hamstrings," yelled Gail Donaldson, an English sports instructor, above the chorus of groans as the cyclists dismounted and began to search for their saddle sores beneath layers of mud. As the group headed for the bar or the banya to salve their aching muscles, Jana Shaveshova, a Georgian masseuse, was energetically proffering her services. She was one of the three professional masseurs who were accompanying the party, along with a cook, her children, five drivers and a bicycle repair man.

Fifty people from Europe, Hong Kong, the United States, Australia, Ukraine -- and of course, Russia -- ranging in age from 7 to 50, had come together to participate in the three-day bike ride that ended Monday evening in Red Square. Each had pledged to raise $2,000 through sponsors to launch Downside Up, a charity which was founded four months ago to improve the quality of life for Russian children with Down's Syndrome.

"I know it seems a long way to come," said Steve Turner, 42, a keen cyclist from Sydney, Australia. "But I've always wanted to visit Russia and this seemed like a fun way to do it and for a good cause too." His enthusiasm was rewarded when Tucker became the winner of the coveted yellow t-shirt for out-riding all the others on Day 1.

The sun was shining on the second day. And as the cyclists washed down their bikes in the waters of Suzdal's Kamenka River, the raincoats were exchanged for suntan lotion. This day was to be the biggest challenge as the whole group was to ride the 60 kilometers between Suzdal and Teykovo, while the extra-fit were attempting an additional 90 kilometers to Rostov Velikii as well. In all over three days, cyclists each covered at least 140 kilometers on bicycle and countless more by bus.

Pausing for a shashlik lunch and a rubdown on Day 2, the riders all had their different sources of inspiration. For Veronique Garrett, one of the charity's four founders, it was the image of her 3-year-old daughter, Florence, who has Down's Syndrome. "When I realized how little support there was for parents with Down's Syndrome children in Russia, compared to the huge range of services which we have in England, I felt that I had to do something."

The idea of setting up a formal charity in Russia, she said, grew out of Garrett's contact last summer with a Russian Down's child, who she helped and befriended.

"The problem in Russia," explained Claire Lyons, the American director of the Downside Up Children's Center in Moscow, which netted about $100,000 from the weekend event, "is not that they are brutal and uncaring, but that resources are so stretched. With almost no social services available, doctors routinely advise parents to institutionalize their Down's Syndrome babies at birth. And, there they generally die ... 50 percent of the 125 [Down's] children who were born in Moscow last year, for example, are now dead."

The Downside Up Center will help the 5 percent of parents who decide to raise their children themselves to cope. It will provide physical and speech therapy to children under five, as well as creative play-groups, said Lyons, who is currently looking for space for the planned center.

But for the exhausted cyclists who rode into Red Square under noisy police escort Monday evening, the primary pleasure was that the ride was over. Until next year.

For more information about Downside Up, contact Claire Lyons at 913-3515, pager 21385.