Alea Smith has always been able to find a reason to go for a good bike ride. As a girl growing up in Nebraska, she passed long summer days riding her bike through the country. As an adult, the hobby became a relaxing way to clear her mind and a fun form of exercise.
The Tempe mother found a new reason to cycle nearly 18 months ago.
"I had a routine doctor's appointment that resulted in me sitting in a neurologist's office with the doctor telling me I might have MS," Smith says.
Multiple sclerosis is thought to be an autoimmune disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, or central nervous system. Its symptoms can include extreme fatigue, numbness in the limbs, loss of vision, and problems with balance and coordination.
"I'd been really tired," Smith says, "but I was the mom of a 2-year-old who also works full time. I didn't think anything of it."
Her diagnosis was confirmed in January. On Saturday, she will climb onto her bike and ride 35 miles through farmland and desert southeast of Queen Creek to promote awareness of her disease.
Smith is leading a 13 member team of co-workers that she pulled together shortly after that first doctor's appointment. The friends are riding in the Bike MS Round Up Ride, formerly the MS Best Dam Bike Tour.
More than 800 cyclists are registered for the ride, according to Virginia Roberts, communications manager for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Arizona Chapter. "Most people ride because it is a healthy activity that promotes a great cause - raising funds to find a cure for MS."
Cyclists range from ages 12 to 78. Some are avid competitive cyclists; others are recreational riders, like Smith's group.
"No one's going to be going at Tour de France speeds, at least not in our group," said Smith. "As a whole, we're not hard-core cyclists. We have one guy who doesn't even have a bike yet."
Riders must raise $250 in charity money to participate, but many raise more than twice that amount. More than 8,000 Arizonans are living with MS. Most are diagnosed between ages 20 and 50.
"It was surprising," says Smith of her diagnosis. "MS is very unpredictable, and it's different for everyone. I'm in pretty good shape, and it's been caught early, but I still wanted to do something. If nothing else, I knew we'd raise money and awareness for a very important cause and have a good time doing it."