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Riding for a cause

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2009 12:17 a.m. MDT

Fatcyclist.com blogger Elden Nelson has vowed to continue fighting cancer after the recent death of his wife, Susan.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

It was a message thousands expected would someday come, yet none wanted to hear it.

"Susan died 7:25pm," Elden Nelson, better known as the Fat Cyclist, said via his Twitter account at 8:03 p.m. on Aug. 5. "Her battle with cancer is over. Mine just got more intense. FIGHT LIKE SUSAN."

It was a message that hit thousands of people — most complete strangers — like a punch to the stomach. Despite distance and relative anonymity, Nelson is a bit of a celebrity and has been waging a very public battle against cancer, the disease that claimed his wife just eight days before they would have celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary.

Since that time, and well before it, Nelson has received tens of thousands of e-mails, text messages and replies to his blog expressing support and sympathies.

Fatcyclist.com, the blog he has written for several years, is one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. Visitors come to the site to vicariously follow Nelson's two passions — cycling and fighting cancer.

It started out as nothing more than an effort to lose weight.

It is much more than that now, though.

Nelson — an avid cyclist and talented writer — found himself huffing, puffing and pushing his bike — rather than riding it — up the White Rim Trail at Canyonlands National Park and saw his riding partners easily climbing the very trail he also used to ascend without trouble.

"I had this gut hanging over my shorts and I thought 'This has to change,' " he said.

And with that realization Fatcyclist.com was born.

Nelson is no longer fat, however, and Fatcyclist.com is no longer a blog dedicated to losing a few pounds and telling bicycle-related jokes to a handful of friends who occasionally visited the Web site.

Instead, Fatcyclist.com has grown, and Nelson, as much as he wishes he weren't, has become publisher of one of the most popular sports-related blogs on the Internet — regularly seeing more than 30,000 unique page views per day and topping the 100,000 mark a few times.

The "success" of the blog — for lack of a better term — has come as Nelson's focus shifted from writing about his bicycling adventures and weight to chronicling the battle with cancer his wife fought for years before passing away Aug. 5.

"I come to terms with things by trying to crystallize them in text," Nelson, who buried his wife on Monday, said, explaining how the blog became a way for him to cope with the fight he shared. Susan, also wanting to raise awareness of the disease that slowly and painfully killed her, encouraged Elden to share their story on the blog. "She was thinking of others by letting me do this."

In the process of telling the story, Fatcyclist.com has become one of the most popular cycling blogs on the Internet — winning the 2008 and '09 Bloggie Award for best sports blog — and inspired thousands to join the fight against the disease.

"I don't care too much about breaking records," Nelson, whose Team Fatty has raised nearly $600,000 this year alone in donations to the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "But a lot of people have read the blog and gotten behind a guy that's kind of just like them. … Cancer impacts a lot of people, and they see this as a way to get involved."

Nelson, a BYU graduate and father of four children, fought cancer with his wife on more than one occasion. After breast cancer hit the family hard a few years ago, they thought they were in the clear and were moving on with life.

But in August of 2007, Susan just didn't feel right. She had some trouble walking and didn't have the energy she was used to.

"It was everywhere," Nelson said. "At that point, it was just everywhere."

Cancer had returned. And it was in her liver, her bones, her lungs, her spine, and a CT scan revealed hundreds of sunflower-seed-sized tumors in the brain.

The couple, who would have celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary this week, knew the odds were not good. Still, they chose to fight and to fight publicly.

As Fatcyclist.com changed its tone from a humorous blog focused on cycling, traffic grew.

"People, I think, sort of saw themselves in it," Nelson said. "I think it was something an awful lot of people relate to on a very personal level."

But it wasn't just average, anonymous readers catching the Fat Cyclist spirit. Some of the biggest names in the cycling industry have jumped on the bandwagon and offered up far more than just an electronic hug.

Companies such as Shimano, Orbea, Ibis and others have donated products to auction off, with all proceeds going to the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Nelson's name.

Shortly before Susan's death, a bicycle valued at nearly $10,000 was auctioned off on Fatcyclist.com with entries going for $5 per chance. More than $136,900 was donated to the Lance Armstrong Foundation in the name of Team Fatty.

Nelson then traveled to Philadelphia for the LiveStrong Challenge where Team Fatty combined for $251,363 in funds raised.

There are four LiveStrong Challenge bike rides, and with one to go, in Armstrong's hometown of Austin, Texas, Team Fatty has raised $626,305 — shattering any records for funds raised by a group.

"I don't do this to break records," Nelson said. "But just seeing how our fight is something so many people can identify with and want to be a part of, it's really kind of mind-boggling. I'm so touched by the generosity of strangers."

A bicycle clothing company in Minnesota, Twin Six, joined the fight and has designed a series of jerseys, shirts and other Fat Cyclist gear, with proceeds donated to Nelson's fundraising efforts. When Susan's cancer returned with a fury, Twin Six created a special pink jersey to support the fight and the jersey typically sells out in a matter of days. The 2010 models went on sale this week at twinsix.com.

"It always brings a smile when I see total strangers out there wearing the jerseys," Nelson said. "It's just another testament, I guess, to how many people cancer affects."

Gary Fisher, a legendary bike maker, has been known to wear the Fat Cyclist jersey and is not shy about supporting the effort Nelson is behind and wears the jersey on occasion.

Lance Armstrong himself has mentioned Susan and Fatcyclist.com several times via Facebook or Twitter posts.

"I've never actually met Lance Armstrong or even talked to him," Nelson said. "But I know he's well-aware of us and to have his support has been great."

A couple of weeks ago, Nelson did something he didn't think was going to be possible.

He raced in the Leadville Trail 100.

Having completed the race 12 times previously, No. 13 appeared to not be in the cards because of Susan's condition — he couldn't stand the thought of leaving her for a weekend knowing there might not be many weekends left.

When she died, he made the decision to race the weekend after her funeral.

"I haven't had a lot of time to go for long rides," he said. "But I've been riding 'angry.' "

Nelson, as part of 100-mile mountain bike race, planned to ride as hard as he could and then limp across the finish line with whatever energy he had left after the brutal climbs on his single-speed Gary Fisher Sugarfly bicycle.

What happened wasn't expected — crashes rarely are.

While flying downhill on a paved and rain-slicked portion of the course, Nelson overestimated his turning ability and flew over the side of the road and down a 40-foot drop into a rocky ravine.

Amazingly, he had only some cut knuckles, a bloodied lip, and plenty of aches and pains — but no serious injuries.

After a dozen successful Leadville 100 races, Nelson's unlucky 13th ended in a crash.

Though Susan's fight with cancer didn't conclude with the storybook ending the thousands of anonymous "friends of Fatty" hoped and prayed it would, Nelson vows the fight is not over.

"I think of my daughters," he said of the identical twins, Katie and Carrie. "Their mother had breast cancer. Their grandmother had breast cancer. There's a pretty good chance, I figure, that they might get breast cancer."

Fatcyclist.com will likely return to its roots as a cycling-first blog, Nelson said, as the coming months are turned on the calendar. But the fight against cancer will not end.

"My fondest wish," Nelson said, "is that by the time they get to the age where they might have to worry about it, that they won't."

The Fat Cyclist, aka Elden Nelson

Where to follow him

FatCyclist.com

Twitter.com/fatcyclist

e-mail: jeborn@desnews.com

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