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For the past three years, Illinois veterans have gone on a 500-mile endurance cycling event from Cairo, Ill., to the western Chicago suburb of St. Charles in an event known as the Gold Star 500.

This year, the event is a virtual ride, with Gold Star Awareness Rides each weekend in September. Participants can ride individually at their own pace on a route of their choosing. So far this year, 51 riders have registered and completed 7,000 miles.

On Sept. 26, a group of cyclists will start gathering at 9 a.m. and be served breakfast before leaving the Gibson City American Legion at 10 a.m. for a 70-mile ride and return at 5 p.m. for a dinner. While the exact timeline has not yet been finalized, the tentative plan is for the route to take them up through Roberts and then stop at the 33rd Infantry Division Memorial just east of there on Illinois Route 54 before going down through Paxton for a quick stop at the fire department and then to the Lincoln’s Challenge Academy in Rantoul.

Stops are strategically chosen in places where there have been service members killed in action. Gold Star Mission publicizes that it will be coming through that community ahead of time, and during the stops, the fallen are honored. “We talk about the individuals and who they were,” Gold Star Mission President David Helfrich said. If loved ones are there, they are given the opportunity to speak as well.

Helfrich vividly recalls seeing signs of support all through the Paxton stop during the Gold Star 500’s first year. “I’ll never forget the flags going through Paxton and the fire trucks escorting,” he said. “There was a World War II veteran rendering a salute. It was awesome.”

Gold Star Mission Director of Operations Chuck Kitson said this year’s route will be primarily on back roads, with few main roads or gravel roads. Kitson said the last weekend of September is typically the group’s “big finale for the year,” as it coincides with Gold Star Mother’s Day.

“We have great support from our cyclists,” Kitson said. “It’s a great outpouring from the community.”

Helfrich agreed. “We’ve had large turnouts at each of our stops,” he said. “We’ve actually had more riders and supporters than ever before.”

Originally, the event’s purpose was to preserve the legacy and honor 34 service members of the Illinois Army and Air National Guard who were killed in the line of duty in support of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirty-four cyclists rode in order to raise funds and provide 34 academic scholarships in honor of the fallen heroes.

Public input encouraged Gold Star Mission to also recognize active duty service members. There are now over 280 Illinois service members who have been killed since the global war on terror began.

During typical years, members of the Illinois State Police have volunteered their time to serve as escorts. “We’ve got a fantastic partnership with them,” Helfrich said.

In its second year, the event was expanded to include the General Logan 200, a two-day, 200-mile cycling event from Chicago to Springfield. In its third year, it was expanded to include the Run for the Fallen, a running event in Rockford. “Each year we try to build on it,” Helfrich said.

Helfrich said the ride is therapeutic not only for family members of fallen service members but for the riders, who often know one of the people they’re riding for. “We’ve been told the great thing about our organization is it’s not such a sad event,” he said. “It’s a positive coming out of their loved one’s service.”

Since 2017, the organization has raised over $130,000 for scholarships. At the end of the year, Gold Star Mission holds a banquet where the scholarships are awarded, and survivors speak.

Registration for the virtual ride is open until the end of the month. Those who register can become part of Gold Star Mission’s community on Strava, a fitness tracking app, and are sent a cycling jersey. “We don’t expect everybody to do 500 miles,” Kitson said. “We’re glad to have them as part of our community.”

While some riders are current or retired military members, many are civilians. Last year’s participants included a Gold Star uncle from Colorado and a retired military service member from Hawaii who came to Illinois for the ride. “There are all different kinds of backgrounds,” Kitson said. “Some just love cycling.”

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