El Tour de Tucson

The start of Saturday’s Tucson Medical Center El Tour de Tucson presented by Casino del Sol will feel a little odd for Vincent Vernet.

He’s used to running 26.2 miles, not riding 106. Vernet finished his fifth straight Chicago Marathon last month.

Vernet joked that he’ll make it through the ride on stubbornness, not endurance.

Well, that and one very important thing.

Vernet and 119 of other riders from Rotary will take part in El Tour with the goal of eradicating polio. Rotary has been working on this goal since 1985. In that time, cases of polio have decreased by 99.9 percent. There were just 14 known cases this year — all in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Vernet, who is Rotary’s Director of Digital and Publishing, will be adding a twist to this year’s ride. He will live-stream his ride on Periscope and post updates on Rotary’s Twitter feed.

“We’re using innovative technology to tell our story,” Vernet said. “We’ve gone down the path of trying to build empathy for causes and have three films completed, yet this is our first attempt to show the commitment and camaraderie from our ride in real time with streaming.

“These are just more ways to immerse ourselves in the community and for the community to see what we are doing to eradicate polio.”

Vernet and his team tested different cameras before choosing the Garmin VIRB 360, an action camera built for sports that had the best image quality and captures the action in real-time 4K. They will also use a Virtual Realty camera. Both will be mounted to Vernet’s bike.

Vernet will take advantage of the rest stops along the route to upload footage and catch his breath.

“The approach will be getting a lot of pre-ride content, some content throughout the race and at the end celebrating the success of the ride,” Vernet said. “I will be filming and my goal is to capture as much of the team as I can. We can’t predict the connectivity with so many people on the ride route. So we have the option with the hotspots to pause and switch over if the connection drops or is not available.”

Rotary’s El Tour team includes riders from Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Tucson and Evanston, Illinois — the Chicago suburb is home to Rotary’s global headquarters. A handful of the 120 riders are polio survivors.

Vernet is one of the team’s few novice riders. He’s received advice from, among others, Rotary general secretary John Hewko.

“Two years ago, we had a woman who had never ridden a bike more than two miles,” said Hewko, who will be riding in his sixth El Tour — and his first with an artificial hip. “She did all 106 miles and raised more than $100,000.

“I give the same advice to all riders: get on the bike and ride and do the best you can. We’re not trying to break land-speed records. We have varying abilities of riders. The goal is to ride it.”

Rotary became involved in El Tour nine years ago as a way to raise money — a pledge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offered to match $2 for every $1 dollar collected. Since then, Rotary has raised $35 million for their PolioPlus fund.

“We would get checks from friends and family — and when John started riding with his global reach, we started getting checks from countries,” said Tucsonan Gary Hirsch, the Rotary chair for this event.

“It just super-charged our fundraising. With the Indoor Ride, people around the world can hop on a bike and ride for a few minutes. And with others having bike rides at different times as much of the world can’t hop on a bike outside in November. All of this planted a seed around the world.”

Vernet sees Rotary’s impact. And Saturday, he’ll get to share it digitally.

“To do what we can through technology and storytelling to share our success drives me to participate in the story of Polio eradication — the epic impact on the children of the world,” he said.

Hirsch knows all too well the drive to do whatever he can to make a difference.

Hirsch was struck by the flu on his first El Tour day as Rotary chair. Hirsch’s wife urged him to stay home.

“But, when you’re leading something like this, you have to be there,” he said. “At every rest stop I was eating antihistamines. And I kept telling myself, one more mile for 10 more kids who will never have to worry about being disabled. That’s what it is all about.

“Imagine waking up in a few years thinking polio is gone, and I helped.”