Gary Heinfeld was up early this past Saturday morning, getting in his last 80-mile bike ride before Tucson Medical Center 35th El Tour de Tucson presented by Casino del Sol, which kicks off at 7 a.m. this Saturday.

He likes taking a few of these long training rides to make sure he’s ready for the 106-mile trek that lies ahead of him.

While Heinfeld was not the only cyclist getting in a few last sessions over the weekend on the Loop from the Rillito to the Santa Cruz, he has been the top fund-raiser for Easter Seals Blake Foundation, the primary beneficiary of El Tour, the past three years.

Last year he raised $12,000 and hopes to exceed it this year. As of Nov. 1 he was a little shy of that mark. However, he’s found that most people don’t donate until the last few days leading up to the ride.

So, how does he do it?

“I think I have nice friends and colleagues who support me,” Heinfeld said. “I rely on emails; I put it in my signature block that I am doing El Tour for Easter Seals Blake Foundation and they can click and donate.

“Everyone sees it. I ask people to donate whatever they can. Any amount is appreciated. People donate from $20 to $1,000. These donations qualify for the Arizona Tax Credit, so for every $1 they donate they get $1 off their tax bill.”

All of this from a guy who didn’t even own a bike five years ago. Heinfeld was a runner, but he started getting injured a lot, tearing a meniscus and getting a hernia. His nephew, Chris Preston, who lives in Huntington Beach, California, and rides his bike to work every day, had spent a year trying to get him to take up riding.

Finally, Preston bought him a bike, and Heinfeld became a cyclist.

“I trained six to eight months for my first El Tour in 2014,” he said. “I got involved because of him and got hooked. I feel better as cycling has less impact on my body. I have fewer injuries and being outside is so nice. And, anytime you are doing it for a cause you feel better.”

Heinfeld has a connection to the Easter Seals Blake Foundation — a relative of his has used their services.

In addition, he was also touched personally by the primary beneficiary of his first ride, the Special Olympics. A relative and a friend in junior high school were involved in Special Olympics and sports were important to both of them. Heinfeld was the top fundraiser for Special Olympics as well.

On the course Saturday, you’ll see this native Tucsonan wearing his red Easter Seals Blake Foundation jersey. He will forever be grateful to his nephew for nudging him to get on a bike.

“El Tour was a bucket list item,” he said. “It’s a Tucson thing. I always wanted to do it and it started with my nephew.”