John Hewko, general secretary of Rotary International, will ride Saturday’s El Tour de Tucson with nearly 100 other team members. The team has already raised $2 million to eradicate polio, which is $6 million after 2-to-1 matching from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. — Credit: Rotary International

John Hewko and nearly 100 Rotarians will take part in Saturday’s Tucson Medical Center El Tour de Tucson presented by Casino del Sol Resort.

And if you think that number’s big, consider this one: $6.9 million.

Rotary International raised nearly $7 million during last year’s El Tour, thanks in part to a partnership between the international charity and the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation. The Gates family matched every dollar raised 2 to 1, and will do so again Saturday, when the largest participatory sporting event in Tucson takes place. Rotary has already raised $2 million through this year’s race, said Hewko, the general secretary of Rotary International; that number grows to $6 million after Gates Foundation’s involvement.

The figure makes Rotary the largest fundraising organization in El Tour, which will feature nearly 7,000 riders covering four distances plus a handful of “fun rides.”

The Star talked to Hewko this week from his office in Evanston, Illinois.

On Rotary’s cause: “In 1985, Rotary — a nonprofit, not a government agency — got involved with polio. There were 350,000 cases a year. Today, there are two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — where the disease hasn’t been stopped. It’s down to 52 cases. … I tell people, ‘We’re all one plane ride away from the virus.’ ”

On the Gates partnership: “Seven years ago, the Gates Foundation joined the effort. Three years ago, Rotary signed an agreement: Over a five-year period, they match us 2-to-1 for every dollar we raise for polio. So far, we’ve raised $1.4 billion for polio.”

On how he got involved in El Tour: “Rotarians, we do two things: We raise money, advocate with governments and urge them to be serious and travel all around the world and vaccinate children. I was in Bangkok four years ago for a conference and ran into Rotarians from Tucson. They knew I was an avid cyclist and told me the Tucson Rotarians had started riding in El Tour to raise money for polio. They said, ‘Will you be willing to ride and help us raise money?’ We raised $250,000 that first year; the next year, we raised $723,000. Last year, we raised — with the Gates match — almost $7 million. This year, we have 91 Rotarians riding. We also have people doing the Indoor El Tour.”

On his times: “I’m doing the 104-mile race. I finished in 5 hours 5 minutes a year ago; my goal was to finish in under 5 hours.”

On how he trains: “I bike with a group of guys in Kenilworth (near Evanston). October and November can be really rough, which means you spend a lot of boring hours on the compu-trainer. This year, the fall has been very mild. I was able to get two hours in (Monday).”

On El Tour: “It’s a great ride, well-organized. I’m looking forward to riding. This will be my fourth year doing it. I’m looking forward to riding with almost 100 other Rotarians.”