Tour de Force

This summer, a Pitt postdoc will take his cancer-fighting efforts out of the lab and into the streets to embark on an epic 2,000-mile bike ride through France that’s funding leukemia research.
Photography by
Tom Altany

A photo illustration of neon lights surrounding Ian MacFawn riding his bike

In his favorite golden-hued daydream, Ian MacFawn is biking across the French Alps, pumping his legs through the burn, bowing his head against the breeze and drawing on all his reserves of willpower. His fellow cyclists surround him, packed tight like a honeycomb, so close he can feel their drift and hear their grunts of effort. Together, they climb.

This scene won’t stay a daydream for long. In June, MacFawn will join 21 other amateur cyclists from around the world to take on The Tour 21, a grueling 2,115-mile-long biking challenge over the same Tour de France racecourse the professionals will tackle a week later. Their objective isn’t just athletic glory. MacFawn and the others are raising over $1 million for Cure Leukaemia, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit connecting people with blood cancer to potentially lifesaving treatment options.

His enthusiasm for the cause is two-fold. As a cancer cell biologist working with Pitt’s Department of Immunology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, he analyzes the disease at the cellular and genetic level. His work helps lay foundations for new treatments that will eventually go to trial — the same kind of trials organizations like Cure Leukaemia help fund.

His interest is also personal. Just a month before he learned about the race, his uncle died of a rare blood cancer.

“I just thought: I love research, I love biking, I love the tour,” MacFawn says. “I want to do this and dedicate my ride to him.”

It is a thrill — an honor, really — to have even been chosen to participate, he says. But at first, the magnitude of the work ahead gave him pause. Joining The Tour 21 means committing to nearly a year of intense training, five weeks off work and six to eight hours of cycling per day for 21 days — intimidating feats, even for a former Division I college track and field athlete like MacFawn. Plus, each cyclist is tasked with fundraising at least $36,000 for Cure Leukaemia. Ultimately, encouragement from his wife, Lauryn, and his abiding dedication to cancer research gave him the confidence and motivation needed to take on the challenge.

As his training intensifies, the scientist-cyclist is feeling excited, if a little apprehensive. He fears flat tires, rain and “getting hungry with 25 miles to go in the day.” But it helps to know his parents and wife will be there cheering him on. After he crosses the finish line at the Arc de Triomphe, they’ll all celebrate with a four-night stay in Paris.

But the real win, MacFawn says, will be knowing he’s part of a team helping to move cancer research forward, both inside the lab and out on the course.

“I’m humbled to be able to help people in my field in this way,” he says. “Anyone who studies cancer feels like a colleague.”


This story was published on March 13, 2023. It is part of Pitt Magazine's Spring 2023 issue.