NORTH PARK — At an age when most of her peers are still mastering the art of balancing on two wheels, 7-year-old Elena Bloom is gearing up for a 25-mile ride.
Along with 10-year-old sister Miriam, mom Diane and father Michael — otherwise known as Team Udder Cowhoonas — Elena is taking part in the Respiratory Health Association's Cowalunga Bike Tour, Aug. 3-5.
The ride has been part of the girls' lives practically since the day they were born.
"Elena showed up at the start line when she was 3 weeks old," said Michael Bloom, who'll be riding in his 14th tour.
When his daughters were younger, Bloom pulled them along in a trailer but for the last three years, the girls have pedaled under their own power for the first 18 miles of the three-day, 190-mile ride, which winds its way through Illinois and Wisconsin.
This year, they're aiming to manage as many of Day One's 65 miles as they can.
The junior Blooms already have a 24-mile training ride along the North Branch Trail under their belt and have been practicing shifting their gears in preparation for Wisconsin's hills, said their dad.
Diane, who typically has picked up her daughters after mile 18, will be along for the ride as well.
"If you can't beat them, join them," she said.
The Cowalunga's support crew can give the youngsters a lift whenever they tire — a service adult riders often avail themselves of, too.
"They'll ride as much as possible," said Diane, who teaches fifth grade at the University of Chicago Lab School. "They'll probably do the beginning and end."
Michael Bloom originally became involved with the Respiratory Health Association after suffering from childhood asthma and "working hard as a young adult to get my dad to quit smoking."
A sustainability and green building program adviser for the federal government, he appreciates that the association not only funds research into lung disease but also lobbies for air quality.
Yet as much as he believes in the association's cause, what keeps him coming back to the Cowalunga trail year after year is that it's become a family affair. His children fell in love with the ride, he said, and consider their fellow adult cyclists friends.
Elena has been the youngest competitor two years running in Hustle Up the Hancock, also sponsored by the Respiratory Health Association, simply because she wants to hang out with her Cowalunga pals, said her dad.
As a family, the Blooms have pledged to raise $3,300 for respiratory health as part of the ride, soliciting support online but also raising funds the old-fashioned way — through lemonade stands.
Just days before the race, the girls set up a stand outside Kids Playing Camp, which they attend at Northeastern Illinois University, just across the street from their home.
Drinks were on camp director Kathy Chuckas, who sprung for a round for everyone, and the Blooms' tip jar quickly filled to the brim with donations.
As he watched his daughters pour cup after cup of pink lemonade, Michael Bloom speculated on a future of riding with his girls as they grow older, perhaps the RAGBRAI in Iowa or a cross-country tour.
The youngsters seemed up for the challenge.
Said Miriam, "I want to learn how to go farther, faster."
To support the Bloom family, donations will be accepted online through September.