It doesn't take long to realize that there is something special about Freddie Hoffman. Whether it's his firm handshake, his intense stare when he meets someone, the cadence of his voice or the matter-of-fact nature of his words, it's clear that Hoffman will do whatever he sets his mind to.
Born with an oxygen deficiency to his brain, Hoffman entered the world with certain challenges most of us will never face. The sense of self-esteem, which might have been torn down by the cruelty of children on the playground, came back a pedal push at a time once Hoffman discovered the freedom he could have on two wheels.
"Other boys didn't accept me, so I turned to my bicycle as a brother, companion and even a playmate and counselor," said Hoffman. It was something I could do on my own without the help of others."
Inspired by watching astronauts land on the moon, Hoffman realized at a young age that his limitations would keep him from becoming an astronaut, in the literal sense. So he decided to ride the distance to the moon (approximately 238,856 miles) on his bicycle.
Now 48, Hoffman long ago reached that goal. He said he's totaled 1.3 million miles, far enough to make it to the moon and back -- twice.
"I actually have a lifetime average of 81.4 miles per day over the past 41 years. My diary has recorded about 24,700 days riding and approximately 1,500 days that I entered zero that I didn't ride," Hoffman said.
He has taken thousands of photographs of places he has been. His travels have taken him across the United States more than 20 times, over all 48 contiguous states -- across mountain passes and deserts, through the smallest towns and the biggest cities, sometimes to the most desolate corners of America. "I've been on roads that are not even published on maps where I could go all day. ... I had one instance in Nevada where I rode 200 miles, and not a car passed me on the highway," he said.
Hoffman rides not for himself but for his mother and the 19 other relatives he has lost to leukemia and lymphoma, as well as everyone else affected by these diseases. Almost every summer he raises thousands of dollars through pledges from neighbors in his native New Jersey and friends he has made all over the country. There are no fancy colored wristbands, no marketing campaigns, just Hoffman going door-to-door. Last year, he reached almost 5,000 people.
Hoffman does admit to getting something out of it himself. "To go up on a mountain pass that is so high that I'm looking down on the clouds and know that I pedaled up that with my strength and determination -- there's just a special feeling of accomplishment," he said.
Hoffman has worked as a janitor at the same church for decades and spends most of his time taking care of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, but his burdens shift from his shoulders to his legs every day as he rides through life. Hoffman doesn't own a car, because he can't get a driver's license, but ironically enough, he has been nominated for an award recognizing outstanding human beings in the Volvo for Life program.
Hoffman's bicycle "rocket" that he built for himself is named after his mother, Ruth. He has worn through other rocket ships. He's on bike No. 4 now, and he rides so far and so hard that he wears through the teeth on the chain ring -- a collector's item that he gives to some of his longtime financial supporters. Hoffman has outfitted his bike with all sorts of gadgets, from altimeters to odometers to a radio. When he loads it with all his tools, supplies and gear, it weighs more than 100 pounds.
He rides with a confidence that slips past most of us. Hoffman continues to be a guiding star for those he inspires. He doesn't know where the end is yet, how many more miles he wants to ride or where he wants to go, but he credits some old-fashioned virtues that continue to propel him.
Hoffman said, "If you want to do something bad enough, even if it's improbably hard and very long, even if you have to do it one tiny piece at a time, stick with it. Don't worry about how long it takes and eventually you'll get there."