By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A legless cancer survivor from Poland who planned to hand-pedal himself across the United States was forced to delay the start of his venture on Friday after his custom-made tricycle was stolen from a San Francisco church, police said.
Authorities said the specially designed three-wheeler that Krzysztof Jarzebski, 53, intended to ride some 3,000 miles to New York City was valued at $13,000.
Someone drilled through the locked gate of the rectory of the Polish Church of the Nativity, where Jarzebski was staying, and snatched the cycle from the stairway on Thursday, police said.
Authorities and Jarzebski's doctor, who traveled with him from Poland to San Francisco, appealed for the thief or thieves to return the cycle so the double amputee could begin his planned 187-mile-a-day (300-km-per-day) trek.
"We're just praying for somebody to return this bike," the church's Reverend Tad Rusnak told Reuters. He said the Polish government paid for Jarzebski's trip and hoped he would establish a hand-pedaling record.
Dr. Waldemar Zgoda, the cyclist's physician and friend, described him as a "famous champion," a former paralympian and a one-time commander in the Polish navy. Jarzebski speaks no English.
"They stole not just his bike, but his dream," Zgoda said in a telephone interview.
If he remains without his special three-wheeler, the muscular, blond cyclist will alter his plans to tackle the cross-country trip in a series of smaller marathon treks in his wheelchair. One way or another, Zgoda said, Jarzebski intends to set out on Saturday morning.
"He wanted to be the first person in the whole world using the hand-bike to go across the United States from San Francisco to New York," Zgoda said. "It was his dream for so long. It took so many years."
He said the bike would be useless to anyone other than Jarzebski, who has undergone seven amputations, chemotherapy and radiation in his fight against bone cancer.
Jarzebski has hand-pedaled on other long-distance trips throughout Europe. A wheelchair manufacturer sponsored his ride from the Polish city of Lodz to London two years ago.
A few years ago, the bicycle of a San Francisco special-needs child was stolen and after a public plea it was anonymously returned, San Francisco police spokesman Albie Esparza said.
Authorities expressed hope for a similar outcome with Jarzebski's cycle.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Steve Gorman and David Brunnstrom)