Little Peyton Krasner has been through a rough time lately. Last summer he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor behind his left eye and it required months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
But bathed in beaming sunshine Sunday, the 7-year-old Rocklin boy was squeezed onto a humming motorcycle, his arms clinging tight around his father's waist, his helmeted head leaning on a sturdy back.
Father and son left their troubles behind and rolled onto Highway 49 in Auburn in a thick current of black leather and flashes of chrome, part of a wave of thousands of motorcycle riders revving through mountain communities to raise money for the boy's medical bills.
Peyton was the star of the 33rd annual Sweetheart Run, organized by longtime Auburn motorcycle shop owners Carlo and Emma Lujan. They predicted the fundraising ride would lure more than 2,500 enthusiasts out of winter hibernation.
"It's inspiring," said Peyton's mother, Kelly Krasner, watching the throng of riders straddling their idling bikes in the parking lot of the Lujans' store, C&E Auburn V-Twin. "For them to make this gesture, it's an honor."
She smiled to see her son at the center of attention. Seasoned riders – many with bushy gray beards, skull-decorated neck scarves and signature sunglasses – stopped to talk to the little guy with a big fight on his hands.
The Lujans also were dedicating the ride to the memory of their nephew Joe Pratt, who was killed in September in a vehicle accident caused by a distracted driver. They said they wanted to raise awareness about the dangers of using cellphones while driving.
The route took the flock of riders 32 miles from Auburn along surface streets and Highway 49 to the historic Georgetown Hotel, then south to Coloma for a barbecue and music.
Riders were charged $5 each, and commemorative pins were sold for $10, with all the proceeds going to the Krasner family.
"I've known the Lujans since I was 12 years old," said Peyton's father, Jason Krasner.
His father once worked for the shop as a service manager.
Kelly Krasner said her son came home from school one day in August with a puffy eye. Within days, the eye was almost popping out of its socket, and a biopsy confirmed the parents' fears.
Peyton has rhabdomyosarcoma, a rapidly growing soft-cell tumor that wrapped its tentacles around the nerves behind his eye.
He had six months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation.
A scan this week will tell the family if the treatment has licked the tumor or if Peyton needs more treatment.
Peyton, a youngster of few words, said he felt good Sunday.
Wearing his knit beanie, he was eager to get on the bike with his father, asking him repeatedly when it was time.
"He's excited because he found out there's a camp for kids with cancer, and Make-A-Wish (the foundation) has contacted him, so he's focusing on a lot of positive things," Kelly Krasner said. "And he's 7. It's amazing that he can go with it when we're the ones who are crying."