Worcester, Mass.
April 30, 1995

Charity rides proliferate

By Lynne Tolman

    Cynical cyclists call them the "disease and body parts" rides. Diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart, lung -- you name it, there's a charity trying to beat it or save it, and they're all raising money via bike rides.

    Bike riders are asked to solicit donations, per mile or flat sums, and pedal away. Most charity rides offer plenty of support on the road -- mechanical help, food and drinks -- and post-ride celebrations and goodies like T-shirts. Lodging tends to be low-budget: camping or dorms.

    Fund-raisers flourished in the late 1980s, but then ridership began to drop as competition heated up for a limited market, according to Tim Kneeland of Seattle, who has run fund-raising bike tours since 1980.

    "It's not a dying breed, but it's a constricting breed," Kneeland said. He predicts a shakeout.

    Cyclists who develop a thirst for long-distance touring, but not for putting the touch on all their friends and acquaintances, soon find out there are many organized rides that cost little or nothing. Hence the jaded reaction to the proliferation of charity rides.

    But a well-supported tour, whether it's a 25-miler or a weekend getaway or a cross-country trek, can be just the challenge to turn a casual pedaler into an avid cyclist.

    It was a 50-mile fund-raiser for Alternatives Unlimited Inc. in Northbridge in 1986 that really got me going. I had been riding an ill-fitting 10-speed short distances a couple of days a week, avoiding hills. But I finished the Alternatives ride feeling good, and that gave me the confidence to try a ride with the Seven Hills Wheelmen. Club members were supportive, and I was hooked.

    I've ridden a few fund-raisers since, and easily exceeded the $2,500 requirement for a Maine-to-Florida tour that benefited the League of American Wheelmen and Literacy Volunteers of America. But the cause or the route has to be very compelling to get me to ask for big money again. Would my friends and co-workers pony up another time, knowing that their donations are also a gift to me, a nearly free vacation?

    Bike-a-thons foster a negative image of cycling, Sheldon C. Brown of Newton writes in the Charles River Wheelmen's newsletter this month. Per-mile pledges imply that cycling a long distance is "a painful, unpleasant chore," Brown writes, rather than healthful fun.

    "Too many well-meaning people sign up for a long pledge ride without an adequate mileage base, with substandard cycling skills and equipment. These people will 'learn' that cycling is about pain, exhaustion, saddle sores, sunburn, aching knees and stiff necks. An experience like this can turn a potential cyclist off for life," Brown writes.

    Charities find that the market for their bike rides consists largely of newcomers to biking and loyalists to their cause, as opposed to "hard-core cyclists," Kneeland said. About one in three riders on American Diabetes Association bike tours are "veterans," said spokesman Rick Reilly.

    The popular Pan-Mass Challenge, which has grown since 1980 to 1,500 riders who raised $2.8 million for the Jimmy Fund last year, draws "70 percent alumni," according to finance director Al Cote. The two-day ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown has about 800 cyclists signed up already despite a steep fund-raising requirement of $1,000. But the PMC must keep evolving to attract new riders, Cote said. This year, a one-day option from Boston to Bourne targets a new market.

    Established charity rides have heavy-hitting competition this year from the new Boston-New York AIDS Ride, whose full-page newspaper ads are reeling in the riders. The AIDS riders have to raise $1,200 apiece for a three-day camping tour. That's more than double what they would pay for a three-day bed-and-breakfast trip with a for-profit company like Vermont Bicycle Touring or Backroads.

    The PMC's reputation is buoyed by low overhead. More than 90 cents of every dollar raised goes to the charity. Charities meet Better Business Bureau guidelines if that figure is at least 65 cents, and the big players on the bike scene all qualify: National Multiple Sclerosis Society, American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

    For cyclists who hate to solicit pledges, some tour operators have another option: Pay your own way. For Kneeland's cross-country trek, for example, you can raise $6,000 for the charity of your choice; the charity pays Tim Kneeland & Associates a fixed fee of $2,750 and keeps the rest. Or you can just pay TK&A $3,050 out of your own pocket.

    Kneeland said one in four riders chose pay-your-own-way when he first offered the option two years ago, and now more than half go that route.

    Still, Kneeland believes that for worthy causes, there are plenty of donations out there for the asking. What isn't guaranteed is enough bicyclists willing to do the asking.

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