Worcester, Mass.
April 28, 1996

Charity fund-raisers go head-to-head

By Lynne Tolman

   Which affects more bicyclists: AIDS or cancer? That's a multimillion-dollar question in Massachusetts this season as two giant fund-raising bike tours compete for riders.

   The Boston-New York AIDS Ride, in its second year, is emerging as a serious challenger to the venerable Pan-Mass Challenge for cyclists' hard-earned pledge money. Last year, the AIDS Ride gave about $2.1 million to the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston and split about $2.2 million between the Community Health Project and the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, both in New York. The PMC donated about $3.5 million to the cancer-fighting Jimmy Fund.

   Both fund-raisers work the same way. Riders sign up to pedal from Point A to Point B for a worthy cause, with meals and mechanical support and places to stay overnight provided. The price is steep, but most of the money goes to charity, and riders can hit up other people to donate.

   For experienced cyclists or those who've bothered to get in shape, of course, going the distance with thousands of others with a shared do-good purpose promises to be great fun. So for cyclists and for charities, these rides are a win-win proposition.

   But of the thousands of people who are up to such feats of endurance, only a fraction will commit to the high fund-raising requirement of an AIDS Ride or PMC. And dozens of smaller bike rides for other charities take place throughout the season. So the biggies find themselves battling for riders' attention.

   Actually, the AIDS Ride organizers don't see it that way. "We're not competing with them (the PMC)," said spokesman Chris Robichaud. "There's room for everybody."

   Last year's numbers proved his point. While the AIDS Ride, new kid on the block, enrolled more than 1,700 riders in Boston and some 1,500 in New York, the Pan-Mass still increased its ridership to 1,715, in part by adding a one-day option from Boston to Bourne.

   About 10 to 20 cyclists even did both rides, according to Kathy Stevens, managing director of the AIDS Ride's Boston office.

   The AIDS Ride, which is scheduled for Sept. 5-8, doesn't see "serious cyclists" as its primary target market, Stevens said. "Thirty percent of the people who register don't even own bikes at the time," she said, "and 80 percent have never done any serious mileage." But people are drawn to the cause and the challenge, she said.

   "It's not really about cycling," Stevens said. "Sure, you need to train. But it's really about challenge and commitment. It's about building community, and breaking down stereotypes ... breaking down the thinking, 'Oh, I can't do this.' "

   The Pan-Mass, which will be held Aug. 3-4, also draws many new riders from the uninitiated. But once people invest in a decent bike and get a taste of two-wheel touring, they come back for more. PMC riders are at least 70 percent "alumni," organizers say, and they do the tour an average of four times. "So for every first-timer, there's another rider who's come back seven times," said founder Billy Starr.

   The AIDS Ride "is the first one in a long time that, in a sense, competes with us," Starr said. "Certainly nobody's ever come on with a bigger bang."

   But he's not unhappy about it. The AIDS ride "has introduced a whole new population to big-bucks fund-raising and long-distance cycling, and many of those people may migrate to the Pan-Mass," he said.

   About four out of five PMC riders have a loved one with cancer, Starr said. And if fighting AIDS is dear to a cyclist's heart, he added, remember that the Jimmy Fund's beneficiary, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, does AIDS research.

   The Boston-New York AIDS Ride is a sister event to the successful California AIDS Ride (June 2-8), a San Francisco-Los Angeles ride begun in 1994, and this year three other routes have been added: Orlando to Miami (May 17-19), Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. (June 21-23), and Twin Cities to Chicago (July 1-6).

   Start-up and marketing costs, such as the AIDS Ride's full-page newspaper ads, must run high. Of the approximately $7 million raised by last year's Boston-New York riders, some 61 percent went to the AIDS agencies. In contrast, the PMC, with its cadre of loyal volunteers and in-kind contributors, gave 90 percent of its take to the Jimmy Fund.

   The PMC also does a good job of getting free publicity. For example, adding a start in Boston last year proved convenient for the Beantown media to cover, said Starr, pleased with the mileage from an option chosen by only 125 riders.

   Organizers from either ride can put newcomers in touch with people nearby who have done their ride and can report firsthand on the quality of the route, the food, the mechanics and other support services. The only complaints I've ever heard about the PMC were about something no one can control: the weather.

   There's been some grumbling on Internet bike discussions about glitches in the first Boston-New York AIDS Ride, which was marred by rain and reports of gay-bashing violence. Stoplight-cluttered Route 1 in Connecticut was a poor route choice for such a mass of cyclists, especially without police assistance in managing traffic, and mechanics were overwhelmed with the number of bikes that were not roadworthy.

   But there have been glowing reports as well. And the organizers promise to learn from their mistakes. For one, the ride has been changed from 265 miles in three days to 300 miles in four days, so riders may have less trouble making camp by dark.

   By all accounts, the experience of a big charity ride is worth the effort. "Cycling is a fabulous sport, and there's a real growth curve to it. These are great causes, and you can't underestimate the spiritual growth that comes from helping others," Starr said. "It feels great."
Pan-Mass Challenge Boston-New York AIDS Ride
Telephone (617) 449-5300 (617) 869-8282
Dates Aug. 3-4 Sept. 5-8
Routes 2-day options: Sturbridge or Boston
to Provincetown (192 or 167 miles).
1-day options: Sturbridge or Boston
to Bourne (106 or 83 miles).
Boston to New York City 
(300 miles)
Lodging Dormitories Camping
Fund-raising minimum $1,000 ($500 for one-day ride) $1,500
Riders in 1995 1,715 3,270
Money raised in 1995 $3.9 million $7 million
Donations in 1995 $3.5 million donated to Jimmy Fund $4.3 million donated to
Fenway Community Health Center
and two New York agencies
Source: Pan-Mass Challenge, Boston-New York AIDS Ride

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