By Anthony Castrovince
The feet push the pedals, the gears begin to turn and the wheels begin to spin. Kinetic energy is created, and the journey toward a promised destination begins.
This literal bike ride—this act of balance and propulsion and movement through the rolling hills of Columbus—has a metaphorical application, as well. Because with each rotation of those wheels and each mile covered in Pelotonia’s annual cycling event, the destination of a cancer cure and a better life for millions gets a little bit closer.
Since 2009, Pelotonia participants have dedicated one weekend per year to this journey, riding routes ranging from 20 to 200 miles and committing to raising dollar amounts that correspond to those distances. In its first 12 years, Pelotonia raised more than $217 million for cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (The James).
Like a bike accelerating with the energy transferred from foot to pedal, Pelotonia has gathered momentum and become a key event each August, drawing riders from across the country.
“Cancer is such a negative journey for so many people,” says Pelotonia CEO Doug Ulman. “Pelotonia gave people a place to direct their energy, where they felt they were a part of something bigger.”
Personal stories of love and loss, survival and strength propel people toward Pelotonia’s magnetic mission, and the same is true of the organization’s leaders.
(Photo courtesy of Pelotonia.)
Three words changed the lives of both Ulman and Pelotonia President Joe Apgar when they were seemingly healthy college students: “You have cancer.”
With the help of good doctors and treatment advancements, Ulman, who was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma, and Apgar, diagnosed with testicular cancer, have overcome cancer. But they have never forgotten what it’s like to hear those words, giving them an empathy for those just beginning their own battle.
“It’s the worst day of your life,” Apgar says. “You use that to inform, to build an experience that can be the best day of a person’s life.”
That’s what Pelotonia aims to be. Those who ride get the thrill of accomplishment from navigating the course’s challenging routes and the satisfaction of having lent their legs to a worthy cause. Some tie their story to their ride.
Honoring those stories drives Ulman, Apgar and Pelotonia’s other employees to make the event as impactful as possible.
“We like to have a lot of fun at Pelotonia and have the community be engaged and inspired,” says Ulman. “But there’s an urgency to why we do this.”
Social media helps them inform that urgency.
“It provides people with a platform to share their stories and gives us a way to engage with individuals who are part of this broader community,” says Ulman. “When I started, we created newsletters and mailed them out. Communication was one way. Now we have back and forth engagement, allowing us to know their stories and support the community.”
(Photo courtesy of Pelotonia.)
Like so many other elements of our daily lives, Pelotonia’s route took a detour in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to stage a large gathering of bicyclists. And so, for the first time, the event went virtual. Dubbed “My Pelotonia,” it involved much more than bike rides.
“We gave people a choose-your-own-adventure challenge,” Apgar says. “People used it as a personal challenge to check something off their bucket list, and they shared that goal with their donor list.”
Goals included biking miles over the summer, playing holes of golf, walking miles per day, and making masks to help with the pandemic.
“The ones that were most inspiring were the ones that told a personal story though the activity,” Ulman says. “One individual rode 70 miles because their mom had traveled 35 miles each way to treatment. Another did 21 miles because that’s the number of stories in The James Cancer Hospital.”
The pandemic also changed how the organization collected funds in 2020.
“We changed our whole model,” says Ulman. “Previously, people made commitments and put their credit card down. One of the first changes we made was to get rid of commitments, because there was so much financial uncertainty. With our partners who fund our operations, we agreed that now is not the time to make people commit. That has resulted in lower fundraising but allowed more people to be involved than ever before.”
With restrictions lifting and the state of the pandemic improving, Pelotonia is planning a world-class, in-person event for August 2021, with tweaks to address health and safety concerns. But the virtual event in 2020, which attracted 11,000 registrants and raised $10.5 million, was a great testament to the adaptability and creativity of Pelotonia and its participants.
“I’m a big believer in building a community,” Ulman says. “So many people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That’s what Pelotonia is. It’s like in sports, where you get people in a stadium and they forget everything else and come together and root for their team. Pelotonia, in some ways, is that. It’s, ‘How do we solve something that impacts all of us and that none of us can solve on our own?’ Seeing the best of human beings is awesome.”