Cyclists feel connection to Pan-Mass Challenge

Cape Cod Times

By ABBY EISENBERG

August 04, 2013

BUZZARDS BAY — As Cheryl Gorman walked her bicycle away from the finish line of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge on Saturday afternoon, a photograph attached to the back of her riding jersey came into view.

It pictured Cindy Hogan, Gorman's son's best friend's mother, who lost her fight with lung cancer earlier this year at 56.

Gorman, who lives in Dedham and summers in Chatham, began riding in the challenge eight years ago to honor her niece's best friend, who died of leukemia when she was just a freshman in college.

"Unfortunately, it seems like every year we add more people to the list of who we're riding for," she said.

This year, it was Hogan, who worked as a nurse at Boston Children's Hospital for more than 30 years before she died. She left behind a husband, son and daughter.

Gorman joined thousands of bikers who rode Saturday in the 34th annual Pan-Mass Challenge, a charity bike-a-thon that donates money for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston through the Jimmy Fund.

She's a part of a group of eight Cape cyclists who train for the challenge during summers on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Three members of the group gathered Saturday afternoon after rolling through the first day finish line at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, where they were met by hundreds of cheering supporters who lined the entrance of the academy.

"It's so special," teammate Taylor Mills, an 11-year participant from Harwich Port, said of the event. "Almost everyone here has an emotional connection to the cause."

Most people are touched by cancer in some way, he explained — doctors found cancer in Mills' daughter's eye when she was just 11 months old.

This year's challenge drew 5,506 cyclists — including notable participant state Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich — from 38 states and five countries who joined together to ride up to 190 miles through 46 towns in Massachusetts.

In light of this year's Boston Marathon bombings, the event featured added security measures. State Police Bomb Squad officers used explosive sniffing dogs to examine riders' luggage and the general area before riders arrived. For the first year, volunteers were not allowed to bring bags onto the Mass Maritime campus, said Wil Carroll, a volunteer coordinator for the challenge. And as usual, only registered riders and volunteers were allowed into campus facilities, he said.

Cyclists set out from either Sturbridge or Wellesley early Saturday morning to a Day One finish line at the college, where they could celebrate with massages, barbecue, beer, live music and dancing. There, bikers who continued today could stay overnight before finishing the final 81 miles to Provincetown.

Despite the lively celebration Saturday afternoon, many Pan-Mass cyclists singled out the ride through Lakeville as a Day One highlight. That's where the Pedal Partners, or the children who were being treated for cancer at Dana-Farber, greeted the cyclists who rode in their honor.

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Pan-Mass cyclist Tom Hopkins. "If that can't get you motivated, I don't know what can."

Lying on the lawn before the entrance to Mass Maritime, Hopkins, of Natick, described how he trained for the challenge. He'd start his day with a 3:15 a.m. ride. Then, he'd hit the gym to lift weights and attend a spinning class, all before getting ready for work at 7 a.m.

Six years ago, doctors told Hopkins he wouldn't walk again after a botched hip replacement surgery left him paralyzed below his left knee. But he was determined to ride in the race Saturday after losing three friends to cancer in the last year.

"How many funerals are you going to go to before you try to push back a little?" he asked. "This was a chance to fight back in a different way."

Jennifer and Brigit Hogan, a mother-daughter duo from Farmington, Conn., sat on a nearby curb, recuperating after their jaunt. Brigit Hogan recalled watching Pan-Mass cyclists pass by her grandmother's house in Eastham every summer as a child.

"Those people are amazing," she recalled thinking. "I want to do what they're doing."

As the pair made the ride from Sturbridge on Saturday morning, Jennifer Hogan said onlookers thanked them, calling them heroes. She tried to correct them. "The real heroes are those going through cancer treatments and those who have passed away from the disease," she said.

The two, along with another cyclist from their Connecticut neighborhood, raised about $20,000 for the cause. Each participant was required to raise between $500 and $4,300, depending on the length of their chosen route.

Since its 1980 inception, the event has garnered $375 million for Dana-Farber. This year's fundraising goal is $38 million, which would bring the challenge's overall contribution to $413 million in its 34 years.

"It's an impressive organization," said Mills of Harwich Port. He and his crew from the Cape will raise about $30,000 this year.

His voice broke as he recalled the words of a speaker at the start of the challenge in Sturbridge: "When they write the book about finding a cure for cancer, the PMC is going to be the first chapter."