Over 2,100 people sped into an orchestra of cowbells, excited screams of family members and pop music last Saturday at the ninth annual Closer to Free Ride, one of the state’s largest cycling events.
Members of the New Haven community gathered at the Yale Bowl at 6:45 a.m. for the event’s opening ceremony. Participants then embarked on 10, 25, 40, 65 or 100-mile routes throughout Connecticut. Every participant was required to raise at least $500 to fund patient care and research at the Smilow Cancer Hospital and the Yale Cancer Center, although the average rider raised over $1,200. Corporate sponsors of the event included Bank of America, the New England Brewing Company and the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop. Deepti Pradhan, the co-chair of the Patient Family Advisory Council at Smilow and a breast cancer survivor herself, emphasized the broader impact of the funds.
“All the money we raise goes [toward] patient care and research,” Pradhan told the News. “Although the funds will be used in Smilow, any findings … have a global impact because they can be replicated and applied elsewhere.”
The event has raised $15 million over the past nine years. Money raised at this year’s event will help fund Smilow’s survivorship clinic, which provides cancer survivors with resources including nutrition counselling, physical therapy, a social worker and an oncologist. Funds raised at the event will also support the hospital’s cancer genetics and prevention program and its phase one clinical trials, which evaluate novel cancer therapies for patients who do not respond to regular treatment.
Teren Basel, who works in the Yale New Haven Hospital Office of Development, has been involved since the race’s inception in 2011, when only 250 riders participated. When asked what sparked its founding, she pointed to the influence of former physician-in-chief Tom Lynch, and Smilow Vice President of Development Kevin Walsh.
“It was a number of people that came together at Smilow,” Basel said. “They talked about an opportunity to do something to raise money for research and patient care needs.”
Since then, support for the ride has grown exponentially, attracting over 2,150 riders and many more volunteers and supporters this year. The ride is open to all levels of experience, attracting professional bikers and amateur riders of all ages.
Maura Harrigan, a dietician for Smilow’s survivorship clinic who rode in the 25-mile race, trained for six months leading up to the event. Decorating the back of her shirt were the names of 65 women in active treatment. Harrigan, who had competed in the race for the past six years, rode alongside two other women this year.
“We’re all in our sixties so the unofficial name of our team is ‘Old Girls on Bikes,’” Harrigan said. “We ride for all those who can’t ride. I’m riding in honor of my sister, who passed away from breast cancer, and for all these names [pinned onto her shirt].”
But it was not just cyclists who felt the impact of the event. For Ruth Rose — a fiver-year breast cancer survivor who could not cycle this year due to a recent surgery — cheering people on is just as much fun as riding.
“It’s everything everyone does: the camaraderie [and knowing] that we’re all in it together,” said Rose. “As soon as you talk about it you realize that cancer has touched the lives of so many people but there are a lot of survivors. We’re celebrating that and we also really need to find a cure so people don’t go through it.”
Rose is a member of the 15-rider team “Wishes Do Come True,” which raised $12,000 in total this year, far exceeding the $500 per person requirement. The team donned matching helmets with pink flamingos as a symbol of the Van Wilgen’s Garden Center, which is hosting its own 5K running race on Oct. 6 to benefit Smilow.
Rose’s friend and teammate Lorie Van Wilgen, who cheered for her husband from the sidelines, emphasised how the Closer to Free Ride is a great way to foster support and solidarity among those whose lives are affected by cancer. Her husband, a two-time cancer survivor, was treated for male breast cancer and acute myeloid leukemia at Smilow 18 years ago.
Volunteer Ally Brooks stressed the importance of community in executing an event as impactful as Closer to Free Ride.
“At the crux of this bike ride is the community of people around it, not just people that were touched by cancer, but people who want to help,” she said. “The environment of the people around here is always hopeful. Even in the face of cancer or possibly losing somebody to cancer, they find hope in the community that surrounds this bike ride.”
The community’s support for Closer to Free Ride was not just limited to the vendors, riders and volunteers. Also aiding the effort was the New Haven Police Department, which maintained public order and stopped traffic along the race routes. Roads throughout Connecticut were either fully or partially shut down for the race, with motorcycle escorts guiding the 10-mile race.
Next year’s Closer to Free Ride will also be held in September.
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Correction, Oct. 23: A previous version referred to Deepti Pradhan as “Pranham.” This has been corrected.