By Michael and Deborah Billoni
We ran into many avid bicyclists on Saturday, June 27, before, during and after the 20th annual Ride for Roswell. They were complaining about Mother Nature predicting so much rain that the weather bureau issued flood warnings through Sunday.
We have a different opinion.
We believe God sent the rain with a message for the record 8,000 riders on 750 teams and 2,000 volunteers who collected a record $4.5 million for researching a cure for these deadly diseases they call cancer. We are sure God was happy to see the Western New York "Region of Great Neighbors" come together like this for one cause - ending cancer. However, he added torrential, steady downpours to the mix so every rider and volunteer could be inconvenienced throughout the day for a simple reason: Everyone who rode, volunteered or supported the riders would now know how the millions of adults, seniors and children who suffer from cancer feel every minute of every day.
Love and hope were certainly in the air Friday evening in the University at Buffalo football stadium when the Ride for Roswell officially began with a powerful and unforgettable "Celebration of Hope." It was so heartwarming to see families and friends come together to share their stories of hope with the optimism their words could help another family persevere through the trials and tribulations of taking care of a family member or friend who heard the words "You have cancer."
The Ride For Roswell is an amazing fundraiser and everyone connected with the hospital must be congratulated for spearheading this wonderful effort. Over the past two decades, no event has done more for the fight against cancer in WNY. Since its humble beginnings in 1996 through founder Mitch Flynn, The Ride has changed and grown. But throughout its history, there has been one common theme: hope.
While we slept Friday evening, the ride captains
were in constant communication with
event officials. Based on the National Weather Bureau reports, the two long-distance rides were cancelled and the riders were encouraged to join other rides, which they did. Riders received text messages, emails and website weather updates throughout the early morning.
Between 6 and 7 a.m., riders of all ages, shapes and sizes arrived at the starting line at the UB North campus and, for the first time, a starting line was set up at Roswell for a 40-mile Canadian route and a 26-mile Canalside ride. We chose the latter. It was so exciting to arrive at Roswell and interact with so many wonderful, positive and friendly Western New Yorkers. The reality that rain would come did not keep anyone away. And from our years of attending bad-weather Bills' games, we all knew how to dress appropriately.
Campus Wheelworks, located in the Elmwood Village, had its shop set up under the tent and the volunteers helped cyclists with last-minute needs for the ride.
"Our shop has always supported the Ride for Roswell, even before I worked here," said Ethan Johnson, co-owner of Campus WheelWorks, 744 Elmwood Ave. "Mitch Flynn, the founder of the ride, is a longtime friend and customer of the shop. So, in the early years, I'm sure that was our connection.
"My first ride was in 2002. Since then, the ride has grown exponentially and is a major community event for a very important cause that has touched nearly everyone in some way.
"Investing ourselves 100 percent is a no brainier. Being able to fix a flat or repair a bike on the road so someone can complete a ride they are doing to support a loved one is incredibly rewarding. It's just a small part of all that goes into making the Ride for Roswell the success it is, but it is our part."
It was at Campus Wheelworks where we ran into Bull, a disc jockey on WEDG 103.3-FM "The Edge," and the host of a local sports call-in show on AM 1270. He was all fired up about the Sabres' draft and trades from the night before. He got real serious when we asked him why he was riding.
"For everyone in this building," Bull said, pointing toward Roswell Park Cancer Institute. "And for everyone who is suffering from or recovering from this horrible disease. It's the least I can do."
After some inspirational words about survivors and how funds raised through The Ride go toward research by the Roswell team, we listened to the National Anthem before thousands of riders took off toward Main Street and headed left to the refurbished waterfront.
A huge "Thank you" goes out to Mayor Byron Brown and his police and public works commissioners for the wonderful job they did in marking the city streets and having police at every intersection to ensure everyone's safety.
Along with knowing what a great good deed we were doing for cancer research, Deb and I were both riding in the memory of a parent: Deb for her mom; me, on my 60th birthday, for my dad, along with a list of other family and friends who have either passed on, are suffering or are in recovery of cancer.
Together we yelled, "Thank you, Terry and Kim Pegula" as we rode past the impressive HARBORCENTER facility, and we marveled at how beautiful Canalside is and how impressive the two ships and a submarine are at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.
As we rode along the Buffalo bike path, we came across Bruce from Newfane, who suffered a partially ruptured disc in 1988, and now can only ride an adult recumbent terra trike.
"This is such a great cause and, since I have overcome three cases of skin cancer, I had to make this ride," he said.
One of the 2,000 volunteers was Cynthia Schwartz, a Roswell Park employee who has been involved with each of the 20 rides "in heat, cold, wind, rain and even the occasional perfect summer weather," she said.
Schwartz has handled many responsibilities over the years, but her favorite is route guide, which she did Saturday along the bike path.
"The energy and spirit of the riders is contagious - young and old; experienced bikers and those riding with their friends; multigenerational family groups riding for loved ones and company teams riding to support Roswell's treatment and research programs," she said.
"This ride and the day is so reflective of the Buffalo community: Friends and neighbors coming together to support a worthy cause and enjoying a great party afterwards," Schwartz added. "This year, with the cooler-than-normal temperature and rain, there was a bonding that seemed to be taking place among the riders as they endured often heavy rain and winds. They were determined to fulfill their obligations to those who had sponsored them - an 'all for one and one for all' camaraderie that made the day fun, despite the conditions."
As we hit the midway point of our 26-mile trek, we met a volunteer at an intersection just before we entered the parking lot of Praxair in the Town of Tonawanda. He was Mike, a 37-year-old North Tonawanda resident, and this was his first Ride for Roswell. His mom, Barbara, who smoked two packs of cigarettes for most of her life, died 24 days before The Ride after being diagnosed with lung cancer only 50 days earlier.
"I will volunteer at Roswell and for this ride for the rest of my life, if it can help save just one person's life," Mike said. His message for smokers was simple: "Quit." And for those who don't smoke: "Please, don't start."
Praxair, a leading worldwide manufacturer of industrial gases, employs 1,100 at its sprawling Town of Tonawanda complex. Along with being a corporate sponsor of The Ride and providing a team of riders, many of its employees manned a huge rest area tent with plenty of beverages, fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, coffee and snacks. They also manned "Dave's Bike Shop" where Chris Power and Jerry "Tin Man" McCann took care of the rider's needs.
"Tin Man" volunteers every year in memory of his mom, who passed from cancer at 57, and his sister, who died at 34 because of this disease.
"Cancer is my worst enemy," "Tin Man" said as he filled a rider's bike tires with air.
Karen Ginnane, site director at Praxair for the past eight years, was so proud as her team assisted many riders who stopped at the rest stop. "This is such a labor of love for our team, because everyone knows someone with cancer. We are just trying to do our small, little part, but it is extremely exciting for our team to assist Roswell Park in this small way," she said.
Jay Baumann, who is entering his senior year at Lancaster High School, was riding with many of his classmates. "My mom had breast cancer two years ago and she is now in recovery. We are riding for her," he said at the Praxair stop.
As we continued on, we met Tricia Thompson from Grand Island, who dedicated the ride to her mom, Babe Bonnes, who is a survivor of breast cancer and in her second year of being cancer-free. Trish screamed out, "I love you mom."
One of the more interesting riders we met was Jim Gordon, UB's lead program analyst for the past 20 years. This was his first year riding, and he was capturing every moment through a video camera attached to his helmet.
"I am riding for a whole bunch of reasons," he said. "My wife and sister both have cancer, and UB promotes the event quite heavily throughout the school. I want to capture the entire event on video."
As we began the final 12 miles of the journey, the rains came and, wow, did it rain! But you know what? We persevered and just kept peddling. We thought about the reasons we were riding, our family and friends who have had cancer, and that gave us all the inspiration we needed to finally reach our destination: "Tent City" behind UB's Alumni Arena.
Tents from every major company in the area were set up, the music blared and everyone had a great time - despite the constant downpour.
We were riding for the Tops Friendly Markets team, a Big Wheel Sponsor for the second year. Our captain, Kate Schrum, had been at UB since 4 a.m., after working 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Like everyone else, her smile was ever present.
"Despite the severe weather circumstances, everyone at Roswell Park pulled together for another unbelievable ride," she said. "Nothing can stop these dedicated riders."
Schrum had made arrangements for all the extra food and beverages from the tents to be donated to the Food Bank of Western New York. The Food Bank had a truck on site and it was represented in the ride by myself and President/CEO Marylou Borowiak and her husband, Darrell. Frank Curci, Tops' CEO, rode and is a member of the Food Bank's advisory council and a former board member. Kevin Darrington, Tops' chief operating officer, who also rode, is the treasurer of the Food Bank's board of directors.
"None of the food or beverages will be wasted, because the Food Bank staff will take it back, put the perishables in the refrigerator, and then distribute it to selected agencies next week," Schrum said.
Carole Bluestein, an employee of the Gross Shuman Brizdle & Gilfillan PC, has been a volunteer under the firm's tent for many years. "Despite all the rain, everyone had a great time, because they know what they just did is supporting a great cause," she said while her husband, Gary, also worked as a volunteer in their tent.
Although $4.5 million was raised through Saturday, fundraising continues through Aug. 11. Anyone wishing to donate to our ride can visit www.rideforroswell.org, click "donate," and enter "Deborah Billoni" under rider. We thank you in advance for your assistance. Cash and check donations may also be mailed to: Roswell Park Foundation, PO Box 644, Buffalo, NY 14240-0644. Just mention you are donating for riders Michael and Deborah Billoni.
The event's top adult fundraiser was John Conclardo; the top youth was Luca Comaratta; and the West Herr group was the top team.
"The Ride For Roswell is truly one of WNY's feel-good events that everyone should participate in at least once to fully appreciate what a giving community we call home," Schwartz said.
I am sure God had to be impressed at so many people cycling in the rain with the hope a cure for cancer will be found. Thanks to everyone who donated, volunteered or rode. We will be back next year.
Michael J. Billoni is an award-winning sports writer and reporter. His work has appeared in the Tonawanda News, Buffalo Courier-Express and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. He is also the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons and Rich Baseball Operations. Mike is a freelance writer for Niagara Frontier Publications. He can be reached at [email protected]. Deborah Billoni is the director of finance and operations at the International Institute of Buffalo. She can be reached at [email protected].
The Ride For Roswell, the single largest fundraising event in Western New York, and North America's largest single-day cycling fundraiser, concluded its 20th year this past weekend by raising a total of $4.5 million for cancer research and patient-care programs at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
"Ride Weekend" involved more than 8,000 participants, 2,000 volunteers and countless other supporters, and the event once again set a fundraising record. In 1996, the first Ride For Roswell had 1,000 riders who raised just over $100,000. Over the past 20 years, The Ride has raised more than $30 million for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and more than 80,000 riders and 20,000 volunteers have participated in the event.
"The money that is raised by The Ride For Roswell is critically important to our ability to find cancer cures and save lives," said Dr. Candace Johnson, RPCI president and CEO, and Wallace Family Chair of Translational Research. "Because of The Ride's success over the past 20 years, Roswell Park has made great headway in many areas of cancer research, including personalized medicine, cancer vaccines and immunotherapy. The funds that our participants raised this year will allow us to make even more progress, and will also help provide compassionate care programs for our 31,000 patients.
"The Ride also has so much meaning for patients, employees, cancer survivors and all those who have been touched by the disease. It's a chance to honor a loved one, to make a difference and to give hope to those who are fighting. We are so grateful for the support from the community that has allowed The Ride to be so successful and the important work at Roswell Park to continue."
The weekend began Friday with the peloton, a 12-mile route from Roswell Park to UB that is reserved for top fundraisers. The 200 peloton riders each raised more than $1,000 and passed a qualifying ride in order to participate. Before departing, the riders stood outside of RPCI with names of patients in their hands while reaching up to the hospital windows in a salute to cancer patients who were looking out. The peloton riders then rode in two-by-two formation from RPCI through the City of Buffalo and into UB Stadium as part of Roswell Park's "Celebration of Hope."
The "Celebration of Hope," a community-wide rally against cancer, included a mindfulness workshop for cancer survivors and their loved ones, family-friendly tailgate activities and an inspirational and emotional stage program featuring the arrival of the peloton and an Olympics-style procession of cancer advocates, researchers and cancer survivors. The night concluded with a concert by country music star and cancer advocate Kellie Pickler.
The Ride includes cyclists of all ages and abilities on routes ranging from 3 to 102 miles, weather permitting. As part of The Ride's 20th anniversary celebration, a second start line was added on Roswell Park's campus. Two new routes, including an international route to Canada, departed from the Roswell Park start line.