With a rising sun overhead and a cool breeze behind them, roughly 4,000 cyclists set off Saturday morning on the first day of the Pan-Mass Challenge in hopes of raising $52 million to fund cancer research and patient care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
For the first time since 2019, cyclists gathered in Sturbridge and Wellesley for an early morning start, with the first finishers dismounting their bikes around 10:30 a.m. at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, 110 miles from the Sturbridge site. Ongoing COVID concerns meant that the ride looked a little different this year, but organizers said the enthusiasm remained the same.
“As people pull off, they’re sweaty but smiling,” said Jarrett Collins, Pan-Mass’s chief operating officer, who spent his morning at the lunch stop outside Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School in North Dighton.
Solo riders, pairs, and teams of five or 10 milled about with grab-and-go lunches — a pandemic-era shift from the usual sit-down lunch — some masked and most decked out in custom hats and shirts. Collins pointed out a cluster of Tigger-themed helmets bobbing across the grass, while elsewhere, a group of riders wore pink and green “Team Kermit” jerseys in honor of a cancer patient who died and had adored the Muppet character. In addition to energetic volunteers, riders were cheered by the lyrics from classics by Journey, Springsteen, and U2.
Earlier in the day, Collins oversaw the Wellesley start at Babson College to ensure that pandemic precautions went off without a hitch. Group bus transportation and overnight accommodations at the Maritime Academy had to be canceled due to COVID, and the big kickoff replaced with a rolling start that “worked to perfection,” he said.
“We didn’t want 4,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder for 20 minutes while we played the national anthem, maybe gave a couple speeches,” he said. So instead, volunteers gave cyclists an hourlong starting window and told them, “When you arrive, park your car, fill up your water bottle, and just roll out at your convenience.”
One of the largest athletic fund-raisers in the country, according to Collins, the Pan-Mass Challenge drew about 6,000 registrations this year, bringing the number of bikers close to pre-COVID numbers.
In addition to riding for a good cause, Collins said the challenge presented an opportunity for cyclists to remember loved ones, connect with old friends, and spend the day with new ones.
“For people who have lost someone to cancer, it’s a very cathartic and healing experience, and a way for them to publicly mourn that loss, but also to do something about it,” he said.
Taylor Chinitz spent Saturday preparing to ride Sunday’s 100-mile Wellesley Century with her father, sister, and boyfriend. The 26-year-old Newton resident said that her entire family normally bikes both days, but opted to ride just the Sunday route this year because of the pandemic.
“We’ll definitely be back to doing the two-day next year, and I’m sure my mom will rejoin us,” she said in a phone interview.
This year marks Chinitz’s eighth Pan-Mass Challenge, but her reason for riding changed dramatically when she was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2018.
“I was lucky enough to be diagnosed with a cancer that had many different treatments. I actually went to the third line of treatment myself,” she said, adding that she felt acutely aware of the thousands of other cancer patients who didn’t have the same treatment options she did. “What’s motivating me to continue doing this is to make sure everyone has the same chance that I have to come out on the other side.”
After a two-year battle, Chinitz received the call in early September 2020 that she was in remission. This year, she’s raising more than $16,000, a portion of which she’ll set aside specifically to help fund a blood cancer or lymphoma lab.
Sunday’s big finish will take place in Provincetown, where a recent COVID cluster resulted in 900 infections in July. However, PMC founder and executive director Billy Starr underscored that Provincetown’s positivity rate has dramatically decreased since the height of infection, and said volunteers and riders are taking every precaution to keep one another and the community safe.
Starr said that this year’s Pan-Mass Challenge “spread people out over 370 miles and 46 towns on 16 routes.” As a result, Provincetown’s usual event crowd of 5,500 people is tapered to 1,500. “If people aren’t comfortable riding to P-Town, they shouldn’t,” he said, adding that cyclists haven’t voiced any concerns.
The last rider rolled in at 7:09 on Saturday evening, closing the day with a total of over $42,780,300.