How charity groups held rides through the pandemic

In the world of bike races and rides, it’s understood that people will amass. Groups large and small will ride one or several routes, partaking in the road’s challenges and the camaraderie, as they pedal toward a common goal. 

COVID-19 threw this model out the window. In the era of social distancing, there would be no great gatherings of people. Cyclists simply could not share the road at the same time—the risk was too great. Understandably, charity bike rides had no user manual for how to proceed. 

If ever the mantra “we’ll figure things out as we go” became a primary operating principle, it was in 2020. And so it was with charity bike events in Wisconsin. 

COVID-19 cancelled virtually all spring and summer bike races and tours. Others soldiered on, holding events virtually with participants putting in the miles on their own. A few rides were charity events, like the Trek 100, Scenic Shore 150, Slow Roll and others. These rides responded in truly inspiring ways, proving once again how truly adaptive human beings can be.

A racer rides with a camera on his helmet and two American flags pulled on a trailer behind him.
2020 myTEAM TRIUMPH ride

Looking Back at 2020 

Each year, the UPAF Ride for the Arts, which originated in 1981 as the (Bob) Uecker Ride for the Arts, brings thousands of people to Milwaukee’s lakefront for five routes ranging from five to 70 miles. The proceeds benefit member groups and organizations like Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Repertory Theater and other  organizations. One of the state’s largest bike events, the UPAF ride quickly went virtual.

Katie Korek, public relations and digital media senior specialist with the UPAF Ride for the Arts, says the group originally intended to wait out the pandemic. But in April it was clear that UPAF couldn’t simply reschedule a 4,000-plus rider event, so they made a game-time decision to go virtual.

To pull it off, UPAF set up a contactless ride packet pickup location in downtown Milwaukee, that included event information and a T-shirt for each rider. For UPAF, it was a chance to appeal to noncyclists. “We encouraged people to walk, run, roll, whatever they could do to support the performing arts on that day,” Korek says. 

In 2019, the UPAF ride attracted 4,300 participants. In 2020, that number fell to just over 2,000 riders. But since it was a virtual event, expenses were down, allowing UPAF to net about the same profit as the previous year. 

A racer pushes hard and grimaces as he pedals.
2020 myTEAM TRIUMPH ride

“We have countless great photos that people submitted to us of their ride experience, which was very different,” she says. “It was a solo experience for them but they were still able to participate in some shape or form.”

The Scenic Shore 150, a ride from Mequon to Sturgeon Bay benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of the Upper Plains Region, responded much like UPAF. The two-day ride covers 150 miles (75 miles each day), with an optional century loop that allows riders to pedal 100 miles in a single day. After consulting with vendors, LLS opted for a one-day virtual ride on a Saturday in September. Instead of asking riders to bike the traditional route, LLS encouraged cyclists to find their own paths, even if that meant walking or running. 

“Participants did it successfully and we still raised quite [a lot] of funds,” says Jen Grandkowski, campaign development director of the upper plains region for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “Obviously it wasn’t as much as normal, but we still surpassed the $800,000 mark. Pretty good for a pandemic year.”

It wasn’t just the large charity rides that found success amidst the pandemic. The 2020 edition of the much smaller Bike the Barn Quilts Ride, which attracts about 300 cyclists each year to tour Shawano County barns decorated with painted quilt patterns, also adapted quickly to a socially distanced format. (Bike the Barn Quilts Ride benefits the Friends of Mountain Bay State Trail.)

Two cyclists take a selfie with a red barn in the background
2020 Bike the Barn Quilts remote ride

The organizers billed the virtual event as a “Wherever, Whenever, However.” Like both the Scenic Shore 150 and UPAF ride, it attracted out-of-state riders who wanted to participate in whatever way they could. Organizers gave participants the option to complete either a 40-mile bike ride or a 10K walk or run on their own time.

“My 95-year-old mom walked 13 miles to qualify for her 10K,” says Matty Mathison, an event organizer with the Bike the Barn Quilts Ride. “We had people participating from 17 states including Washington, Wyoming, Michigan, Massachusetts, Missouri, California and Mississippi. If they signed up and registered, we really believed that they would do the ride.”

Wisconsin’s myTEAM TRIUMPH, part of a national effort that benefits athletes with disabilities, took a much different approach for their second annual “12 Hours of Road America” ride. Held at the Road America race track, located on 640 acres of private land in Elkhart Lake, organizers concluded there was more than enough space for participants to socially distance. 

“We have one point of contact and that’s Road America,” says Christian Jensen, Executive Director of myTEAM Triumph Wisconsin. “So we worked to marry our respective policies to minimize risk and make people feel as comfortable as possible.”

“We did temperature checks at the gate, everyone got a bike rack and extra space for their camping area, and we spaced everyone out in the pit lane,” Jensen says. “We made sure that whatever changes we made didn’t take away from the experience.”

Two cyclists ride on an empty track at night.
2020 myTEAM TRIUMPH ride

Both before and during the event, organizers asked folks to stay home if they felt sick, or if they were worried about contracting COVID-19. Jensen says myTEAM TRIUMPH tried to empower people to minimize their risk. Despite the pandemic, the 2020 ride saw an increase from 300 riders in 2019 to about 400 participants, with Jensen saying more spectators attended in 2020 than the previous year.

“People thought it was awesome and were very thankful, appreciative, but also super respectful,” Jensen recalls. “Since it was 100% outside we didn’t demand that people wear a mask, but we did notify people where they would be close to others and encouraged them to spread out and wear masks. Some people wore masks and others didn’t, but everyone was really respectful because they were just happy to be out doing something.”

2021 and Beyond

Stephanie Ahrens, development and events director at UPAF, says the 2021 edition will look very different compared to 2020. The team began planning for 2021 last October. Since then, they’ve been working in lockstep with the health department to develop a “COVID-proof” concept.

UPAF is creating a three-part ride series, stretching it out over three weekends in June. The ride will kick off on June 6 at Veterans Park in Milwaukee County, then move to the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield for the second weekend on June 13. The series’ final leg is set for June 27 at Coal Dock Park in Port Washington.

“Your path, Your pace, Your reward”

“The tagline that sums up this experience is what we’re calling “Your path, Your pace, Your reward,” Ahrens says. UPAF will mail each participant a ride T-shirt and bike bib, which will be their tickets into the event. Riders will choose their own path and ride at their own pace, with special prizes that vary depending on respective participant fees. Each location will have reward stations and goodie bags for each rider, while local arts groups will perform live.  

“We’ll set up a really nice tool to help people plan their own paths depending on what kind of rider they are and what they’re up for,” Ahrens says. “The locations are all strategically selected because they’re right off of a bike path, they’re accessible and they have a ton of green space. We’re giving them a purpose-driven destination.”

For now, the Scenic Shore 150 is scheduled for September 18-19. LLS is currently planning to do an in-person event, but Grandkoski says it will be modified and look a little different from past rides. And if plans demand recalibration, LLS is prepared. 

“I always say that people can handle disappointment better than uncertainty,” Grandkowski says. “We want to make our decision early and stand by it. That is one of the main reasons we moved it to September right away, instead of trying to promise July but not being able to deliver.”

The Bike the Barn Quilts Ride, on the other hand, is staying remote — at least for 2021. 

“Doing it remote in 2020 worked so perfectly that we will use that format again this year,” says Mathison. “Why reinvent the wheel?”

Jensen says the 2021 edition of MyTEAM TRIUMPH’s 12 Hours of Road America is scheduled for August 14. The plan is to replicate the 2020 format, but organizers will remain nimble if the pandemic suddenly worsens. 

A cyclist takes a selfie with a lighthouse in the background.
2020 UPAF Ride for the Arts

“I don’t think we’re going to change much,” Jensens says. “We’re pretty pleased that we didn’t hear through our participant survey about anyone contracting COVID.”

“I think there might be certain things we could do to just further spread people out, and some of it depends on numbers,” he says. “We’re also adding a two-hour option for groups who don’t want to commit to the overnight thing. Other than that, we don’t expect to make a lot of changes for 2021.”

DJ Pangburn is a Madison-based journalist and marketing writer. He also writes fiction, produces music and videos, writes fiction and rides his Bianchi Pista Celeste way too fast.