When Dr. Roswell Park died in 1914, he left unfinished business.
A tome titled “Municipality of Buffalo, N.Y.: A History 1720-1923” put it in formal language: “There was one great aim of his life which he never achieved; that was to know the nature of cancer, and though he strove hard to attain it, he was fated not to realize his ambition.”
That is where pedal power comes in.
Nothing shows the spirit and determination of Western New York like the annual Ride For Roswell, taking place Saturday. Rolling now for 20 years in support of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, it is reportedly the biggest single-day biking event in North America.
Participants get choked up talking about the Peleton, the event the evening before the race. Some of the ride’s top fundraisers gather at Roswell Park before biking to UB, two by two, with a police escort. Patients come to the windows.
“Some come down with IV, They’re in their jammies,” said Justine Jopp. She works with Mitch Flynn, who founded the ride, and she is one of the top organizers.
T.J. Griffin, a City of Buffalo employee riding for nine years, was part of the Peleton and was moved by the sight of the patients. “You see the silhouettes in the windows,” he said.
He wishes he hadn’t waited so long to get involved.
“I was bowled over by what an easy thing to do and how rewarding it is,” he said. “When you finish the ride, coming over finish line, no one ever explained to us you’d be overcome with emotion. It’s not a race. It’s not as if you’ve beaten anyone else. There are these throngs of people cheering you on. My sister and I looked at each other with tears streaming down our faces, thinking, what did we do?”
Griffin’s team is named for his brother, nicknamed Jumbo, who always rode with him but died unexpectedly last summer. Some folks ride in honor of loved ones battling cancer. Survivors ride too.
Jean Maslona of Williamsville has been riding for 15 years on a team called the Pedal Pushers – now the Original Pedal Pushers, because another team took the name. She lost her husband to lung cancer in April, and will be riding in his honor.
“At first I hesitated, because I was upset, you know? It took him so fast,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, it was like, he didn’t win his fight, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get out there and raise money for others.”
Though bittersweet stories abound, the ride itself is joyous. In 2015, 8,500 riders raised $4.5 million – and that was in the pouring rain. Whatever the weather, the Ride For Roswell is a toast to life.
Riders gather at UB’s North Campus and at Roswell Park at various times on Saturday morning. The routes range from the 102-mile Century Route, whose riders meet at dawn, to the 3-mile Family Route. Along every route are stands sponsored by companies, churches and families, offering food, drink and cheers.
“There are almost as many volunteers as riders,” laughed Dianne Gilleece. “It all flows together so well.”
Gilleece rides on a team named Team Pathology by a friend who is a pathologist at Roswell Park. She knows virtual riders, too – who raise money, but don’t actually ride.
“I know people who don’t live in Buffalo, but the reason they’re donating is, they have relatives who traveled to Roswell from wherever they live, to get treatment that they were denied somewhere else, or were told, you’re hopeless,” she said. She cites the story of a friend’s grandfather. “They told him, you’re done. He came to Roswell, and he went on to live another 20 years.”
If you haven’t experienced the Ride For Roswell, it’s not too late to get out and cheer the riders on.
And look toward the future.
“My mind is already on next year,” Jopp said. “Everyone is already saying, ‘How can we make this better for everyone?’ Everyone involved has a story. Everyone is as passionate as I am.”
Dr. Park would love those fighting words. He rests in Forest Lawn, a stop on our 100 Things tour that has figured in many of our adventures. Surely he would be cheering on the thousands who fight to realize his dream.