On September 12, the Closer to Free Ride will look much different this year. Organizers say the most responsible thing to do for survivors and other riders was to make it virtual.
“It was especially tough knowing it was our 10th anniversary, this was expected to be our biggest turn out yet,” said Jessica Scheps of the Closer to Free Ride.
Last year, 2,155 people rode through and around New Haven to raise funds for Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital. With uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, they began reinventing the ride in May.
“Folks can ride in their cul-de-sac, they can ride in their community, they can ride on their stationary bike,” said Scheps.
Now, anyone can sign up to either ride or to fundraise. Last year the event brought in nearly $3.8 million. For the 10th year, there are no financial goals because this year has been a challenge for so many.
“We hope people will raise as close to $500 as possible, however, big news is: there is no fundraising commitment this year. We realize what a challenge that is for people to ask,” said Scheps.
One of those riders who’s taking it on by herself is Betsy Holbrook.
“I signed up to ride the century ride because it is the 10th year of the event and a milestone year for my nephew,” said Holbrook.
Her nephew Patrick was treated at Smilow Cancer Hospital when he was almost 3, and she couldn’t be more thankful to the people who saved his life.
“Nothing was brushed off, the MRI was done immediately, the surgery was done immediately. Patrick went through about nine months of chemo,” said Holbrook.
She volunteered for eight years, and this year will be her second time riding. This year she’ll do it as a survivor herself the day before an exam.
“So, on September 13, I have my mammogram, so I’m riding as a survivor which is crazy,” said Holbrook. “It’s crazy to not have it this year but I’m so glad so many people are still participating, and it’s hard. It’s been a part of my life for nine years.”
Survivors like Holbrook will have special bibs for their virtual rides. She will wear hers in her hometown of Salem, Mass.
“I’m going to do it along the Cape Cod Rail Trail and I’m going to ride back and forth along the rail trail until I hit my hundred miles,” said Holdbrook.
She’s humble about her survival, saying this ride is about funding research, treatment and so much more.
“So much of this is not about me it’s about everybody else. And always will be.”
They’ll keep big moments like the opening ceremony and the Smilow Salute online so everyone can share in the moments that bring them back year after year. They’re finalizing the details on those events and more.
Although they’ll be apart, they say they’ll make it through this year together.
“The number of people that have stuck with us for eight, nine and 10 years is outstanding and we’re proud of that, we’re proud our alumni come back,” said Scheps. "We take care of them, we treasure them, we appreciate their efforts, we hope they feel appreciated, but what’s important to us is we get them back."
NBC Connecticut is a proud partner of the Closer to Free ride.