Charity Bike Rides

When we first set out to define the concept of utility cycling, we identified the component of community building as being one important form of utility cycling. Community building refers to using the bicycle as a way to bring people together for some kind of purpose be it through a solo fundraising ride, critical mass, self-expression, social action, protest, or just plain fun and celebration. Bicycles – and riding of bicycles – can bring people together in fun and unusual ways. One way that bicycles bring people together is through charity rides, which are typically devoted to raising awareness and money for various causes or organizations, while simultaneously letting participants also wear their “sport” or “recreation” hat (or helmet, if you will). Charity rides often walk the line between utility and sport/recreation, but that’s just fine. There is still a great deal of utility in riding for a cause. Header photo credit: Women’s Cycling Mag.

To that end, I have charity bike rides on the brain, as the famous El Tour de Tucson just occurred a little less than three weeks ago here in Tucson. While I did not participate in El Tour (I was too exhausted from working El Tour), I did spend three days at the venue getting a feel for the event, which inspired to find out a bit more about what drives people (on the order of more than 9,000 for El Tour) to participate in these sorts of events.

Charitable Organizations

The root of a charity bike ride is the charitable organization or cause around which the event is focused or in benefit of. The definition of a charity, charitable organization, or charitable cause is quite broad, and it can refer to a wide range of humanitarian causes, which generally include helping people in some form or another. The legal definition of a charity varies from country to country, but the general sense of the notion of charity is something that is created or done in benefit of public or special interest groups. Common types of charities are organizations that raise money or awareness or provide aid for disease research and awareness, homelessness and poverty, disaster relief, and other social and political causes. Charity does not have to go hand-in-hand with an organization either; it can simply mean helping someone in need, but for the purposes of this post, we will be referring to charity as a charitable organization, not as a practice.

bg-composit3Photo credit: Aids Walk

Charity & Athletic Events

So what does charity have to do with cycling? Sure, there is a long laundry list of the benefits of cycling to society and so-on, but that does not necessarily have anything to do with cycling for charity. First, let’s take a step back from cycling, and look at athletic events in general – such as running, walking, triathlon(ing), and cycling – that are centered around the purpose of helping a charity, but that are not necessarily cycling-specific.

In a post for the Case Foundation, Nicola Beddow cites research from Princeton University that suggests that people like to participate in charity athletic events that involve a little bit of discomfort:

Mr. Olivola attributed the results of the study to a phenomenon he dubbed the martyrdom effect. When you have to work hard and suffer for a cause, then you become more involved and more motivated to help that cause, he said. That could explain the appeal of charity triathlons, marathons and the latest craze: running up the stairwells of skyscrapers. (from Beddow’s post)

Another good tidbit that I discovered was this slideshow/ webinar by First Giving that calls this idea the “Endorphin Effect”. The presentation indicates that people not only participate in charitable athletic events for the “martyr effect”, but also due to personal relationships with people who might benefit from the charity, social responsibility, motivation, and last, but certainly not least, training partners/ support network/ camaraderie/ community.

Impacts of Charity Cycling Events

Charity athletic events not only raise money for the charities they are associated with, they also stimulate the local economies and communities in which they occur. Such events also provide benefit to their communities by fostering relationships between the cycling community and the local government, law enforcement, and land management agencies, which can be beneficial to the overall quality of the cycling infrastructure and environment in those communities. Not to mention, charity cycling events benefit the bicycle industry, since all the participants need to have bicycles and bicycling equipment. According to Bikes Belong, 2/3 of the nearly 1,700 recreational road cycling events in the US raised money for a charity, and:

  • More than 1,700 U.S. recreational road riding events were organized in 2008
  • More than 1 million Americans participated in recreational road riding events in 2008
  • Total 2008 revenue from recreational road riding events topped $240 million
  • Two-thirds of these 08 rides were tied to a cause, raising nearly $200 million total
  • Riders spent nearly $140 million on food, lodging, and other purchases at these events
  • Read more at Bikes Belong

You can also visit Run-Walk-Ride for more information and statistics about the impact and benefits of charitable cycling events. Given these numbers, it sure looks like a great deal of energy and input is going into these events, both on the part of the participants and the organizers. Now how to convert them all to bike commuters, as well… 🙂

Isn’t a Charity Bike Ride Just a Glorified Race?

Now back to charity cycling events. The general concept behind charity cycling events is very similar to other charitable athletic events. Not surprisingly, cycling tours and rides that are in support of charity often turn into pseudo races, but this does not negate the charitable principles that guide them or the fact that they raise money for charities, and most importantly, for the purposes of this site anyhow, help to build a strong community of cyclists. This is not about the “subculture” of charity bike riders; this is about the overall community of people who ride bicycles that are brought in honor or support of a cause, and they come in a shapes and sizes and ride many different kinds of bikes.

el-tour-de-tucsonPhoto Credit: Biking Bis

So in many ways, charity bike ride participants are also utility cyclists. These participants not only use the bicycle as a vehicle for supporting a cause (while allowing themselves some fun/suffering along the way), they are also participating in the larger network of community building between local cyclists and cities; they are supporting local communities/economies and the bicycle industry; and they are contributing to the development of a network and community of cyclists.

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