The Power Of The Pedal

Tom Lennox channeled his battle with cancer into a fundraising ride that raised more than $130 million for cancer research in Ohio. Now, he's bringing that experience to Chainbreaker, a new cycling-based event that will raise money for cancer research in one of America's most passionate and committed cycling communities.

The Power Of The Pedal

Chainbreaker Challenges Cyclists To Ride For A Cure
What do you do when you’re diagnosed with cancer?

If you’re Tom Lennox, you leave your job as Vice President of Communications at Abercrombie and Fitch to start a cycling-based nonprofit dedicated to beating the disease that changed your life.

But first, you go for a bike ride.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that. But according to Lennox, his journey to recovery — and to refocusing his life and career around fighting cancer — began with getting on a bike. “I was never a cyclist until I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007,” he says. “At the time, I did what a lot of people did: I bought the Lance Armstrong book and started riding. And then I started racing triathlons. The bike became a tool for me to keep my head straight. It was a big part of my recovery from treatment.”

Riding a bike also led Lennox to the next chapter in his life: Founding Pelotonia, a Columbus, Ohio-based nonprofit dedicated to funding life-saving cancer research. In eight years, Pelotonia has raised more than $130 million by staging an annual three-day event that combines cycling, entertainment, and volunteerism. But while most people might be tempted to rest on such laurels, Lennox is a man on a mission that’s bigger than one event. As he told the Columbus Dispatch after leaving Pelotonia in January of 2014, “The Pelotonia model is very powerful, and I believe a similar approach can work in other cities, and it would be foolish to ignore this potential.”

Lennox didn’t have to wait long to find his next destination. As he tells it, “I got a call from a friend who’s an alum of the University of Minnesota and lives in Edina. He told me that I needed to get my butt up to the Twin Cities to start a ride to fund cancer research at the U of M. He said, ‘Listen, this is the big time. We have more cyclists than any other city, and Minnesotans are also incredibly generous.’ He was right.”

And that’s how the idea for Chainbreaker was born.

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Riding for Research and a Cure for Cancer
Chainbreaker is a three-day experience built around rides that range from 25 to 180 miles. The 2017 event will take place on August 11-13 with a goal of attracting 2,250 riders and raising $4 million dollars to support cancer research at the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota. One hundred percent of every dollar raised by riders and volunteers will support breakthrough innovations and novel collaborations between researchers.

According to Chainbreaker Director Jen Waldron, “The Twin Cities is the perfect location for Chainbreaker. If we can have the same impact that Pelotonia has had on Columbus, Ohio it will be a game-changer for our community, the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota, and most importantly, cancer.”

Like Lennox, Waldron draws on her own experience with cancer for inspiration: “My oldest, Sam, was diagnosed with cancer when he was 10 weeks old. He had a very poor prognosis and we had, as you can imagine, a very tough few years. We spent over 250 nights in the hospital the first year, and his treatment lasted for two and a half years.”

Thankfully, Waldron’s story has a happy ending. “Sam is now an amazing, fun, healthy 17-year-old. While Sam was being treated, my husband was introduced to a cycling event to raise money for cancer. The year that Sam finished his treatment, we decided to ride together with a goal of continuing to raise money for cancer. We have been cycling ever since.”

When she found out about Chainbreaker, Waldron knew she had to be part of it. “When I heard there was this new cycling event coming to Minnesota that would be raising money for cancer —where 100% of the money raised would go directly to research AND stay in our community — there was nothing I wanted to do more than get involved. As the mom of a cancer survivor, I want more than anything to find a cure for this disease. It has rocked the worlds of too many people in my life. I see working at Chainbreaker as one way that I can help fight cancer.”

Strength in Pelotons
Anyone can ride Chainbreaker, but the organization is also encouraging people to form their own teams of five or more riders, or Pelotons, to participate. So far, 79 Pelotons are registered for the event, including groups from Best Buy, Blue Cross, and 68-rider juggernaut representing the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Jess Louwagie, an ARTCRANK artist who’s organizing his own Peloton for Chainbreaker, was drawn to the event initially because of the cycling aspect, but was also impressed by the fundraising side of the equation. “Every dollar goes to cancer research. I have been impressed with the information sessions, interviews with PhDs who have received funding, and of course proud to contribute to funding the Masonic Cancer Research center at the University of Minnesota.”

For Louwagie, it was also important to participate in the ride, not just write a check: “The only way to gain ground is through funding doctors to work on cures, discover causes and hopefully influence lifestyle choices for prevention. Stats say nearly half of us will get cancer, so I wanted to do more than just donate.”

Another Peloton represents a partnership between Twin Six, the cycling apparel company founded by Twin Cities designers Brent Gale and Ryan Carlson, and Still Kickin, an organization that sells apparel and stages workout events, with profits benefitting Still Kickin Heroes — people who are fighting not just cancer, but other illnesses and adversity.

Still Kickin was founded by author and podcast host Nora McInerny, who lost her husband Aaron Purmort (also an ARTCRANK artist) and her father to cancer in 2014. Still Kickin and Twin Six have collaborated before on a bike jersey to benefit Still Kickin heroes, and McInerny sees Chainbreaker as a logical extension of that partnership. “Still Kickin and Twin Six have tons of friends who love biking and hate cancer,” she says. “So, duh, let's make a team and get a bunch of kind, good-looking humans to go have some fun and help some scientists destroy cancer.”

While Still Kickin and Chainbreaker are both focused on raising money to help people when they need it most, McInerny sees them as complementary, not competitive. “We know from experience that a lot of small actions can lead to something bigger. We tell that to our community all the time — every shirt purchased, every workout attended, it’s all meaningful to our Heroes. Nobody does it all on their own, and no organization does, either. Supporting other causes with our actions can lead to something bigger and we think Chainbreaker will do good things in the Twin Cities and the world.”

Rising to the Challenge
Just like in a bike race, getting off to a strong start is critical for new initiatives like Chainbreaker. The success of Pelotonia shows that it’s possible to create an iconic annual event that raises millions of dollars in a short time. But there’s no shortage of competition for fundraising dollars, or for the time and attention of cyclists.

For Tom Lennox, it all goes back to bikes. “From a fundraising standpoint for cancer research, the bike is truly a gift; it offers challenge for the strongest riders, and it's welcoming to those who haven't ridden in many years.”

The fact that Chainbreaker offers a wide range of routes for riders of all abilities and fitness levels is key as well. “In eight years in Columbus, Ohio, not one person who has tried has failed to finish the 25-mile ride or failed to reach their fundraising minimum,” says Lennox. “Why not ride, have a blast, and save lives?”

Less than a month away from the event, Jen Waldron is focused is on raising awareness for Chainbreaker and getting riders involved. “When we get the opportunity to talk to people, people want to get involved. We just need to keep talking to people so that eventually everyone in the Twin Cities knows what Chainbreaker is, and can be involved in the way that works the best for them.”

Riders can sign up for Chainbreaker right up until the day of the ride, and participants have 60 days after the ride — until October 13 — to meet their fundraising commitments. So even if this is the first you’ve heard about Chainbreaker, it’s definitely not too late to get involved, either as a rider or as an event volunteer.

Nora McInerny believes that the strength and compassion of the Twin Cities community will make Chainbreaker a success. “We have an avid biking community, and we are filled with people who care about other humans,” she says.

And while her immediate attention is focused on her new baby, McInerny already has her sights set on the 2018 edition of Chainbreaker. “I promise I'll do it next year! I bought a fancy bike and everything!”

Find out more about Chainbreaker Ride and sign up to ride or volunteer today: chainbreakerride.org