A story about a new cyclist, the history of team SWISCO, and riding for an excellent cause.
Committing to a 100-mile charity bike ride requires a number of abilities. Knowing how to ride a bike ranks top among them. Just over a year ago that particular detail would have prevented me, a thirty-three-year-old, from participating. But a small silver lining from the past two years was that there was plenty of time to take up new hobbies. For me, that meant cycling. At first, it was just a minor curiosity of mine; a personal goal to see if I could learn a skill most people acquired at a considerably earlier age. Most unexpectedly it turned into an obsession, something I fell in love with, and thanks to SWISCO’s involvement in the BikeMS: City to Shore Ride I had a challenge I was eager to meet. As it turned out though, there were a whole lot of other great things about the ride, things that mattered a whole more than the ride itself.
This past September, SWISCO participated in the BikeMS: City to Shore Ride for the eighth year in a row. Bike MS happens to be the largest charity cycling series in the world. Per their website, every year over 70,000 cyclists and more than 6,000 teams ride together on 68 different organized rides planned across the United States, all with the goal of raising money in the name of the National MS Society. The National MS Society, as you may have guessed, has one chief goal: to fund research to find a cure for multiple sclerosis.
SWISCO leads one such team every year in the City to Shore ride. Taking place in late September with a route from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the sands of the Jersey Shore, it’s been one of the company’s seminal events for the better part of a decade. It all started when our CEO, Paul, found himself bereft of a team to ride with every fall. Paul had been invited by James, his longtime friend, to ride with a team sponsored by his own company. Later Paul and James rode on their own for a few years, before Paul one day decided SWISCO ought to sponsor a team itself. Many SWISCO employees were excited to join, and friends of the company like James wouldn’t be left behind either.
The MS Society’s ultimate vision is to celebrate a world free of MS, and that is a vision shared by many participants in the BikeMS events. In Paul’s case, a personal loss is a significant factor in why he rides. “My wife’s best friend passed away from complications from MS,” Paul said. “Everyone knows someone that is affected by MS. It’s a pretty easy cause to get behind.”
Those words ring true for me, as my own aunt suffers from MS. My Aunt Carolyn has bravely dealt with multiple sclerosis for the past twenty years. She has been one of the most important figures in my life, a source of counsel and humor whenever I’ve needed it. While she often uses a cane to walk, she maintains an active lifestyle and I am so proud to be her nephew. She remains a constant inspiration, and I was honored to ride with her name scrawled on a ribbon tied to my wrist. Clearly, there are countless stories like this. All of the people involved with BikeMS share the same sentiment and not just the riders.
I had a very powerful moment in the middle of my first City to Shore ride. It was dozens and dozens of miles in. I was hammering away at my pedals, trying to stay focused on the road and doing my best to fend off the fatigue I was starting to feel. I became aware of all the people watching us go past. Not just watching but cheering. Applauding us as we rode by. Ordinary folks sitting on their own doorsteps, ringing bells and applauding us all. They were at every corner and every hill the route took us, at every mile and every rest stop. I was a bit slow–both to comprehend who these people were, as well as my own pace by that point–so I didn’t really understand the significance, nor why they were cheering us on. Later on, I mentioned it to my work colleague, Steve, and his wife Barbara. Steve and Barbara are two lovely human beings as well as wily cycling vets I was lucky to spend the day with. It was Barbara who pointed out to me what should have been obvious.
“They all know someone affected by MS,” she said. “Some of them were in wheelchairs themselves. That’s when you know this matters to people.”
She was absolutely right.
Besides riding to support this excellent cause, I was eager to test my mettle as a new cyclist. The City to Shore ride typically falls on a Saturday in late September, when the summer heat has started to yield to autumn air. The event features 100-mile and 75-mile routes, as well as a few more beginner-friendly rides of 40 miles or less. The longer routes begin in the suburban sprawl of Cherry Hill, NJ, just a few miles across the river from Philadelphia. Cyclists cut a path across the vast blueberry fields and lush vineyards of South Jersey, cross through the winding woods of the Pine Barrens, before finally completing the trek at the colorful boardwalk in Ocean City. Additionally, particularly ambitious cyclists could opt for a 75-mile ride back to Cherry Hill on Sunday.
When I first decided to sign up back in the spring, accomplishing the 75-mile ride to the shore was daunting enough of a task for me. I was just getting to the point where riding 20 or 30 miles was becoming something I could routinely do. As I said earlier, I had just learned how to ride a bike. For a number of reasons–mostly due to my childhood stubbornness–I never even thought about trying until recently. Over the winter I still dabbled in it when weather permitted, and soon found I wanted more. By the time I signed up for the ride I knew I loved cycling and wanted to keep getting better, and so the City to Shore ride provided the ultimate reason to get into good shape.
Past members of team SWISCO have written about how they trained for this ride, as well as how fun the cycling community is. In the case of my training, constantly testing how far I could ride and learning from experienced cyclists was key. In addition to my coworker Steve, who always has sagacious wisdom to share, my Uncle Paul was another veteran cyclist I could rely on for advice. He is the brother of my Aunt Carolyn, and a real ironman who has quite literally ridden all over the east coast and back. Uncle Paul warned me a long time ago that cycling could become addicting. He was right. Over the summer I entered some organized rides to get used to riding in large groups and I splurged on a decent road bike, something I never would have dreamed of doing just a year ago. I soon became obsessed with stats like my average speed and power. Moreover, I felt deep satisfaction after planning and executing any of my training rides across South Jersey–all of which got longer and longer. Soon, I decided to do more than just the 75-mile route. I had my eyes on the 100-mile option, a ‘century ride’, which is a landmark achievement for any serious road cyclist.
There is a real allure to cycling. I think the reason why I fell in love with it so unexpectedly, why it went from a thoughtless pursuit during a pandemic to a true passion and joy, is that it is such a pure expression of your willpower. There is something deeply appealing in that. Your speed, your time, all the watts you’re putting out–it all comes down to your effort. It demands everything out of you, and rewards you with an utmost sense of accomplishment, to complete something you couldn’t do before. The feeling of achievement that cycling bestows becomes worth any setback, whether it be a flat tire or a nasty crash (I experienced both!). That also makes it the perfect vehicle for a cause like raising money for the National MS Society. When those spectators during the ride, some suffering from the very disease the ride is dedicated to defeating, cheer, and thank you for all your sweat and tears as you race past, the effort is doubly worth it.
On the day of the event, one is humbled by the number of people involved, both cyclists and otherwise. Up to 7,000 people sign up for City to Shore annually. If you’re a novice riding among a group that large for the first time, you are amazed both by the sheer number of cyclists around you, as well as all the manpower and resources that go into making the event happen. Entire roads are cordoned off with the help of local police and municipal authorities. Rest stops are maintained by scores of volunteers to make sure cyclists have enough fuel throughout the journey, and mechanics from local bike shops and medics patrol along the routes in search of any unfortunate mishaps, whether it be a flat or fall. Riders of all types participate–experienced pros whizzing by on high-end carbon road bikes that cost as much as cars; hearty riders churning away on muddy mountain bikes; casual enthusiasts moseying along on the same street bikes they ride to work, and even a few tandem bikes with two riders propelling themselves along. You have people clad in skintight lycra and wearing aero helmets; alternatively, there were people in Gritty costumes plodding along. Cycling is a truly diverse sport, with so many different forms, styles, and people of all ages and walks of life taking part. A massive event like City to Shore brings all these different folks together into one giant peloton, thousands strong, all riding for the same cause.
My training had been curtailed two weeks before the event. A crash caused by my own carelessness left me with stitches in my elbow, which were only removed a few days before the ride. Still, I felt ready, and while some soreness crept up on me as the day went on, I was too caught up in the thrill of the ride and everything going on around it to care. At one point, while riding with Steve he reminded me to make sure I paid attention to the picturesque landscapes around us. As we cut through one of the blueberry farms outside of Hammonton, NJ, I was glad I listened to him. A ride like this reminds you that there are so many beautiful landmarks around you, and often just a few pedal strokes away.
By the end of the ride, I was tired. I had just traversed nearly 100 miles by bike, a journey that takes at least five or six hours with decent speed. The ride ends crossing the bridge into Ocean City, complete with a few challenging ‘hills’ as a final endurance test. When I, at last, crossed the finish line, that feeling of achievement curiously escaped me. A true century didn’t happen due to a portion of the route being closed by the time I got to it, a lesson to plan better for next year. My average speed wasn’t quite what I wanted either. I would soon remember how much that didn’t matter.
Steve, Barbara, and I made our way to the hotel where SWISCO held a celebratory afterparty. I soon stopped brooding over my numbers as I chatted and laughed with coworkers, some of whom also rode that day and others who were there to congratulate us at the end. Past participants told me that the celebrations after the ride were the most rewarding part of the whole thing, and I indeed had a great time, mostly just feeling relief that it was over and enjoying the company of others–not to mention that I was grateful to have some good food to eat after burning several thousand calories. It was also heartening to see the team celebrate what they had just accomplished, and not just in cycling.
Team SWISCO raised more money this year than ever before, with a grand total of $18,685.29 raised for the National MS Society. By the end of the evening, as I wandered up and down the boardwalk, seeing how many people were there celebrating the same hard-fought accomplishment after a long hard ride, and thinking over all the effort that goes into making City to Shore possible, I could appreciate how lucky I was to be a part of it, to be part of something much bigger than just cycling.
The next day, Steve, Barbara, and I would ride all the way back from Ocean City to our respective homes; in my case, it was a grueling 60-mile ride that made me sorry I ever was upset for not getting a century the day before. I stumbled back home after 150 miles of cycling over two days; considering how far I had come, I was pretty happy. Within a week SWISCO started discussing their plans for next year’s ride, to take place on the weekend of September 24th & 25th. I’ll be ready to improve my performance, and I suspect I’ll be more involved with team SWISCO than ever before. The City to Shore Ride is SWISCO at its best; bringing so many different employees and friends of the company together for a worthy cause and a good time afterward. I am proud to have been part of the 2021 version of the team and eagerly look forward to hitting the tarmac next year with my fellow cyclists.
Until then, I will continue to ride all over and back again. As a keepsake from my first City to Shore event, I still have the ribbon I wore on my wrist, with my Aunt Caroyln’s name written on it. At the end of the day, it’s the cause that counts most, and like the rest of SWISCO, I am proud to be part of BikeMS.