The countdown is over. Obliteride is here.
After a glorious kick-off party that lit up Seattle’s Gas Works Park on Friday evening, the first contingent of 125 hard-core bicyclists hit the road at 7 a.m. on Saturday on their first leg of a two-day, 150-mile trek to raise money for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The were followed Sunday by about 1,000 others, on shorter routes with the same goal, to speed up the fight against cancer. Last year, riders raised a total of $2.25 million for Fred Hutch. This third annual Obliteride almost certainly will break that record. But it is not just about money:
At the Gas Works celebration Friday, Brian Westbrook stood before a black painted wall of names, each name written in colored chalk after the stenciled words, “I RIDE FOR__________.” Westbrook grabbed a thick piece of pink chalk from a basket on the grass, and filled in the blank with: “Captain” Bryan Morgan R.I.P. He rode the 10-mile course in his honor on Sunday.
“We worked together at a radio station in Portland. I still call him my best friend,” said Westbrook, now a technology reporter for King 5 news. Morgan died in Orlando, Florida. He was 43.
There was always a small crowd along the makeshift memorial at Gas Works. People stooped or knelt on their knees to write. A father raised his son on his shoulders to write. People took selfies in front of it. By the time the sun went down at the kick-off party, hundreds of names and words had been chalked onto the walls, in a rainbow of colors: I RIDE FOR … Kathy & Joan … Grandpa Emmanuel … Mom and Dad … My Patients … Your children’s future.
Like the bicycle rides that started Saturday, Obliteride is also a spirited celebration of life. So was the music from the acclaimed Roosevelt High School Jazz Band, which set the tone at the kick-off party; Seattle’s own Tubaluba, which got the crowd to its feet with its brassy New Orleans rock; and the Gentlemen, who had the place dancing until the sun was down and the lights of the Seattle skyline glowed across the lake.
Famed Seattle chef Tom Douglas, who manned the barbecues himself as his team cooked up 2,000 portions of salmon, seemed to enjoy every minute of it. “I’m a big believer in being part of our community,” he said. “That’s why we are out here … I do this for the humanity of it all.”
The weekend rides are the culmination of nearly a year of planning, training and fundraising events carried out by teams and individual cyclists alike. “People are finding all kinds of authentic ways to create energy and raise money,” said Amy Lavin, Obliteride’s executive director.
A former Microsoft marketer, Lavin has guided the fundraiser from its inception, and this year she feels that the program is becoming a fixture of Seattle’s summer. She works on the Hutch campus on the southeast end of Lake Union, with a staff of four others at Obliteride headquarters. “Managed fun chaos,” she described it.
Cubicles in the tiny office were stacked with boxes of T-shirts for volunteers, more than 500 of them, who keep the event's wheels turning, from sign-up to clean-up. Volunteers are on hand this weekend to supply information, offer medical assistance and provide refreshments at rest stops along the longer routes. A crazy chandelier made of bicycle wheels hangs from the ceiling, and orange banners, orange bracelets, and skeins of orange yarn spill from ... orange baskets. “The intensity and purpose and focus of our name ― and the energy of the color orange ― reflect everyone’s intention to raise a lot of money for cancer research,” she said.
Some registrants started their own fundraising as early as January, and their efforts often continue after the weekend ride, until the deadline of September 30. “A large percentage of the contributions are made after the ride because people are so inspired by the event they continue to raise money,’’ Lavin said.
Sometimes the money comes from friends and relatives; sometimes it is a neighborhood bake sale or a lemonade stand. People hold their own Obliteride dinner parties, dance parties, costume parties and songfests.
Lavin calls it FUNdraising: “This is a very purposeful community that loves to have a good time.”
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.