Ridgefielders ride for cancer research at Pan-Mass Challenge

Photo of Peter Yankowski

Most people spend months training before embarking on a nearly 200-mile bicycle challenge over the course of two days, but Ciaran Carruthers doesn’t have that luxury.

An injury to the Ridgefield arborist and cycling enthusiast’s right arm has kept him off his normal mountain bike route for the past six months, leaving him with only a few short weeks to train before he takes part in the Pan-Mass Challenge. The annual cycling event draws thousands of riders — more than 6,700 are expected to attend this year’s event starting Aug. 4 — from 43 states and from all over the world.

“Unfortunately, in February I had surgery,” said Carruthers “I’m concerned that I’ve been off my bike for six months — normally I mountain bike a few times a week, so I’m in the worst shape ever, but I guess it’s just going to take a while.”

He’s been riding a heavier gravel bike — a mountain bike with beefy tires and a hardtail frame — to compensate for his months out of the saddle, in the hopes he’ll build up his endurance before switching to his lightweight road bike for the Pan-Mass Challenge.

The event raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Carruthers said his contributions will go toward developing chemotherapy drugs with fewer side effects. To date, he’s raised over $100,000 for the institute.

Carruthers, originally from Ireland, will be one of 10 Ridgefielders riding in the challenge this year. Other Ridgefield participants are Bill Butler, Jon Chase, Thomas LeFebvre, Alex Leritz, Nick Lieder, Tizzie Mantione, Thomas Mantione, Oliver Mullins and Connie Reiss.

Butler and Lieder are riding 200 miles along with 53 other riders for Team Velominati. Their goal is to raise $500,000.

The event is not a race, riders just have to finish the course they sign up to complete, but Carruthers said many of the riders are competitive by nature. In the first day, he will cover about 111 miles, traveling at an average speed of around 18 miles per hour over public roads.

Bill Butler, another Ridgefield cyclist now in his second year of riding the Pan-Mass, said he’ll drink around three-quarters of a gallon of water over the course of both days. It’s important to stay hydrated, but not to overhydrate and flush the body of electrolytes.

“The secret is pickle juice, it stops cramping,” he said.

Along the way, riders will stop off at rest stations, where they’ll take Dixie Cup shots of the briny juice before pressing on.

Wind resistance

While traveling as a group bunched up on the back tire of cyclists in front of them, the wind resistance dramatically falls away, according to Ridgefield police dispatcher Bill Browning.

It’s only when the riders pass through a section of sand dunes along the coast that the going becomes really tough — the open space provides no shelter from the wind, which can sap the riders’ energy.

“It sucks the life out of you,” said Carruthers, who’s receiving support from Browning through the Police Benevolent Association and police union.

All shapes and sizes

The team will start in Sturbridge in central Massachusetts, ride a little more than 100 miles east in the first day, and then ride another 90 miles along the hook of Cape Cod before finishing at Provincetown at the tip of the Atlantic Ocean.

Riders will have to cycle along active roads, occasionally pulling to a full stop at traffic intersections.

The event organizers have chase cars that look after riders that go down, or encounter the occasional flat tire.

Butler said Pan-Mass riders come in all shapes in sizes — this year the youngest rider will be 13 years old, and the oldest is 88.

“You get some people that you’re surprised are on a bike, but then there are some others who will pass you that you’re even wondering how they’re on a bike,” he said.


Butler recalled how when he pulled into the town of Lakeville during his first Pan-Mass Challenge last year, all the people of the town had pulled up to the ends of their driveways in the pouring rain to cheer the riders on. Many had put lawn signs out with the faces of children lost to cancer.

“It chokes me up even today,” Butler said, pausing. “There were hundreds of these signs all throughout Lakeville… [and] they’re standing out in the rain cheering us on.”

Child cancer patients were also there to cheer them on from their parents’ shoulders, many of them clearly still in treatment, Butler said.

Most of the people he knows are either cancer survivors themselves, or are “one degree removed” from someone who battled the disease, he added.

Browning also said he has “this leukemia monkey on my back,” and two of his family members have been diagnosed with various forms of cancer.

Riders awake at the crack of dawn to set off.

“You start off on Saturday morning at like 5:30 in the morning. You’ve got your 6,000 riders, family members saying goodbye, and then you’ve got hundreds of police and all the bikes are lit up, and then someone goes up on the platform and sings the national anthem — and it’s just incredibly powerful,” said Carruthers.

It’s a test of endurance and commitment riders have been pouring blood, sweat, and sunburned skin into for 40 years, come August. Because it’s not a race, Carruthers said one of the most satisfying parts of the day is watching the last riders pull up to the finish line at the end of the second day — pushing through despite their slower pace. “When you see someone on their bike for 12 hours, that’s really humbling,” he said.

“I think the energy when you pull in — I mean there are thousands of people lining the streets — that’s pretty darn cool” Carruthers added.

Editor’s note: Butler is hosting a party tonight — July 31 — at the Arezzo Ristorante in Westport to raise funds through a silent auction with music, food and drinks.

To support Butler and Leider’s team, click here. The PMC site is www.pmc.org.