At 5:30 in the morning, most of the tires on the road are bicycle wheels. Cyclists hit the pavement early, avoiding the hassles of traffic and marveling at the dawn glow that bathes the Island. Some cyclists are commuting to work, some are out for a quick pedal, some are preparing for future competitions.

A few cyclists are training for battle, logging miles so they’ll be prepared for their respective rides in the Pan-Mass Challenge next weekend; through their participation in the bike-a-thon, they’re also participating in the ongoing fight against cancer.

Robert Lee
Robert Lee. — Ivy Ashe

Founded in 1980 as a fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Challenge today features over 5,000 riders and has raised $33.8 million for cancer research and treatment in its 32 years of existence. Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond have both ridden in the Challenge, as have John Kerry and Scott Brown. Depending on the route they choose to take, participants raise anywhere between $500 and $4,300; 100 per cent of the money goes to Dana-Farber (60 per cent of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue comes from the ride). Corporate sponsorship underwrites the event costs.

“I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was 18 or so,” Oak Bluffs carpenter Raymond Sylvia, a five-year Challenge veteran, told the Gazette. “I took up cycling just to do the Pan-Mass.”

Mr. Sylvia began riding in honor of his mother, Elna, who fought multiple forms of the disease before she died. But other stories keep him motivated as well.

“One girl I grew up with fought cancer three different times and ended up succumbing to it at 45,” he said. “I think about it from where I am, the experiences I’ve had with my kids and my grandkids...those are the things they miss. It’s just—it’s a terrible disease.”

“Unfortunately, every year there’s somebody new [to ride for],” said Tisbury fire chief John Schilling, who will make his 21st Challenge ride next week. Mr. Schilling began pedaling at the suggestion of a friend, who thought the endurance aspect of the ride would appeal to him (Mr. Schilling participates in the centerpiece two-day, 190 mile ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown). After his first ride, watching the Living Proof cyclists—those who have survived cancer—and passing through the miles of support stations, he “became involved in what the purpose of the event was.”

Susan Kerns
Susan Kerns. — Ivy Ashe

“You begin to realize what a gift good health is and how random this disease is,” he said. “It was a very powerful experience to be involved with . . . all these people who have come together with the same goal.

“That empowerment still prevails. It’s a very hopeful feeling.”

Robert Lee of Sudbury can speak to that feeling. During an annual summer visit to his in-laws’ home on Chappaquiddick two years ago, his 8-year-old daughter Mary-Kate began complaining of chronic headaches. What was thought to be a tick-borne illness or perhaps arthritis was eventually diagnosed as Stage 4 Burkitt ’s lymphoma. Mary-Kate started intensive chemotherapy treatments in July of 2010.

The next year, Mr. Lee rode in his first Pan-Mass Challenge, raising well over $8,000 in his fundraising drive.

“[With] all the resources and things that were provided to us,” he said. “This was a way to give back.”

Mary-Kate is now 10 and cancer-free; she raised $100 in one day for her dad’s Pan-Mass Challenge fundraising by selling lemonade. “She’s gotten a lot of her strength back,” Mr. Lee said, and is looking forward to spending more time swimming off the Chappy beaches this summer. “It’s a healing thing for her and us.”

Cancer survivors like Mary-Kate line the five different Challenge routes, cheering on the cyclists and thanking them. Jim Reynolds of Edgartown, about to ride in his 18th Pan-Mass Challenge, admits that the miles logged are taxing, but passing by the welcome station in Brewster and hearing “such a roar” of support as he passes is “just tremendously uplifting. It gives you a good kick to keep going.” Mr. Reynolds’s brother-in-law, Bob Fitzergerald, who was a Navy pilot, died of lung cancer at age 29. Mr. Reynolds rode his first Challenge with his sister and a group of friends from high school. Over the years, he’s made new friends through the Challenge and reconnected with old ones, including a classmate from law school.

“It’s almost like a family,” he said. “You come to know people from hanging around [at stations].”

Said Mr. Schilling, “I met people the very first year that still do the event. We formed this bond because we met through the Pan-Mass Challenge.” The annual reunion is “a bonus” of participating in the ride, he said.

This year will be Susan Kerns’s first ride, although she has volunteered for the Challenge in the past, spurred on, like Mr. Sylvia, by losing her mother Grace to cancer in 2005. After the first year of volunteering, she told herself that she would ride in the Challenge; with her children now in college, she’s finally found the time to put in the training hours and embark on the fundraising challenge. “I’m definitely looking forward to it,” she said. Ms. Kerns, who grew up in Vineyard Haven and is in the process of transition back to the Island, began training at her home in Boxford with her friend Carol, a cyclist who had survived lung cancer. Carol, she said, “eased all my fears” about taking up the bike and the Challenge.

Ms. Kerns has spent the past month training on the Vineyard and tries to log about 80 miles per week.

For just about all riders, training is no easy task. Between that and the fundraising, “it’s almost like having an extra job,” Mr. Sylvia said. Each rider is responsible for raising the amount of their pledge by sending out fundraising letters to friends and acquaintances. If they come up short, it is the rider’s responsibility to make up the difference.

Mr. Sylvia tries to put in at least 120 miles per week. Mr. Reynolds aims for about 65 miles per week, while Mr. Lee does regular rides of 30 miles per day. Though their mileage varies, the riders are all out early, to make time for their full-time jobs.

“It is a commitment, but it’s a great cause,” Mr. Sylvia said.

“I can’t find the cure,” Mr. Schilling said. “But I can pedal.”


The Pan-Mass Challenge takes place August 4 and 5. For more information or to donate to a rider, please visit