Back in the saddle

Cyclists are gearing up for the third annual Pelotonia. What makes people want to pedal for up to 180 miles?
Douglas Fowler- Pelotonia

Published in the July/August 2011 issue of Ohio State Alumni Magazine

photo by JO McCULTY


There’s often a moment for Pelotonia participants when the annual event turns into something much more than a charity bicycle ride.

So it was for Karl Koon. He lined up at the start of the inaugural Pelotonia in August 2009 wondering if he was up to the challenge of cycling more than a hundred miles in one day. He ended the ride with tears of joy streaming down his cheeks, exhausted yet exhilarated.

“It was an epiphany, a spiritual thing for me,” he said.

Pelotonia raises money for research at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center-James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. It brought in $4.5 million in 2009 and $7.8 million last year.

“I realized this wasn’t just a bike ride; I was part of something much bigger, and the research being done here in Columbus will impact millions and save lives all over the world,” Koon said.

For some, the epiphany is triggered by the clanging of cowbells rung by the thousands of well-wishers who line the route from Columbus
to Athens. For others, it’s the signs people hold.

“I vividly remember a woman at the end of her driveway in the Hocking Hills holding up a sign that said she was a 13-year cancer survivor—and ‘thank you,’” Koon said. “I became like one of Pavlov’s dogs: every time I heard the cowbells or people cheering, I’d start sobbing.”

In March, Koon was named Ohio State’s director of development for Pelotonia. His job is to promote the event and attract participants—both riders and volunteers—to the university’s team. You could say Koon is the cheerleader for Team Buckeye, which is fitting for the former Buckeye cheerleader.

Koon aims to sign up 1,000 riders and raise $2.5 million.

“On so many levels I feel like I’ve come home,” he said. “There’s not a single person who hasn’t been touched by cancer, and this ride and the message resonate with everyone.”

Pelotonia attracted 2,265 riders in 2009 and 4,047 in 2010. Here are some of their stories.






2009: Volunteer
2010: Rode 43 miles; raised $2,400
2011: Plans to ride 43 miles

Doreen Agnese is familiar with operating rooms.

“I’m used to walking in there in my scrubs,” said Agnese, a surgeon specializing in breast cancer and melanomas at the Ohio State Medical Center.

But in January 2010, she was the one on the operating table, about to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer. “I felt very vulnerable,” she said.

Seven months later, in August, Agnese  was at the opening ceremony of Pelotonia—as a rider.

“I ran into one of my patients. That put things into perspective and set up the rest  of the weekend,” she said.

The hills were a challenge for Agnese,  who was new to cycling. “I started thinking about all the people who had died from cancer, and some of my patients,” she said. “And I thought, after all they’ve gone through,  I’m getting up this hill.”

She did. 



2009: Rode 180 miles; raised $3,024
2010: Rode 180 miles; raised $2,000
2011: Plans to ride 180 miles

Last year’s Pelotonia was an emotional experience for Douglas Fowler. His father, Waymon, was battling cancer at the time.

Fowler said his father, who passed away in December, was a role model who continues to inspire him.

“I’m even more focused on Pelotonia 11 and raising as much money as possible for the James—not only in memory of my father, but to be able to help anyone out there going through what my family went through.”

Fowler is now a confirmed cycling addict. “It got into my blood,” he said.
During the first Pelotonia, Fowler had  to get off his bike and walk up several hills. Last year, he found he didn’t have to do that as often.

“This year, I’m training hard, and my goal is to stay on my bike and conquer every hill,” he said. “I feel so blessed that  I have the health and the wherewithal  to do this for people who can’t.” 



2010: Rode 25 miles; raised $1,700
2011: Plans to ride 43 miles

Matt Hare was a patient at the James, fighting for his life, during the first Pelotonia. By the time the second one rolled around last August, he was six months removed from the stem-cell  transplant that had smacked  his multiple myeloma into remission.

“I had some trepidations about doing the ride and what I could manage physically,” Hare said.

During the Friday-evening opening ceremony, Hare met the other riders on his MMORE (Multiple Myeloma Opportunities for Research and Education) team. They included several others battling the disease, a blood cancer similar to leukemia and lymphoma that usually attacks people in their 50s and 60s. Hare is 27.

“I immediately had this unspoken bond with them and a sense of community,” he said. “It was a special feeling knowing we had all gone through or were going through the same thing.

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but once we started riding, everyone came together and had one goal—to end cancer,” he said.

“The whole day was a roller coaster of emotions. It was seriously overwhelming.”



2010: Rode 43 miles; raised $500 (student minimum)

As a Pelotonia Fellowship recipient, Kelsey Gray felt an obligation to ride last year.

“I was doing it to do it—and then I got to the opening ceremony. It felt like everyone had this unspoken bond,” she said. “Typically, when you’re in a big crowd, you don’t feel connected to anyone. But there, everyone was looking at everyone and smiling and talking.”

Pelotonia has become a community of riders, and the money they raise has funded 116 Pelotonia Fellowships for undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate, and medical students at Ohio State.

Each recipient does cancer-related research. Gray, who will be a senior in
the fall, is studying a specific gene and its ability to deter skin cancer.

One goal of the Pelotonia Fellowships is to create the next generation of cancer scientists. “I plan to continue my research in grad school, and I want to focus on pediatric cancer,” Gray said.



2009: Volunteer
2010: Rode 43 miles; raised $1,805
2011: Plans to ride 43 miles

Some people register for their wedding gifts at Macy’s or Nordstrom. Lori Raudabaugh Havlovitz registered with Pelotonia.

 “This is the second marriage for both of us, and we didn’t need anything,” said Lori, a breast cancer survivor who wed Paul Havlovitz in April. “So we thought, we want to do something good with the money, and  we asked everyone to donate to Pelotonia instead of getting us a present.”

The couple rode Pelotonia together last year. Lori—who was first diagnosed with cancer in 2007—struggled on the hills but refused to stop pushing the pedals. Stub-bornness is one of the side effects of her bout with cancer.

“I was like, I am not getting off my bike and walking,” she said. “I don’t know if  I would have had the willpower to do it before I went through my battle [with cancer], but I also would rather that nobody else ever has to go through that battle.”



Pelotonia 2011
Aug. 19–21

Pelotonia began as the brainchild of Michael Caligiuri, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Caligiuri was inspired by the Pan-Mass Challenge, a cycling event that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

The name Pelotonia is derived from the French “peloton,” which is a pack of cyclists who ride bunched together to boost speed and endurance. Many companies and groups form pelotons of co-workers and friends who train and raise money together.

Riders pay a registration fee of $100 and must raise a minimum of between $1,200 to $2,200, depending on the distance they ride.

Riders choose between four dis-tances: 23 miles (from the starting point on campus to Groveport); 43 miles to Amanda; 102 miles to Athens; or a two-day, 180-mile ride to Athens and back to the Columbus area. The 180-mile riders stay overnight in dorms at Ohio University.

In 2009, a total of 2,265 riders raised $4.5 million. In 2010, 4,047 riders raised $7.8 million.

Every dollar raised goes directly to research at Ohio State, thanks to a five-year, $2.5 million commitment from each of three funding partners: Huntington Bancshares, Limited Brands Foundation, and Richard and Peggy Santulli.

About 1,600 volunteers are needed to run Pelotonia.

“Virtual riders” don’t need a bicycle to participate. See the Pelotonia Web site for information.


Learn more at or sign up to be part of Team Buckeye at