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Thousands hit road for cancer funds

28th annual charity ride aims to raise $27m

Cyclists in the 28th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge rode through Franklin yesterday as they took part in the two-day ride to raise money for cancer research and treatment. Cyclists in the 28th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge rode through Franklin yesterday as they took part in the two-day ride to raise money for cancer research and treatment.

WELLESLEY -- Attached to the back of Lisa Theoharidis's helmet hung 6-foot-long ribbons covered in small, laminated squares -- each one bearing the name of someone who has fought cancer.

When she first raced in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge five years ago, Theoharidis said she had biked for only a handful of names. This year, 92 of them will flap behind her in the wind.

"Some of them I don't know. Some of them I do," said Theoharidis, 45, of Centerville. "We all know someone who has had cancer. We can all make a list, can't we?"

Not only is Theoharidis's helmet indicative of a heightened awareness of cancer fund-raising, but also the staggering growth of the Bay State's 28th annual 190-mile charity bike ride.

This year, more than 5,000 cyclists participated, up 18 percent from last year, said Billy Starr, founder and executive director. The organization has also seen a 22 percent growth in fund-raising compared with the same period last year. As of Friday, cyclists had raised $18 million and were on their way to exceeding the $27 million goal for cancer research and treatment, Starr said.

About 70 percent of the cyclists, who come from 35 states and eight countries, return each year, he said. On average, veteran riders have been participating in the challenge for the past seven years. "We find ways to accommodate the growth from multiple starting lines and finish lines and new routes," Starr said. "You have people who are dedicated to battling the war on cancer."

This year, temperatures soared and made the trek more difficult, but not extraordinarily so, he said, adding that most riders are determined to do what it takes to cross the finish line.

"It's too important a weekend," he said.

In the spots where runners often attach numbers to their jerseys, many bikers donned photos and handwritten messages of love for those who have faced cancer. Some turned their bikes into minishrines.

On Francis Coe's Trek 2100 bicycle, two photos hung above the water bottle -- one in memory of his sister, Kitty, and his father, and the other in honor of his brother, Bill, who survived testicular cancer and rode beside him yesterday.

"It's just something to look at on mile 16 and say, 'If they can fight, we can fight,' " said Francis Coe, 46, of East Bridgewater. "And we can have fun doing it."

His brother, 40, held up a water bottle coated with a family-photo collage.

"Those with us and those no longer with us," he said.

A few minutes later, Denise DeSimone, a cancer survivor, sang the national anthem to signal the start of the race. When she finished, Bill Coe took off his sunglasses and wiped tears from his eyes.

The Coe brothers bumped fists and began their journey as U2's "Beautiful Day" blasted through the speakers. Bill Coe said the bike ride is "tougher than chemo."

Other people were visibly moved. One woman had a difficult time steering as she brushed away tears while passing a line of supporters who applauded her efforts.

Organizers said the event has always been that personal. Now, it is just bigger.

Before the race began, one team climbed a hill on foot to the staging area, each donned a photo on their backs. In it, 8-year-old Caroline sports a pink hat and sun dress and poses like a spunky dancer with her right hand on her hip and the left arm extended upward. She made them for the team and hand-wrote: "Thank you! Caroline" on each one.

One team member, Mary Beth Gibson, 42, of Toano, Va., said she was diagnosed last year with breast cancer, the same disease that killed her mother 11 years ago at age 55.

Gibson's cousin has participated in the race for nearly 15 years, first for Gibson's mother when she lived with cancer and then in her memory.

"I intend for her to never ride in my memory," Gibson said. "I'm going to be here for a long time."

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