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"Thons" Reconsidered

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by Sheldon Brown

Disclaimer:

This article does not represent the views or opinions of Harris Cyclery.

In the past few years, there has been a proliferation of pledge rides or "bike-a-thons," in which cylclists help to raise money for charitable causes by asking their friends and neighbors to contribute a small sum for each mile they ride in an organized event. This approach has been used by many charitable groups, and even by the League of American Bicyclists, in it's Pedal For Power program.

Conventional wisdom is that this is a win-win situation, encouraging cycling while simultaneously raising money for worthy causes.

I would submit that this conventional wisdom is wrong, that these pledge rides are bad for cycling, and that they should not be encouraged by the League.

"Bike-a-thons" grew out of "walk-a-thons." The idea of walk-a-thons is that the participants demonstrate their concern for the selected cause by undergoing the painful ordeal of a long walk, with the understanding that each mile they walk will enlarge the contribution given by the donors who they have signed up. The donors, in turn, get to feel that their contribution has been "earned" by the suffering of the participant who has sacrificed time and comfort for the sake of the cause.

The problem with translating the "walk-a-thon" into the "bike-a-thon" is the application of the concepts of "sacrifice" and "suffering" from walking to cycling. Cycling shouldn't be seen as a painful ordeal; cycling is fun! Could you imagine a "Cine-thon" where participants asked for pledges based on how many movies they watched? How about an "Ice-Cream-a-thon," in which people would give contributions based on how many ice cream cones you ate?

Altough "thons" do get people out on their bikes, and maybe even bring some people into cycling in a serious way, I believe that they send a message that cycling is a painful, unpleasant chore that you should do because it is good for you, or because it benefits some charitable organization. Too many well-meaning people sign up for a long pledge ride without an adequate mileage base, with substandard cycling skills and equipment. These people will "learn" that bicycling is about pain and exhaustion, saddle sores and sunburn, aching knees and stiff necks.

An experience like this can turn a potential cyclist off for life. They may still ride an occasional pledge ride, as a masochistic exercise in self denial, or because of dedication to the cause, or because they are so proud of surviving the ordeal. They will likely never discover the simple joy of going for a nice bike ride and not coming home a physical wreck.

The people who run most "thons" are good people, with good intentions. However, they have an agenda which does not necessarily include promotion of bicycling. While their use of bicyclists may promote a noble cause, the end does not justify the means.

since June 5, 1998

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