Pelotonia Leans on Tech and Innovation for Its Most Ambitious Ride Yet

How the cycling fundraiser is adapting to overcome the challenges of 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic that requires distance, how can an in-person event that requires a mass gathering of people overcome the odds in 2020? For Ohio nonprofit Pelotonia, tech is the answer. Each year, Pelotonia hosts a bike ride in which participants raise funds for cancer research. The event is the largest single-event cycling fundraiser benefiting cancer research in Ohio, and has raised more than $210 million. But holding a major sporting event and fundraiser during the summer of COVID-19 is a new challenge, one that Pelotonia leaders recognized early on.

“We started working from home and started watching the news and the protocols that were being put in place and immediately thought about our event,” said COO Joe Apgar. “We usually have about 12,000 to 15,000 people on Friday night at our events during our ride weekend, which is a massive gathering. We knew, the way it was trending, we were going to be forced to do something different this year. But we didn’t want to come out and say we weren’t going to have a ride. We felt like we had some time to hold off and use technology to bring something new to the community this year, and we weren’t going to just say, ‘go do your own thing and we’ll send you a T-shirt.’”

Apgar said Pelotonia had already been working to “rebuild our entire technology platform” for about six months, with plans for a new site and web registration experience that would launch in 2021. But in the midst of that process, the team realized they needed to accelerate. They created My Pelotonia, a new participation platform that allows participants to define personal challenges and fundraising goals as a replacement for the traditional three-day ride weekend.

“We worked day and night for six weeks to get this launched,” said Apgar. “It really changed our model for this year and, I think, part of our model forever going forward. It’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure story. You can put a big goal out there with your friends and family and go do it in your own way on behalf of cancer research. You’re participating in Pelotonia by setting your own personal challenge and fundraising goals. Previously, you just selected one of 15 options for the route you wanted to ride and that came with a corresponding fundraising commitment. Now, the power is in the community’s hands.”

For Apgar and the Pelotonia team, sharing “draft one” of software still in production is scary but exhilarating. Pelotonia will continue to add functionality and evolve the platform over the next several months, but the progress is already receiving rave reviews. One of the major benefits so far is that the team has seen an increase in interest from outside their traditional rider base. Even those who aren’t interested in cycling are on board.

“We’ve been blown away by the feedback,” said Apgar. “Of course the diehards love it, but there are also a lot of new people who have approached us. I talked to the wife of a longtime rider who’s always been a big cheerleader but doesn’t like to ride a bike. She sent us an email out of the blue and said her Pelotonia is going to be a running marathon and I’m going to match donors’ contributions. Cycling is great, but it’s kind of an exclusive thing. Bikes are expensive, not everyone feels comfortable on the road; there are a lot of barriers. So that’s what we wanted — a step beyond just a bike ride.”

Apgar said the Pelotonia team has been inspired by companies around Ohio who have quickly pivoted and stepped up for noble causes during the pandemic. Ultimately, the goal is to make this Pelotonia ride (or run) as successful as ever. Last year’s event raised more than $23 million for cancer research, and Apgar said he hopes the unique 2020 event can be a bright spot in a difficult year.

“More people than ever are getting diagnosed with cancer and a lot of that can get lost in this pandemic,” said Apgar. “Cancer patients are having a tougher time getting treatment and having to take different protocols so they don’t get sick. So it’s important to remember that what we’re working for is to give people with cancer a better life. In a lot of ways, the work we’re doing is more important than ever, and I’m really proud of the way our team has shifted to really lean into that.”

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