Joel Hannigan. DON RICKERS

Cyclist Joel Hannigan will be riding 850 kilometres from Toronto to New York City to raise funds for Ontario children stricken with cancer

Another summer morning at 6 AM, another 40 kilometres peddled through Pelham. Forty-point-nine kilometres, to be exact, according to Joel Hannigan’s handlebar-mounted bike computer.

Hannigan, a professional photographer who lives with his family on Millbridge Crescent in Fonthill, is putting in some 200 kilometres a week on his bike, in preparation for a grueling, 850-kilometre ride from Toronto to New York City. The September 14 through 18 ride is a charity fundraiser for Campfire Circle, a non-profit organization which runs summer camps and other programs for thousands of Ontario families affected by childhood cancer. The five-day supported ride takes roadways less traveled through Southern Ontario, New York State, and Pennsylvania, culminating with a finish at Times Square in New York City.

Founded in 1983 and 1984 respectively, Camp Ooch in Muskoka and Camp Trillium in Picton combined their strengths with a merger in 2020, and were rebranded as Campfire Circle in 2022. Ranbow Lake in Waterford is the third camp in organization.

“I got into distance cycling six years ago, when a friend invited me to join a fundraising venture for a different organization,” said Hannigan. “It was a three-day event in Barrie, covering 400 kilometres. At that point in my cycling life, I might have rode maybe 100 kilometres a handful of times. I got to know the people that have been involved with these cancer programs, as well as the families that had personal experience with children who had gone through cancer, or lost the battle with the disease. At about the same time, my wife, Kate, was pregnant with our oldest daughter, Charlotte, so it was an impactful time, having my world reshaped into early fatherhood, and hearing impassioned stories from these other parents.”

Obviously, training for participation in these long rides takes time, and with a young family and job commitments, it was hard for Hannigan to maintain a riding schedule.

“I kind of fell out of the charity rides, but kept in touch with the people who were organizing the events,” he said. “Around Christmas last year, one of the leaders of the fundraising group for the Toronto to New York City ride, or ‘R2NYC,’ as they call it, invited me along. My first thought was, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ It’s a really tough route over five days, with lots of hills, and I wasn’t in great shape. But my wife said, ‘Why not? You’re only getting older. And if not now, then when?’ So I decided to start training.”

Caley Bornbaum, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Events for Campfire Circle, told the Voice that the organization’s fundraising target for the R2NYC event is $500,000, which will cover 200 weeks of camp for cancer-stricken kids and their families. Riders will cover between 160 and 185 kilometers per day.

“The ride will consist of teams made up of about a dozen riders each,” said Bornbaum. “This small-group focus is an important part of the ride, with each team having a dedicated support vehicle during the journey, providing navigation and nutrition stops, and camaraderie. They train hard and they fundraise hard, with each rider contributing at least $5000 to help cover their costs for participation in the event.”

During the pandemic, Campfire Circle had only remote rides, she said.

“Campfire Circle is a year-round support system for kids and families affected by childhood cancer,” said Bornbaum. “We operate in children’s hospitals across the province, and our Muskoka camp is the only one in Canada that can perform chemotherapy and blood transfusions at camp, so that even in some of the most challenging phases of their cancer journey, kids can attend overnight camp.”

We operate in children’s hospitals across the province, and our Muskoka camp is the only one in Canada that can perform chemotherapy and blood transfusions at camp

Although he has no personal experience with childhood cancer, Hannigan was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in his early teens, which gave him an appreciation of how a significant health diagnosis can interrupt a normal childhood. He has been involved with numerous charitable ventures in the past, including camp rides and fundraising for Gillian’s Place, a shelter for abused women and children in St. Catharines.

Hannigan has a couple of road bikes, including his Scott Foil, which features a carbon-fibre frame and wheels, an onboard computer, and electronic shifting. Sculpted to minimize aerodynamic drag without adding weight, it’s the bike he’ll be using on the Toronto to NYC ride. Scott is headquartered in Switzerland, but its bikes are manufactured and assembled in Taiwan. And they don’t come cheap: the latest version of the Foil sells for well over $6000.

“Front Row Sports in Fonthill has a bike mechanic, Matt Parnell, who has been awesome in making sure that my aging bike keeps running,” said Hannigan. “The bike industry has had significant post-Covid supply-chain issues. Parts are hard to come by, and most shops have a very limited selection of high-end road bikes, which are crazy-expensive.”

R2NYC riders will be sleeping in hotels at night, and will have a dedicated bike mechanic for repairs along the route, but won’t have access to a massage therapist for their aching muscles.

“We’re allowed only a small amount of luggage, and I’m still calculating how many massage balls and foam rollers I can pack,” said Hannigan with a laugh.

“This is the first in-person ride since 2019, so it’s a chance to restart the energy and get people involved again,” he said. “As with other organizations, fundraising for the camps was really difficult during the pandemic, and Covid was incredibly isolating for the families dealing with cancer.”

Cycling is a liberating activity for Hannigan, an opportunity to compete, clear his mind, get some vigorous exercise, and be part of a team activity for a good cause.

“People have told me that cycling is the new golf. Guys approaching middle-age are apparently cycling more than they’re swinging a golf club these days. And like golf, cycling can be expensive, with the cost of equipment and the continual need to upgrade. But the nice thing is I don’t need a membership — the roads are free — and I don’t pay greens fees. I just need to keep the bike tuned up, and try not to crash it.”

Hannigan has raised some $6900 for the R2NYC to date, and the fund total is currently about $310,000 into its half million dollar goal. Donations to support Hannigan in his ride can be made online at https://support.campfirecircle.org/r2nyc/joels-climb-to-nyc, or by emailing him directly at  [email protected]