The 2,000-plus cyclers who will pedal through West Michigan this June for the Gran Fondo event will do more than just get in a day’s ride.
They’ll also contribute to a possible new treatment for melanoma.
In its first four years, the MSU Gran Fondo cycling event raised $640,000 for Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. The funds directly supported research that’s already discovered a compound that reduces the spread of melanoma cells by up to 90 percent.
The discovery could lead to a new drug to treat melanoma, a form of skin cancer that kills 10,000 people annually.
As plans come together for Gran Fondo 5 on June 24, organizer Bob Hughes believes the recent announcement from MSU can provide added momentum and help to grow the event further. The news “put a big smile on my face,” Hughes said.
“That’s clearly just more motivation. It’s like, ‘Hey guys, we have this going here. Let’s keep going and get these guys the money so they can be doing great things with it,’” said Hughes, the president of Advantage Benefits Group Inc. in Grand Rapids and a Spartan alum.
“You can see a little bit of the finish line. It’s way out there, but you can see the finish line and you’re actually moving toward it and you’re doing something that does that,” he said. “It’s neat to come full circle and see this event that started here in West Michigan now not only be a fun event, but raise key funds for a potential cure for skin cancer impacting people around the world.”
The amount raised so far through the MSU Gran Fondo equates to about 5 percent of the entire funding for the MSU research project on melanoma.
While that may not sound like a big number, it’s one of several funding sources backing the research, said Richard Neubig, a pharmacology professor at MSU and co-author of a recent paper on the melanoma study.
“It was a critical step in the process to get us over the goal line,” Neubig said.
The MSU Gran Fondo originated with Hughes’s idea for a “signature cycling event” in Grand Rapids. Hughes for years was a runner before he “got sick” of it about a dozen years ago and switched to cycling.
Hughes later met Mark Bissell, chairman and CEO of Bissell Inc. Together, they formed a local cycling team, and eventually a traveling pro team.
After attending bike races around the country, they initially created a criterium, or cycling race course, through downtown Grand Rapids. They organized the event in 2007, secured sponsors and in the first year drew 300 to 400 riders who raced on the one-mile course.
Five years later, wanting a broader event that would “appeal more to everybody” and benefit MSU, they started a gran fondo, which means “big ride” in Italian. The inaugural MSU Gran Fondo in 2013, held prior to the criterium, drew about 1,500 riders and became a bigger event than the race, which was dropped after 2015, Hughes said.
“It became the tail wagging the dog,” he said.
The MSU Gran Fondo today features four rides of 12, 25, 40 and 80 miles each. The 12-mile ride goes through Millennium Park and the 80-mile ride goes from downtown Grand Rapids to Ottawa County’s North Beach Park on Lake Michigan, north of Grand Haven, and back to the city. Riders can take in food stops along their routes and attend a “big party” afterward with food by the Gilmore Collection, local beers and live music.
Riders pay a $70 entry fee and solicit donations. The riders who raise the most can win donated prizes that include an Aeron chair, vacations and a new bike valued at $6,000.
The 2016 MSU Gran Fondo drew about 1,900 riders and Hughes expects up to 2,200 this year. Corporate sponsors of the event include Bissell, the Gilmore Collection, Priority Health, Herman Miller Inc., SpartanNash Co., and MVP Sports.
Looking to the future, Hughes envisions the MSU Gran Fondo becoming larger. When they started out, he and other organizers wanted to emulate and create a cycling version of the annual Fifth Third River Bank Run that over the years became a major annual event each spring in Grand Rapids.
“It’s only year five,” he said. “It’s been growing every year and we keep trying to tweak it and make it better. Its best years are ahead.”