They're an increasingly common sight on country roads: packs of cyclists, often wearing matching jerseys advertising their favourite charity, pumping out the kilometres in pursuit of some good cause.
The charity bicycle event has swelled from almost nothing a decade ago to become a major player in Canadian fundraising efforts. Helped by cycling's rising popularity, there are rides in every part of the country. Tens of millions of dollars have been generated for the fight against cancer, diabetes, heart and stroke disease, multiple sclerosis and myriad other causes.
"Cycling is the on-trend activity," Paul Alofs, president and CEO of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, said Friday. "Cycling is the new golf."
Mr. Alofs, who was gearing up to participate over the weekend in the Ontario edition of the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, during which nearly 5,000 riders raised $18.1-million for the foundation, said the event started in response to research showing a noticeable growth of riders.
It's a trend seen across the country. Cycling Canada said recently that its number of licensed riders – 10,000 competitive and 24,000 recreational – has been growing at about 10 per cent annually. The Bicycle Trade Association of Canada says that sales by independent retailers jumped 21 per cent from 2009 to 2010, climbing to $250-million.
Some attribute it to the Lance Armstrong effect, arguing that the seven-time Tour de France winner helped popularize the sport in North America. Others believe it is driven by boomers seeking a lower-impact activity than running. And the rise of Cervélo is often cited as a factor – the Canadian company makes top-line bikes, including those ridden to victory by British Columbian Ryder Hesjedal in the Giro d'Italia last month.
Whatever the reason, numerous charities have benefitted from the new popularity, the biggest of them raising millions each.
The Becel Heart & Stroke Ride for Heart, on one of Toronto's main highways, has boosted its fundraising in each of the past four years, from $2.9-million in 2009 to $5-million this year. For two years running, they have maxed out with about 13,000 participants.
In a twist that lets rider keep raising funds in the fall, when weather become iffier, the Ride for Diabetes Research is done inside on spinning bikes. With more than 22,000 participants at locations across the country last year, the events raised more than $7.2-million. They are aiming for $7.9-million this year.
And more than 10,000 people are expected to participate this year in the 22 one- or two-day MS Bike Tour events taking place nationwide between this month and September.
The Ride to Conquer Cancer holds separate events across the country. Last year, 11,665 riders raised a total of $43.8-million: in British Columbia ($11-million); Alberta ($8.6-million); Ontario ($17.5-million); and Quebec ($6.7-million). Including totals from this weekend's ride, between Toronto and Niagara, it has raised nearly $150-million nationwide in the past five years.
"It is motivating beyond belief to ride in a very large group of likeminded people," said Mr. Alofs.
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly identified the name of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation. The Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer was also incorrectly identified. This online version has been corrected.