Outdoors

After 25 years, Mary Bridge’s Courage Classic fundraising bike ride to change course

Joe Lawless, director of the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility at UWT, said he's sad that the Courage Classic bike ride is undergoing an extensive change. "After 26 years I feel a little nostalgic about it. It was unique. But I understand why they're doing it." Lawless was a longtime ride director. Photo taken in Tacoma on Wednesday, March 8.
Joe Lawless, director of the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility at UWT, said he's sad that the Courage Classic bike ride is undergoing an extensive change. "After 26 years I feel a little nostalgic about it. It was unique. But I understand why they're doing it." Lawless was a longtime ride director. Photo taken in Tacoma on Wednesday, March 8. dperine@thenewstribune.com

A popular bicycle ride known for challenging and pampering participants is dramatically changing course, leaving its biggest supporter pondering its future involvement with the event.

For 25 years, Courage Classic cyclists have pedaled over three mountain passes while raising $10 million to help fund youth sexual abuse programs at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital.

The three-day ride covered more than 170 miles and climbed more than 10,000 vertical feet as riders passed over Snoqualmie, Blewett and Stevens passes.

Along the way, they were spoiled by Pierce County Rotary Clubs with everything from massages to root beer floats.

“It’s the one ride where cyclists gain weight,” said Joe Lawless, the ride’s first director.

An overhaul is needed to reduce costs, avoid perpetual road work and attract more riders, said Kristin Barsness, executive director of the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation.

So, the ride is moving from the mountains to the South Sound, ditching its challenging course for something easier and broadening the scope of its cause. Now, money raised will benefit all Mary Bridge programs.

The ride also is dropping the word “Classic” from its name.

It will be called Mary Bridge Children’s Courage and its longest route (175 miles) will start and finish in Centralia with an overnight stay at Pack Forest near Eatonville.

The revamp leaves the Rotary, which helped start the ride, wanting more information before deciding if and how it will support the event.

A conference call with Rotary and ride officials is planned for Friday (March 10).

“It’s sad they are making changes,” Puyallup South Hill Rotary president Jeff Lieurance said, adding that, “It’s well within their purview. We understand.”

I’d imagine Rotary feels a lot of ownership over this and rightly so. This ride has only been possible because of the partnership with Rotary and very, very passionate riders and donors.

Kristin Barsness, Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation executive director

Barsness said race organizers hope to keep the Rotary’s support.

“I’d imagine Rotary feels a lot of ownership over this and rightly so,” she said. “This ride has only been possible because of the partnership with Rotary and very, very passionate riders and donors.”

Barsness said it cost $570 per rider to stage the event in 2016, with much of the expense driven by safety and staging issues. The average cost of similar rides around the nation is $200, she added, referring to data from Precision Sports Consulting.

The North Carolina-based consulting company worked with a committee of riders, volunteers and foundation members to determine how to make Courage Classic more efficient.

The new ride will offer one-day routes of five, 30 or 50 miles and two-day options of 150 or 175 miles.

This year’s rides on Aug. 26-27 will stretch from Centralia to Eatonville, with cyclists overnighting at Pack Forest. One-day rides will start in Eatonville and finish at Pack Forest.

In the past, Courage Classic has been capped for safety reasons at 650 riders, a limit the ride often reaches.

With options less imposing than the original course, Barsness believes the ride will have no limit and attract more cyclists.

Plus, it should be considerably less expensive, he said, because it won’t have the safety issues of the original ride.

Costs of protecting cyclists on the original ride were substantial because cyclist had to cross Snoqualmie (using the shoulder of Interstate 90 in places), Blewett and Stevens passes.

“Trying to keep everybody safe strung out over a mountain pass was pretty hairy,” Barsness said.

In recent years, organizers have bused cyclists through road work on Snoqualmie Pass. Work is expected to continue through 2029, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The original Courage Classic was a three-day ride that covered more than 170 miles and climbed more than 10,000 vertical feet as riders passed over Snoqualmie, Blewett and Stevens passes.

With cyclists overnighting in Cle Elum the first night and Leavenworth the second, the cost of moving equipment was expensive.

“It was like a road show,” Barsness said.

But the Rotary and others wonder whether the new ride will still be as alluring without the mountainous and scenic challenge that shaped its reputation.

“It certainly doesn’t have that wow factor,” Lawless said of the new routes. “But I understand wanting broader marketing potential.”

The ride started in 1992 after the Lakewood Rotary Club — motivated by a high-profile sexual assault — donated $100,000 to start the Rotary Endowment for the Intervention and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

The Rotary and the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation decided to stage a bike ride to further fund the endowment. The idea came from the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation’s ride, the Courage Classic.

The Colorado event helped the local groups launch their own Courage Classic.

“We wanted it (the ride) to be a challenge,” Lawless said. The Cascade passes presented just that, even if the route wasn’t in Pierce County.

In 2016, the ride reached its goal of growing the endowment to $10 million. Last year, the endowment supported 41 percent (about $400,000) of Mary Bridge’s child abuse intervention program costs, said MultiCare spokeswoman Marce Edwards.

Lawless and Barsness say the ride’s success wouldn’t have been possible without the Rotary.

The new ride will be called Mary Bridge Children’s Courage and its longest route (175 miles) will start and finish in Centralia with an overnight stay at Pack Forest near Eatonville.

“The ride probably would have died after seven years,” Lawless said. “That’s the average lifespan of a ride like this.”

The Rotary gave Courage Classic what Lawless says is key to a successful race: “Uniqueness.”

While most rides hand out bagels and bananas, Courage riders dined on banana splits, loaded baked potatoes, sub sandwiches and snow cones.

After the ride, cyclists voted on their favorite of the 11 rest stops. The winning club received a plaque and a year of bragging rights.

“It’s a lot of work,” Lieurance said, “but mostly we are going up and having fun.”

The Rotary spent more than $10,000 a year staging the rest stops, Lieurance said. Last year, for the first time, the ride reimbursed the Rotary, he said.

The ride’s tagline used to be “Washington State’s best weekend ride ever … Guaranteed.”

“When we started that I wondered, ‘What if people want a refund?’ ” Lawless said. “But nobody ever did.”

Organizers hope to build a similar reputation with the new ride. And they hope the Rotary is there to help.

“Together,” Barsness said, “I think we can have a really wonderful event that will raise money for kids.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497

MARY BRIDGE CHILDREN’S COURAGE CLASSIC

When: Aug. 26-27.

Location: Pack Forest near Eatonville, Centralia and Pierce and Thurston county backroads and trails.

One-day rides: Five, 30 and 50 miles.

Two-day rides: 150 and 175 miles.

Registration fee: $35 to $75, depending on route.

Fundraising minimum: $50 to $750.

Accommodations: Participants can camp or rent a room at Pack Forest.

Kickoff party: 5:30 p.m. March 16, Foss Waterway Seaport, 705 Dock St, Tacoma.

More info: courageclassic.com

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