Closer to Free bike ride a chance to join the fight against cancer

When the third annual Closer to Free bike ride kicks off on September 7, many of those riding and volunteering will know firsthand the crucial role that Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven has played in their recovery. In that group will be Stephen Ackley-Ortiz ’02, who will be returning to the saddle for the third time.

Director of alumni affairs at the Yale Law School, Ackley-Ortiz is also a cancer survivor, having battled simultaneous throat and colon cancers while the inaugural Closer to Free ride was being planned in 2011. “I had to go to Smilow for radiation and every day I would see the ride poster and I said to myself ‘I am going to get well enough to ride,’ ” he said. “Having that as a goal kept me going through my treatment.”

The Closer to Free ride got Ackley-Ortiz into cycling, and he hasn’t stopped since. He now races with the Devil’s Gear bike shop team, and has logged 4,000 miles in the past year. “My life has been transformed by cycling,” said Ackley-Ortiz. The Closer to Free ride “allows me to give back to Smilow, which gave me back my life. I also ride for those who are no longer with us or who are in treatment.”

But the ride isn’t just for survivors and their families. Creating a sense of community around cancer research and care is one of the biggest impacts of the event, says the director of Yale Cancer Center Thomas Lynch, M.D. “You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or a Nobel Prize or be a surgeon,” says Lynch, who will be joined on the Closer to Free ride by his teenage son. The ride “gives everyone the opportunity to participate in the fight against cancer.”

Billed as the “best organized ride in Connecticut,” Closer to Free kicks off from the Yale Bowl where riders, family, and volunteers will gather before the early morning send-off. Though the riders don’t all follow the same course – there are 25-, 62.5-, and 100-mile routes –banter and food at the rest stops along the way bring everyone together and create a community spirit.

The ride’s beautiful scenery doesn’t hurt, either. This year’s new routes, which will be passing through the same towns in the Greater New Haven area as last year, take riders past forests, reservoirs, and (for the two longer rides) the Connecticut shoreline. Riders loop back to finish at the Yale Bowl, where a live band, beer garden, and food trucks will keep crowds busy throughout the day.

The Closer to Free ride raised over $730,000 last year, with a $1 million goal for 2013. Riders and volunteers are encouraged to sign up at The $100 registration covers everything from beer to a race jersey and bike tech support, and riders are also asked to raise an additional $400 for the hospital. Organizers hope to top last year’s 485 riders by at least 250 more. “It’s a great event,” says Lynch. “Everybody that participates is really happy that they did it.”



This article was submitted by Claire M. Bessinger - Van Graan on June 10, 2013.