Bike to the Beach, an annual bicycle-riding, autism-awareness fundraiser, is back for its 15th year on July 30. What began as a tradition between two friends transformed into a full-fledged 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that raised more than $1.2 million last year for autism awareness.
In 1999, without rides or cars of their own, Ben Dalley and Joey Schmitz packed up their beach clothes and rode their bicycles more than 100 miles from D.C. to the Delaware shore to celebrate graduating high school. The tradition has continued each year since, but Bike to the Beach officially became a nonprofit organization in 2007. Since then, six other committee-led Bike to the Beach rides have been established in cities across the U.S.
Robby Walsh, executive director and one of the founding members of Bike to the Beach, says when the original friend group of riders was choosing a cause to support, they landed on autism awareness because some of their relatives had been diagnosed with autism. They felt they were fairly uneducated about the autism and disability community, which to them was a sign the cause needed more advocates.
“As we started growing our community and got to know a lot of families directly touched by autism and developmental disabilities, it became personal,” says Walsh, who hopes to raise at least $2 million at this year’s event.
His passion for supporting autism awareness stems from it not only being a global and national cause, but also a local one.
“It is so local that once you start seeing it at our events — when you see the variety of what they do and the families at the finish line — it starts to become something tangible that you can solve,” he says.
Bike to the Beach participants can choose to ride the full, 100-mile route that stretches from D.C. to Dewey Beach, Delaware, or the 50- or 25-mile routes instead. Walsh says it’s totally possible to ride the entire 100-mile stretch even if you haven’t trained for the event because there are rest stops every 10 to 15 miles.
“You decide what kind of day you want to have,” he says. “If you’ve been training, you’ll feel good. If you go into the day and don’t train at all, it’ll be a bigger challenge.”
Co-CEO of Balance Gym Devin Maier says the years he didn’t train were much harder than the years he did, but crossing the finish line is worth it either way. He has been participating in Bike to the Beach for 12 years now and says it is one of his favorite events of the year.
“Each year was magical for many reasons,” Maier says. “If I could say anything to people on the fence, it would be to give it a go. It’s such an amazing feeling rolling into Dewey Beach with a crowd of folks cheering for you, knowing you’ve raised a ton of money for such a wonderful cause, and you’ve got a weekend to relax and recover ahead of you.”
In fact, Maier loves Bike to the Beach so much, it is the catalyst that led him to working at Balance Gym in the first place. Once he started looking more into the event and found out the gym was one of its sponsors, he began training rides with them and says the rest is history. As he learned more about the cause behind Bike to the Beach over the years, Maier shifted his focus from the riding aspect of the event to the fundraising aspect instead.
“It’s been so humbling meeting families with autistic kids and hearing their stories,” he says. “Many of my close friends and even extended family have since revealed to me that their kids have been diagnosed with autism, and they appreciate the awareness and fundraising I’ve been doing over the years.”
Bike to the Beach D.C. kicks off on July 30. Participants can choose to bike 100, 50 or 25 miles. The 100-mile trip stretches from D.C. to Dewey Beach, Delaware. With only 100 spots available in the physical event, there is also a virtual ride and advocacy challenge option. Register today or donate to support the cause of autism and disability awareness. Learn more at www.biketothebeach.org/washington-dc.