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A humble beginning: How Empire State Ride grew into what it is today

Empire State Ride has grown immensely over the last decade. Here’s a look at the event’s early years. 

The original Empire State RIde team in 2015
2015 →
Empire State RIde 2023
2023

If you’ve hit the road with us before or follow Empire State Ride (ESR) on social media, you’ve likely heard about ESR Founder Terry Bourgeois’s first solo ride across New York State. In 2014, Terry set out to test his vision of a cross-state cancer fundraiser that started in New York City and ended in Niagara Falls. But what about the first official Empire State Ride back in 2015 or the second ride in 2016? How did those rides differ from the ESR we know and love?

Empire State Ride has grown significantly over the last decade — in size, reputation and its impact in the fight to end cancer. The event has increased from 10 riders to almost 300 with fundraising efforts for cancer research increasing from $55,000 in 2015 to an astonishing $2.1 million in 2023. Now, we’re striving to hit a collective $10 million dollars raised for ESR’s 10th anniversary.

The First Official Empire State Ride

The 2015 Empire State Ride Route
The 2015 Empire State Ride Route

Back in 2015, the route was much different than it is today and so were the logistics that went into bringing the weeklong adventure to life. That first year saw riders set out from American Youth Hostels in Manhattan, where registration was held, to embark on the experience of a lifetime. Throughout the seven days, they stayed in different camps than the ones lined up for 2024, including:

  • American Youth Hostels in Manhattan (orientation)
  • City Park in Stony Point
  • Unification Seminary in Barrytown
  • Frosty Acres Campground in Schenectady
  • Utica City Park in Utica
  • River Forest Campground in Weedsport
  • Spencerport High School in Spencerport

There were no shower trucks, rider HUB, catering trucks or elaborate nightly program; the group was small enough to use campground facilities and restrooms. Those riders quickly became close, gathering nightly at bonfires to recount the day’s adventures and relive the trials and challenges of the days — including the hills.

“The first route was very different,” says Roswell Park’s Executive Director of Patient and Family Experience Kara Eaton, who was on the road that first year. “It was very difficult, but I built up mental and physical strength to get through and had the support of strangers who became family.”

Among others in attendance on that milestone year were IceCycle Founder Bill Loecher and John “Blue” Hannon, an Adventure Cycling Association leader who lent his expertise on bike tours to the event coordinators. The 11 Day Power Play Founder Amy Lesakowski join in the event’s second year.

Terry at American Youth Hostels, where the original orientation was held

We had close tabs on each other [in 2015]. There were times when the crew loved it, and then there were some hills when I heard riders yelling my name, saying: ‘I’m going to kill him! This hill sucks!’ I took that as a lesson learned, and we eventually took out some of the hills. At the end of the ride in 2015, the concept of ESR was solid. From there, we had to press on and make it real.

Hills and the Original Empire State Ride Route

Along the original route, riders tackled a mix of roadways and trails, similar to today’s path but with some pretty dramatic ascents. The hills proved to be challenging in the moment but eventually became stories shared for years to come.

Blue Hannon describes how one of those hills on day one has become a favorite memory. “My favorite memory of that year was the magnificence of riding through New York City and over the George Washington Bridge. You had to climb to get up to the bridge. But being on the bridge on your bike with the water down there … it was awesome.”

Of course, one of the steepest but most memorable hills came immediately before camp at Frosty Acres Campground in Schenectady on day three. In later years, that hill would become an epicenter for rider support with a crowd loudly and proudly cheering on riders as they ascended the last trying climb that stood between them and a good night’s rest — the same hill from which Team Dragon Slayers was born.

On the road each July, slaying dragons has become an extended metaphor for facing life’s challenges head on, whether you’re crushing a hill or raising money for cancer research. Phil Zodda, a six-time road warrior, recounts pushing against everything he had to get up that hill at Frosty Acres. When he reached the top, a rider named Carlos handed him a “dragon slayer” patch and congratulated him on joining the rank of dragon slayers. Though that hill is no longer part of Empire State Ride, Phil has made it his mission to hand out dragon slayer badges to those tackling hills on day three of ESR.  

“Together, we will slay this dragon called cancer and make the world a better place for future generations,” Zodda says.

Of course, for many, those hills simply made the finish line moment even more memorable. When the road warriors crossed the 2015 finish line (in front of the Niagara Falls Discovery Center instead of its current home on Old Falls Street), they proved how a small group of committed people can persevere, setting into motion a decade of unforgettable memories that have made a tangible impact in the fight to end cancer.

The Growth that Followed

The next year, the event grew to 63 people who raised $252,000, then to 84 people who raised $424,000. Each year brought with it a greater impact for cutting-edge cancer research and lifesaving clinical trials at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and beyond.

Looking back, it’s easy to understand how this group of dedicated road warriors has been able to raise more than $8 million for cancer research. Now we’ll ride onward to hit a collective $10 million for cancer research on a milestone year.

Will you join us for the 10th anniversary?

The original ESR jersey

Coach Charlie Livermore: 10 things I love about Empire State Ride

By Coach Charlie Livermore

The Empire State Ride is lucky to have the support of professional cycling coach Charlie Livermore as an advisor and friend. Charlie is not only a coach at Carmichael Training Systems, but also serves as a training consultant on our adventure across New York State. He offers his expertise and tips to all ESR riders and joins us on the road each July to ride 500+ miles.  

2024 marks a milestone in Empire State Ride history: the historic 10th anniversary ride. To mark the occasion, ESR Pro-Level Cycling Coach Charlie Livermore put together a list of his 10 favorite things that he loves about Empire State Ride (ESR). Check it out!

1. The week.

I love that this is a weeklong event. It’s hard to describe in words why this is such an amazing week in my life every year, but I can tell you that at the end of seven days, I’m always wishing for seven more.

2. The opportunity to teach and help.

I love teaching and helping participants find ways to make the challenge a little easier and more fun. I give coaching sessions on select nights and am always available for questions.

3. The cause.

I’m a cancer survivor and experienced a positive outcome from my treatment in a clinical trial. The end goal is to eliminate cancers, but along the way, Roswell Park is developing less intrusive treatments to survive this disease.

Charlie Livermore on the road at ESR
Charlie Livermore alongside other ESR riders
Charlie taking a selfie with other riders at ESR

4. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation Team.

The passion and organizational skills from this team put this event at the top of well-run events I have done.

5. Eat, Sleep, Ride, Repeat.

Everything is provided so that all you have to do is focus on eating, riding and sleeping. It’s really an adventure vacation.

6. Evening program.

The inspiration, camaraderie and education of the post-dinner evening program sets this event apart from any other. You’ll laugh, cry and go to sleep every night inspired!

7. Volunteers.

ESR has the most committed, fun, energized and helpful volunteers you’ll experience at any event.

8. Food, rest stops and festivities.

Great breakfasts and dinners, plenty of well-stocked rest stops along the routes and fun evening festivities!

Charlie Livermore and other ESR riders eating at a rest stop
Charlie Livermore holds sign with friends at halfway point.

9. Community.

You’ll experience the most interesting, welcoming and inclusive community at ESR.  Everyone is respected, and comfortable in being themselves and expressing all aspects of their identities. Everyone shares a sense of belonging here.

10. Friendships.

You will meet and make friends for life here.

Meet the Long Island Rough Riders

port x logistics logo

On Empire State Ride, you’re never alone in the mission to end cancer. That feeling is amplified when you ride with a team.

The Long Island Rough Riders have consistently been one of the top fundraising teams at Empire State Ride (ESR). Still, members say they’re defined not solely by the dollars they raise but also by the family they’ve created.

“All skill levels are welcome. It’s not a race. We all finish together. We ride together. We look out for each other,” said Steve Mars, co-chair of ESR and longtime member of the Long Island Rough Riders.

Fellow rider Steve Wasserman added, “This group of about twenty is made up of some very special people who have ridden this ride and have helped raise funds for anywhere from two to nine years. It’s an astonishing group with a common bond.”

While each of their reasons for riding is personal, the Long Island Rough Riders all come together for one shared purpose: raising funds for critical cancer research.

The Team’s Early Days

Like many first-time riders, when Mars signed up for ESR, he didn’t know anyone else on the adventure. He was a mountain biker and had never taken on a ride quite like this one.

Mars explained, “I signed up for this as a way to honor my mother and others impacted by cancer, and I thought it would be a one-off. I bought a road bike and learned how to clip into the pedals. I trained by myself and learned a lot about cycling and then I went on the ride, and I realized what an incredible life-changing experience it is.”

That “one-off” ride turned into eight ESRs, going on nine. He credits the decision to come back each year largely to the people he met along the way — like Richard Noll, John Downey, John Arfman, Mike Simms and Alan Kurtz the founding members of the Long Island Rough Riders.

“It’s interesting because I met and bonded with amazing friends who live in surrounding towns on Empire State Ride. I had to ride across the state to meet people who live one town north or one town south,” said Mars.

The name ‘Rough Riders’ is inspired by Teddy Roosevelt, who has strong ties to Long Island and is also a source of influence for ESR Founder Terry Bourgeois.

Over the years, the Rough Riders have continued to welcome new members from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels.

Riders on the Long Island Rough Riders
Group photo of the Long Island Rough Riders

Why Ride with a Team?

Regardless of your why for participating in ESR, being a part of the community is likely a perk of the decision, if not a draw. By riding with a team, you’ll form that community faster.

Wasserman learned that firsthand in 2023.

He explained, “When I first signed up, I did not know anyone else doing the ride. I found out that there was a local group called the Long Island Rough Riders which I joined to help me in training and to answer questions that I had about the ride.”

The Rough Riders meet up for rides leading up to the weeklong event to help all ESR participants get in their training.

“The physical benefits of riding with a team obviously make the physical challenges a bit easier since you can share the work and take turns pulling along the long stretches of road,” said Noll, a veteran rider.

The preparation for ESR isn’t just about the physical ride, either. It also entails learning about fundraising, nutrition, hydration, teamwork and safety. That’s why having people to lean on before you even start the adventure can go a long way.

Group photo of the Long Island Rough Riders
Group photo of the Long Island Rough Riders
Group photo of the Long Island Rough Riders

Friendships Before, During and After ESR

No matter the road warrior, one theme seems to be reoccurring when riders talk about Empire State Ride: the bonds they make on the road.

“Our team is an amazing family of dedicated riders and fundraisers. Through ESR and the Rough Riders, I have found lifelong friends whom I can count on for so much more than cycling,” said Noll.

Mars, who is also a cancer survivor, agrees. When asked about the most impactful memories with his team, he shared a story that will stick with him forever.

“Coincidentally I had finished my radiation at the beginning of August and when I crossed the finish line on the 10th anniversary of completing my treatment, that was a moment for sure, and I grabbed a couple of close friends and told them,” Mars said as he began to tear up. “ESR is also the first place I raised my hand and said I was a survivor.”

In many ways, ESR provides a platform for people to share how cancer has impacted them, and it gives them an outlet to do something about it. Moments like the one Mars shared are part of what makes the connections formed on the road so special.

Noll added, “My brothers and sisters are always there for me in cycling and support me in every aspect of my life: business, emotionally and socially. I have met people who have faced true adversity and struggle and who have taught me how to persist and push myself further than I otherwise would think possible.”

After just one year on the road, Wasserman feels the same.

He said, “We all inspire and motivate each other for a common purpose to end cancer.”

Statewide and Worldwide Impact

It’s no secret that the Rough Riders are a team of dedicated and persistent fundraisers. They share their personal stories, lean on the resources provided by Roswell Park and educate themselves on where the funds go to better inform their donors.

“My initial why for partaking in the Empire State Ride was the physical challenge of the 560-mile journey. However, I learned about Roswell Park, the work being done and the amazing people involved. So, my why quickly changed and has grown over the last seven years to supporting an amazing organization that benefits all of us and our loved ones that battle cancer,” said Noll.

Over ten years of ESR, the event is on track to hit a collective $10 million raised for cancer research at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is America’s first cancer center dedicated to research. 

While Roswell Park is located in Buffalo, New York, the funds raised have a worldwide impact, and that includes downstate on Long Island.

Mars explained, “They have a cancer care network that partners with hospitals across the state, and the innovative research is shared with all the major cancer centers in the U.S. To know that the breakthroughs that are going on at Roswell Park are actually helping my neighbors, it’s one of the things that just keeps us moving forward and saying we’re going to beat this thing together.”

And as the Rough Riders gear up for the tenth anniversary of ESR, they reflect on the impact their team has made over the years: a journey that started with a few riders from Long Island, that’s grown into a family with ties all over the country.

Camping at ESR: What you need to know

Empire State Ride is just around the corner, and riders are in for the journey of a lifetime. Not only are road warriors advancing cancer research from the seat of their bikes, but they’re also taking on a unique cycling challenge. If you’re anything like Maria Coccia-Bourgeois, you’re going to learn a lot during your week on the road.

“I did my first Empire State Ride, hopped on the bus and off I went. I’d never camped. I was a Holiday Inn girl, but I learned to camp, and I’ve learned a lot of things about myself that I never thought that I would do or could do."

If you’re a first-time road warrior or thinking about becoming one next year, you may be wondering what to expect at camp. After a long day of riding, there’s no better feeling than freshening up and getting settled in for the night. By familiarizing yourself with the schedule and resources, you can make the most out of your camping experience.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what to expect.

🚲Your experience Includes:

  • No-hassle tent camping, including tent, chair, air mattress, clean towels and daily delivery of your luggage
  • Shower truck, restrooms, bike truck and mechanics support
  • The ESR HUB, a central location for rider information, beverages, snacks, first-aid supplies, sunscreen, and cue sheets.
  • Wellness support, including first-aid and physical therapists as well as optional massages at riders’ expense
  • Catered breakfast and dinner with consideration for dietary restrictions
  • Charging stations for devices
  • Nightly mission-based programs
  • Hammocks and lawn games
Picture showing an ESR tent and chair
Picture showing the inside of an ESR tent

🚲Schedule

The last rest stop closes at 3 p.m. each day. Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. with the nightly program at 6:15 p.m. that unites everyone around our shared mission to end cancer. Then, you have free time until 10 p.m. when quiet hours begin. You can use that time to enjoy our evening reception, chat with other riders or just unwind while reflecting on the day.

🚲 Camp Locations

ESR Map of camps

Orientation Day: July 20, 2024 — Wagner College, Staten Island

CAMP: Wagner College
1 Campus Rd, Staten Island, NY 10301

Day 1: July 21 — Somers Intermediate School, Somers

240 US-202
Somers, NY 10589

Day 2: July 22, 2024 — Dutchess County Fairgrounds, Rhinebeck

6636 U.S. 9
Rhinebeck, NY 12572

Day 3: July 23, 2024 — Shaker Heritage Society, Albany

25 Meeting House Rd
Albany, NY 12211

 

Day 4: July 24, 2024 — Donovan Middle School, Utica

Oneida County

1701 Noyes St, Utica, NY 13502

Day 5: July 25, 2024 — Weedsport Speedway, Weedsport

1 Speedway Drive #415
Weedsport, NY 13166

Day 6: July 26, 2024 — Ferris Goodrich American Legion, Spencerport

691 Trimmer Road
Spencerport, NY 14559

Day 7: July 27, 2024 — Finish Line in Niagara Falls, NY

101 Old Falls Street
Niagara Falls, NY 14303

“Camp is part of the camaraderie that makes ESR so special. It’s a great way to meet other riders and hear why people are there.”

“At the end of the day, it's not about the ride. It's about the funds raised. And it's about hanging out at camp when you get there. Trust me, the beer tastes really good after a day of riding.”

Thinking about tackling this summer adventure in 2024? Register today or read more.

10 Years of SurVaxM

Empire State Ride Reflects on 10 Years of SurVaxM on the Event's 10th Anniversary

In 10 short years, donor support helped bring a homegrown cancer-fighting discovery to the national stage in the form of a clinical trial. SurVaxM, a therapeutic cancer vaccine developed at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, has the potential to drastically extend the lives of patients living with brain cancerYou and your donors are part of that.

SurVaxM was created in a lab at Roswell Park by Robert Fenstermaker, MD, Chair of Neurosurgery and Michael Ciesielski, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery. Dr. Fenstermaker is the Principal Investigator of the nationwide randomized trial and Dr. Ciesielski is CEO of MimiVax, the company which now produces SurVaxM. Their work has been passionately supported by donor funding for the past 10 years, proving instrumental in bringing this new treatment to where it is today.

Here’s how it all went down:

2012

Roswell Park announces a new clinical research study that could put cancer cells “in a Catch-22.”

2013

A phase I clinical trial begins in human patients, supported by the American Cancer Society.

2014

Roswell Park donors begin to financially support SurVaxM alongside the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation through events like Empire State Ride and more.

Drs. Ciesielski and Fenstermaker

2015

Drs. Fenstermaker and Ciesielski present their phase I clinical trial results to the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

Phase II of the clinical trial begins, bringing hope to 50 newly diagnosed patients at Roswell Park and Cleveland Clinic.

2016

Experts investigate usefulness of SurVaxM for patients with multiple myeloma.

2017

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) awards orphan drug status for SurVaxM. This designation is intended to encourage innovation in the treatment of rare diseases.

2018

Findings through SurVaxM trials open
doors for other types of treatments like CAR T-cell therapy
and
antibody-based therapies.

Drs. Fenstermaker and
Ciesielski join their colleagues at Cleveland Clinic to present their phase II findings so far at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Results from phase II clinical trial show significant success: well-tolerated; 96.7% of patients did not experience disease progression within the first six months; 94.2% of study participants were alive one year after their diagnosis, as opposed to 65% of patients in a historical comparison group.

 

Drs hold up a vile containing SurVaXm

2019

Trial leaders bring fully completed results to the ASCO Annual Meeting.

2020

Two new studies, led by Renuka Iyer, MD, of Roswell Park, explore the potential use of SurVaxM for patients with neuroendocrine tumors.

Dr. Renuka Iyer, MD

2022

Roswell Park becomes the first center to treat newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients in the phase 2B randomized clinical trial.

Dr. Ciesielski returns to ASCO to present the final data from phase 2A as phase 2B kicks off.

Roswell Park is the first of several sites to offer a SurVaxM pilot study for pediatric patients in conjunction with the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium.

Results demonstrating safety and extended survival are published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

2023

The FDA grants Fast Track Designation for SurVaxM, opening doors to accelerated approval as late-stage clinical trials advance.

2024

You fundraise for Empire State Ride, armed with the confidence that your hard work is propelling something meaningful on a national scale.

You make a difference!

Check Out SurVaxM Coverage through the Years