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Transforming a Bicycle into a Cancer-Fighting Weapon

<< Back to Robb Report, Health & Wellness Winter 2014

For the past 16 years, Stewart Kohl has ridden the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), an arduous 190-mile bike route that traverses the flexing arm of Cape Cod, Mass., to raise money for cancer research at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“It’s an incredibly powerful event,” says Kohl, the Cleveland-based co-CEO of The Riverside Company, a private equity firm with more than $3 billion in assets.

While the event offers several routes with mileage varying from 26 to 192, Kohl opts for the longest one. He rides sections of the PMC on a tandem bike with his wife, Donna.  Kohl says Donna “is more of a dancer than a cyclist, but she humors me.” Her mother and sister are both cancer survivors, so the event, which is in its 33rd year and has raised nearly $400 million for cancer care and research—more money than any other single athletic fundraising event in the country—has special meaning.

“The people who most inspire us are known as the ‘living proof,’ ” Kohl says of the hundreds of PMC riders and volunteers who’ve beaten cancer and come back to the ride year after year to celebrate. “It’s survivorship and ‘thriver-ship’ of people who are cured of cancer and go on to lead remarkable lives,” he says. “Donna and I always talked about how great it would be if we could do something like this in Cleveland.”

Last year they did more than talk. In May 2013, the Kohls gave $1 million to establish the VeloSano, a cycling event to benefit cancer research at Cleveland Clinic, where Kohl is on the Board of Trustees. The inaugural VeloSano—the name derives from the Latin words meaning “swift” and “cure”—is scheduled for July 19 to 20, 2014.

With 42,000 employees and annual revenue of about $6 billion, the Cleveland Clinic is one of the nation’s leading health systems, often hailed as a role model for how it prioritizes patient care and research. Recently, the Clinic announced the creation of a spin-off company to develop a breast cancer vaccine, as well as breakthroughs into the genetic mutations in prostate cancer. “It’s an extraordinary institution,” says Kohl. “It is key to the revitalization of the city, not just for the research that it does, but also because of the spin-off businesses that it helps create. The Cleveland Clinic has such a powerful footprint.”

The VeloSano will include six different rides, ranging from 25 miles to 200 miles; as with the PMC, riders choose the route best suited to their ability. Kohl is in excellent shape, and usually finishes in the middle of the pack. He takes exercise seriously, but not too seriously: His favorite mode of training is to choose an ice cream parlor 30 or so miles from his house and bike to it.

“The VeloSano is not about who’s the fastest,” says Kohl, “it’s about raising money and using your bike as a cancer-fighting weapon.”

The longest course begins in the heart of downtown Cleveland and heads due east along Lake Erie. After a night in Erie, Penn., riders wind their way back to the city, passing through quiet countryside and scenic vineyards where Ohio wine is made.

“Traditionally we cyclists hate heat, humidity, and hills,” says Kohl. It will be hot in Ohio in July—average temperatures are in the low 80s—but riders will benefit from lake breezes. The rest stops will be fully supported with ice-cold drinks, great snacks, and places to relax and cool off (think couches made of ice blocks).

Kohl expects about 1,500 riders and 3,000 volunteers this year—figures he hopes will grow over time “with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work.”

Growing up in Leonia, N.J., a tiny bedroom community of New York City, Kohl lived on a bike. He owned a black Schwinn complete with a stick shift, banana seat, and raised handlebars like a motorcycle. “It was a classic American bike,” he recalls. “On Saturday mornings I would disappear with my friends and not come back until dinnertime. It was freedom. Every once in a while when I am on my bike now, I can capture a little sense of what that felt like.”

His father was a manufacturer’s representative who worked out of his briefcase, and his mother was a legal secretary who later became the chief of staff for the local state senator. His parents were civic-minded and considered pillars of the town. “You learn your values around the kitchen table,” Kohl says. “My parents taught me to have a strong sense of citizenship and concern for my community.”

He graduated from Oberlin in 1977 with a degree in economics and government, and worked at trade associations in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in Washington DC. In 1988 he became the vice president of Citicorp’s venture capital arm and moved back to the Cleveland area. “My wife and I knew it would be a fantastic place to raise our family.” Even now, the Kohls live only a few blocks from their daughter and three grandchildren.

Today Kohl is one of the most successful private equity chiefs in the country, who mainly invests in smaller, market-leading companies. For instance, The Riverside Company currently owns Baby Jogger, which manufactures the City Select and City Mini brands of strollers, as well as Boost Juice, the leading chain of juice bars in Australia.

He says there are two powerful similarities between the private equity world and VeloSano’s fundraising model. The first is what’s known as “the multiplier effect”: the amount of money Kohl is putting up to help seed the event will ultimately be quite small relative to the amount of money it will raise.

Thanks to corporate sponsors, including the Cleveland Indians, KeyBank, and MCPc, all of the proceeds raised through VeloSano will be applied to cancer research at Cleveland Clinic.

“Donors today want to see a high return on investment,” he says. “We want to see results.” Registration begins in January.

Visit www.velosano.org.


Training for a multi-day cycling adventure has special considerations even the fittest should ponder. If you plan to ride in an event that will be long-distance, such as the longer course of the VeloSano this July, plan to begin training now, says Heather Nettle, an exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic who has helped coach many endurance athletes. “Start training six to nine months in advance,” she says. “You may be very active already, but your body may not be ready for cycling.” She offers these tips to prepare for a bike-a-thon:

Build up core and quadriceps

Runners who want to train for a longer cycling event might have terrific aerobic capabilities, but need to build up quad muscles so they don’t fatigue before the lungs do. Core muscles are also key in cycling; as the center of a rider’s gravity, they help maintain form—and good form leads to effi­ciency. “A weak core can lead to poor form, because your limbs will then try to help with balance,” Nettle says. “If you can’t hold a cycling posture, you’re going to have discomfort and lose control of both machine and body.” She recommends strength-training exercises, such as lunges, squats, and calf raises, to build leg muscles. For core strengthening, do planks.

Work with a coach

Match expectations and time commitment with those of any coach. Interview several candidates; the right one

will have goals in line with what you feel you are capable of doing.

Interval drills

Pedal hard for 30 seconds and then coast and ride eight to 20 minutes, pushing as hard as you can. This helps improve muscle endurance and boost your anaerobic threshold, preventing lactic acid from accumulating too fast and causing muscle fatigue.

Pace yourself

Beginners should start with 10 to 20 miles for the week and build from there. Add about 10 percent to mileage each week, and do a longer endurance ride on the weekends. About five months out, start spending more time on the bike and less time on weights and cross-training activities. “You walk a tightrope between over- and undertraining,” Nettle says. “Strength training creates an inflammation response as you rebuild your muscles. You don’t want to double up on that.” Her advice: When your weekly mileage is not high, cross train; when you start logging more miles, go lighter on weights on non-ride days or do strength-training activities that only involve your body weight and gravity, such as Pilates.

Join a cycling club

Aside from the social benefits, Nettle says cycling clubs “give great pack experience. There are parts of the sport you can’t learn on your own. Riders have to learn to draft—using the wind around another person to help them coast—and when to take lead or drop back.” Ask a local bike shop for club recommendations.

Sign up for small races

Nettles recommends putting shorter events into your training to gain race experience. There is no need to do the full mileage ahead of time, but do some rides—on your own or as part of an event—that are about half as long. Make sure you can do at least two long rides on consecutive days.

Train for the terrain

Look at the course topography well in advance, noting the climbs. Make sure you’re training for any hills. For example, if the course is flat until mile 50 and then gets hilly, your training should include drain climbs later in the ride.

Taper off

Two to three weeks before the event, severely cut back your mileage. Do not ride every day. During the last week, eat well and allow for recovery. Nettle says, “One week of stepping back can make the difference between finishing the event or not.”


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