The View from Here: A Geographer Looks at the Pan-Mass Challenge

By Adena Schutzberg

The Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) is a series of bike events that raises money for cancer treatment and research for the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston. In addition to a series of kids rides held earlier in the year, the main event includes 11 different rides from 25 to 192 miles during the first weekend in August. This year was the 32nd edition and the goal was to raise $34 million. The event raises more money for charity than any other single event in the country.

This was my eighth year participating either as a volunteer or a rider. I rode the 155 mile route from Babson College in Wellesley, MA to Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, MA (Cape Cod) and back.

I ran into several situations during the two-day event that got me thinking about how individuals relate to space. In one case, drivers looking for parking wanted to “outwit” the local geography. In a second situation, I got a bit too wrapped up in my sense of myself as a geographer. In a third incident, technology outwitted those looking for an amusement park along the route. Finally, I’ll recount the reaction of riders to a private geography to which they did not have access.

My Knowledge or Local Knowledge?

This year I set off at 5:30 a.m. Saturday for Wellesley, MA. My car was loaded with my bike, helmet and luggage for the weekend. By 6:00 a.m. I turned into Olin College, the next-door neighbor to Babson, where we were instructed to enter. As I followed signs and volunteers’ directions through the maze of Olin, I realized I was passing other riders who had already parked their cars. They were carrying luggage and walking their bikes the remaining mile or so to the starting area. Did they know something I did not? Something the volunteers did not?

I continued to follow the directions and parked my car, as directed by a volunteer, 200 feet from the start. The huge lot also included the registration area, breakfast, the trucks that brought our luggage to Bourne, and several “walls” of port-o-potties. I could not have gotten much closer to any of those key resources I’d need before we left. What a great parking spot!

I had the same thought when I arrived back in Wellesley on Sunday. I was drenched to the bone from rain the last 40 miles, and I could not have been happier to have my car so close to the finish line (the same place we started).

What was this compunction of the other drivers to “outwit” the signage and the volunteers? Did the riders who parked at a totally different school think the organizers would choose to have them park far away if there were closer options? Did they think the “best” parking was already taken and what they chose was “second best”?

I do not have an answer. I do, however, believe this situation reveals that not everyone believes the long-held adage in GIS that local data are the best. In this case, the local knowledge of the organizers, signs and volunteers most assuredly was.

On the Road 1

A few miles before the lunch stop the route followed a road along a river. I didn’t think much of it until someone rode up beside me and said, “Hey Adena! What’s the name of that river?” Panic. Who was this person and how did he know I was a geographer? I am, I must admit, a geographer who does not know the names of the rivers in Rehoboth or Dighton or wherever we were.

I sheepishly said, “I have no idea.” Then I remembered that everyone puts their name badge on the back of their bike (to be friendly and encourage conversation) and that this fellow didn’t know me, or my profession at all. He was just making conversation! Phew.

My self-identification as a geographer is quite strong. That’s probably what leads me to believe I have a sign on my back that says, “I’m a geographer!” and ultimately prompted my reaction. Perhaps I need to tone that down a bit?

On the Road 2

On the ride home we rode through Carver, MA - famous among youngsters as the home of Edaville Railroad, a train-focused amusement park. We saw signs for the park and then passed the entrance. Riding away from it I saw a sign that read: “Your GPS is wrong! Next right for Edaville Railroad!” A note on the park website reads:

PO BOX 825, CARVER, MA 02330
If using GPS, please use 5 Pine Street, Carver MA 02330

I suspect that like many tourist and business locations, the location of Edaville Railroad on satnav maps is wrong. I wondered if this sign was at the location where the devices lead unsuspecting visitors? It’s quite ironic that businesses have to install these low tech “helpers” to undo the harm the high tech helpers cause.

Special Geography for Special People

When you reach Mass Maritime in Bourne at the end of day one, you are pointed to “Overnight Bike Parking,” a giant parking lot for the thousands of bikes. It’s in a grass field and includes dozens of bike racks labeled in different colors: red 1, red 2, blue 1, blue 2, etc.

But, just as you enter the fenced off field there’s one bike rack set up perpendicular to all the others. I’m sure everything thinks, “That’s a great location! I’ll remember where that is! It’s different from all the rest! I’ll put my bike there!” It’s labeled red 9.

But don’t even think of parking your bike there. That’s a special bike rack for Team 9, aka the PMC team from the Red Sox, which includes Sox players, managers and their families. (While David Ortiz did wish us well as we left that morning, I’m sure no players involved in the Yankee games that weekend were riding.)

Team 9
, one of dozens of teams involved in the ride, is the only one that has its own special bike rack. That rack has at least one PMC volunteer to shoo away any one who is not on Team 9 who heads in its direction. I got shooed away and placed my bike on red 1.

I watched the reaction of the other riders as they got shooed away. They didn’t like it at all and could be heard muttering under their breath. Now, the Red Sox are co-presenting sponsors of the PMC and have been for a long time. There’s even a PMC logo on the Green Monster at Fenway Park for a few weeks each summer. And the Red Sox logo is always on our riding jerseys. I’m sure Team 9 brings in lots of money, more than some of the other corporate and family teams.

I thought about why I and other riders found this “special bike rack” annoying. One reason, for me personally, is the effort made to treat every cyclist equally well. We are encouraged to all wear our matching jerseys for the first day to show our unity in our cause. Cancer survivors ride with those currently under treatment and those lucky enough to have avoided the disease. This flagrant “specialness” was disappointing.

The real issue, however, with Team 9’s special treatment is this: It was assigned special geography everyone could see! If Team 9 is so special, I pondered, why doesn’t it have special volunteers to take its bikes to some special, covered-from-the-rain bike rack at the far end of the field? Or even in some university building? Making the other cyclists aware that this group was conspicuously special did not send a positive message to the rest of the riders. Other special people don’t have such setups. No one knows or cares where Massachusetts Senators Kerry or Brown rack their bikes. Perhaps Team 9 can learn from them.

Published Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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