Fifth Third Bike the Drive organizer hopes to get 400 volunteers for fundraising event

With a staff under 20, how does any organization pull off a 20,000-rider bike event on a major roadway?

“Volunteers are the keystone, full stop!”

So acknowledges Melody Geraci, Active Transportation Alliance deputy executive director. Sept. 4 marks the 20th time to demonstrate how it's done at its Fifth Third Bike the Drive.

This DuSable Lake Shore Drive ride is the major fundraiser for Active Trans, Chicagoland's nonprofit that advocates for safer and easier walking, biking and transit to create healthy, sustainable and equitable communities.

Volunteer/Events Manager Christian Helem, whose chief responsibility is outreach/recruitment, hopes to command 400 volunteers as greeters, T-shirt sorters, rest stop hosts, ride marshals, etc.

“Groups are a huge part of our success: nonprofits, church groups, school clubs. It's great experiencing community building with our volunteers,” Helem said.

Active Trans donates $250 to groups committing eight to 14 volunteers, $350 for 15 or more.

T-shirt volunteers in 2019, organized and full of enthusiasm. Courtesy of Anne Evans/Active Transportation Alliance

Helem needs 45 marshals to patrol; individuals equipped with simple tools such as pumps, wrenches, hex tools; plus, basic repair experience - flat tires, dropped chains, brake adjustments. Marshals ride free.

All volunteers earn a free pancake breakfast, T-shirt and invitation to the Sept. 8, appreciation party. Volunteer for any role at

$40,000 of enthusiasm

Hoffman Estates cyclist Tom Lucas marshaled in 2019, having cycled it “maybe a dozen times. I wanted a different way to approach the ride,” he said. “Biggest take-away, peeking behind the scenes, is how smoothly it operates. Active Trans is a great organization.”

Volunteers make it possible for a broad spectrum of “bike-ionados,” more than 16,000 in 2021, to delight in a glorious sunrise on 30 miles of car-free lakefront - parents hauling toddlers, racer wannabes, casual sightseers, even Chihuahua lovers with handlebar baskets.

“There's an energy and positivity these amazing, giving people bring,” Geraci said. “Their enthusiasm for all riders is absolutely infectious, buoying staff spirits.

“Riders are effusive in their appreciation, too. All day I hear the steady chorus: 'thank you for being here!' It's hard putting into words.”

It's also hard quantifying their value, with Geraci suggesting, “Let's put it at $40,000!”

Giving back

Giving back is why native Chicagoans and 15-year tandem rider volunteers Ron and Marge Spears return as marshals from their Union Pier, Michigan, home. Their system? Stoker Marge listens for chatter about mishaps on the Motorola radio issued to marshals, while Captain Ron navigates traffic and heads toward stopped riders.

“I chat up those involved and collect info,” said Marge, explaining her personal ride marshal function. “By the time I write the incident report, Ron's practically finished fixing the flat.”

“I'm a crack bike mechanic,” Ron admits. “I enjoy giving back. Some don't bike much, maybe once, twice a year, then realize how much fun it is. Sometimes people want to pay us for the tubes. We tell them it's what they get when they register and pay. If you still want to donate, send your money to Active Trans.”

Adjusting seats and pumping tires, ride marshals keep cyclists rolling in 2021. Courtesy of Anne Evans/Active Transportation Alliance

Palatine's Dave Heckelsmiller has marshaled seven years, relishing seeing “young, old, and families enjoy the freedom you get from cycling. Plus, seeing Chicago from Lake Shore Drive is breathtaking, especially the North Loop.”

A native Iowan, Heckelsmiller repaired bikes in a Dubuque shop, pedaled Iowa's weeklong RAGBRAI multiple times, and maintains a lifelong cycling interest. In short, he's a natural.

“As bike mechanic and bit of a geeky engineer type, I really have fun fixing flats and doing minor repairs,” he said. “Seeing someone riding with nearly flat tires or needing a seat adjustment, I'll offer to make their riding easier.

“Major mechanical failures, like broken cranks, are when the Motorola shoulder microphone comes in handy. I radio my position, describing person and assistance needed.”

Inspiring more biking

Mechanical issues are recorded on index cards. For “medicals,” marshals radio for assistance using discreet phrasing, per Roland Hayes, marshal supervisor. He laughingly recalls volunteering “maybe 20 years minimum, what was then called Chicagoland Bicycle Federation,” now Active Trans.

Checkpoint marshals test their flags before the 2021 Fifth Third Bike the Drive. Courtesy of Anne Evans/Active Transportation Alliance

As marshal, Hayes volunteered at multiple events, observing how things were organized. As supervisor, he estimates that out of 20,000 riders, 300-700 are likely to have mechanicals. “You just need basic tools and skills to fix most things.”

Before the ride starts, Hayes gathers the marshals together, reviewing last-minute advice. He distributes radios, patch kits, assorted tubes, incident cards, basic first aid kits and snacks.

Hayes prefers his marshals “buddy up.” For major problems, one diverts traffic while the other assists the rider. For assignments, he explains that more north side overpasses mean more breakdowns, so more marshals are needed north vs. south.

Early bird ride volunteers gather at the lakefront before Chicago wakes up in 2021. Courtesy of Anne Evans/Active Transportation Alliance

“For me, it's fun as well as work,” he reflects. “People's lives are at stake. They can get hurt. So you have to treat it as work.”

What's a good day?

“Few accidents, warm, sunny, and a sense of accomplishment. We hope to help inspire people to do more biking and get involved with Active Trans,” said Hayes.

Bike for the Kids

Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley “Bike for the Kids” annual event rolls Sunday, Aug. 28, at Elgin's Festival Park with 12-, 25- and 50-mile routes along the Fox River. The “All in 100” Challenge allows 100-mile riders to divide their distances prior to the event.

Check-in starts at 7 a.m. Course is open from 7:30-11:30 a.m. After riding, participants enjoy the celebration: taco truck, family entertainment, kid-friendly bike parade and adaptive bike presentation at noon.

Easterseals has given away 65 adaptive bikes through their Jonathan Goers Bike Club.

Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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