Organizing an 8,000-rider, 25-mile bicycle ride on Chicago city streets is challenging enough. Add in that the ride kicks off at 1:30 a.m. (yes, 1:30 in the morning) and you’ve got the Friends of the Parks L.A.T.E. Ride, arguably one of Chicago’s most unique events and a SignMeUp customer since 2000.
L.A.T.E. Ride (an acronym for “Long After Twilight Ends”) was started in 1989 as “Insomnia Cycle” by Nancy Minster Swabb, who, incredibly, still organizes and manages the event today. “That first year we had 350 riders,” Nancy said, “and my friends and family volunteered.” A huge boost came in 1992 when a major radio station, 93XRT, came on board as a sponsor.
The most significant challenge with the event, according to Nancy, isn’t inebriated riders and spectators, as one might expect. “It’s staffing,” she said without hesitation. “Friends of the Parks does not have a huge budget” to hire employees. As a result, the event, like many, relies on volunteers to work at the event itself, as well as at the various pre-event activities like packet pickups and warehouse nights. Only the first three miles of the course are closed to vehicle traffic, so for the remaining 22 miles, volunteer course marshals help direct both riders and cars. Nancy created a “riding course marshal” position, which pays a reduced entry fee but must stay at an assigned corner along the route for an hour. She is also thrilled that 72% of her riders now register online. “Online registration saves us loads of time. I remember when I used to get stacks and stacks of entry forms that we had to data enter.”
Along with the challenges, of course, come great rewards. An overnight bicycle ride on the streets of one of the world’s largest cities is just plain fun! Participants ride in full costume, with dogs in baskets, and, related Nancy, with live parrots perched on helmets (look closely at the photo on the left)! Entire families ride together and return year after year. One of the best stories, detailed on L.A.T.E. Ride’s webside under L.A.T.E. Ride Love, is about Scott and Julie, a couple that had a blind date at the event in 1999 (Scott bought Julie a gel seat and helmet), got engaged at L.A.T.E. Ride 2000, then rode in 2001 on their wedding night. That’s dedication.
Nancy summed up her 20+ years of experience: “It takes a village to run an event as large as this ride, and to run any event for that matter. If you have an unlimited budget (and who does?!), you might be able to organize an event in a few months. But when you rely on sponsors for donations, volunteers for critical work, and the community at large (police, city support, neighborhood interest), it takes months and months to build momentum, recruit volunteers and enlist sponsors. That’s also the fun part. Seeing volunteers come back year after year (in the middle of the night, no less!) with smiles on their faces, is well worth the effort! Be good to your volunteers. Give them opportunities to meet each other, make friends, have fun, learn new skills. Volunteers are key to your success. Go to other events and expos to see who is sponsoring what (you’ll also get a chance to meet potential sponsors). Network. Do a good job tracking your demographics – sponsors are interested not only in your event, but also in who attends (age, residence, gender, etc.). And start planning early, very early!”
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