Now with nine different routes—from short to long, flattish cruise to ‘epic’ climb, and on either road or gravel—Buffalo Bicycle Classic remains focused on the real prize: student scholarships
The now-largest fundraising event for scholarships in Colorado started small, just two guys brainstorming during a long bicycle ride for charity.
As they huffed up and sailed down three mountain passes, they resolved to start their own ride for a great cause: scholarships for high-performing students at the University of Colorado Boulder. They’d call it the Buffalo Bicycle Classic.
“Most people thought it was a goofy idea, certainly not the norm in higher education fundraising,” recalls Todd Gleeson, professor emeritus of integrative physiology and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Gleeson’s riding partner was Woody Eaton (’62), businessman, investor and philanthropist. They enlisted the help of Frank Banta (’72), owner of Banta Construction, and Gail Mock, a local Realtor, dean’s advisory board member and longtime university supporter. They were the nucleus, but they weren’t alone.
They recruited other friends, spouses, colleagues and alums, sought available expert counsel in Cliff Bosley of the Bolder Boulder, and dove into surprisingly complex decisions about bike routes, event permits, volunteer coordination, numbers and sizes of T-shirts, food donations and adequate distribution of Port O Lets (portable toilets).
The inaugural event in 2003 drew 500 riders who rode one of four routes and raised $25,000 for scholarships. Since then, the Buff Bike Classic has raised more than $3.7 million and supported more than 450 scholarship students.
Elevations Credit Union, the title sponsor of the Buffalo Bicycle Classic, has been a sponsor since the beginning. Dennis Paul, now chair of the Elevations Foundation Board, committed the credit union to be one of the founding sponsors of the ride.
The sponsorship package now includes a named Elevations Credit Union Buffalo Bicycle Classic Scholarship, which enhances the scholarship package for a top continuing Buffalo Bicycle Classic scholar each year based on their academic achievement and outstanding service to the university and community.
This Sept. 11 is the 20th anniversary event. It has a wide range of routes. The easiest ride is the 14-mile Little Buff, which heads south of Boulder and loops north and back to campus, often on bike paths. The toughest is the Buff Epic 100-mile century ride.
Five relatively flat road routes range from 14 to 100 miles. Two “epic” routes go 75 and 100 miles with up to 8,800 feet of elevation gain, and there are two gravel events—a 42-mile flattish “Dirty Buff” and a 55-mile Dirty Epic, with 5,900 feet of climbing.
If the Dirty Epic’s elevation gain isn’t “epic” enough for you, the organizers say consider its steepness and roughness: It climbs Magnolia Road, which has an 18% grade in places, and later traverses part of the scenic but challenging Switzerland Trail.
Registration opens May 1 on the Buff Bike Classic’s website.
Gleeson noted that each of the gravel routes has drawn about 150 riders a year. By standards of many biking events, “that’s incredibly successful,” he said. The ride overall hosts 1,500 to 2,000 riders across all its routes.
Gravel riding has gotten increasingly popular in recent years, and Gleeson himself, a longtime road rider, has joined that pack. After his home and bike were destroyed in the Marshall Fire, he’s purchased a Specialized Diverge, a new gravel rig.
As he reflected on the early days of the Buffalo Bicycle recently, Gleeson noted why observers at the university were initially unsure about the viability of the event. Traditionally, higher-education fundraising focused on major gifts, like endowed scholarships or new buildings.
“Fundraising dinners or walkathons are primarily viewed as good town-gown events,” he said. “Town-gown” is shorthand for the relationship between a university and its home city.
Despite its unconventional nature, the Buff Bike Classic has had “more staying power than we ever thought it would,” he said. “It makes me proud of our efforts, the people that have worked so hard on it, to have created something that’s lasting.”
Success breeds success, and it generates pressure, Gleeson suggested. “Once you start supporting students on scholarships, you work twice as hard to keep them on scholarships.”
Gleeson has passed the ride’s leadership baton to Paul Beale, a fellow rider and CU Boulder physics professor.
“Regular turnover is key to keeping ideas and the event fresh,” he said.
There’s also another change for the ride: Leslie and Woody Eaton, the ride’s co-founder, endowed a Buffalo Bicycle Scholarship Fund in 2007, three years after the ride began. That endowment contained a provision to rename the fund after Gleeson upon his retirement.
Gleeson retired this year, so the fund is now officially called the Todd T. Gleeson Buffalo Bicycle Classic Scholarship, in recognition of his role in creating the event on behalf of students.
The former dean and his wife, Carol, still volunteer their time to organize the aid stations for the ride and says participating in the event still gives him an “incredible emotional high.” But he emphasizes that it’s not about the bike. He notes that Buffalo Bicycle Classic scholarships can help students forgo part time jobs and instead devote their time to honors’ theses or second majors, as the college hopes they can.
“That's what keeps me motivated.”
For more information or to register, see the Buffalo Bicycle Classic website.