Steeple Chase ride marks 20 years

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Wed., Aug. 17, 2011
Some of the many volunteers who make the Steeple Chase event happen: Lisa Reas, Ed Austin, Ruth Gordon, Kathleen Bothur and Elizabeth McCosh-Lilie. Ed Austin is credited with coming up with the idea for the event 20 years ago. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Some of the many volunteers who make the Steeple Chase event happen: Lisa Reas, Ed Austin, Ruth Gordon, Kathleen Bothur and Elizabeth McCosh-Lilie. Ed Austin is credited with coming up with the idea for the event 20 years ago. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Twenty years ago, Ed Austin was a delegate from First Baptist Church of Mansfield for the Windham Area Interfaith Ministry. He thought it might be nice to organize a biking event to benefit the organization. “It started out of a real need for money for WAIM,” said Austin. “My wife and I did a lot of biking.”

Twenty years later, the Steeple Chase Bike Tour celebrated its landmark anniversary, on Aug. 13, by dedicating the event to Austin. In honor of Austin’s long-time dream, this year’s Steeple Chase was moved from its usual starting location at Windham Mills to Eastern Connecticut State University’s Athletic Complex on Mansfield City Road.

“This is our first year at Eastern, and we are just delighted,” said Ruth Gordon, Steeple Chase coordinator and director of Human Resources for Perception Programs, Inc. “The people at Eastern couldn’t have been more helpful and accommodating,” said Gordon. Perception, a non-profit providing substance abuse treatment, partners with WAIM on the Steeple Chase, with Perception handling most of the administration, and WAIM coordinating rest stops and support vans. The organizations split the proceeds from the event equally.

“It takes about 100 volunteers to pull this off,” said Gordon. For Gordon, a Columbia resident, the Steeple Chase is pretty much a year-long endeavor. Her duties include lining up donors and sponsors, and arranging for other details that make the event run smoothly.

Scotts Cyclery, for example, has donated services for years. “He could be at his shop right now selling bikes,” said Gordon. Instead, the shop provided a presence throughout the event, making repairs for bikers who needed them. “He’s here instead,” said Gordon. “It’s a nice thing.”

With 20-, 35-, 50- and 100-mile routes, the Steeple Chase draws riders from all over the area, representing a wide range of ages. “Our youngest rider this year is 6,” said Gordon. “Our oldest is 84 years old.” The 20-mile route is especially popular with families. “They do it in a variety of ways,” said Gordon. “Some of them have those tow-behind carts.” Other parents with small children utilize traditional bike seats or tandem bikes with non-functioning pedals. “That way the kids can feel like they’re helping,” said Gordon.

“We have the largest numbers in the 40-, 50- and 60-year-old range,” said Gordon. Younger riders show up in smaller numbers and tend to stick to the shortest routes. As of 9:30 a.m. the day of the event, this year’s Steeple Chase had drawn a total of 319 registered bikers, down from 401 the previous year. Gordon attributed the decrease to the change in location, and an accompanying change of date. “It’s usually the third Saturday of the month,” she said. “I think that might account for some of it.”

Most of the rest stops are hosted at churches, thus the name of the event. “When you’re talking about ‘steeplechase,’ you usually think of horses,” said Gordon. “But here you’re chasing the steeples, literally.” When the Stevens family agreed to host a rest stop on their property on Bassetts Bridge Road, First Baptist Church of Mansfield members got together to build a little steeple atop a shelter near the front of the property. On Aug. 13, the stop, “a favorite of the riders,” according to Gordon, offered a bounty of refreshments for weary riders.

“Every rest stop is unique,” said Gordon. “Every group has a different approach.” Refreshments are provided by parishioners of the hosting churches. “There’s one woman who claims that she gains weight at the Steeple Chase,” said Gordon with a chuckle.

As for Austin, he is still heavily involved in the event. Every year he marks the routes. His wife, Faith, furnishes refreshments. The event has had its ups and downs. One year, a volunteer had a heart attack. “He recovered, but I think that ended his riding,” said Austin. Another year, a severe thunder storm sent riders scrambling for any available shelter. “We actually had to detour riders around fallen trees,” said Austin. “Nobody was hurt, though. A lot of the riders were proud, as if they’d come through a battle.”

“[The Steeple Chase] seems like a good way to get everybody together,” said Austin. The event provides a big portion of WAIM’s yearly operating budget. WAIM, said Austin, is a good example of “different faiths working shoulder to shoulder for a common cause.” Partnering with Perceptions has provided for a smooth operation of the bike tour, with each organization taking on tasks. “The marriage has been wonderful in that regard,” said Austin.

Similarly, the two organizations provide complimentary services within the community. While Perceptions provides case management services, WAIM helps out with sustenance needs such as furniture, clothing, and heat assistance.

For more information about WAIM, go to www.waimct.org. For more information about Perception Programs, Inc., go to www.perceptionprograms.org.


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