Cyclists, and their host, at Alpha Donuts in Sunnyside, Queens, the second stop during InTandem’s Late Night Donut Ride on Sept. 29. Photo: Ariana Giulia Reichler
The last group of cyclists, clad in glow sticks and brightly colored biking gear, coasts into the Doughnut Plant in Chelsea and is greeted with cheering and, yes, fresh donuts. It’s almost 2 a.m. and they have just concluded a nearly 40-mile ride that began hours earlier in daylight.
As enticing as this finish line may sound, the donuts are not the only feature that distinguishes this bike ride from a more typical one. More notably, one-fifth of the participants are blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled.
This year, more than 50 cyclists, including 11 tandem teams, participated in the fourth annual Donut Ride on Sept. 29. Tandem and independent riders alike pedaled their way through four boroughs, stopping for coffee and donuts in each one. They started in Brooklyn, riding from McCarren Park to Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop in Greenpoint, traveled up to Alpha Donuts in Sunnyside, Queens, continued north to the Crown Diner just outside Yankee Stadium, and finished at the Doughnut Plant on West 23rd Street.
“We’re going to the best donut shops in the city,” program co-founder Mark Carhart said prior to the ride’s start. Smiling, he added: “That would accept 50 sweaty cyclists.”
The aptly named Late Night Donut Ride is run by InTandem, a not-for-profit organization that allows anyone who is otherwise unable to safely bicycle alone to ride on a tandem bike. The more able-bodied riders at the front are designated as “captains” and their disabled partners at the rear are called “stokers.”
InTandem’s precursor, a similar program operated by Achilles International, enabled people with disabilities to participate in running events. It was created by Artie Elefant, an avid cyclist who lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa at age 47. When Achilles shut down the tandem program in 2013, Elefant decided to bring it back as its own entity, InTandem.
Elefant passed away from lymphocytic leukemia just prior to InTandem’s 2013 opening, but his friends stepped in to make it a reality. As one such friend, Carhart, who is also the InTandem board’s chairman, has seen InTandem grow immensely since its launch. “We originally had 8-10 stokers, and it was only for the visually impaired,” he said. “Now we have several hundred and are serving people with different kinds of disabilities.”
InTandem’s executive director, Matthew Nidek, said the rides serve a couple of purposes.
“It gets people out that normally wouldn’t be able to get out onto a bicycle,” Nidek said. “It’s a lot of socialization, it’s a lot of exercise. When you combine those two things, I feel like there’s just a lot of goodness that comes from that.”
The Donut Ride likewise finds its inspiration in Elefant, with whom Carhart used to ride a nighttime shift during a 24-hour tandem relay through the city.
“Artie loved donuts,” Carhart said. “We’d be in the middle of nowhere and he’d say, ‘Let’s get a donut.’ And we’d find donut shops and build them into our ride. So, when he passed away, I said, ‘We have to have a ride with donuts. And it has to be at night.’”
The combined attraction of cycling and donuts was enough to bring riders into Brooklyn from as far as New Jersey. Some were riding with InTandem for the first time, while others were regulars in the organization’s Thursday and weekend rides in Central Park, as well as frequent special events like the Donut Ride.
Pedro Liz is one such veteran stoker. “I couldn’t ride anymore, and then I heard about InTandem,” said Liz, who joined InTandem three years ago. “It’s great exercise. I love it.”
In addition to the Donut Ride, of which this marked his third, Liz often participates in InTandem’s special rides, such as the TD Five Boro Bike Tour. He and his captain, Wassim Mir, often partner on weekend rides, but the Donut Ride was their first long-distance event together.
InTandem is always welcoming new volunteers, who undergo captain training in disability awareness, tandem techniques and bike safety with the organization’s director of operations, Jonathon Epstein. “I train people until they’re safe. If they’re not ready, I train them until they are,” said Epstein, for whom InTandem is the perfect merging of two passions. “I work in disability services and my father owns [a chain of bike stores], so I thought, ‘This is something I can do.’”
What makes InTandem special is the symbiotic relationship that develops between partners, Nidek said. “Stokers and captains both benefit,” he said. “I think that’s unique in nonprofits. It levels the playing field.”
Bradley Hall, a captain, echoed the sentiment: “I consider myself the beneficiary.”
“Volunteering at its best is making friends,” Hall continued. “Something about this group tells me that we’re going to have that –– the best time with the best people. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m here.”