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A bike ride that started with 36 people in 1980 has now raised half a billion dollars — affirming its status as the largest philanthropic engine of one of the nation’s top cancer hospitals.

The Pan-Mass Challenge, an annual ride to support Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, has grown to 6,000 cyclists from 41 states and five countries. And it has earned a place on the national map of “a-thon” fundraisers, the sporting events for which participants wrangle charitable donations from friends and family.

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In that group, the Pan-Mass Challenge is the 12th largest, according to the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, which tracks this category of fundraising. And, if you look at the athletic fundraisers that consist of only one event, it’s the highest-grossing in the nation.

Organizers last week announced the bike-a-thon raised $45 million in 2015, pushing its all-time total past the $500 million mark.

The money, which comes without strings attached, has enabled Dana-Farber to build a more robust research mission than the hospital could support on just federal grants, said hospital CEO Dr. Edward Benz. The annual donation represents less than 5 percent of Dana-Farber’s $1.1 billion annual budget — but Benz said that figure understates the impact.

The Pan-Mass Challenge, Benz said, “means everything” to the hospital. Nearly every major research center and recruitment of a top researcher at the hospital has “depended completely or in part on the PMC,” Benz said.

Why did the bike ride become so successful?

Here are five reasons.

Cancer hits home

“People of all ages have an increasing familiarity with cancer — and dare I say it, personal experience,” said Billy Starr, the charismatic athlete who has led the Pan-Mass Challenge since its inception.

When Starr founded the ride, his inspiration was personal: His mom had died of cancer at age 49.

“When somebody you love dies, you want in,” he said, “because something’s been taken from you.”

Biking got popular

In 1980, mainstream America was putting on spandex — but not to hop on bicycles. Cycling was more of a hippie activity, Starr noted.

But his early commitment to an outsider sport turned out to be a wise investment.

“We were there before [Greg] LeMond, before [Lance] Armstrong — but we surfed the curl from hippies to yuppies, from running to biking,” Starr said.

Many Americans, including aging baby boomers, discovered cycling as a form of rehab. They stuck around to enjoy cycling’s other attributes, like “speed, travel, danger, and sociability,” Starr said.

Now biking is all the rage: Even on Boston’s rough and chaotic roads, the number of people who bike to work has tripled in the last decade, the latest US Census showed.

Bike-racers have money

Nationally, bike-a-thons have been booming, even as successful runs and walkathons have been losing ground, said David Hessekiel, president of the Peer-to-Peer group, which has no financial ties to the Pan-Mass Challenge.

For instance, the American Cancer Society’s enormous Relay For Life, in which people across the country raise money to run or walk around a track, saw revenues sink by 11.8 percent, or $45 million, in 2014, according to Peer-to-Peer’s annual report.

Meanwhile, money raised by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Cycle for Survival soared by 42.9 percent, to $20 million.

That’s one of many cancer-themed bike-a-thons that have emerged since the Pan-Mass Challenge started. Imitation bike rides have popped up in places like Ohio, Miami and Seattle —  though “nobody’s pulling down the numbers that the PMC is now,” Hessekiel said.

To answer why biking is such a lucrative way to raise money, Starr said, you have to look at “who rides bikes.”

“It’s turned into an upper-middle-class sport,” he said. You can’t get a nice road bike without spending a good chunk of money.

Hessekiel put it more bluntly: “People at a more intense level of biking are Type A wealthy guys” who have no trouble raising money for charity.

Riders take part in the Pan-Mass Challenge in Wellesley, Mass., Aug. 2, 2015.
Riders take part in the Pan-Mass Challenge in Wellesley, Mass., Aug. 2, 2015. Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe

A big commitment

The Pan-Mass Challenge sets a high bar for fundraising: $4,500 for the full two-day, 188-mile slog, though kids and adults can choose shorter routes for as little as $500 to $1,000.

But “the commitment is more than money,” Starr noted. “It’s training. It’s involving the families.”

The hours of training and fundraising and the athletic challenge give people a sense of satisfaction, which creates loyalty, Starr said: 75 percent of the riders have done it before. And 1,100 people have done the ride for at least 10 years.

A “bucket list” event

Hessekiel, who’s from New York, said he’s noticed something else about the Boston/Massachusetts area that makes fertile ground for fundraising: deep regional pride. The kind of pride that creates fierce Red Sox fandom even when the team “stinks.”

The Pan-Mass Challenge has become part of that pride, “sort of a bucket list thing” for New Englanders, Hessekiel observed.

Benz, the Dana-Farber CEO, said the event’s popularity stems from Billy Starr.

“He has a genius for this,” Benz said. “He has found a way to connect to people … and to do it in very creative ways that make the event something that people want to do every year.”

“He made it a life-enhancing experience,” Benz said. “I can’t tell you how he’s done it. If I could, I would have bottled it. He has tapped into the magic of the human spirit.”

The ride “has almost become like one of the major holidays,” Benz said, “though, having trained for the Pan-Mass Challenge, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like a holiday at the time.”

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