Doug Ulman doesn't consider himself a visionary.

In fact, he thinks one of the things that makes the Pelotonia charity bicycle tour successful is that he's not overly recognizable as its leader.

"It doesn't matter who the CEO is," said the organization's CEO and president.

The point, Ulman said, is to foster a democratic, grassroots movement, where everyone has the opportunity to lead.

The result has been a phenomenon that, since its founding in 2008 and first ride in 2009, has raised more than $135 million for cancer research at Ohio State University's James Cancer Hospital. It also has linked those researchers to the cause by requiring any who seek Pelotonia grants to participate in the bike tour and raise money.

This year, more than 7,800 cyclists and 280 pelotons – a term used for Pelotonia's fundraising teams that generally is defined as the primary group of cyclists in a race – are expected to participate in Pelotonia activities Aug. 4 to 6.

Ulman, 40, is a three-time cancer survivor who took Pelotonia's reins in 2014. He said he and Pelotonia leaders have focused on community input and innovation to shape the nonprofit's future, which could include a global component, thanks to technology.

Although Pelotonia is not yet 10 years old, its future is two decades in the making for Ulman.

Cancer survivor

Ulman rides in Pelotonia every August, but he's not a cyclist by nature or training, he said.

That's not to say he's a casual rider: This year, the Bexley resident plans to pedal the two-day, 180-mile route from Columbus to Gambier on Aug. 5 and back to New Albany on Aug. 6.

His passion is for nonprofit advocacy, which began in 1997 with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. The nonprofit was developed to support young adults affected by cancer and was founded on the heels of Ulman's own experience fighting cancer.

Ulman was diagnosed with cancer for the first time in August 1996.

At 19, the Columbia, Maryland, native was a soccer player for Brown University. An X-ray during an emergency-room trip when he was home for the summer showed a cartilage tumor growing in his ribs.

"It was a total shock," Ulman said.

He also was treated for melanoma, which was diagnosed in March 1997 and a few months later that June.

He was fortunate his cancers were caught early, he said.

"I remember feeling so naive," Ulman said.

He transformed those feelings into a zeal for advocacy, and it caught the attention of a high-profile supporter.

Ulman's mentor, former Ohio State president and current West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee, said he got to know Ulman when he attended Brown, where Gee served as president.

Ulman, a 1999 Brown graduate, discussed with Gee his commitment to fighting cancer and helping students, Gee said.

"I thought that was astonishing to hear that kind of maturity out of a young man," Gee said.

Origins of a movement

About a decade later, Ulman attended the first Pelotonia ride in 2009 after Gee told him about the new organization.

At that time, Ulman still was president of the Livestrong Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 1997 by former pro cyclist Lance Armstrong that provides support for people affected by cancer.

Ulman said he was impressed with the way Pelotonia was structured and funded.

He also was familiar with Dr. Michael Caligiuri, a founding member of the Pelotonia board, director of the Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James – and an avid cyclist himself.

The seeds of Pelotonia were planted more than a decade ago after a conversation Caligiuri said he had with Dr. Jerome Ritz, a mentor from Harvard University.

Then new to his role as CEO of the James, Caligiuri knew he wanted to create some sort of grassroots movement to support cancer research, he said.

After learning of the Pan-Mass Challenge, an annual Massachusetts-based cycling event that raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Upper Arlington resident wanted to bring something similar to Columbus.

Caligiuri said he initially worked with Cindy Hilsheimer, managing principal of executive search firm BeecherHill.

Hilsheimer, a New Albany resident and a Pelotonia board member, helped secure the fledgling nonprofit's main sponsor, NetJets Inc., he said.

Hilsheimer said she knew central Ohio was capable of embracing a new idea like Pelotonia. That, along with the organization's initial corporate sponsorship, helped the initiative get off the ground.

"The magic was being able to start big and grow bigger," she said.

Tom Lennox, a New Albany resident and cancer survivor who had a high-profile leadership role at Abercrombie & Fitch, was brought on as Pelotonia's CEO, Caligiuri said.

However, NetJets Inc. gave $2.5 million of a promised $12.5 million to Pelotonia before pulling out of the agreement, Caligiuri said.

Other central Ohio-based companies, such as L Brands and Huntington Bancshares, stepped in, he said.

In 2009, the first year of the ride, Pelotonia had 2,000 riders and raised $4 million for cancer research, Caligiuri said.

"Everybody was blown away," he said.

The first Pelotonia ride started in Columbus, with routes of varying lengths all the way to Athens in southeastern Ohio.

Those riding 180 miles could pedal back to Canal Winchester the next day.

In 2012, the route was shifted from east and south from Columbus to east and north, with the new route running through New Albany and Granville and ending at Gambier's Kenyon College. New Albany became the site of the second-day finish line.

The adjustment was made, Ulman said, because Ohio University's Athens campus had switched from quarters to semesters, and the Pelotonia ride didn't fit with the university's campus schedule. Most Pelotonia riders completing the two-day route had been accommodated in the dorms on the evening of the first day. Thus, Kenyon and its dorms became the destination, he said.

The future – now

When the opportunity arose to take over Pelotonia in 2014 and be a part of the Columbus community, Ulman said, he and his wife – Amy Grace Ulman, a former speech pathologist in the head-and-neck cancer group at the James – moved their family from Austin, Texas.

Caligiuri said he has been impressed and humbled by Ulman's leadership.

Ulman always thinks outside the box to further the organization's mission, Caligiuri said.

"He exudes passion," he said.

Ulman said he was excited to work on expanding a movement that already was successful.

Constant innovation is necessary, Ulman said, and the community generates many ideas.

"People feel like they own it," he said.

Technology also has been essential for Pelotonia's expansion.

Social media, Ulman said, have provided effective platforms for engaging with the Pelotonia community. Ulman, for example, has more than 1 million followers on Twitter as @dougulman.

"It is great to be able to communicate in real time with our supporters so that we can highlight the impact that they are having and also receive feedback and solicit their ideas for growing our impact," he said.

Pelotonia's next step could be global, thanks to a new technology initiative.

An investor-fueled $500,000 project to develop a free mobile app for Pelotonia is underway, Ulman said.

The app, which would be available on Android and iOS platforms, would allow fundraising for Pelotonia by anyone, any time, anywhere.

The beta version of the app will launch locally, whereas the final version will be ready to launch in December or January, Ulman said.

One of the most important features will be the ability to deliver Pelotonia content in real time to riders and fundraisers, he said. For example, when a cyclist finishes a training ride, the app might play a video of a doctor outlining recent cancer research funded by Pelotonia grants.

Caligiuri said he hopes the new technology could help the nonprofit gain an international foothold.

"I'd love to see it go global," he said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah