Most mornings, you’ll find Keith Hartstein joining up with the Crack o’ Dawn Riders (motto: “If you’re not here by 5:45, you ride alone.”) in his Boston suburb, heading out for a 30-mile bike ride. Three weekends a month, you’ll find him in a bike race. And at work, as president and CEO, John Hancock Funds, you’ll find him spreading his passion for cycling throughout the company.

Once a casual rider just looking for a way to get in shape, the 54-year-old executive is now a Category 4 competitor, and John Hancock Financial Services is three years into its sponsorship of the Audi Best Buddies Challenge Hyannis Port, an annual bike ride that raises money for Best Buddies International. Founded by Anthony Kennedy Shriver in 1989, the nonprofit’s mission is to establish a global volunteer movement that creates friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, launched the Special Olympics in 1968.

Hancock’s involvement in the event goes beyond writing a check: The company fielded 25 riders in 2009, doubled that in 2010, and expects to more than double it for 2011. “The Audi Best Buddies Challenge Hyannis Port is an appealing event for John Hancock as a corporate sponsor,” says Hartstein, explaining that the company looks to engage four broad groups with any corporate sponsorship: sales intermediaries, customers and clients, the community, and employees. “Best Buddies allows us to touch each of these constituencies in some way, and that’s good for business.” First and foremost, though, he says, “it benefits a very worthwhile cause, providing friendship and job opportunities to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Cycling Takes Off
For Event Manager Kristine Aristide, it’s become the gateway to an expanded job description. Until her work with Best Buddies, the sum total of her biking experience had been “the purple Schwinn with the banana seat,” she laughs. Now she’s the go-to expert at Hancock on all things cycling.

“Among all the sponsorship programs John Hancock has had over the years, we had never participated in anything cycling-related,” she says. Hancock has worked with the Olympics and Major League Baseball, and is about to enter its 26th year as principal sponsor of the Boston Marathon. Aristide credits colleague Janice Barsha, who had done the Best Buddies event for years, with encouraging Hancock’s venture into a new sport. “When this opportunity was presented to us,” Aristide says, “we didn’t know what to expect by way of interest. After two years, we can see there is a large interest in the sport and more people are finding their way to it.”

In fact, the team from John Hancock had the fastest overall time in the 2010 race, and one of the company’s executives finished in the top five. “This has allowed for considerable support among our senior management to grow the overall program,” Aristide says. “We fully expect to have participation numbers in the triple digits in 2011. With my role change, I will be able to dedicate more time and grow the program to both internal associates and to our sales force. When you give people a challenge like riding 100 miles, you see a real camaraderie come about with the participants. This camaraderie is the best form of networking between internal and external sales forces.” She recalls an incident in the 2009 event, when one rider broke her bike chain just a mile from finish line. “Repairing it requires a special tool that most riders don’t carry. So two riders pushed her to the finish line. At that point it became about working as a team, not about personal goals.”

It’s Inclusive
Of course, not everyone is prepared for the challenge of riding 100 miles, which is another benefit of the Best Buddies setup. Participants can choose to ride 100, 50, or 20 miles—or do a 5K run or a 3K walk instead. “The variety of ride lengths as well as the option of a run/walk make the Best Buddies Challenge accessible to virtually anyone,” Hartstein says. “One of the unique aspects of the Best Buddies event is the participation of ‘buddies’ [those with intellectual or developmental disabilities who are the beneficiaries of the organization’s work] in the ride, either on a tandem bike or riding their own bike with a friend or sponsor alongside. It is not uncommon to find yourself riding alongside a tandem bike with Anthony Kennedy Shriver in front and a buddy on back. It’s great to engage both of them in conversation as you ride along and find out more about them.”

What’s great for Hancock teammates who may never have met on the job is the chance to build relationships during the ride as well as in the months leading up to it. “Our Best Buddies team meets monthly to discuss fundraising strategies, training routines, and other issues,” says Hartstein. “We also offer group rides, and encourage our team participants to get out and ride together. As a result, the event builds camaraderie among associates who work in disparate parts of our organization.”

The monthly “lunch and learn” meetings are run by a professional racer from the Best Buddies organization who covers everything from rules of the road to equipment to how to change a tire (which he demonstrated in the atrium of the Hancock office tower). Last winter, Hancock drew 100 participants to a special after-work presentation by Olympic and Tour de France racer Tyler Hamilton, who offered tips on preparing for a big ride.

The Big Day
Participants in the most popular option—the 100-mile ride—start out from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. With their unique team jerseys, the Hancock riders gather together, following the 12 mph pace car that leads them through the busy roads at the beginning of the course.

“There is a ‘rolling enclosure’ start for the first 10 miles,” Hartstein explains, “that enables team members of all abilities to ride alongside one another. Everyone can carry on a conversation at 12 miles per hour. While that may chafe the aspiring racers in the group, it does foster team conversation and additional bonding. Then everyone goes off at their own pace. Some might ride solo, others in small groups, and others in groups as large as 10 or 20 or more.

“For many participants, an event like Best Buddies is their first experience riding in a pace line, which can be both intimidating and exhilarating,” he adds. “It requires riding in close proximity with other cyclists, but because of the effects of drafting, you will ride faster, and with less effort than riding solo.”

Whichever course participants choose, everyone ends up at a “five-star” clambake in Hyannis Port, Mass., at the end of the day. “There is a huge reception with many moving testimonials and speeches as well as terrific food and entertainment,” Hartstein says. “And as a sponsor, we have reserved seating for our participants and guests, which makes it easier to reassemble after the ride.”

If lobsters and name entertainment aren’t enough to get people excited, the honorary chairman of the Best Buddies Challenge Hyannis Port is NFL celebrity Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots, who rides and is involved for the entire event.

Bigger and Better
For Hancock executives, the broad range of participation and the clear increase in interest that came about mainly through word of mouth has been a pleasant surprise and a reinforcement of the sponsorship as a good business decision.

Outside of Hancock employees, participants have included financial advisers from intermediaries who sell Hancock funds, such as Merrill Lynch or Raymond James, in addition to agencies in the John Hancock Financial Network, and independent brokerages around New England.

Aristide even recruited some of her hotel partners. The director of sales and marketing at the Renaissance Providence Hotel in Providence, R.I., attended a captain’s training session and ended up fielding a team of three in 2010. He’s promised even more in 2011.

And associates from Manulife Financial, Hancock’s Toronto–based parent, read about the event and may travel to Boston next June. “The Best Buddies Challenge breaks down barriers and brings people together,” Aristide sums up. “It’s not hard to sell it. It’s so rewarding.”

Check out Kristine Aristide’s “Six Tips for Sponsoring Charitable Sporting Events”