This year’s Dempsey Challenge had a different feeling for its second time around, an overwhelming spirit of togetherness.

It’s what people along the 50-mile bike route and those riding were saying last Sunday.

And at the center of so many huddles and warm mid-cycle conversations was Patrick Dempsey, the television and movie actor who didn’t have time to ride for two months but sucked it up through 50 miles.

He didn’t go fast, but switched gears easily from happy rider to patient listener to fellow Mainer.

From the start Dempsey said the event he founded is the cycling community’s event, and the funds raised — more than $1 million this year — are the work of the people of Maine for their center, the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing at Central Maine Medical Center.

And in amongst the colorful signs, cowbells and loud music, Dempsey blended in like one of them.

Jeannine Morneau of Saco rode with Dempsey five miles last year and met him on the course again this year.

She wasn’t star-struck so much as dumbfounded at how accessible and amiable he was.

“For him to take the time to do what he’s doing for support of cancer is incredible,” Morneau said.

“He just really took the time to let people know that he really appreciated people being out and supporting what he thought was a very important cause.”

It definitely set the tone for the second-annual charity walk, run and ride that drew 4,177 participants, including 1,950 cyclists.

By all accounts, the Dempsey Challenge was a good time, a block party and also a caring support group.

“It’s a good event. A lot of people are out there. They’re happy. Lot of smiles on faces,” said David Brink, co-owner of Cycle Mania in Portland who was riding for mechanical support.

Last year, Dempsey said the one thing he didn’t want to lose from the event was its unique spirit. Different levels and numbers of professional riders would come and go, he said, but what was most important was the communal feeling, even friendship, that was there last year.

It was there again, everywhere. Strangers met and rode together; hundreds poured into rest stops where music and signs surrounded the cyclists.

And out on the course Dempsey rode up to children and adults, and asked how far they were riding.

Pam Lawrason came to ride alone for three members of her family and a friend who were battling cancer. She ended up riding with Dempsey for several miles toward the end.

They pedaled side-by-side at about 7 miles an hour, neither in a hurry for the moment to end.

“I said to him, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing,’” said Lawrason, of Cumberland. “I’ve done other events, this has its own separate feeling to it. It has a cohesiveness, a togetherness and a shared feeling. And he is in the midst of it. He could be very different, but he’s very warm and genuine. That makes a difference. It says, ‘I am one of you.’ It’s a surge for everybody.”

The reasons people came to ride were many.

Greg Cuetara of Auburn covered the 50-mile course in sneakers and pants as he tried to embrace this new sport. He wanted to start a habit of good health, and help promote the collective example being set.

“I’ve just had a lot of people in my family with cancer. It seems everybody has people with cancer in their family. I’m just out here to try to get into shape and I figure if those with cancer can do it, then we can all get out and do a little bit for them,” said Cuetara, 34.

The gratitude flowed last Sunday. It created a bond among riders from 38 states, seven countries, and even the heights of Hollywood. 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]