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Allez! Allez!

Going the distance for the Friends For Life Bike Rally

LEAN, SERENE CYCLING MACHINE. The Friends For Life Bike Rally's cochair Lucinda Wallace cuts a dashing figure as she trains for her fifth ride in support of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation.

Lucinda Wallace has never shied away from a challenge. The self-described former “party girl” says she took on one of the biggest challenges of her life seven years ago when she quit smoking.

“I hated the idea that I needed something that wasn’t necessary for my well-being,” says Wallace, while sipping iced coffee at a local hangout in the Church-Wellesley village. “I mean, if I were alone on a desert island, I would want to relax and not have to worry about where my next cigarette was coming from.”

Cigarettes and islands aside, it’s difficult to picture Wallace relaxing at all. She’s an athlete, an activist, a freelance graphic designer and, for the fifth year in a row, she’ll be cycling the six-day trek from Toronto to Montreal that is the Friends For Life Bike Rally. Departing Sun, Jul 23 and arriving in Montreal Fri, Jul 28, the annual ride raises funds and awareness for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (TPWAF).

But Wallace is not only cycling the more than 600km between the two cities, she’s also wrapping up her two-year term as cochair of the event, a title she shares with fellow cochair Walter Dimini. For the month of July, it’s basically a full-time job, albeit without a pay cheque.

“I should be looking for paid work right now,” says Wallace, 35, sporting a Bike Rally T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Until there’s a cure, there’s a ride.” “But I just can’t focus on anything else. It’s just too exciting.”

Wallace certainly didn’t set out to run the event when, five years ago, she was looking for a new challenge and discovered the Bike Rally through a friend who was participating. “Once I did it, though, I was blown away by how well-organized it is, so I decided to throw myself into it.”

Wallace seemingly throws herself into everything she takes on. When she came out as a lesbian at the age of 16 back in her native Sarnia, she threw herself into the local gay community. She was also a “beach bum” who threw herself into unconventional sports like windsurfing on Lake Huron.

After a short stint in London, Ontario — she would have preferred London, UK, she says with a laugh — she moved to the GTA to study graphic design at Sheridan College. Wallace also did time in Xtra’s production department, ending up production manager. But that wasn’t enough to keep her busy. She also pursued her interest in DJing, which led to her becoming one of the people behind the much-missed Sissy Saturdays at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

But even all that wasn’t enough for Wallace, so she challenged herself again by joining a gym. “I found out that I really enjoyed pushing myself. I used to jog from my apartment to the gym. It was only a couple of blocks, but at the time it was a big step.” She also signed up for a women’s boxing clinic, a Million Dollar Baby twist you might not expect from the soft-spoken, pixie-faced Wallace.

“I really wanted to physically push myself to the limit. It’s not just about the hitting. The cardio aspect of being in the ring is unbelievable…. The scariest part was not being hit, but allowing yourself to hit someone else.”

Once she started cycling, however, she was hooked. “After my first Bike Rally, I didn’t want to wait until the next ride to see these people again, so I started volunteering, doing communications and graphic design.”

Through her work with the Bike Rally, Wallace discovered she has a particular penchant for designing maps. She would cycle around the city looking for practice runs for other riders in training and then design maps outlining the routes.

“I would find these beautiful roads and I’d want to share them with other people. Now I just have to figure out how to make money from map design.”

She says it was a natural progression to her taking on the challenge of serving a two-year term as cochair, a task that involves overseeing the planning and operation of the event as well as a 12-member steering committee. Apart from support from a couple of staff members at TPWAF, everyone who works on the Bike Rally — Canada’s third largest HIV/AIDS fundraiser after Fashion Cares and Walk For Life — are volunteers. In addition, each rider must raise at least $2,000 in order to participate.

Over time, however, Wallace realized that many of the riders — herself included — were forgetting the reasons behind the race while concentrating solely on the physical aspects of the ride.

“HIV/AIDS has always been a cause close to my heart. I’ve seen the pain and suffering it has caused,” says Wallace. “But through the ride I’ve come to know more people with HIV/AIDS, and I feel closer to the cause than ever. This experience has really educated me.

“A lot of people sign up for the ride for the physical challenge. But when they finish the ride, they are surprised at how their motivations have changed.”

That passion for the cause is one of the reasons Wallace will be missed after she finishes up her term as cochair.

“She is a powerful speaker who can make that connection between the athletic challenge and the cause,” says TPWAF executive director Murray Jose. “It’s easy for the event to take on a life of its own, and you can forget what it’s all about. But Lucinda always brings it back home. She always tells riders, ‘There are days you won’t think you will make it to the end. But you still have a choice. Just remember, you are doing this for people who don’t have a choice, for people who live with HIV every day. They will give you the motivation to push forward.'”

While Wallace hopes to continue to volunteer with the Bike Rally once her term as cochair is over, she’s also looking forward to having the time to pursue some of her other interests, including getting more involved with cycling as a competitive sport.

“Maybe I’ll coach, become a spinning instructor, design maps for cyclists,” says Wallace, her powder blue eyes growing larger with each new possibility. “This whole part of my life has opened up because of the Bike Rally.”

She’ll also be able to spend more time with her partner of eight years, Lesley Fraser, a sommelier and former cyclist who has come to be known as the “First Lady” of the Bike Rally. Wallace jokes that with two cyclists in the family, everything from the Bike Rally to the Tour de France is “24/7 in my household.”

But for Wallace, nothing compares to the simple act of riding.

“It’s an amazing escape. No matter what is going on in my life, when I’m on my bike, I’m happy.”