It started out as a friendly chat between neighbours and has grown to become the second-largest HIV/AIDS fundraising event in Canada. This year the Friends for Life Bike Rally in support of the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (TPWAF) is warming up for its 10th-annual ride to Montreal with a quick zip down Yonge St as Toronto Pride’s honoured group.
“In the first season we had 23 riders, six crew, one van, one truck and a whole lot of hope,” recounts Danny Nashman, who cofounded the Bike Rally with then-neighbour David Linton. “[TPWAF] gave us the go ahead not knowing if it would raise any money, not knowing if it was going to succeed.”
That first ride raised approximately $45,000; earlier this month the running total raised by the rally surpassed the $5-million mark.
“We were quite amazed at how well it went from a fundraising perspective,” says Nashman of that first year, “but also what an incredible experience it was…. It was an incredible feeling to ride into Montreal and see the skyline and realize we’d got there on the power of our legs.”
“They started with this idea… but no real infrastructure and it’s developed into this campaign that’s raised over $5-million and touched so many lives,” says TPWAF executive director Murray Jose. “It demonstrates that we can all make a positive difference no matter how small it is. It’s really an inspiring thing.”
Jose, who’s cycled the 660-kilometre rally four years running, says the rally now accounts for about a third of TPWAF’s annual budget. “The dollar figure is impressive but it doesn’t give you the impact of the services… what that means for people living with HIV/AIDS.”
But Jose says the rally does a lot more for TPWAF than just raise money. “It’s such an incredible tool for awareness raising as we go from Toronto to Montreal,” he says. “Going through all the little towns and cities we get tons of media attention, lots of questions and support.”
It also offers a unique experience to the volunteers who undertake the challenge. “I don’t want to sound dramatic by saying ‘life changing’ but it really is for a lot of people,” says Jose. “Some of the people choose to do it specifically because they’re struggling at a point of change in their lives and they want to challenge themselves in this way…. You have lots of time to reflect when you’re just biking for 600 kilometres.”
He adds that for people living with HIV the experience can be particularly powerful.
“For me it’s a bit of a screw you to HIV,” he says. “It’s a way of proving to myself that HIV isn’t going to control my dreams, it’s proving that HIV is not going to stop me.
“You have so many losses with HIV… there are some aspects of your health that you have no control over, so this is such a fantastic opportunity to prove to yourself, ‘I can do this.'”
Some 350 riders are expected to take part in this year’s event. “It’s a giant community on wheels,” says Nashman, who will be riding this year after a few years off. “It’s remarkable.
“I’ve been told events like this have a natural lifespan, but the fact that new leaders have come onboard and there’s so many people volunteering, it shows it’s alive and well and full of great creative new energy. It bodes well for the future.”