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Bike rally for HIV/AIDS gives as much as it demands

Queers gear up for Friends for Life's July 25 departure

Credit: courtesy of FFL/bikerally.org

At the corner of Church and Maitland streets on a breezy evening, Simon Lysnes set up a stationary bike to ride for a couple hours, collecting money from passersby for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation.

He was joined by Chris Reynolds, both clad in the blue cycling jerseys they wore for last year’s 11th annual Friends for Life Bike Rally and both gearing up for this year’s six-day, 600-kilometre trek to Montreal, which begins on Sunday, July 25.

The story of that journey has been well-documented in the 12 years of the rally, with many riders coming back year after year and the overall ridership generally growing each time, from 21 riders the first year to more than 300 in 2010 (with the support crew factored in, more than 400 people will make the trip to Montreal this year). But participants actually begin sacrificing early and do so all summer long.

“Well, your Friday nights are basically kaput,” laughs real estate agent Sam Soukas. With regular training rides every Saturday morning that begin in April and Sunday rides added in May, the rally is a far greater time commitment than just one week. Plus, says Soukas, “there’s definitely a financial commitment you have to make, especially in your first year. To get a decent road bike, it’s at least a thousand bucks.”

The PWA Foundation stresses that “you don’t need to have a fancy bike or be a professional cyclist to join us,” and Soukas would agree, having gone on his first few training rides on “this CCM Canadian Tire bike that hadn’t been ridden in years.”

But with “those chunky hybrid tires,” he says, “it’s going to take you twice as much energy to do the job.”

Ken Allen, an IT analyst and co-parent of three kids, has been making it harder and harder on himself — first joining the rally for “the physical challenge,” then pushing himself to get up with the front pack and now, this year, riding a tandem bike with 17-year-old Megan.

Adapting to each other’s pace has been frustrating, he says, but rewarding — especially when he considers how he started, three years ago.

“I still remember showing up at the first training ride,” Allen says, “on my trusty hybrid wearing cargo shorts and looking around at all the carbon fibre and spandex. ‘Oh, so it’s like that, is it?’ I asked, you know, on the inside,” he laughs.

“There’s a transformation that happens those first weeks of training,” Soukas says. It’s not that the rally demands more of its participants, the demand comes from within.

“When I did the rally the first time, it was about the physical challenge and the enjoyment of cycling,” he says, but it became impossible not to think about his own HIV-positive diagnosis back in 1994.

“At that time, the odds were I wouldn’t live very long,” Soukas says. “I was in the hospital with pneumococcal meningitis and the doctor had only one course of treatment that sometimes worked. I quit my job and was living on CCP. I started going to PWA for vitamins and general massage but ended up having to use the food bank. Years later, I’ve survived and I’m doing okay, so it’s time to give back to the community that helped me all those years ago.”

The paradox of fundraising for the PWA Foundation is that newer, life-saving treatments make AIDS fundraising seem less urgent.

“You don’t see the names listed in Xtra every week like you used to, so there isn’t the same urgency,” Soukas says.

But Allen found that approaching his straight friends across the continent proved surprising. Many of them, he says, “shared stories with me about how their lives had been touched by HIV/AIDS, stories of losing friends and family. I had worried about feeling marginalized and alienated while fundraising, and instead I felt part of a much larger community than I had known I was a part of.”

Casting director Ron Leach has done the rally annually, after a car accident almost kept him off a bike forever. Less than a day or two after pledging to cycle again, he says, a friend tested positive — leading Leach “to pledge my overweight ass towards the goal of fitness in the cause of aiding everyone stricken with this damnable disease.”

Cycling to Montreal “on a cloud of good will,” he says, “no philanthropic endeavour has given so much back to me as the Friends for Life Bike Rally.”

To make a donation, go to bikerally.org.