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Ten things I learned from my ‘Friends For Life’

Tales from the road

LAST LEG. Contributor Nelson Branco and fellow bike rally rider Fran├žois pause for a photo-op at the border.

This past month I, along with 270 other riders and crew, peddled my way from Toronto to Montreal as part of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation’s (PWA) seventh annual Friends For Life Bike Rally. The opportunity to give back by doing two things I loved doing – camping and cycling – was too good to pass up. On a personal level, I was looking for a positive way to channel my grief over losing a loved one to suicide, and eager to be a part of something that was bigger than myself.

I had no idea what to expect. Previous articles and blogs on the rally read more like finely tuned press releases. I had more questions going into this event than answers: Who are these people who ride over 600km to raise money for PWA? Are they, too, trying to channel their grief because that’s all they can do? Did the campsite turn into a wilderness porno set at night? Is everyone focussed on helping people living with HIV/AIDS or just the glory of crossing the finish line first? Here’s what I learned.

Pleasantville exists

We’re not on Church St anymore, Dorothy! During our first break in Scarborough, there was a remarkable and noticeable change – that infamous, nasty Toronto attitude disappeared into the smog. Nice.

The rhythm of life

Citing safety reasons, PWA prohibited riders from wearing headphones while cycling, which aggravated me to no end. As a spinning and cycling enthusiast I find music to be as vital as padded cycling shorts. More times than not, the right beat can revitalize you more than any energy drink ever could, especially when going toe-to-toe with a relentless hill.

Besides, just because I’m not listening to music doesn’t guarantee I’m paying attention to traffic. (On the last day, a rider ran right into a concrete barrier and I swear Cher was not to blame.)

Pimp your ride

One rider pimped her ride to include a stereo system, a misting instrument and the kitchen sink. Martha Stewart would have been proud.

Crew versus riders

Before the rally, I kept encountering debate about who worked harder – the support crew or the riders. As a rider, I’m obviously biased, but if I’d have to say that 10 hours of menial labour does not equal riding hill after hill during a storm for six hours. (Pledgers, take note: this isn’t an easy task. Donate accordingly.) When faced with difficulty, a rider must go outside oneself to survive. I doubt that a crew member washing dishes, despite the monotony of it all, had to reach a Zen state to be able to go on. (Speaking of which, many thanks to the food-crew member who kept us up drinking his face off into the wee hours on the day before our hardest ride.)

Factor in the training and fundraising riders do for months beforehand (whereas crew members basically do the bulk of their work during one week) and it’s like comparing childbirth to the act of conception. So there, I said it.

Cycle bullies

There are many different reasons for getting involved with an event like Friends For Life. There was a small group of riders, which I coined the “cycle bullies,” who were clearly more concerned about their egos and the finish line than making the experience inclusive and positive. (Cutting off 60-year-old grandmothers isn’t cool). I suspect these bullies would’ve also cycled for Friends For George W Bush just for the competition.

Compete with your peers, but leave the real heroes of this event alone – the ones who aren’t experienced cyclists but are in it for no other goal other than to raise money for a good cause. These riders were my heroes, not the Lance Armstrong wannabes.

Sexless in the campsite

You may have wondered whether the campsites turn into an endless sexual playground come evening. Thanks to my sleuthing skills, I can report that was not the case. Not only were we dead tired after riding all day, but once we reached our new home base we still had to set up camp, wash up in any body of water we could find (E Coli, yum!), stretch, tune-up our bikes, eat and prepare for the next day’s challenge. The only touching we did down there was with anti-chaffing cream. Our asses were sore, but not that kind of sore.

It’s anyone’s race

Although I didn’t exactly take a scientific poll, I would venture the rally was composed of an equal mix of queer men, queer women and straight folks. Who knew? The coolest part was meeting a straight woman named Gay.

Not all bikes are created equal

There’s a misconception that speed bikes are only good when you’re going for speed. Wrong. I brought my mountain bike because I was told that they were better for the gravel roads we’d be encountering. Who wants to be spending all day fixing flats on the road? I also didn’t want to speed through the journey, I wanted to soak it at all up in real time.

But, after injuring myself for a few legs of the trip because I was pushing a heavy bike up hill after hill, I learned that speed bikes have the advantage of being a lot lighter. Thankfully, I changed up my bike into a hybrid thanks to the amazing volunteer mechanics from Cycle Therapy and it was smooth sailing after that.

The journey is the destination

Crossing the finish line in Montreal was one of the most beautiful moments in my life. Being met by hundreds of strangers and friends cheering us on during our last leg had everyone crying and rejoicing at the same time. Riding in with new friends, watching riders write down the names of lost loved ones on their red ribbons and sadly confronting the fact that our journey was at an end was overwhelming; a tune-up for one’s soul, if you will.

The last ride

As transforming and fun as Friends For Life is, let’s pray that the ride won’t exist much longer before we finally find a cure.

So far this year’s Friends For Life bike rally has raised more than $620,000 for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation. To make a donation check out Bikerally.org.