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Pedaling to prevent HIV infection and treat AIDS 

Since 2001, more than 10,000 AIDS/LifeCycle riders and road crew have raised more than $70 million for patient services and disease prevention

 Pedaling an average of eighty miles a day for seven days, 1,925 cyclists made their way from San Francisco to Los Angeles last week in the ninth annual AIDS/LifeCycle ride, known as ALC, the world’s largest HIV/AIDS fundraising event. I rode to support the fight against AIDS and to see whether I could complete the trip. This year the ride drew participants from nearly every state, Washington, D.C., and eight other nations. Riders, who ranged in age from 18 to 80 years, pedaled 545 arduous miles. Each of them raised at least $3,000 to support the services of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center; many brought in $20,000 and more. The riders and a dedicated volunteer road crew of 500 raised about $10 million this year. 

 Since 2001, more than 10,000 AIDS/LifeCycle riders and road crew (affectionately dubbed “roadies”) have raised more than $70 million for the fight against AIDS. According to Lorri L. Jean, CEO of Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, and Barbara Kimport, interim CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the hard work of ALC participants means the two centers don’t have to turn away anyone in need of services. AIDS/LifeCycle Director Michael Barron pointed out the monies raised by the ride are more important than ever in the wake of slashed state funding for HIV-prevention services.

 One in ten of the nation’s HIV+ individuals lives in California, and the state ranks second in the United States in cumulative AIDS cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than one million people nationwide, and 33 million worldwide, live with HIV/AIDS, with as many as 21 percent of those having undiagnosed HIV. An estimated 56,300 people will become infected this year. Gay and bisexual men account for about 53 percent of new HIV infection cases.

 The main goals of the ALC ride, besides raising funds, are to increase public awareness of HIV/AIDS and to eliminate the stigma associated with the disease. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the first reported HIV case, then known as GRID. Those of us who witnessed the pandemic of the 1980s know more than most the need for educational services to prevent new infection, among young people in particular. At the Cuesta College lunch stop on Day 4 of the ride, I met a mental health worker who runs self-esteem groups and meth recovery groups. He works to help young people recently diagnosed with HIV deal with their diagnosis in a constructive way and, most critically, teaches young people how to prevent infection. I met one rider who sought to gain confidence by cycling in ALC to deal with his recent diagnosis.

 Meth addiction impairs judgment and drives up infection rates, so efforts to help addicts recover are essential in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The Speed Project of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation reaches out to gay and bisexual men who use crystal meth, encouraging good health and safety as does the Stonewall Project, also in San Francisco, which provides counseling and other support. Funds raised by AIDS/LifeCycle participants pay for these vital services, among others, including the California HIV/AIDS and STD (sexually transmitted diseases) Hotline in San Francisco and the WEHO Life, a program of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center that distributes thousands of condoms and prevention materials yearly to West Hollywood businesses.

 Riders and roadies participate in AIDS/LifeCycle for myriad reasons, not least of which is having lost loved ones to AIDS. On Night 6 of the ride, on San Buenaventura State Beach in Ventura, we raised 2,500 candles in a moving silent tribute to lives lost to AIDS. Stigma erasure is an important reason for the ride. Older veterans of ALC remember the day when hospital workers wouldn’t touch an AIDS patient and many people died alone and stigmatized.

 Among the cyclists last week were a number of Positive Pedalers, a group of HIV+ individuals proving that people with HIV can still live full, healthy lives. Founded in 1996, the Positive Pedalers number more than 800 members nationally and internationally. HIV/AIDS is a true global pandemic. Through participation in ALC alone, Positive Pedalers has raised more than $8 million. The ALC ride relies on the enthusiasm and support of international riders to help raise global awareness of the disease.

    Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the AIDS/LifeCycle ride. Registration is already underway. For information, go to aidslifecycle.org.

Ruth Goodnow lives in San Luis Obispo. Send comments via the editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com

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