AJ Long

AJ and Damien

I’ve  been teaching indoor cycling in Atlanta since 2007. In 2010, two new guys began taking my class. They told me that they were training for the AV200; I’d never heard of it. They explained that it is a two-day 200-mile charity bike ride that benefits the Emory Vaccine Center’s research for an AIDS vaccine. They asked me to join them; I thought they were insane! There was NO WAY in the world that I could possibly ride two hundred miles. Of course, being a proud cycle instructor, I wasn’t going to tell them that; instead, I told them (truthfully) that I didn’t own a bike.

Two years later, Todd Higginbotham began taking my class in preparation for the AV200. This time, having knowledge of the ride, I congratulated him on his acceptance of the challenge. He, too, suggested that I join him and his team — Jerusalem House. I told Todd that I didn’t own a bicycle, but had been looking for a reason to buy one. In February of 2012, I bought my first road bike.

With the exception of my weekly indoor cycling classes, I had not been on a bicycle since the early 90’s, and back then, I owned a comfort bike that had fat tires and a beverage coozie on the handlebars. Furthermore, I was really intimidated by the minimum fundraising amount of $500. I don’t have a large circle of friends and my immediate family is small. I had no idea how I was going to raise any money.

But then, I realized that I had a dedicated and appreciative group of people who come to my classes four times a week. So, I decided to bring them along on my journey. Before each class, I spoke briefly about the AV200 and the Emory Vaccine Center. I told them about training rides and related everything that I was learning about cycling on the road to our indoor classes. I shared with them my fundraising goal, my team’s goal, and Action Cycling Atlanta’s goal. I made donation sheets available, and created thank you cards for all my donors that doubled as invitations to the post-ride dinner. Additionally, I included each donor’s name in a thank you letter that I posted on my Facebook page, and linked their names to THEIR Facebook pages.

Thanks to all my donors! Join me on my 2013 ride?!

Thanks to all my donors! Join me on my 2013 ride?!

I was amazed by the response I received! In addition to the donations that I received from members, I also began receiving donations from Facebook friends! My initial fundraising goal was $500, but with the overwhelming support from family, friends, and gym members, I raised $2,595! Team Jerusalem house raised $68,590, and Action Cycling Atlanta was able to write checks totaling over $295,000 to the EVC and its beneficiaries.

Then, ride day came. While there were fantastic pit stops with fabulous themes along the way, the 106 miles to Rock Eagle was nonetheless challenging. Yes, riding with my new buddies was great, but there were many times when I was on the road alone. There were times when I felt the wind would never stop, the hills would never end, and my bike wanted me off. I found myself questioning why I had ever committed to such an undertaking. When these negative thoughts crept into my head, I wanted to stop. To give up. But, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I had to push the thoughts out.

Mark Loehr, myself, and Tom Guest in Madison, GA on Day 1...

Mark Loehr, myself, and Tom Guest in Madison, GA on Day 1, representing Team Jerusalem House!

In his blog post, Chuck Podgurski wrote that cycling is a metaphor for life. He’s right. I could not give up. I could not give up because there were people who would have gladly taken my place and ridden these miles had they lived to do so. I could not give up because HIV/AIDS researchers would not give up on their search for a vaccine. And I could not give up because there are people who endure much worse than wind or saddle sores every day as they fight for their lives because there is no vaccine, there is no cure, and they do not have access to treatment because they can’t afford it.

At a different AIDS charity event, I stood shocked as I listened to one of the organizers tell a group of the event’s supporters that HIV/AIDS is now just a chronic disease like diabetes. This may be true if you have access to and can afford the medications. The speaker seemed to have forgotten about the millions of people around the world (and in this country!) who neither have access to nor can afford the necessary treatment. For them, AIDS is not a chronic disease. For them, AIDS is a death sentence. So, for them — the forgotten — I ride.

The Forgotten

Belva White

Never say never. My friend David Hanson, a former AV200 rider, asked me over 5 years ago if I would ride 35 miles in a ride that started at Emory and went to Madison and back.  I told him he was crazy, I didn’t own a bike and even if I did, I would never ride that far.

I haven’t been cycling for long – less than 5 years – and I only did my first century ride in May 2011; all 100 miles of which were ridden in one gear because I didn’t know how to change gears.  It’s hard to believe that in 2012, I pedaled over 1700 miles with 1090 of those dedicated to AIDS. I plan to ride another 1000 in 2013 with the AV200 (200 miles), the AIDS LifeCycle (545 miles) and the Charity Treks (425 miles).

One thing is for sure – I don’t do this because I’m a great cyclist.  I’m very slow and generally take pride in escorting the SAG vehicles into camp.  Hills still make me say bad words and I get to see all of the cool jerseys as other riders pass me.  So for anyone out there who thinks they aren’t good enough to tackle the AV200 challenge – you’ll have to find another excuse as this has nothing to do with being a good cyclist!  It has EVERYTHING to do with passion and wanting to change the future.

During my 14 days of the year pedaling for AIDS, I’m just a rider like everyone else.  No one cares about titles, about politics, about financial status or any of the other unimportant themes we run into during “real life.”  When I first signed up for the AV200, I did so because I learned a friend is HIV positive.  I started a journey of trying to learn more about it and was quickly confronted with the associated stigma.  I asked my AV200 memorial donors last year to tell me about their friend or partner.  The words they shared with me changed my future.  They ignited a fire within me that I cannot really explain but feel called to honor. 

Team St. Mark, at the start of the 2012 AV200.

I have been asked why I ride so many miles for HIV/AIDS and there are a number of reasons.  First, I believe that an AIDS vaccine is the only way to truly end this epidemic.  Second, I believe that I am called to care for people currently dealing with the challenges HIV/AIDS and I personally love and know many of them.  Third, I believe that stigma is flat-out wrong.  Fourth, the stories of HIV/AIDS victims move me and I want the world to know how special they are/were.

If you have ever seen a mob of cyclists on the road, you are aware of how they demand your attention.  By riding together in the AV200, we are collectively raising awareness for an AIDS vaccine.  WE are that mob.  WE are noticed.  At rest stops, you might be asked why you are riding and the door is opened for education and perhaps collecting a dollar or two for the cause.  Together, WE make a difference.

The AV200 ride really is for everyone.  The relay rides allow for a fun, less stressful ride for anyone preferring a shorter route.  There are plenty of Couch to Century training guides to get you ready and the support of the AV200 ride leaders is amazing.  They will get you ready and it is NOT a race (I’m proof of that!) but it is a journey and one that will change the way you see the world.

…at mile 1000 for AIDS in 2012. What an accomplishment, Belva!

Chuck Podgurski

My first bike was red. It had a banana seat and long handlebars. I loved that thing. I rode it all the time growing up, around the neighborhood, through the woods, exploring as far as I could. It was my escape. Sometimes it turned into ’69 Plymouth Fury when we played cops… I may have been the last one picked on most backyard football games, but I could get on my bike and ride like a maniac!

As an adult in New York City, I tooled around Manhattan for exercise on my road bike. I wasn’t Captain Safety back then. I don’t know what I was thinking. For 20 years here in Atlanta, I rode a hybrid each day, mostly to burn off work stress. I’ve always enjoyed my cycling; just me and my thoughts and a sturdy bike.

Then I met Jonny Wood three years ago; speed-demon Jonny Wood, who did marathons and rode his bike 40 and 50 miles. He invited me one weekend to ride with a mutual friend of ours. Ummm..yeah, I couldn’t really keep up.  I kept riding though, each weekend that summer… 20 or 25 miles, eventually without Jonny since he started training for yet another marathon… or at least that’s what he told me. Poor guy spent a lot of ride time waiting for me at the top of hills.

me & jonny! top fundraisers for 2011… can we repeat it this year?

Anyway, I was hooked on the purposed ride. January 2011, Jonny invited me to an AV200 Rider Recruitment event. I thought it was just some party. As I met one nice, upbeat person after another, I began to hear about the ride itself and why people were involved. On the way out, Jonny asked if I wanted to do the ride with him. Now, I’m usually unbelievably analytical about the commitments I make and I’m ok with that. But for some reason, in that moment, my gut told me to commit. So I did. Right then.  I was in. What’s really funny is that I told him, “But I don’t want to spend lots and lots of money on cycling equipment.” Yeah, right. Of course, now, two bikes later, I look back and … well you know.

“cool people” I’ve met…
(this photo & caption was inserted by the editor who may or may not be in this photo…)

So, the ride last year, all the training before and since, all the people I’ve met through it, the fact that the money raised actually makes a difference — each has been an incredible gift, an amazing part of my life’s journey. I love that cycling is a metaphor for life: There are hills and valleys; there are limits to be acknowledged and there are limits to be blown apart; sometimes you succeed with the help of your friends and sometimes you succeed by digging down deep inside yourself and pulling up what you didn’t think you had. Cycling has helped heal me in so many ways. I love it. I love it. I love it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now let’s talk about fundraising. If there’s any area in which I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, it’s my fundraising. I’m not saying it’s healthy or unhealthy, but I ended up sending emails to EVERYONE on my contact list. I didn’t care who they were. Last year when donations started coming in, I was absolutely shocked. Then I sent out a few more emails. Then I got more donations. And then it was all out. I got drunk with success. I got donations from people I hadn’t seen in years and even a few I hadn’t met. This year I sent out over 500 emails. Basically, donations are like heroin to me! I can’t get enough. Healthy? Unhealthy? Who’s to say? Ok, maybe the American Psychiatric Association. But please don’t worry. I plan to find a 12-step program for whatever this is, soon after the ride.

chuck_family_SOM

team chuck! my cousin Neen and her husband Tony with me at the end of day two

Alright, all joking aside, let’s get back to the reason I ride.  I’m actually dedicating this year’s ride once more to three dear, sweet men who were my friends, who passed much too young, who I miss very deeply, who would probably still be here if we had a vaccine: Andy Cannon, Jim Buccalo and Kerry Schwoyer.

Sometimes I talk to them when I train. Sometimes I picture them next to me when I’m struggling up a hill. Mostly I think of all the people who will live when a vaccine is discovered.

-Chuck

cycling is a journey…

I was asked to write a small sentence or two talk about my thoughts on cycling….especially for the AV200.  I suppose many of us ride for different reasons: philanthropic, challenge, fundraising, togetherness, purpose.  The list could go on…… It occurred to me that riding is more than a just getting dressed in cycling gear and hammering out seemingly thousands of miles to get ready for two days of riding for a cause.  The cause is admittedly a good one, HIV/AIDS vaccine research. However, the real reason most of us ride is to put an end to AIDS!

To me, riding is a journey. I have to wonder about that journey though. Is the journey leading me away from something? Or, is the journey leading me towards something?  Whatever the end result, I find that when I am on the bike, I am participating in escape.  I have found that cycling allows me to leave the cares of my daily life behind… I can get away from the stressors of living and enjoy the open air. I can see parts of the city in ways that I could never see or experience by riding in a car. I can take part in fellowship with other riders who share some common interests. I can process my crazy rambling thoughts and make some sense of all that I am so unwilling to let go of in my head. I can forget, if only for a moment, the very real challenges associated with living that we all experience. So, in essence, my riding is a way to escape…to be free…if only for a few miles.

I suppose that cycling is a journey towards something. I am sure my legs are a bit stronger, my endurance has increased…maybe I am getting healthier?  Maybe I am advancing the cause of the cyclist? Becoming more visible to the Atlanta driver who seemingly loathes the cyclist? Maybe I am doing a part for the environment to cut down on smog…I am unsure of where I am heading, but I must have a goal that I am working towards!

As the journey relates to the AV200, I suppose I am cycling to honor the journey that the men and women who are living with HIV/AIDS are on. I imagine the weight of finding out that I have contracted HIV/AIDS. I can only imagine living with a disease that, for some, changes the appearance of a person, makes a person more susceptible to other illnesses, and challenges a person to think about their longevity. I imagine that some men and women living with HIV/AIDS have to deal with the shame that our society imposes upon them and difficulties of telling potential love interests about their status. I think of all of these things and so much more…no person should have to endure the hardships of living with HIV/AIDS. When I am on my bike, I am attempting to escape, just as a person who has HIV/AIDS may want to escape their disease…even if just for a little while.

My AV200 journey is ultimately for a single purpose. I ride towards putting an end to HIV/AIDS! We all have our own personal reasons for becoming involved in AV200, whether it is because we have lived vicariously through friends and loved ones who have suffered with HIV/AIDS. Or, because we believe that nobody should have to suffer getting HIV/AIDS. Whatever the reason, we are all on this shared journey. A journey towards ending the impact of this disease on all those who have it and the many people whose lives are impacted by knowing and caring about someone who is living with HIV/AIDS. I believe that my journey is a journey shared by all us who are cycling for a purpose, cycling for a cause, cycling to find a cure.

Hope for all,

Paul
cyclist, activist, and the best friend to someone living with AIDS for 25 years