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Cantrell: Ultimate bicycle rider for AIDS
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Paul Cantrell supported friends in 1999 who were participating in the Twin Cities to Chicago Heartland AIDS Ride, a 550-mile bicycle ride spanning six days from St. Paul, Minn., to Chicago.

"I went to the Closing Ceremony, and was overwhelmed by the power and energy of all the emotions, compassion, care, support and love that poured out from the crowd, volunteers, crew, riders and ride organizers," Cantrell said. "At that moment, I decided I was going to get involved, and committed myself to riding and fundraising for the 2000 Heartland AIDS Ride."

And that he did. Cantrell was, ultimately, a four-time Heartland AIDS Rider.

"I didn't know this at the time, but the impact of my first [Heartland] AIDS Ride in conjunction with the awesome people I met, the stories we shared and the overwhelming outpouring of support from the people and communities we biked through, inspired me to commit myself to this cause," he said.

Cantrell was a participant in the inaugural Ride For AIDS Chicago, a 200-mile bicycle ride from Chicago to Wisconsin and back, held in 2004.

He has since rode in all nine Ride For AIDS Chicago events, and this summer will be the event's 10th—and Cantrell's 10th. He is the lone 10-time Ride For AIDS Chicago participant.

"My first [bicycle] ride [in support of HIV/AIDS charities] was in 2000, and it was an experience like no other," Cantrell said. "It was quite literally a city of volunteers, crew, riders and staff that moved in unison across three states touching and impacting the lives of countless individuals and families with education, awareness, stories of triumph, hope, tragedy, compassion and overwhelming amounts of support and love.   

"There were times when I would be riding completely alone, and also times I would be riding among packs of other riders. It was the times when I was alone on the route, looking at vast amounts of open road ahead of, behind and around, with no other riders in site, that was the most difficult, even more difficult than the rolling hills. I got through my first Ride remembering the many people—friends, lovers and acquaintances—who lost their fight [to] HIV/AIDS, reflecting back on the wonderful times we all shared together, in addition to the commitment I made to step up and do my part to help be a positive force for education, awareness and hope against this non-discriminating disease.

"The stories shared and friendships made on the Ride also were a force of positive inspiration that helped keep me motivated and moving forward with each day's route, not to mention the outpouring of support from the communities we biked through. One of the things that really helped me keep going was the number of riders who needed a voice of support, or a gentle push, or just someone riding along side them keeping pace cheering them on and telling them that they could do it."

Cantrell, now 44, lives in Andersonville and is the project coordinator, phlebotomy services manager and facilities manager of the department of pathology at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. His partner of 12 years is Ted Harris.

"For many, an event like the Ride For AIDS Chicago is a bucket-list item. [People] do it once or twice, and then they're done," said Richard Cordova, director of athletic events for the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), which produces the annual 200-mile Ride For AIDS Chicago. "Paul's continued commitment to the cause is admirable to say the least. Having ridden for 13 consecutive years is a true testament to his character. We are lucky to have him."

Cantrell has fundraised about $55,000 for local HIV/AIDS charities through his bicycle rides—and he's shooting for $10,000 this summer in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Ride For AIDS Chicago.

"I keep doing the Ride because I can, and because HIV/AIDS is just as real a threat and concern today as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, only now we have better and more sophisticated medicines and treatment options," Cantrell said. "One of the signs of positive inspiration that was frequently seen and used by many on the early Pallotta Teamworks riders was 'I'mPossible.' [It was] taking the word 'Impossible' and turning it into a message of hope and positive inspiration simply by adding an apostrophe."

Cantrell said his push to keep pedaling is honoring those who have succumbed to the disease, and for those now living with HIV/AIDS.

"The most emotional Ride moment I experienced is very difficult to decide from 13 years of Ride experiences," he said. But if choosing from just the RFAC events, "The 2004 Ride For AIDS Chicago … the determination and dedication of all the people [who came] together to make this first Ride as successful as possible [was memorable.]"

Cantrell also treasures the "most emotional ride moment" from the RFAC when he encountered a first-time rider in distress on the side of the road with a flat tire, deflated spirits and battling extreme anxiety that she would not finish.

"This person was full of passion, but obviously doubting her ability to continue due in part to this being her fourth flat tire of the day," among other reasons, Cantrell said. "I stopped, helped her change her flat tire, talked to her about her Ride experiences thus far and did what I could to keep her hopes up about finishing the Ride.  

"She had run out of extra tubes on her second flat tire of the day and her third flat was fixed by one of the crew members who just happened to have the right size spare tube. Luckily, I happened to have the same size tires and a spare tube, and while helping her change her flat tire, I was questioning her about what happened each time she had a flat tire to try and figure out why [she had] so many flats. While she was explaining, I was checking the wheel and it turned out she had a spoke that had worked its way loose and punctured its way through the wheel to the tube and each time she hit rough pavement or gravel trails or railroad crossings, the tube would pop. I had the tools necessary to remove the damaged spoke and we worked together fixing her flat tire."

That rider told Cantrell that she was riding in honor of her brother, who had died of HIV/AIDS.

"She also shared how devastating it was that her brother died alone due to her family's inability to accept his sexual orientation and the conflict that frequently came about when she would bring him up in conversation at home with [her parents]," Cantrell said. "The 'died alone' part really struck me hard, especially with the sheer unconditional love and remorse she couldn't help but show over the loss of her brother, who she described as her 'secret best pal,' because he would listen to her about everything and help her through anything, even the stuff she was afraid or too embarrassed to discuss with her parents.

"She [eventually] shared more about the times she had with her brother and some of the boys he would date. She was happy to share his life's story with someone and, in doing so, shared that it was as if he was right there with her, to which I replied, 'That's because he is with you each and every mile, and each and every time you think of him—love never dies.'"

A few weeks after that Ride, Cantrell received a letter in the mail with no return address. "It was a thank-you for taking the time to help her, and to listen to her stories about her brother, and for inspiring her to stand-up to her parents about the hurt she felt over the way they treated their son, her brother and her friend," Cantrell said.

Cantrell said the Ride is still fun, "and offers a great deal of personal fulfillment," he said. "I enjoy the camaraderie with the other riders, the crew, staff and volunteers, as well as the life experiences and stories shared by those individuals throughout each fantastic journey.

"I have made countless friends over the years through the Ride For AIDS Chicago. I also have local and long-distance friends from the early Twin Cities to Chicago AIDS Ride, who I still maintain relationships with.  

"The life stories, experiences and journeys that these people have experienced, or witnessed and shared, is nothing less than amazing and unique to each person. It just feels good to be a part of something good and among a group of people who genuinely care about doing something that helps make our world brighter and better, especially for those less fortunate."

Cantrell's $10,000 fundraising goal for 2013 is more than double any previous yearly goal.

"The only thing I get from the Ride For AIDS Chicago is fulfillment and personal gratification, knowing that I'm doing something to help others and doing what I can to make tomorrow brighter for those who are living with HIV/AIDS," he said.

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