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Emotions fill 2013 Ride For AIDS Chicago
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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The excitement, energy and emotions were sky-high Saturday morning, July 13, at the opening ceremony to the 10th annual Ride For AIDS Chicago, held in Evanston. Close to 300 riders were set to ride 200 miles in two days in support of the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN).

Richard Cordova, the TPAN director of athletic events, spoke to the mass of humanity, which included about 85 supporting crew members, plus countless onlookers, family and friends.

Cordova told of his personal journey, from learning he had full-blown AIDS in 2002, to the present, where he leads an amazing, inspiring, uplifting fundraiser with grassroots efforts to, ultimately, aide hundreds or perhaps thousands of Chicagoans impacted by HIV/AIDS.

He wore an orange bandana on his wrist all weekend to signify his HIV status, as did about 20 other riders.

Cordova's words brought many to tears.

"I live a life of transparency because it has value; I want others to be OK to be HIV-positive, too," Cordova said. "My job is to help change the landscape of this disease and this cause. Part of that is bringing awareness. We need to shatter people's misconceptions of what being HIV-positive is, and I'm on a mission to do that."

Dan Lakin was crying after hearing Cordova. "I felt he was talking directly to me, as if he had been up [with me Friday night] thinking," and reflecting, Lakin said. "I didn't get much sleep on Friday as I was thinking about how my uncle [who died from complications due to HIV/AIDS] never told anyone [about his status] and how that must have felt, what he went through or even if he knew.

"I then started thinking about myself and how I have handled telling, or not telling [about my HIV status], and if I would put on the orange on Saturday.

"After his speech, I asked him for [an] orange handkerchief."

It was, Lakin admitted, his "second coming out."

Two other riders also approached Cordova for an orange bandana, based on his opening ceremony speech.

"Hands down, those [three] were my top moments from all of my rides," over the past six years, Cordova said. "Knowing that three people came out, put on that orange bandana, based on what I said … wow, it makes it all worth it, why I do it.

"It needs to be a source of strength for them, not shame."

Many more photos by Ross Forman at the Additional Photo Spread here: .

This year's Ride featured the most orange-wearing riders of the three years the orange bandana has been incorporated into the emotionally-charged weekend.

"We've really created an amazing community of like-minded people who are committed to making a difference," Cordova said.

Certainly a financial difference. The Ride raised a record $732,000—a tally that is expected to reach $750,000 or more by the end of the month, as more contributions continue to trickle in.

"This was an absolutely phenomenal event," said TPAN board chair Michael Dentato, who volunteered all weekend and said he plans to ride the Ride in 2014. "The fact that the Ride has grown this much, within a short amount of time, says so much about the community's efforts and commitment to HIV/AIDS, and we're only getting bigger and better from here.

"There are so many ways that we can use this money, [such as] prevention and treatment."

Keith Stryker, who is openly gay, was one of the orange bandana-wearing riders, and also one of the event's top fundraisers. He was in his third Ride, and tagged it "the best" of all.

"The organization, the energy of the support staff, the enthusiasm of the riders. It was amazing," said Stryker, part of a near-30 member team that raised over $100,000. "The medication, and HIV prevention and awareness, which can come from the [overall] funds raised will help hundreds in Chicago. It's keeping people alive and healthy.

"I have used TPAN services in the past, and they are very vital for many, many people in the city. I cannot imagine being HIV-positive and not having the services that TPAN provides."

Stryker learned he was HIV-positive in 2003, which he said was "terrible" news.

That also was the first year of The Ride.

Flash forward to 2013 and Stryker tagged the Ride as "absolutely, one of the peak moments of my life. I've never been happier, more grounded and more fulfilled."

Lakin rode in his second Ride and also was a crew member last year.

"This is one of the best events to do, and I think this year's Ride was the best produced, the best supported. And the fundraising total is amazing," Lakin said.

At both the opening and closing ceremonies, organizers had a rider-less bike procession to signify those who have died from HIV/AIDS. Many of the HIV-positive riders and crew members walked in the processions.

"The impact [of the rider-less bike procession] is strong, very powerful," Cordova said. "Doing it at the opening ceremony, [not just the closing, as happened in 2012] helped solidify why we're here, why we do it; it really helped bring the Ride into focus and help set them up for an amazing 200 miles."

Tears flowed throughout the weekend for many, if not all.

Paul Cantrell, for instance, was presented with TPAN's inaugural contribution award, honoring his commitment to the cause and the event, his passion and perseverance. Cantrell is the lone 10-time Ride For AIDS Chicago participant.

He was too emotional at the closing to talk on stage to the hundreds attending in Evanston.

"I'm in awe, filled with incredible joy," he said. "I can't believe that I've done all 10, the people who I've helped, the people who have inspired me, and I really love supporting this cause.

"I never thought I'd make it 10 years, but am glad I did; now I'm looking to do 20."

Cantrell said this year's event "was one of the more emotional rides because there was so much good energy, and I was re-living a lot of the moments from the past 10 years.

"This year's Ride was a mix of joy, happiness and emotions—lots and lots of tears of joy."

He said he was "blown away," to win the first-ever award.

Cantrell's 2013 highlight was helping a first-time Rider name Melissa who was at the back of the pack—and he didn't even know her.

"I helped her up the hills, helped her stay motivated. And she made every mile," he said. "I get my energy from all those who I help; that's why I keep coming back."

Sean Blay, the Ride For AIDS Chicago coordinator, praised all of the riders and crew, and said that a "labor of love" paid off Sunday when hundreds of participants came across the finish line "crying, waving and screaming."

"Everyone enjoyed their weekend and it went off without a hitch," Blay said. "The staff at TPAN has worked so hard for the past six months to make this year the best year ever. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with such amazing participants."

Such as, Jaime Arroyo, who peddled in his third Ride, and said the event brings "countless emotional triumphs."

"I have become a better and stronger person through my experiences with people I've met each and every year," in the Ride, Arroyo said. "The Ride has challenged me differently each year, but this year takes the cake. I had such an emotional connection to so many close friends, and new friends. The Ride offered me a chance to give back more than just monetarily; I was able to connect with people who needed encouragement, who needed to be challenged, or honestly just needed to feel a connection with someone in the same boat as them. I love the Ride For AIDS Chicago for so many reason, and can't wait to ride again next year."

Fred and Meg Valentini, the husband-wife combo, completed their third consecutive Ride in support of PFLAG. Plus, their son Steve rode in the event and their daughter Nikki was part of the medical crew.

"It was fantastic, awesome, amazing, the best of the three that we've done, hands down," Meg said. "The highlight to me was at camp Saturday before dinner; everyone gathered in a chapel. It was an opportunity to see the whole group in one place, a time for community. That really was wonderful."

Meg and Fred, two of the most popular riders, were hooked into the event about four years ago after randomly meeting Cordova at Melrose Restaurant in Lakeview.

Neither thought they'd ever be able to bicycle 200 miles, let alone do it three years in a row.

"I can't tell you what this Ride has meant to us and our family," Meg said. "The first training ride we did three years ago, we didn't know anyone and as we were driving there, Fred looks at me and asks, 'Are you nervous?' I admitted I was. Then he said, 'What if they don't accept us or don't like us?'

"Well, about 10 minutes after we got there, it was like we had known everyone our whole life. I've never met a more loving group of people. This group has such a special place in our heart."

Shaine Wynsma raised about $4,200 for TPAN and completed his seventh Ride. His team of about 15 raised more than $40,000.

Wynsma wore orange and already is thinking about 2014.

"Years ago, we were so happy breaking $100,000 [in funds raised.] Now it's over $700,000. Richard and I talk all the time about how we'd love for this to be a $1 million Ride," Wynsma said. "I had a blast this year, though sure, there were a few moments when I wondered why I was doing it, especially on some of those hills. But you just dig deep and pull through it, and realize why you're doing the Ride."

Many more photos by Ross Forman at the Additional Photo Spread here: .

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