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Ride For AIDS Chicago celebrates 10 years
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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The annual Ride For AIDS Chicago is a merry mix of miles, money and memories—never more than this year.

The 200-mile bicycle ride, produced by the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), celebrates its 10th anniversary July 13-14, when more than 300 registered riders head north from the Opening Ceremony, held at the Chandler-Newberger Center (1028 N. Central Street) on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston.

The rider tally has increased annually, so too has the number of crew members, which hit 100 this year, a significant increase over last year, organizers said.

As of early July, the Ride had already raised $560,000, which is farther ahead of the same time last year, said Richard Cordova, TPAN's director of athletic events. "We're confident that we will beat last year's fundraising total of $638,000."

The Closing Ceremony will be held from 4-6 p.m., on Sunday, July 14 at Ingraham Park (2100 Ridge Avenue), featuring Arlen Music's Skyline Band and more.

"The 2013 Ride is really shaping up nicely," Cordova said. "Each year we take the production of the event to the next level and learn new and exciting ways to engage with the ride participants.

"We're confident this will be our best Ride to date."

Cordova, 35, who lives in Edgewater, has been involved with the Ride for the past six years. He is openly gay and one of many HIV-positive participants in the event.

"I think it's so amazing to reflect on the history of this event, its humble beginnings, and to see how it's grown throughout the years," Cordova said. "We've got a really moving Opening and Closing Ceremony planned for this year. Also, we're adding some additional activities at camp [on Saturday night after the first 100 miles] that will help provide a more robust experience for our participants

"I think the Closing Ceremony is going to be extra special, and something that everyone will remember for a long time to come."

The Ride For AIDS Chicago is a fallout of sorts from the now-defunct Minneapolis to Chicago AIDS Ride. "It's inspiring to know that the community has continued to help raise the funds needed to support HIV services here in Chicago," Cordova said. "The Closing Ceremony was emotional for me last year. When they called all of the HIV-positive riders and crew members to the stage, I completely lost it. I'm sure that will happen again. I'm very open about being HIV-positive, but feeling so connected, in such a public forum, to others living the disease too is very moving."

The top fundraising team so far this year is Team CUR (Chicago Urban Riders), while Rodney Becker is the top individual fundraiser.

Larry Nona, 48, who lives in Kankakee, is riding in the event this year for the fourth year, and the Ride is now a must on his annual calendar, he said.

"Many people have passion for specific causes; this is mine," Nona said. "Although I miss nearly all of the fundraisers and training [sessions] due to my distance from Chicago, and I don't know many folks on the teams other than [through] Facebook, those two days we become one with one goal.

"I like that this is a Ride, and not a race. Thus, it's OK to wait for the newbies, rookies, etc., so that when this comes around again next year, they are just as excited and ready to go knowing they accomplished something quite amazing with the help of their fellow riders and crew. Of course, in my perfect world, the ride would be just for fun as someday HIV/AIDS will be a thing of the past."

Shaun Jones, 35, who lives in Lincoln Square, is riding in the event for the second time. He tagged the 2012 Ride as "epic."

"I feel as each day goes by, we are one step closer in finding a cure for HIV/AIDS. I am happy to help such a great organization such as TPAN that is such a great resource for the local community," Jones said. "It's exciting to see how fast RFAC has grown in the last year since I first participated, let alone over [the past] 10 years. I am excited to be a part of this event and support such a worthy cause and organization."

Le'Mikas Lavender, 33, who lives in Rogers Park, is riding in the event for the first time, and admits he's a mix of emotions: proud, nervous and grateful.

"I am proud to be a part of such an amazing group of selfless people who give so much of themselves for other people," he said. "I am nervous because this will be the greatest challenge of my life, [which includes running] marathons, grad school, being in the Navy, and climbing Mt. Fuji. Those were a breeze compared to riding 200 miles in two days on a bike. I am grateful because I know I will not be alone on this adventure.

"For 10 years, people have committed to this great cause and it keeps getting better. Each year we get closer to a cure, closer to a day when we will no longer be riding for AIDS, but [rather,] we will be riding for victory."

Married couple Meg and Fred Valentini, 56 and 57 respectively, of Oak Park, are returning riders. They are nonstop supporters of TPAN and they anchor Team PFLAG in the RIDE.

They also are among the most popular, most respected participants—truly friends to all associated with the Ride.

"It is so exciting and unbelievable that Fred and I will be participating in our third Ride," Meg said. "The excitement of the 10th year anniversary has been evident since the kickoff party earlier this year. There have been many changes in the Ride over the past 10 years, and there have been even more in the past three years. What has not changed, and what means the most to us is, the passion of everyone who is involved in making this Ride happen. There is a true sense of family, not only between those who are involved in the Ride, but the family we don't see.

"We are connected in so many ways through TPAN and the clients they serve and the lives they change. We have heard some of the stories from riders whose lives have been impacted by TPAN and the services it provides. So, when we start to whine about the weather, or that we 'just aren't feeling it [during the Ride],' we try to remember the Ride isn't about us. It isn't how fast we can go, how far we went. [Instead,] the Ride is about remembering that there is still a need to have an AIDS Ride at all. Knowing all this keeps us going and will continue to keep us part of this Ride for as many years as it needs to exist."

Jason Southerland, 46, who lives in Edgewater, is another rookie rider. As of this past January, the longest Southerland had ever ridden was, oh, about six miles.

"So, the thought of doing two centuries (100 miles) back to back is terrifying," he said. "But, my team and the cause are so amazing; I couldn't imagine a better way to challenge myself.

"I'm humbled by the dedication of the staff and volunteers who have grown this Ride from where it started 10 years ago. The level of support and encouragement has been phenomenal. I hope that No. 10 for them is just the first of many for me.

April Cheverette, 36, a three-time participant in the Ride, added: "I'm excited as ever to be a part of the 10th anniversary [of the event]. I'm proud to say that I'm a participant in an event that takes a great amount of endurance and perseverance, but also raises money and brings awareness for a disease that can hopefully one day be eradicated."

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