Cyclists prepare for 21st AIDS Ride for Life

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On Sept. 7, hundreds of cyclists will gear up at Stewart Park in Ithaca to ride along and around Cayuga Lake for the Southern Tier AIDS Program’s (STAP) 21st annual AIDS Ride for Life, an event that brings people together to support a good cause.

STAP’s AIDS Ride for Life began in 1998, co-founded by Jerry Dietz and Russ Traunstein. As Dietz tells it, the idea came from his participation in a national AIDS ride from Boston to New York from 1995 to 1998.

“It turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had,” Dietz said.

Dietz, like many, was witness to the harsh treatment those with AIDS received in years past, and he knew he could not sit around and do nothing.

“It was this inhumanity against man – it really upset me, and I felt like I had to do something,” he said. “I wasn’t going to solve this problem by finding a cure for AIDS, … but I knew I could ride a bike and raise money, so I did.”

Now, in its 21st year, the AIDS Ride for Life has only grown, said Cynthia Rotella, special events coordinator. When the ride began over two decades ago, about 60 people participated, and there was still a lot of stigma around the subject of AIDS. Twenty-one years later, over 300 cyclists participate, raising at least $300 each for a total of over $200,000.

“As time grew, the stigma got a little bit better, … but also, the event itself got a little bit more sophisticated,” Rotella said. “It’s really a well-supported event.”

The ride itself starts in Stewart Park at 7 a.m. and finishes at Cass Park with a post-ride parade from Cass Park to Stewart Park at 5:15 p.m. There are six rides to choose from, ranging from 14 miles to 102 miles long. Riders are required to raise at least $300 to participate. All proceeds go toward supporting STAP services.

Rotella said that though AIDS research has helped significantly decrease the number of new infections, it is still considered an epidemic in New York state, with over 2,000 new infections per year. That in itself makes the ride relevant today, she said.

STAP services eight counties, including Tompkins County, providing prevention and harm reduction programs surrounding health issues like HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis-C and opiate addiction. Those at STAP are passionate about the role they serve in communities, and they all value the ride for the awareness it brings to those services.

Matt Mayers, Hep-C linkage specialist, will be a photographer at the event for the first time this year, and he said he is glad to be involved.

“I’m just really happy to be a part of it,” Mayers said. “It fosters a sense of community among people, not only in Ithaca but in surrounding areas.”

Program Assistant Hannah VanOstrand expressed a similar sentiment, saying she has seen how the ride can bring people into STAP more and help to further destigmatize the health issues STAP helps treat.

“A lot of people don’t know what we do and they don’t really know much about STAP, and so, it’s really nice to have that time for education of our services and hopefully help more folks with the money we raise,” she said.

Kim Conrad, harm reduction coordinator for the western region, helps to run the syringe exchange program, which is aimed at reducing the harm people inflict when injecting any kind of drug – illicit or otherwise. Conrad said that though STAP’s name suggests a limited goal, there is so much more to it, and she likes that the ride shows that.

“We do a lot of other things, so drawing attention to what it is that we do from a harm-reduction perspective is also what the AIDS ride does,” she said.

Melanie Munzer, health hub medical assistant, will be volunteering at the ride for the first time this year, and she said she is looking forward to the way it brings people together.

“I’m actually excited to get on my bike and to help out and, I think, to just be in that feeling of everybody being excited, getting out for a really good cause and just having a lot of really good energy,” Munzer said.

Area businesses sponsor the event, providing around $25,000 to cover all expenses and then some, Rotella said. Any money left over from sponsors, and all money raised by riders, gets put back into STAP to support its comprehensive services.

Most of STAP’s annual budget of $7.2 million comes from state grants, said Deputy Director Michelle McElroy, which often have constraints on how the money can be spent. That can leave gaps in funding, McElroy said, which is why the AIDS Ride for Life is so important.

“The thing that’s most important about it is that [ride money] is considered to be unrestricted money,” she said. “We can spend it anywhere there is the greatest need to fill in gaps in the agency, which is particularly powerful for us.”

McElroy said she has had many riders come to her with why they ride, whether it be because they lost someone to AIDS or HIV complications, have a loved one that struggles with opiate use or just want to support the agency and everything it does.

“A lot of riders ride for personal reasons, but I think a lot of riders ride because they like to ride, and we try to do an event that makes riders feel like it’s for them,” she said.

And cyclists can feel that support. Adam Brumberg, member of the 2019 ride committee and a frequent rider, said he enjoys the physical challenge the ride presents as well as the task of raising at least $300 to support an agency he believes in.

“It’s really about helping to support a really crucial community resource that deals with a lot of things that most of our society really ignores, so it’s a nice way for me to do that,” he said.

Dietz said that, after all this time, he is glad that the event he helped to create has continue to have a lasting impact for years to come.

“It draws in literally hundreds of people in the community to make this event. And year after year, it has done just that,” Dietz said. “It is, I think, an event that is very deep in the fabric of our community, and we are so very grateful for that support.”

Visit aidsrideforlife.org for more information and to donate to STAP online.

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