BY Benjamin Ryan
November 18 2010 4:00 AM ET
When Mark Ciano settled in San Francisco -- after two decades spent mostly overseas and then two years living with his parents in Florida when his father had cancer -- he had quite a bit of adjusting to do. He was a new kid on the block -- but a middle-aged kid with a spare tire around his waist. "I come from a big Italian family, and my mom knows how to cook for only 100," the 46-year-old says today, diverting responsibility for his extra weight.
Ciano, who had grown used to the melting-pot social scene in London, where his friends came from a diverse cross section of backgrounds, says the Bay Area seemed to be segregated, cliquish, and overly youth-oriented. He didn't want to have to go to a bar to meet people, so he joined a social group instead -- the local chapter of Positive Pedalers, a club for HIV-positive cycling enthusiasts. "I found a community and a group of people who I want to be around," he says. "And getting on the bike, I got back into really good shape."
Celebrating its 15th anniversary, PosPeds, as members refer to it, has more than 800 members across the country, a figure that has doubled in the past few years as more active HIVers like Ciano seek new ways to combine physical fitness with a social outlet involving like-minded folk. The group sponsors training rides in 20-plus U.S. and Canadian communities (and more are added regularly) and maintains a vivid, out-and-proud presence on the various AIDS rides that raise money for HIV treatment and other related services across the country.
A sort of activist group -- but wielding jerseys and toned thighs instead of placards and fists -- PosPeds has a core mission beyond simply getting its members in shape and making sure they have fun; it helps transform them into living contradictions of HIV-related stigma. Riders are encouraged, for example, to come out about their serostatus. To give them an edge when it comes to starting that conversation, each gets a bright red PosPeds jersey emblazoned with "I'm HIV-positve."
Michael Barron, director of AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles each June, says the 200 to 250 members of PosPeds who participate in every ride raise at least $750,000 -- or about 7% of all donations -- each year. Furthermore, he says, the participants are an inspiration -- the poster men and women for the cause.