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Op-ed: Ride On in the Fight Against HIV and AIDS

Op-ed: Ride On in the Fight Against HIV and AIDS


One L.A-area congressman hopped on a bike, and learned some incredible life lessons.

Life-changing, moving, inspiring - just some of the words that my constituents used to describe the AIDS/LifeCycle ride when I announced that I would be a cyclist on the 545-mile bike ride down California's coast. They were right, and then some.

Let me tell you how this story began.

I have the honor of representing a large LGBT community, and I had been to the Los Angeles LGBT Center and seen the amazing work it does every day. It is no exaggeration to say that the center not only improves the lives of my constituents but, in many cases, has saved those very lives. The ALC ride benefits the L.A. LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

To some, this is a disease that is on the decline and is becoming less deadly -- but the reality is much different. While dramatic improvements have been made in treatment and prevention, there are still more than 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV, more than 30 million worldwide, and another 50,000 are diagnosed every year. While the quality of life and longevity of those with HIV have improved dramatically since the early days of the epidemic, the disease still compels our dedication to fight here and around the world.

A little more than a year ago, Lorri Jean -- the incredible executive director of the L.A. LGBT Center -- invited me to speak at the closing ceremony of ALC, dedicated to the riderless bicycle. The riderless bicycle is a deeply moving and potent symbol for those that we've lost to AIDS, who can no longer take the ride. I remember reading the script and being touched so deeply: "As this riderless cycle passes you, please take the hands of those around you. As our connection builds, it symbolizes our strength not only to remember, but to come together to ensure that the lives we've lost are not lost in vain." Afterward, as I talked with the riders and constituents who had participated, I remember thinking that if the legislative calendar ever allowed me to participate in the ride, I would love to do so.

Finishx400_0As fate would have it, and much sooner than I expected, I discovered that this year's ride coincided with a district work period without votes in Congress. So I signed up with only a few weeks to prepare.

The ALC takes months of training, a good working relationship with your bike, and enough time to raise a respectable amount of money for a good cause -- eradicating AIDS in our lifetime and supporting those living with HIV.

I batted an impressive 0-3 on all counts.

While I had done several triathlons over the last few years and was a regular biker, the races I had done were only Olympic distance -- meaning the biking component was only 25 miles. On the ALC, we would be biking an average of 80 miles a day for seven days, and clocking over 108 on day 2 alone. I was seriously unprepared. On top of that, the bike that I rode during training for the ride never made it to San Francisco, so I would be setting out on this trek on a bike without even knowing how many gears it had.

Nonetheless, I set off. What an adventure.

From an early start at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, we made for the coast -- almost 2,500 riders and a host of roadies who did everything from set up camp, haul gear, prepare food, and take care of medical needs to cheer and inspire us all the way. It was an extraordinary group and an incredible production. We road through hills and scenic valleys, along the coast to Half Moon Bay and on to Santa Cruz, then it was off to farm country -- Salinas and Atascadero -- before returning to the coast of Ventura, down to Malibu and concluding in West Los Angeles.

Bikex300d_0At night we camped on the beach, at county fairs or state campgrounds. We ate our meals together, compared injuries together, mourned accidents together, told "war stories" and off-key jokes. And we were inspired together, by the beauty of the state which we appreciated all the more because it came with each hard-earned revolution of our wheels, and by the grit and wit of our fellow riders and roadies.

We were a traveling community, raising an impressive $15 million to fight HIV and AIDS, with many riders sporting bicycles adorned with laminated photos of lost loved ones.

Last year, Lorri Jean told me the story of a mother who had disowned her son when he revealed to her that he had AIDS and was dying. That mother later came to recognize the tragic nature of that decision. That story, more than anything else, made me want to ride. His pain, dying alone and without her. Her pain, losing a son, and the agony of her regret.

At the top of one of the last big hills of the ride, a simple sign said, "Your pain is tribute to their suffering." To me, that said it all -- let's put an end to HIV and AIDS. Ride on.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-Calif.) serves as the vice chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus in Congress and represents the 28th Congressional District.

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Adam Schiff