On July 25th thru July 30th I participated in the Toronto People with AIDS (PWA) / Friends for Life Bike Rally for the very first time. In its 12th year, the Bike Rally is a 6-day bike ride stretching over 600km from Toronto to Montreal, and in my nearly 32 years of life, I am hard pressed to think of a single thing of which I am more proud.

After months of training rides and fundraising, over 400 riders & crew departed amid a crowd filled with cheering friends, loved ones and supporters on our 6-day journey to honour those currently living with HIV/AIDS, remember those we’ve lost and to draw attention to the invaluable services the PWA provides. The excitement and energy was palpable as we rolled out of Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto with a police escort to the edge of the downtown core. Day one’s 111 km flew by with the help of supporters who canvassed the route carrying inspirational signs, hooting and shouting encouragement.

Those 6 days of riding have become some of my most cherished memories. Making new friends, sharing stories about why each of us did the ride, setting up tents at camp and taking part in the fun events the committee planned for us… there was just so much to take in and the collective energy of the group made it virtually impossible to be anything but happy, positive, supportive and fun! We woke up at 5:45 am every day and even that wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits as we gathered under the breakfast tent and loaded up on carbs for the day’s ride.

Throughout the ride we were rewarded with signs posted by friends, relatives and supporters. Signs that encouraged us, signs that thanked us and signs that made us thankful to be able to accomplish what we did. One of our favourite signs was a poster with a red ribbon that said “You are all heroes”. It was on everyone’s lips as they rolled into camp and asked other riders if they’d seen it.

Day 3 was a special day where everyone wore red… and most wore red dresses. Imagine over 300 (mostly male) riders rolling into Kingston, Ontario wearing red dresses of every sort. It was a complete riot, especially because we ended up at Queen’s University at the same time a large Army camp was going on. We all shared the cafeteria for lunch and the looks on those Army boys’ faces was absolutely priceless.

One of the most special moments for me was the candlelight vigil, held on the evening of Day 5 along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Riders and crew were invited to stand and share their stories, experiences and feelings. I knew it would be an emotional night, but it was so much more than that. One of the straight male riders stood and expressed gratitude for showing him what a small-town mentality about gay people he had had all his life and how wrong it was. One of the most poignant events of the evening was a rider standing to honour lost friends by reading their names- over 80 friends, people he knew and loved- that he has lost to AIDS.

Others shared memories of the time when HIV first hit the community and the panic and fear that quickly followed. Some HIV positive participants stood and shared their stories and what it meant to them for all of us to be a part of the ride and raising money for such an important cause. Speakers shared stories of what it was like when a Dr would call and inform you that you were infected, how it was called GRID before they identified it as HIV/AIDS and how a diagnosis at that time was tantamount to a death sentence.

Their stories and experiences had a profound effect on me and although I desperately wanted to stand up and speak at the vigil, I knew that if I so much as stood up and opened my mouth, Niagara Falls wouldn’t even come close to the deluge that would occur! So instead, I’ll say what I wanted to say here:

As someone from the relatively “younger generation” who had barely been born when they were experiencing these things, it is extremely easy to forget all that has been done for us. The terrible price that these brave people had to pay in order for us to know what we know now. And this gratitude is deserved for so many things, not just HIV/AIDS. Let us not forget the brave actions of Stonewall, the amazing activists throughout the years who have battled for gay rights and who laid the foundation upon which we are now making gay marriage a reality. From the bottom of my heart: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I signed up for the Bike Rally this year originally because I felt like it was a way to force myself into a physical fitness goal and because of my familiarity with Friends for Life back in Vancouver. By the end of the ride, my reasons grew to include a host of new friends, an intense level of gratitude for those who came before me and a renewed appreciation for the blessing of a body and health that allowed me the opportunity to participate. Each and every other rally participant I met was an inspiration to me in one way or another and my only consolation for knowing that I will never be able to adequately express my thanks is that I know they all feel the exact same way.

All in all, the 12th Annual Friends for Life Bike Rally was an enormous success raising 1.2 Million dollars and creating memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. To everyone who participated in the bike rally, thank you for an experience I will always treasure and I can’t wait to do it all over again next year!