SHIFTING GEARS :: The Friends For Life Bike Rally is a 600-kilometre bike ride from Toronto to Montréal in support of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (PWA). Now in its 17th year, the Bike Rally is the sustaining fundraiser for PWA and has become the largest AIDS fundraiser of its kind in Canada. Long-time rider Alan Hooey joined GGN publisher Shaun Proulx in conversation about their experiences participating in the ride – and how it reflects the changing face of HIV.
SP: Bravo to all riders and crew: a 6-day, 600 kilometer journey from Toronto to Montreal – on damn bikes! I’ve done the ride three times, but you Alan Hooey have done it eight times. Screw you, Mister, being so much better than me. You are about to take off on your ninth ride – why?
AH: It starts out as a personal challenge, to see if you can train yourself up to six days on a bike. But throughout the week you learn, you experience, and you grow. So the community, and the benefiting organization, PWA, become so important in your life that you just continue to do it.
SP: A massive commitment.
AH: It’s a lot of work, but it starts out early in the year; we have training rides every weekend. I take my inspiration from the first year riders. When I see a first year rider on their bike with a smile on their face, it makes me work harder, it makes me go faster. The ride itself is amazing! It’s spending time alone on your bike for six days. The camping is the great part about it.
SP: I remember the ride being difficult, but wonderful because it was so meditative. You have this stretch of road in front of you, you’re by yourself, and you’ve got stillness around you. I won’t forget the first time I realized: I’m not thinking about work. I’m not thinking about my commitments. I’m not thinking about anything. So it’s a very healthy thing.
AH: It’s very healthy. There’s no place I find more comforting than on my bike. But this also gives me a chance to engage with my community, it gives me a chance to share with people.
SP: There is a “lean on, a rely on”: 96 crew and 234 riders. Those 96 crew, they are making you breakfast, they are making you lunch, they’re making you dinner, they’re taking all your camping gear, and driving it to the next stop. They are responsible for the good care and treatment of a small, moving village.
AH: The crew work phenomenally hard all week, they carry our bins from one spot to another. Food crew gets up at probably 3 o’clock in the morning, starts preparing breakfast for all the participants. We have a complete wellness compliment that comes with us, so we’ve got people massaging us, and acupuncture, and chiropractic students are all along the ride with us. We are so supported that you can’t help but smile at the end of the day. There’s so much on the line there.
SP: Not to mention the road support. If you are reading this and haven’t experienced this ride, imagine yourself driving through corn fields, and you turn and all of a sudden, drag queens or crazy costumed volunteers are jumping out of the corn fields, cheering you on and telling you your next turn!
AH: They are, and they’re directing you the right way!
SP: What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on the bike ride?
AH: It was all bike related. One year, I’ve had a few flats. In one day, I had four flats and two broken spokes the exact same day. But thankfully, we have a whole mechanic crew that come with us. They fixed me up, and I was good to go the next day.
SP: Do you want to hear a story?
SP: I’ve never told this story before. So I get a flat, which is my idea of a horror story, worst nightmare, because I don’t know how to fix a flat and don’t want to know how. But now I’m middle of nowhere, alone. The Bike Rally, they make you carry a repair kit so that you can take care of yourself, so you have to have the tools, and I did. But it’s not like I know how to use it – though I am supposed to. But I don’t! I’m not the man you teach to fish! So finally, the road crew is coming along in their van, which I knew would happen, and I know they will pull over to say, are you okay?
I thought, If they see that I have the tools to fix my tire, I’m going to be expected to fix my tire. So I take my repair kit and I throw it over my shoulder into the bush! They pulled over, asked if I was okay and I was like, flashing a little leg, all, “Hey Sailor” and I say, “Golly, I don’t know where my wrench, is, or my tube or anything, and I don’t know what to do, kind Sirs.” So they’re like hop in, and I do and we drove the last couple miles to the camp and someone fixed it for me. I totally cheated.
AH: I’m going to have to use that story.
SP: All yours. Tell us about, I guess it’s the Thursday night of the ride when everybody has a big damn cry.
AH: Seventeen years ago a few friends got together and decided to ride to Montreal to raise money for PWA, that was in desperate need for support. They ended up one night just telling stories about their friends and loved ones, around the campfire, and that grew and grew. It grew from a vigil into a ceremony, then a candlelight vigil. But, now that so many years have gone by, we decided that we needed to start actually celebrating lives of people that are living, as well as people that have passed. We’re really about celebrating now. People are living longer, people are living stronger. This year is all about celebrating. We’re taking the whole week, and we’re turning it into a story starting on departure day. We’re going to be going to be celebrating the lives of people around us.
SP: Now that is what I mean when I talk about a thought revolution! We’ve come so far with HIV. I said this last World AIDS Day in a post called HIV Divorce: here in Canada, where we are so blessed, and we’ve come so far, we have to show people what the closest thing to what we have ever seen that looks like a finish line looks like. What leadership looks like, what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like, and it is the shift that the Rally is making this year this way that does that. I am so happy that we’re not talking exclusively about what’s wrong anymore, and that we’re focusing on accomplishments – what you focus on expands.
AH: We’re getting rid of stigma, stigma is getting cast aside, it’s not going to be there anymore.
SP: That is some amazing change-making! I love this so much. This is great, great leadership. We wish you, Alan, and everyone participating in this year’s ride a great one, and thank you to each of you.
To donate, go to www.bikerally.org
This interview was condensed and edited.