The Ride of a Lifetime

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In less than a decade, the Hill Country Ride for AIDS has raised more than $2.5 million for the most deserving of causes. As the group gears up for another breathtaking journey in April, organizers hope Austin comes along for the ride.

Dale Atkinson had something to prove- not to anyone else – but to himself. Diagnosed with HIV in 1996, Atkinson was determined that the disease would not spell an end to his life or his enjoyment of it. The Hill Country Ride for AIDS offered him an opportunity to confirm just that.

“The first ride I did was a personal challenge,” he says of the 50-mile trek along the byways outside of Austin. It wasn’t easy, “but I had a great support system from my fellow riders and volunteers that got me through it.”

Atkinson is one of hundreds of riders from every walk of life who participate each year in the Hill Country Ride for AIDS. Now approaching its ninth ride, the HCRA is gearing up for a record event this April. In 2007, riders raised $573,000 – an astounding $73,000 more than its stated goal. This year, HCRA hopes about 400 participants will raise $650,000.

With riders as enthusiastic as Atkinson, the target hardly seems far-fetched.

“I want the HCRA to be so successful that we continue to achieve our goals every year until there is a cure,” Atkinson says.

Ride Director David Smith is amazed at the growing enthusiasm the HCRA has garnered through the years. But he talks candidly about the event’s rocky genesis.

In 1996, Smith was the executive director of an organization aiding people with AIDS and cancer. When a for-profit company experienced with organizing AIDS rides in California and New York arrived in Austin and offered to coordinate a Texas ride, Smith’s group eagerly jumped on board.

“It was a fantastic experience,” declares Smith, who participated in the ride. “As someone living with HIV, I never thought that I would be riding my bike across Texas in the late 1990s. I accomplished more physically than I ever thought I could.”

But when Smith learned after the event that the company only planned to give 15 percent of the money raised by riders to AIDS services agencies, his organization withdrew from the event. Nevertheless, the group had witnessed firsthand the interest and the outpouring of support.

“I started saying to my colleagues, ‘We can do this ourselves.’” It took time, but support eventually emerged, and planning for the first Hill Country Ride for AIDS began in 1999. A total of 79 riders participated in the inaugural event in May 2000 – not as many as the group had hoped for. But those 79 riders managed to raise a staggering $100,000.

“There was a huge jolt of enthusiasm after that,” Smith admits. “We doubled riders and money raised the next year.”

The HCRA offers empowerment to those often disillusioned by the unanswered question, “What can I do?” At a time when funding for those living with HIV/AIDS continues to be slashed, the ride creates an outlet of sorts. Imagine that for every pedal stroke, every mile completed, riders are helping extend someone’s life – that’s exactly what’s happening. Ten local AIDS services organizations – from prevention and education to diagnosis and even hospice care – benefit from the money raised by the HCRA.

“When I see a woman with two young kids walking away with grocery bags of healthy food, which is going to keep her healthy and keep her around longer with her kids, that’s what’s so rewarding about this,” Smith says. “I get to see that big picture. We’re helping thousands, and it’s very real.”

The ride that began as mostly a gay-centered event has expanded to include many straight riders and volunteers. From teenagers to people in their 70s who have lost a child to AIDS, the rider demographic spans the spectrum.

“In Austin, we’re lucky to have so many people in the straight community who are not homophobic, and who also realize that AIDS affects everyone, gay and straight,” Smith says.

Though the ride isn’t a cakewalk, it’s made easier through ongoing training sessions and an abundance of support along the way. “When people find out that whatever age they are, whatever physical shape they’re in, they can do it, there’s this tremendous sense of accomplishment,” Smith says, beaming.

Beyond the fundraising from individual riders and teams, the local and national business community has also stepped up. Corporate sponsors of the event include Whole Foods Markets Inc., Bicycle Sports Shop, Frontier Airlines, Aquafina, nFusion, Enviromedia and Dell Inc.

Smith says one of the primary challenges events for AIDS face is that people don’t believe the disease poses as significant a threat as it once did. “There are a lot of people living with AIDS today and many of them are living in poverty,” he says. “It’s a challenge to make people see the personal stories and how this remains a serious disease.” Smith points to a woman who told him she was riding because her brother had died of AIDS. “I would give anything in the world to have one more day with my brother,” she confided.

“The money we raise is giving people not just another day, but another year, another three years to be with their family,” Smith says. “If there was just one person that we knew, we would all be out there riding.”

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