The temperature was nearing 88 degrees when seven cyclists pulled up to the glass doors of the Partners In Health headquarters in Boston recently.
Part of FACE AIDS, a student organization dedicated to ending AIDS, the group was near the end of a 63-day bicycle journey that started in San Francisco—4,000 miles away—to raise money and awareness about PIH’s work to provide HIV care in Rwanda. FACE AIDS supports our work through a network of 80 chapters at high schools, colleges, and universities around the United States.
“I think we’re all a bit dumbfounded that we’re here. It’s hard to believe we’re not going to bike tomorrow,” said Amanda Feairheller, an aspiring medical student who said the trip has made her want to pursue a career providing care to marginalized people in poor countries.
For the last leg of the ride—the six miles from the PIH office to the beach at Pleasure Bay, Boston—a handful of PIH staffers joined them. We peppered them with questions about their motivation and about the trip—including, "did you visit the world’s largest ball of twine?"
“It was a lot of—in all honesty—corn and roadkill,” Amanda said.
Their journey began nearly a year ago, when the seven—all college students but one—applied for the sixth annual Ride Against AIDS.
They met in San Francisco last June for orientation and explained why they committed to the trip. Eric Steinbrook, 20, was motivated by stories he'd heard from his parents—medical residents at San Francisco General Hospital in the early '80s, when the first patients with AIDS began seeking care. As Eric got more involved in the ride, his dad opened up to him about his experience. His father described feeling powerless as a mysterious, terrible illness killed his patients.
Amanda, from Dayton, Ohio, summarized her motivation this way: “Because of nothing I have done in my life, I have been granted health care. I find it hard to argue that the level of care a person receives should be dependent on their bank account, social status, or any other factor.”
The participants were understandably nervous, with varying cycling backgrounds and levels of training. They would be spending the next 60 days with these strangers, unsure of how they would work together to plan each day's route, set up speaking events along the way, and arrange homestays or camping for each night. They would bike in all weather, their only refuge a hand-me-down white van that members of the team took turns driving ahead of the cyclists with their supplies.
After dipping their tires in the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, they headed north and then cut east. Nevada was an early test of their wills. Team members described Highway 50 as the loneliest road in America, cutting through the desert with no shelter from the sun. Amanda recalls pulling over to take advantage of the shade cast by a street sign. One day, Dana Ballard, of Silver Spring, Maryland, biked five hours alone on that highway and wondered if she would make it, and if she’d ever see anyone she knew again. That day, the group rode 115 miles.
But Nevada is also where they met Leonard, a lanky, elderly resident of Eureka. At 6 a.m. the day they left town, he rode with them up the first summit out of town, hardly breaking a sweat in his long-sleeve collared shirt and boat shoes.
Leonard wasn’t the only person the team inspired along the way. Dana met a woman at a coffee shop who thanked her for riding because her best friend died of AIDS. In front of a bike shop in Cleveland, a passerby saw “Raising 100K for HIV” painted on the van and asked how she could help. When the cyclists told her they were fundraising, she handed them a $100 bill and walked off.
The trip also contained low points. Eric and Max Smith got food poisoning from a meal in Ohio, so Max spent six days in the van and lost about 10 pounds. Bouts of illness hit the rest of the team around then, too. When they crossed from Ohio to Pennsylvania, only two—Dana and Laura Karson—were healthy enough to ride.
But on the ferry from New Jersey to New York City, they watched with joy as the sun gleamed off the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan just before sunset. During their three rest days, they visited an exhibit on the early days of AIDS in New York City and the activists who demanded their city and country respond.
“It was really easy to get caught up in the biking. It was great to see really why we were there,” Dana said.
The last mile
In Boston, the riders set out for the last leg from the PIH office, changing a flat tire with the teamwork and efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew. “It wouldn’t be day 63 without changing a flat,” Amanda said.
PIH staffers joined them and the group cycled down Commonwealth Avenue, the four-lane highway that cuts into the heart of downtown Boston. On this last day of the trip, the cyclists were flawless city riders. They signaled road hazards with pointed fingers, slid their shoes in and out of their clipless pedals at red lights, and deftly plucked their iPhones from the back pockets of their jerseys to check directions.
Soon the ocean came into sight. “Water, guys, water!” Amanda yelled. Dana caught up, bouncing up and down on her pedals. “I’m so excited.”
They rode the last mile to Pleasure Bay, where Boston meets the Atlantic Ocean—and no road leads further east, only water. A small group of FACE AIDS staff, moms, dads, and relatives cheered as they pulled up to the beach.
Margo Watson, executive director of FACE AIDS, gave the final tally: The group had raised $51,000 for Partners In Health to provide HIV care in Rwanda. “You will never know how many lives you’ve touched,” she said.
The cyclists climbed down the stairs to the beach, took off their shoes, and dipped their front tires in the Atlantic, mirroring the moment that started the trip, when they dipped their back tires in the Pacific.
Laura reached down and splashed Max. Soon the crew was running into the water, one after the other. They waded waist deep, and then drew together in a circle, shoulder to shoulder.
Meet the Riders
Hometown: Silver Spring, Maryland
Bike: Trek Lexa SLX
Most inspiring moment: Reaching the top of Loveland Pass at 12,000 feet and realizing that I really can climb mountains. And if I can do that, I can probably do a few other cool things, too.
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio
Bike: Kona Sutra
Final thoughts: I feel that what I have done is such a small piece of the mosaic that is the fight against HIV/AIDS. I really just pedaled ... a lot.
Hometown: San Francisco area
Bike: Trek Lexa SLX
Hardest part: Team dynamics and making things work interpersonally. We haven't killed each other yet, so I think it ended up working out.
Hometown: New York City
Bike: Trek Lexa
Most inspiring moment: The moment I first saw the New York City skyline was when it really hit me that I had just biked across the country. We were on a bumpy, slightly dangerous bridge into Jersey City, but none of that mattered to me. I started to tear up when I saw the sun reflecting off of the skyscrapers—I couldn't believe I had actually made it home.
Hometown: Shelton, Conn.
Bike: Giant Avail 1
Favorite thing to eat: Home-cooked dinners at homestays and ice cream after a long day of riding.
Hometown: Santa Rosa, Calif.
Bike: Jamis Bosanova
Most amazing sight: From the sidelines, watching our "Why we ride" video at the New York Red Bulls Arena 15 minutes before kickoff in front of 50,000 people. I was shaking with excitement, standing 20 feet from Thierry Henry and knowing that our cause is worth the applause of 50,000 people.
Hometown: Lincoln, Mass.
Bike: Surly Cross Check
Most inspiring moment: In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was working as a bartender at the Amherst College 40th reunion. I had put out some of the pins made in Rwanda that we sell to raise money for FACE AIDS and PIH, and three men came up to me to talk about what I was doing. They were all HIV positive, they told me, and had been living with the virus for 20 or more years. That was the first time I had ever met anyone who was HIV positive, and hearing about how so many of their friends had died of AIDS and how hard they had fought for better research, health care, and awareness really put the epidemic in perspective. I thought of them throughout the trip to remind myself why I ride.