Worldwide, 19 million people have died of AIDS and 34 million are infected, according to a group raising money for research. With African countries such as Botswana reporting a 20 percent infection rate, raising funds to halt the disease has gained new impetus.
Pallotta TeamWorks of California calls AIDS "worse than the Black Plague," and is organizing three AIDS Vaccine Rides later this year - one in Alaska, one from Canada to the United States, and one in Montana. Of the 6,000 people who have registered to ride, Juneau's Jessica Menendez is one of two who will pedal in all three.
Menendez participated in the first Pallotta ride, held in Alaska last August with 2,000 starters. She'll be pedaling 575 miles from Missoula to Billings, Mont., July 30-Aug. 5; 500 miles from Fairbanks to Anchorage Aug. 20-25; and 400 miles from Montreal, Quebec, to Portland, Maine, Sept. 5-9.
Menendez, 37, was not an avid cyclist before she adopted the cause of AIDS. She had put only 60 miles on her new bicycle when she did the ride last August.
However, her muscular legs show she's no stranger to regular exercise. "I have been in the fitness industry as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor for almost 20 years," she said.
She's been employed by the Juneau Racquet Club for 10 years, where one of her duties is instructing clients on fixed exercise bikes in routines known as "spinning." But cycling in the wind and the rain is a new sport for her.
"I definitely have the endurance (for long rides), but when an 18-wheeler passes you, it's kind of scary," she said.
"It was a gruesome ride last August. People learned what the Great White North was like. Out of 1,504 riders who started only 237 finished on Day Two because of the rain and snow conditions," she said. Out of the 1,504 riders, 18 were Alaskans.
Menendez decided to ride because one of her friends died in her arms of AIDS.
"I saw the ride as an opportunity to get some closure. He died a week shy of his 40th birthday. It was a bittersweet loss because he was taken at such a young age and such an early stage (of AIDS)," she said. "If he had been able to hang in there longer, he might still be alive because of the advances in medicine (such as the 'AIDS cocktail' of drugs) that have been developed since."
The rewards of AIDS rides are great, she said.
"It was very inspiring to be among people of all ages and abilities and walks of life who came together for one single cause, to become just one echoing voice. There is no ego. There is a community of kindness, a community of caring, and all of this exists for one week with perfect strangers. It's very empowering as an athlete to cycle through communities where people sit at the roadside in tears thanking you for what you're doing."
The rides are "a moving message of what AIDS has done and what it will continue to do until we have a cure. Future generations are going to ask what we did about the AIDS crisis, and this is what I can do. It's probably much easier to write a check, but riding my bike is one way to channel the athletic energy I have in a positive way," said Menendez, who has been a board member of the local AIDS group Four A's (formerly Shanti) for three years.
Menendez is hoping more Alaskans will join at least one of the AIDS vaccine rides. "If people are interested in taking part or crewing, crew sports are always open. We also need sponsors, of course." She can be reached at 586-2246 or e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pledges of support can be made online.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at email@example.com.