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Three Juneau residents are among the nearly 1,500 cyclists leaving Fairbanks this morning for the inaugural Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride.
Jessica Menendez, Aimee Olejasz and Fabienne Peter-Contesse are part of the 21-person Team Alaska squad for the six-day, 510-mile ride to Anchorage along the Richardson and Glenn highways. Another rider with Juneau ties, Dan O'Connor who spent this summer as the coach/instructor for the Juneau Youth Sailing Foundation, will be riding for Team Rhode Island before he returns to school at Saint Lawrence University in New York.
The three Juneau women are all veterans of California AIDS Ride 6, held in June 1999, and Menendez also completed California AIDS Rides 5 and 7. Each of the women had personal reasons for tackling the California rides, and now the three are happy to finally get to complete a ride in Alaska, even if the course isn't near Juneau.
"I initially did California AIDS Ride 5, in June 1998, as a tribute to a friend who'd passed on from AIDS," said Menendez, who is helping with the logistics of the Alaska ride. "I thought it would help me put closure on his death, but instead it became a life-changing experience. I knew from Day One I'd always be a part of the AIDS ride family. It'll be nice to have more Alaskans involved."
Menendez, who teaches Spinning classes at the Juneau Racquet Club, has become so involved with the AIDS ride program she recently joined Team Spokebusters. Members of Team Spokebusters participate in all five regional AIDS rides in the Lower 48 and the new Alaska ride.
"I think part of it is the money raised in this ride goes to AIDS research," Olejasz said. In the California rides, most of the money went to Los Angeles- and San Francisco-based AIDS support programs, helping patients with treatment expenses, medicine and living expenses. The Alaska ride will support the research efforts of three leading scientists who are looking for a vaccine.
Each rider had to raise a minimum of $3,900 to participate in the Alaska ride, and the Juneau trio also raised money for Shanti, a Juneau AIDS support program. In April, Peter-Contesse and Olejasz hosted a spaghetti dinner as their main fund-raiser. Menendez, who has to raise about $16,000 plus her own travel expenses as a member of Team Spokebusters, hosts special 24-hour and 8-hour Spinning marathons for Shanti and also has a personal Web site with info about the rides.
"My friends ask me when I'm ever going to get off this AIDS ride kick," Olejasz said. "But with the AIDS rides, they're so addictive. It's such a powerful experience."
Menendez rode her first AIDS ride to honor a fallen friend, and one of the nearly 2,000 cyclists at the same ride was Olejasz's brother. He was the one who persuaded Olejasz and Peter-Contesse, who both work for the state, to come to the next ride.
"My brother did California AIDS Ride 5, and when he completed the ride all he did was say it was an amazing event," Olejasz said. "He asked, Would you and Fabienne like to join me for California AIDS Ride 6?' So Fabienne and I went down to Mountain Gears and ordered two road bikes because we just had mountain bikes. We hadn't really biked much."
Even though they weren't in the best cycling shape for the California ride, Olejasz and Peter-Contesse fell in love with the event. Now they'll be able to see more of Alaska's breathtaking scenery than what they saw during a quick drive to Fairbanks a few years ago.
"We knew we always wanted to do another ride, and when we heard they were coming to Alaska we had to sign up," Peter-Contesse said. "We want to keep supporting AIDS programs. Having a ride in the state will help raise awareness and get people talking about AIDS. When we start talking with our coworkers about the rides, they start thinking about their uncle, their brother or a friend who had the disease. It gets them to open up and to realize it's not a gay disease. We tried to get the governor and lieutenant governor involved, and they both sent us proclamations saying the week of the ride is Alaska AIDS Awareness Week."