Ride for Life co-founders, Jerry Dietz and Russ Traunstein

Ride for Life co-founders, Jerry Dietz and Russ Traunstein 

 

Twenty-one years ago, two Ithacans decided to take the “Think Globally, Act Locally” bumper sticker literally. They had seen the power of collective action in raising money and awareness, and they founded the “Ride for Life,” in support of AIDS Work. One of those guys, Jerry Dietz, told me the back story.

“In the mid-90’s, Russ Traunstein and I had been participants in some of the early national AIDS rides,” Dietz said. “The rides were started by a guy named Dan Pallotta, back when AIDS was still such an epidemic and gay men were dying left and right. The rides started in San Francisco, ended in Los Angeles.”

“Back in 1994, I saw an ad looking for two-thousand riders to do a 3-day, 370-mile ride from Boston to New York City, and they were asking that each rider commit to raising $1,200,” Dietz said.

The ride ended up drawing 3,800 riders, and raising $6.5 million, and Dietz said, “We biked from pit stop to pit stop, we stayed in tent cities and it made me realize the power of enlisting an army of fundraisers. There were men, women, gay, straight, people who were HIV positive and negative—it was the most incredible and inspiring thing I had ever done.”

Fast-forward to 1998: Dietz and Traunstein teamed up with AIDS Work’s Executive Director George Ferrari, formed a board of directors, recruited a group of volunteers and the inaugural Ride for Life was held in 1999. Since then, the event has raised over $4.5 million, and even though the focus has shifted somewhat, the level of passion and commitment have held steady. This year’s event will be held this Saturday, Sept. 7, at Stewart Park.

To clarify, I asked Jerry if, given that people are now living much longer and healthier lives despite having AIDS, are potential donors are more likely to see the cause as less relevant and are they therefore less likely to get involved? He replied, “That’s a good question. It’s true that medical advances have made it possible to manage the disease, but the Southern Tier AIDS Program is a very nimble organization. Given the success of some of their programs—like providing access to clean needles to prevent the spread of disease—they are now shifting their focus to mitigating the effects of the opioid crisis.” (The Southern Tier AIDS Program also continues their work related to HIV prevention.)

The Ride for Life offers cyclists of all abilities the opportunity to be a part of it, as there are options to ride 102, 90, 69, 42, 25 or 14 miles. There are eight pit stops, and repair vehicles travel the route to help when needed.

As he has done for 18 of the 21 years, Jerry Dietz will be swinging his leg over the crossbar to do the 102-mile ride.

“I had to miss a few,” he stated. “You know, life can get in the way.” Always the optimist, Jerry said, “I’m hoping it goes well this year. I had some shoulder surgery, and I wasn’t able to get on the bike until July.”

He knows he will draw energy from his longtime riding buddies, including his brother-in-law, who has ridden the Century Ride with him about ten times before. There will be another change this year, as the event will take steps to honor a longtime friend.

“We have always encouraged the team concept,” Dietz told me, “and we at CSP Management sponsored Team Outspoken. This year, we have put Team Outspoken to the side to honor longtime rider and volunteer Mark Pedersen. Mark and his partner, Ron Howe, would rotate riding and volunteering, and he was one or our unsung heroes. Mark passed away a week after last year’s ride, and we’re quite pleased that our team will be called ‘Mark Rides On’ this year.”

If Dietz channels as much energy into the ride as he did into our conversation, he’ll go around the lake twice. His level of excitement is the same as it was 21 years ago, and he said, “When I first started doing these rides, the effectiveness of the fundraising was impressive, but the spirit and camaraderie were just amazing. It remains so, and the amount of money we have been able to raise is a testament to this community’s generosity. I knew I wasn’t a doctor, or a researcher, and I couldn’t change the course of the crisis in those capacities, but I could ride a bike and raise money. You do what you can do.”

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