Ride for AIDS Chicago, Sean Blay, and a Gay Ballerina

RIDEI spend the majority of my weeks in a gym, but for some reason Cheetah Gym in Andersonville feels totally intimidating. Brown leather on the machines, guilded mirrors adorning the walls… there’s even a water feature on the way to the locker rooms… but it’s hard to turn down a free training ride…

This July, I’m trading in my ballet slippers for cycling shoes.  In a whirlwind of events that I still don’t quite remember, I volunteered to ride a bicycle 200 miles in 2 days.  Somehow, whenever I say that out loud, walking into Cheetah feels like a cakewalk.

The Ride for AIDS Chicago (RFAC) was first conceived of in 2002.  A group of committed volunteers gathered with the aim of creating a challenging and fully supported cycling event that promised to return every dollar raised to HIV/AIDS advocacy efforts. Over the years, the size of the ride has grown steadily in both participation and fundraising. In 2011, the Ride for AIDS Chicago included over 400 riders and crew members, hundreds of volunteers, and thousands of donors generating over half a million dollars for TPAN (a local HIV/AIDS service organization) and its Community Partners.

In order to guarantee that 100% of the fundraising dollars are donated, RFAC relies on volunteer staff and in-kind donations from the community (including those free training rides at Cheetah).  My experience so far as a rider has been excellent; each volunteer cares for us like it’s his/her job.  Sean Blay, the RFAC Coordinator and, incidentally, a Cheetah staff member, is the prince who helps make it all happen, and with a smile. If Sean doesn’t know every rider, he fakes it well, and he has the ability to take the edge off of Cheetah, even for me, as soon as you walk in the door.  I got a chance to catch up with Sean electronically, and he shared with me some of the reasons why he first got involved with RFAC as a rider, and later as its coordinator:


Sean and his 2011 riding partner Scott Toppel

The ride has taught me how to be an advocate and to have a voice. My new mission is to help other riders who are living with HIV or AIDS to not allow stigma to define who they are. I want to help them break away and not hide behind their cycling jerseys during this 2-day event. The weekend of the ride TPAN promotes riders to ride their bike with an orange flag to signify if you are HIV+. We also provide orange bandanas for our crew members to show their status.

My first year I will never forget two people coming up to me at the end of day one and making mention of my flag. ‘I applaud you Sean, I can’t do that yet.’ The other rider mentioned something similar. That made me change the way I looked at those of us with orange flags. We were the special ones! We were whom this ride was all about. I hope to share this story with all registered participants as we get closer to the ride and to encourage them to ride proud, ride strong, and sport that orange flag. This is your family. They are doing this to support those of us living with this disease. There is no judgment in this group.”

So, then, what about me?  While Sean’s motivation is clear (and contagious), my own reasons for riding aren’t.  I’m not a cyclist (by a long shot), and haven’t been close to anyone directly affected by AIDS.  So why am I subjecting myself to 200 miles of pain?  While HIV/AIDS is certainly part of my motivation (and I’m happy to raise money for such a great cause), my personal reasons for riding are centered on creating awareness for a healthy, active lifestyle, regardless of personal circumstances. As a working artist, fitness instructor, and advocate for health and wellness, I want to lead by example to show my students, colleagues, and clients that fitness is about more than just “working out”. The sense of community and pride that come from participating in an event like this cannot be underestimated!  The fact that my participation so directly impacts the life of amazing people like Sean Blay make it even more worth it.

The Ride for AIDS Chicago is a two-day, 200-mile, bicycling event produced by TPAN taking place July 13-14, 2013. The ride leaves on Saturday morning on the journey into Wisconsin, along the shores of Lake Geneva and then into our camp on Green Lake. Riders are required to raise a minimum of $1,000 and Crew Members are encouraged to raise $500, but they are not required to.  For more information, or to learn about volunteering, riding, or making a donation, visit

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About Lauren W

Lauren Warnecke is a Chicago-based dance writer, educator, and freelance dance professional. She holds degrees in Dance (BA, ’03) and Kinesiology (MS, ’09) and is currently a full-time Clinical Instructor for the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at UIC. Created in 2009 as a platform for dance-based discourse, Lauren owns and operates Art Intercepts, a dance blog and online resource actively promoting the use of evidence-based practices in dance training and performance with the goal to improve and elevate artistry, dance education, and dancer health. She is a contributing author/blogger at Dance Advantage, 4dancers, and the Huffington Post, and an arts contributor at The L Stop. Lauren freelances as a production/stage manager, choreographer, media relations specialist, and grant writer, for small arts organizations and is a Certified Personal Trainer. She is a master composter who likes to dig in the dirt and bake scones.


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