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Tour de Friends Crosses Finish Line

Nearly 1,000 riders come through Arlington to support AIDS charities.

After four days and 330 miles on a bike, almost anyone would be in enough pain to feel like crying. But as Phil Szuromi rode through Arlington on the last leg of the Tour de Friends ride last weekend, it wasn’t the burning in his legs that brought a tear to his eye.

“It makes you a little teary-eyed because it makes you think of all the people we lost,” said the Highview Park resident.

Szuromi and nearly 1,000 other riders completed the first Tour de Friends ride to benefit HIV/AIDS charities in North Carolina, Virginia and the District. Riders left Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday, passing through Arlington on the way to the finish line in the District on Sunday, June 22.

Each rider raised at least $2,500 to benefit Alliance of AIDS Services—Carolina, a primary care organization; Fan Free Clinic, the largest and oldest free clinic in Virginia; and Food and Friends, the only organization in the DC-metro area providing home-delivered meals, groceries and nutrition counseling to people living with AIDS, breast cancer and other serious, debilitating illnesses.

According to event organizers, AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death in the District, and is the leading cause of death among black women and white men between the ages of 25 and 44.

RIDERS FROM the area, though visibly fatigued from the four-day trek, perked up when they saw familiar territory. “The ride was wonderful, but it’s good to be home,” said Zoe Isaac, team captain for DC’s Brother to Brother, Sister to Sister United. The group formed in 1996 for the AIDS Rides, which came to an end when sponsor organization Palotta Teamworks closed shop last year.

Isaac and her group of 10 riders stopped at the Giant Food on Washington Boulevard to cheer for other riders and wait for teammates who helped with fundraising but were unable to complete the ride. Some 50 teammates met there to complete the final four miles as a show of support.

Isaac said Tour de Friends proved the best ride of the last eight years. “This group has been the nicest group of people,” she said, referring to the organizers. “I don’t know what it is, but we’ve had the best time.”

Shawn Fedroff from Silver Spring said the last day of the ride, which began in Centreville, was the nicest he experienced. “It just felt good today to ride into where things looked familiar,” he said.

Even some from out of town thought Northern Virginia looked familiar, after so many miles on the open road. “There’s a lot of traffic,” said Raleigh resident Michael Driscoll. “It’s nice to be back in the big city.”

But all along the four-day adventure, supporters lined streets to cheer for the riders, in what Szuromi termed “drive-by rootings.”

SUPPORT FOR the riders and their fundraising efforts came from a variety of sources, and paid off in record numbers. Ashley Christiansen, head chef and general manager of Enoteca Vin, a restaurant and wine bar in Raleigh, set a world record by raising $55,000. She took little credit for herself though. “What our community did was incredible,” she said.

Christiansen started with a goal of $26,000 on April 1 but quickly surpassed it, through a variety of fundraisers like wine dinners and wine auctions.

The end of the ride meant a break from training and a return to a more relaxed lifestyle, Christiansen said. As she stopped to rest in Arlington, she looked forward to having her first cocktail in 11 weeks, and started thinking about what to do when she gets back home. “It won’t be ride a bike, I know that,” she said.

Other riders looked forward to getting back to life on two legs rather than two wheels. Mike Hamlin and his partner Spencer Young, both DC residents, said the first order of business after the ride would be eating some fried chicken.

Both Hamlin and Young were part of Team MCC DC, which raised $47,000.

DESPITE SOME LARGE contributions, Jay Douglas, who trains in Arlington, said rumors persist that Tour de Friends may not have pulled in enough money to continue operations next year.

“I think this new organization did a really good job on a lower budget,” said Douglas, who rode in seven AIDS Rides before this year. He has been HIV-positive for over 20 years.

He completed his eighth ride despite a series of obstacles, including a crash that nearly ended his efforts, and early closings at several checkpoints that meant skipping meals and showers.

But the problems just made the experience more memorable.

“Sometimes when things go bad, it helps friends form better working relationships to support each other,” he said.