Road Warriors

Daren Mitch among local cyclists ride to make a difference in California's AIDS Life/Cycle

By Glenn Gullicksen, May 22, 2014.

Local cyclists will ride for a cause during California’s AIDS Life/Cycle

Those who have done California’s AIDS Life/Cycle say the 545-mile coastal bike ride to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS agencies is life-changing. Several cyclists from Arizona will be risking saddle sores and a few tears when the physical and emotional marathon from San Francisco to Los Angeles is conducted June 1-7 for the 13th year.

Here are the stories of a few of the local cyclists.

Daren Mitch rides to make a difference

The way Daren Mitch sees it, riding in Life/Cycle is an opportunity to make a difference for those living with HIV/AIDS.

“This means somebody will get their medicine, someone will get the help they need,” Mitch said. “We all do our bit to help the community. This size platform is so much more impactful.”

After hearing about the ride from friends for years, Mitch is riding in Life/Cycle for the first time.

“This year, I finally said I’m just going to do this,” said Mitch, 47, who works as director of ticket operations at US Airways Center.

That meant Mitch had to go to work to prepare for the weeklong bike ride. “I haven’t ridden a bike seriously for many years,” he said. “It’s a huge challenge.”

He’s been training with Christina Catellanos, of the five-member Slippery Pigs team, an Arizona group that has participated in Life/Cycle in past years.

Mitch said his training includes riding about 60 miles a week, including a long ride on the weekend.

As part of the training, he recently went to California to do a 70-mile practice ride that Mitch called “really eye-opening,” covering terrain more difficult than the South Mountain trails he’s done. “It was night and day compared to what we have in Phoenix,” he said.

That caused Mitch to sign up for spin classes a couple of times a week. He’s also been hitting the gym to do other cardio and weight training.

Mitch has been studying the Life/Cycle route and sees a three-mile uphill trek known to cyclists as “the quad buster” as one of the biggest challenges. “It’s also one of the things that excites me the most,” he said. “Some people have to walk up the mountain.”

Fundraising is another hurdle for the bikers. “One of the things I was most concerned about was how I was going to raise the $3,000,” Mitch said. “It ended up being one of the easiest things. I reached out to individuals and groups. The support was overwhelming.”

A month before the event Mitch had exceeded the fundraising minimum by $2,000.

Mitch said much of the money goes to people don’t have the means to pay for HIV treatment, which can cost up to $20,000 a year. “It means life or death for some people,” he said.


Life/Cycle experience tests a couple’s relationship


They say that the best test of a relationship is a road trip. For Tracy Pitts and Brennan Evans that trip was AIDS Life/Cycle two years ago.

The men are still together and plan to repeat the experience this year.

The Phoenix couple started dating about four years ago, but they had just moved in together when they did the Life/Cycle ride in 2012.

They’d be together 24/7, camping together for the first time, confined in the small tent they pitched after a day on the road.

But the men said the big test came on the worst day of weather during the ride, which goes rain or shine, as they struggled to complete more than 100 miles in a storm.

“It was a relationship tester,” Evans remembered. “We joke now that if we can make it through that, we can make it through anything in our relationship.”

Pitts had done the ride for the first time two years earlier after learning about the event from friends.

He wasn’t the typical candidate for riding hundreds of miles since he had had not previously been a cyclist and was out of shape and smoking.

“Something drew me to it,” said Pitts, 45, who works in a dermatologist’s office.

“Everyone says it changes your life, but it really does. It literally changed my life. I quit smoking,” he said. “There is so much love there. It’s something bigger than yourself. After the first one I was hooked.”

When Pitts met Evans, the men found they had a common interest in cycling, but Evans didn’t know about Life/Cycle.

“He started telling me about this biking experience he had been on,” said Evans, 46, who works at the spa at the Fairmount Scottsdale Princess. It appealed to him as a “bucket list” kind of experience. “But I was certainly not in shape to do that type of thing,” he said.

To prepare for Life/Cycle this year, the men started training in September, a regimen that includes treks of 60 to 70 miles on Saturday mornings in Carefree and Fountain Hills. They’ve also trained in Sedona.

“You have to find time to get on the bike,” Evans said. “It gives you a lot of time to think.”

They also take spin classes a couple of times a week and try to eat better and limit the alcohol consumption.

To raise funds, the men relied on social media and tapped family and friends to help reach a goal of $5,000 each.

It’s all worth it to help the cause. Pitts noted that since he came out in 1986 a lot of people he knew have succumbed to HIV/AIDS, including two former boyfriends.

“Anyone who lived through the 1980s and ’90s has lost a lot of people,” he said.

The message hits home during the ride, which includes a candlelight vigil the night before the final day on the beach in Santa Barbara.

“It’s beautiful, solemn, emotional and awe-inspiring,” Pitts said.

People who benefit from services funded by the ride volunteer during the event, telling their stories while they work food lines or staff rest stops. During dinner presentations, videos are shown featuring those living with HIV expressing gratitude to the riders.

“It’s really infectious for a community of people to do something like this knowing you’re benefiting such amazing agencies,” Evans said.

“Anybody who wants to do it, be prepared to cry,” Pitts advised. “I cried every day the first year.”

Adv_JMJonah Merchant lives inside Life/Cycle’s “love bubble”

The atmosphere seems a little different when Jonah Merchant experiences the camaraderie of hundreds of people participating in AIDS Life/Cycle.

“We call it the ‘love bubble’ on the ride,” Merchant said. “It’s like a whole different world. Everyone’s polite. Everyone’s working for the same goal.”

Merchant, 32, first learned about the ride from his friend Tyler TerMeer, a longtime Life/Cycle participant, when both men were working at the Southwest Center for HIV.

Now a nurse at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, in 2011 Merchant volunteered to be part of Life/Cycle’s medical team. They treat whatever ails the cyclists, like dehydration, scrapped knees, bumps and bruises.

“Being with the ride and experiencing it was amazing,” Merchant remembered. “I wanted to ride the following year.”

So he joined TerMeer’s team as a cyclist in 2012, which started a pattern of alternating every other year between working with the medical team and riding. He’ll ride for a second time this year.

Merchant said TerMeer motivates him. “His story and his passion for this cause is what drives me,” he said. During the trip, the men ride together and share a tent.

Merchant said he wasn’t a cyclist before becoming involved with Life/Cycle, but he made an investment in a bike. “A nice bike makes the ride easier,” he said. The first bike he bought was stolen just two months before his first ride.

Training for such a ride should be year around, Merchant said, but he admitted that he’s only been training since March. He tries to spend one day a week on the bike, riding at South Mountain or the Scottsdale greenbelt. He also does spinning classes three times a week and Crossfit training two or three times a week.

The other major challenge is fundraising, with cyclists required to raise $3,000 to qualify for the ride. About a month before the ride, Merchant was working to raise the last $1,000 by word of mouth and with a Facebook event page.

Tyler TerMeer inspired to work for HIV communityAdv_TT

Echo has followed AIDS/LifeCycle over the years, including a cover story four years ago featuring Tyler TerMeer’s participation in the event.

In May 2010, TerMeer was preparing for his second AIDS Life/Cycle and was working as director of men’s and youth programs at the Valley’s Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, a job he started in 2008.

In the story, TerMeer said he was inspired to work for the HIV community after he had tested positive for the disease in 2004. The year following his diagnosis he started work as director of programming and client outreach for the Ohio AIDS Coalition in his hometown of Columbus.

TerMeer left Arizona in the fall of 2010 to become prevention manager at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors in Washington, D.C., a job he held for about a year.

In 2011, TerMeer came full circle, moving back to Columbus to become director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition, a nonprofit which grew to 125 staffers with a $20 million budget after a recent merger with another organization. In the last year and a half, the organization has opened two medical centers.

Now TerMeer is preparing for his sixth consecutive Life/Cycle, an event he said is meaningful since it marks the 10th year since his HIV diagnosis. His sister, Stephanie TerMeer, of Phoenix, will ride with him and other family and friends will attend opening and closing events.

“The community that is AIDS Life/Cycle is what you would hope the world would be every day,” TerMeer said. “It’s like a second family.”

TerMeer said he returns to Phoenix about twice a year and remains connected to Positive Beginnings, a youth support group he started at Southwest Center.

More about AIDS Life/Cycle

  • The event benefits the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
  • Since its inception in 2001, AIDS Life/Cycle has raised more than $100 million.
  • Cyclists ride between 6:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day. Rest stops are situated every 15 to 20 miles along the route.
  • Cyclists must arrange for the transport of their bikes and can bring one bag of gear. The ride provides the tents.
  • Cyclists who don’t want to camp have the option of choosing the “princess plan,” by arranging to stay in motels along the route.
  • Life/Cycle has more than 1,000 volunteers, including “roadies,” a work force that joins riders on the road and help set up camp each night