They are busy people. One is an insurance executive. Another is an attorney. Yet another holds down a full-time job and attends evening classes at UW-Madison. But they are eager to talk about why they are preparing for ACT 4, the fourth annual AIDS Network Cycles Together tour, scheduled for Aug. 3-6.
Starting and ending in Madison, the ride covers more than 300 miles and is not undertaken lightly. Participants are required to generate at least $1,100 in pledges in addition to the $100 registration fee.
Attorney Allen Arntsen, a partner with Foley & Lardner, cites the camaraderie of the tour as the main reason he participates every year. He had been riding his road bike for only a couple of years but was a veteran of the Horribly Hilly Hundreds when his daughter, Rose, suggested he join her for the inaugural ACT ride in 2003.
"That was when it was a six-day ride - it was by far the longest ride I'd ever done," he recalls. "What struck me was the sense of community and how nice everybody was. It was like stepping into another world - a kinder, gentler world. As a result of the ride," he adds, "I met 10 people who stuck as pretty close friends. I'm 50, and it's unusual to find so many people who stick as close friends."
Arntsen likens subsequent ACT rides to "taking a vacation with friends."
This simile may help account for Arntsen's sense that the ride gets easier with each passing year. "You get better at pacing yourself," he adds. His bike - a titanium Axiom model from Seven Cycles - is accessorized with a cycling computer, extending his ability to pace himself.
"Probably for most people," Arntsen suggests, "the fund-raising is the hardest part. I tell people I'll match 25% of your donation so you can be sure all your money is going to AIDS Network."
And then some: On average, AIDS Network has netted 87% of gross pledges through the ride's first three years, yielding almost $800,000 for the agency. An impressive reversal of fortune from the 1998 Twin Cities-Wisconsin-Chicago AIDS Ride produced by Pallotta TeamWorks, which netted fewer than 10 cents of each dollar pledged for the participating Wisconsin AIDS service organizations.
What became known as the Heartland AIDS Ride generated more than $250,000 for AIDS Network over five years, but low returns on grosses dogged Pallotta TeamWorks until the California-based for-profit closed its doors in 2002.
The grassroots ACT rides have proved far more beneficial to AIDS Network, netting more than $300,000 for the agency last year alone. Arntsen recommends the experience without reservation.
"It gives you a chance to test yourself and go beyond your limitations physically and socially," he says. "It's the one thing that I've done in the last five years that I'm most happy I've done."
Shawn Bass, 28, echoes this enthusiasm. He signed on to the first ACT ride because "I needed the physical challenge," he explains via e-mail. He was also attracted by the opportunity to exercise his social consciousness.
"I see it as each person's duty to give back to their community, "he writes. "This ride is an amazing opportunity to do so." After riding the first two years and volunteering for the support crew last year, he is climbing back into the saddle for this summer's ride.
Bass says soliciting donations gets easier from year to year "because you realize that people really are generous and willing to give to good causes." And the emotional payoff is huge, says Bass, who rides a blue and silver Giant OCR2 aluminum bike. When you see an oversized ceremonial check for $300,000 at the ride's endpoint, representing the net for AIDS Network, he observes, "as a rider you feel a great sense of accomplishment."
Dick Watts, 72, shares this commitment. A vice president at Madison National Life Insurance Co., he is returning for his fourth ACT ride. He was shopping at the Willy Street Co-op when he saw the ACT I brochure. "The idea of meeting all these new people, contributing to a worthy cause and getting in even better shape was quite a rush," he recalls via e-mail.
That first experience hooked him on the "joie de vivre" he finds on the ride, though that joie can sometimes be elusive. Last year, he remembers, business and vacation time cut into his training, and he struggled in the heat and on the hills.
Riding a silver-gray Bianchi Giro road bike "with a triple chain ring to help me over those hills," Watts gets a charge from being among the oldest ACT participants. "It's flattering to be told I'm kind of an icon," he says.
Watts cites an ACT anecdote that reflects the ride's appeal to him. "Last year," he writes, "our route crossed that of another fund-raising ride. One of their riders had a flat but none of their participants stopped to help. We did. One of our mantras is, ‘No one gets left behind' - not even someone on another charity ride."
This ethic parallels the ride's mission, he points out: To help men, women and children afflicted with AIDS, and to raise awareness of what he calls "this global tragedy."