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A Tour de Friends that touched lives all along the way

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If you want to know the awesome power of the Tour de Friends, the 330-mile fundraising bike ride last month from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., look no farther than tiny Warrenton, N.C.

As one of almost a thousand cyclists who wheeled through that grand farming town, I got a glimpse of how the ride touches the lives of communities very different than our own. That's a contribution that seems almost as important as the thousands of dollars the tour raises for organizations in Raleigh, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., that are helping people living with AIDS/HIV.

Having seen the ride as it traveled through their town in past years, the people of Warrenton held a welcoming event for us as we rode through their streets--not because they had to, but because they wanted to. The music of the band and the cheering of the crowd echoed through the town as we approached. Almost as loud were the children chanting, "Thank You, Riders."

Once we arrived at the town's center we were welcomed with ice cream and watermelon. We were offered the use of the facilities in all of their buildings. One storeowner displayed a guest book for the riders to sign and tell from where they came. School children offered ribbons to be hung on the branches of the trees in the courtyard. Along one side we wrote our names; along the other we wrote messages or the names of people in whose memory we were riding. Margaret, the mayor pro-tem, pinned us with buttons that read, "I've got friends in Warren County N.C." Plenty of pictures were taken and everywhere you looked there were smiles on faces.

But what touched me most was when I looked over to see a group of people dancing to the rhythm of a local African-American drum band. The group was comprised of costumed dancers in traditional African wear, the elders of Warrenton, their children and some riders and corps members of the tour. I realized this ride had brought communities together and created a place where awareness and education about HIV/AIDS could happen.

That growing, changing circle of dancers represents what the world should be--a unity of people celebrating both their diversity and their common goal; a goal of eradicating a dreadful disease from the populations of the world through education and awareness.

There are many fundraisers and organizations raising money for AIDS research. But the Tour de Friends is one of the few fundraisers directly helping the people who need it now, the people who are living with AIDS/HIV today.

And it was just as valuable to the cause for the inspiration it offered the riders and the support corps, those of us who slept on hard gymnasium floors after battling the elements and loved every minute of the ride's four days. For those few days, we lived in a utopian society. If a rider was on the side of the road with a flat, a dozen people would pull over to help him fix it. Every other rider to pass by would ask if he was OK. When traveling up steep hills, riders would get off of their bikes and cheer on other riders. At every pit stop, corps workers gave us ice bags to put around our necks to cool us and filled our water bottles. They asked questions of genuine concern to make sure we were having a healthy and safe ride.

At the end of a hard day, we ate together under a big tent like a family, and talked about the trials of the day's events. We held talent shows where we laughed, and even cried. One rider performed a song about faith and love by signing the words so his deaf wife could share in the pain he felt for the brother he lost to AIDS. For four days we lived in world where everyone was a brother or a sister, working for something much bigger than any one man or woman. This tour of friends became a community, and that sense of community will stay with us long after the ride.

And, as the people of Warrenton taught us, the awesome power of the tour goes even further. They showed me that we riders and corps workers touched the lives of a community outside of our own. Our friends in Warrenton embraced the spirit of the ride, and it lives there still, just as strongly as it lives in ourselves.

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