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Luis Nunez worked for David LaChapelle, the fashion photographer. The famous, the rich, and the fabulous passed by Luis' desk daily, and Luis was thrilled by it all. But two years ago, after making the 275-mile trek on his bike in the Boston to New York AIDS Ride, Luis was ecstatic. He called a friend from the finish area and told them that the ride was the most important thing he had done in his life.

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When Luis died less than a year later, his family asked LaChapelle, his old friend and boss, to give the eulogy at his funeral. LaChapelle panicked, unable to come up with a fitting tribute to the man who had been with him from the beginning of his career. But that night, LaChapelle says, Luis appeared to him and told him what to say: "Laugh like a child, love as hard as you can, and ride your bike."

Lore like that does not come up in your ordinary pledge drive. Talk to any of the 85,000 who've taken part in an AIDS Ride, and more often than not they'll have their own story like Luis'. Founded eight years ago as a kind of rolling fund-raiser to provide services for HIV sufferers, the AIDS Rides have become for many nothing less than a spiritual journey. Among the 10,000 riders who spend as much as a week riding and camping along the route each year, some describe the experience as a pilgrimage. "Every mile is a prayer," writes Kathy Bentham, a member of the AIDS Ride team called the "zencatz," on the group's website.

What makes the experience spiritual, like any spiritual experience, is hard to define. Yet the rides fit nearly any description of a religion. Participants describe the feeling of taking up the weight of suffering HIV has brought in the past two decades (this weekend's ride, from San Francisco to L.A., will take place almost 20 years to the day since the first diagnosis of AIDS). The rides themselves are spectacles of caring: those flagging or caught with a flat are immediately tended to. There is the rare, and eerie, time spent in silence, as the tired riders become a crowd of moving meditation.

There is above all the sheer fact of the mass physical exertion for those no longer able to. It is a celebration of life against the reality of death. The riders are remembering the past, attempting to carry it into the future; to some minds, religion can't be defined any more accurately than that.

Some who feel alienated in traditional faith settings say the AIDS Rides have become their primary spiritual activity. For others, the rides are the way they connect with friends and loved ones killed by HIV. "I've known a lot of people who passed away from AIDS," says theatrical producer Roy Gabay. "The AIDS Ride made me feel part of something bigger than myself--the bigger picture, higher power, whatever you call it. It made me realize that my little world is not what matters in the grand scheme of things."

AIDS Rides founder Dan Pallotta welcomes the growing spirituality of his brainchild. There is, he says in a Beliefnet interview, an absence of God in the gay community that he calls dangerous. "I think that the greatest crisis that faces the gay and lesbian community is a crisis of faith," he says. "People drink, do drugs. They do things sexually that just aren't safe. They have a need to reinforce that feeling of being worthless.... In the absence of God, there doesn't seem to be any other choice."

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For Pallotta, 35, the rides are the culmination of a faith journey that included a stint as an altar boy in Melrose, Mass., a John Denver-inspired exploration of EST, and Marianne Williamson's "Course in Miracles." In his late 20s, feeling he wasn't living up to his potential, he sought out therapy, eventually coming to a 12-step program (he declines to say which). "It was as if I was sending a clear signal to the universe...that I want my life to matter," says Pallotta. "And the universe seemed to say, 'OK then, we'll start to show you. Within a year or so, the idea to pursue the California AIDS Ride really came together.'"

Pallotta's personal turnaround provided a rallying point for public energy in the fight against the disease. Since 1994, when Pallotta and 471 other brave souls made the first trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles, more than 85,000 people have taken part in one of the rides, now officially known as Tanqueray's AIDSRidesUSA, after the liquor company that donates $1 million a year to the cause. Many thousands more have joined one of nine annual Breast Cancer Walks around the country, which Pallotta TeamWorks, the nonprofit that runs all the events, began in 1998.
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