At the crack of dawn Friday, 450 eager bicyclists donned their helmets and water bottles and started the adventurous ride along U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, all in the name of raising money for AIDS victims.
What started 10 years ago as a onetime, 165-mile bike ride for AIDS awareness has morphed into a 10 year celebration of the event, raising $4.2 million along the way.
Organizers of The Southern Most AIDS/HIV Ride Twenty Thirteen, or SMART Ride X, are proud that 100 percent of the funds go directly to those in need, not administrative costs. Last year, $880,000 was raised with 10 percent of the proceeds earmarked for a new arm of the fundraising effort, to help agencies that may have needs but on a smaller scale.
"It is a great ride," founder Glen Weinzimer said from Miami on Thursday afternoon after he briefed the riders on safety issues. "All the money we raise gets to where it is needed the most, the people suffering from AIDS."
This year, seven organizations will share the $1,047,514 million brought in during the two-day ride: AIDS Help of Monroe County; Children's Diagnostic & Treatment Center (Broward County); Comprehensive AIDS Program of Palm Beach County; Metro Wellness and Community Centers (Tampa/St. Petersburg); Miracle of Love (Orlando/Orange County); Pridelines Youth Services (Miami-Dade County)' and Pride Center at Equality Park (Broward County). The total could rise once all the pledges are in and accounted for, organizers said.
The Children's Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale had 20 riders take part in the ride.
"We did it," one of the group said as she hugged a co-rider. "We made it!"
A portion of the money stays here in Monroe County. AIDS Help received $100,000 last year and will once again get a share of the money brought in following the ride.
"It is very important to us and all the money raised goes directly to our clients," said Pam DeMala, director of community relations for AIDS Help. "It goes to housing, case management and medical costs, everything we do. It is 100 percent client services."
DeMala said AIDS Help has been with the ride for its entire 10 years. There is a Key West team, DeMala added.
Limited to 450 riders because of the logistics of the Overseas Highway, the size keeps the group manageable, Weinzimer said. "It is 'organized chaos.'"
To make it work, it takes about 280 volunteers, from bike technicians to deal with mechanical issues en route to Key West to a dining car and ice truck to cool down the riders when needed.
"Our participants come from across the state, from as far south as Key West, as far north as Jacksonville, and from Tampa to Palm Beach," John Rogatzki, the event's producer, said. "Beyond Florida, riders come from as far away as Hawaii and we have even some international participants."
The group stayed overnight Friday at Hawk's Cay on Duck Key and ended the ride at Key West High School Saturday morning. The leaders of the ride started trickling into the school around 10:30 a.m. and were lead down Duval Street by a police escort, then to the White Street Pier and Key West AIDS Memorial at Higgs Beach for the closing ceremony at 2:30 p.m.
The top team raised more than $100,000 in pledges and the top individual brought in $20,000. The youngest rider was 18 with the "most seasoned" in his 70s, Weinzimer said.
"It takes a village," Weinzimer said. "It has been an amazing two days."