"When I was diagnosed with HIV, they gave me from six months to five years to live," said 45-year old Orange Babies Team Manager Frank Groenendaal. "That was eighteen years ago."
Now Groenendaal stands strong as both the manager and racer of a Netherlands-based professional cyclo-cross team that promotes a cause close to his heart. Orange Babies is a non-profit Dutch organization that supports HIV infected women and their babies in Africa.
Among Orange Babies' many services are helping pregnant mothers to prevent the passing of HIV to their unborn children, providing the mothers with baby formula, developing and supporting education programs, and setting up clinics for further treatment and prevention.
While cycling teams typically promote "for-profit" businesses, Orange Babies Cycling Team took the chance to venture into rarely tapped territory – a non-profit as title sponsor. This was not the original plan but rather it came about just after the team was formed as a resulting merger of three existing teams: ZZPR.nl, Merida and Champion System-LBS.
When deciding which sponsor should assume title role of the newly formed team, Groenendaal found it such a tough decision to choose amongst the current sponsors that he ultimately decided to go with an outside company. At his good friend's suggestion of Orange Babies, Groenendaal immediately took to it as the organization's mission is something he could completely put his support behind.
"I am very proud that we can promote Orange Babies through this team. It is a small organization that's giving help right at the spot where it is needed. And it's very effective. While in Africa, infected people – including pregnant women - are literally thrown out of the community because everyone is afraid of HIV. In South Africa, I heard that more than 20% of the people have HIV which I find incredible."
According to Groenendaal's personal experiences, HIV stigma may still exist in his homeland of The Netherlands, but it surely pales in comparison to Africa. "When I first got infected and had to stop with pro racing, it was a critical point because people continuously asked why I stopped cycling. At the same time the doctors were telling me to be careful who I tell because people might not understand and I'll lose friends.
"But I wanted to tell the truth. So when I came back to cycling six years later in 2000, I openly confirmed everyone's suspicions that I stopped racing because I was HIV-positive. I even gave permission to publications to print it. I was afraid of negative responses but I also had to find a job and build a career and take care of my family. What I found was that because I was honest about it, people respected me and wanted to know more about it. I always say, when you don't tell about it, you increase the stigma because eventually they will find out and when they do they think something's going on because you didn't tell."
As for his return to competition, Groenendaal had his hesitations. "The doctors gave me permission to go ahead and give racing a go since they were hearing good results from other HIV-infected patients who were doing intense sports. I was a little curious to see how it would go since I was only cycling two or three times a week.
"But when the doctor said this to me, my first response was that it's impossible – the risk is too high. If I fall and lose blood and someone else does too, no way I want this on my conscience! He appeased my concerns explaining that blood comes out of the body – not in, but I remained skeptical. I asked him if he could write that in a note so when I go to registration and they tell me I cannot start, I have something to give them. To my surprise, no one asked me for that note. Instead the only words they said to me were that they were glad to see me again because last they heard I was very sick and about to die."
A team inspired
Groenendaal's drive and determination surely rubbed off on his team of 15 riders if their 15 wins accumulated so far is any indication. Leading the team are professional riders Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn and Eddy van Ijzendoorn. For over 15 years, former Netherlands National Champion Hormes-Ravenstijn has steadily placed in the top ten at the highest level of competition such as World Cups and World Championships.
On the men's side, Van Ijzendoorn has been a rider to watch on the European cross scene since his third place in the Junior category at 2003 World Championships in Monopoli, Italy. Since riding with the elites, this 26-year-old has placed top ten in numerous events and won his first pro race two years ago at GP Richard Groenendaal in St. Michielsgestel, Netherlands.
With a new title sponsor, the riders definitely feel it gives them a boost in the races. Hormes-Ravenstijn exclaims, "I am very enthusiastic to race for Orange Babies because it's a good aim. I'm a mother of a healthy boy, so I cannot even imagine being in the African mother's situation where she has HIV yet no access to medications and can therefore be sure she will pass the virus onto her unborn child. I also know the history of Frank so I feel so connected to this cause. For these reasons I also donate directly to Orange Babies every month. And in turn, riding for such an organization motivates me a lot to do my utmost this season - it gives me inspiration to do more."
Van Ijzendoorn adds, "It's very special to ride for and possibly help such an organization. The people see the name on our jerseys, look them up on internet and hopefully give money to them."
In addition to these two riders, Orange Babies is home to a very strong collection of up-and-coming riders. Of the seven juniors named to represent The Netherlands at the last World Cup held on November 26 in Koksijde, Belgium, four of them are from Orange Babies. They are Pjotr van Beek, Tim Ariesen, Erik Kramer, and Bjorn van der Heijden.
The other impressive riders on the team are: Patrick van Leeuwen, Belgian Elite (without contract) Champion Stijn Huys, Roy van Heeswijk, Twan van den Brand, Kobus Hereijgers, Lana Verbene, Jasper van Dijk, Douwe Verbene, and Tom Schaft.
As for the masters category, Groenendaal has that personally covered. "Even though I only race a few cyclocross events every winter, I try to be as good as possible. In the last few races I placed second four times in my age category."
Looking to the future, Team Orange Babies has some ideas for increasing publicity for their non-profit sponsor. Their first plan is to include more fundraising activities to their calendar. One such event is a mountain bike ride in Africa to visit the areas supported by Orange Babies. Another is to host a road cycling event open to everyone.
Groenendaal's hopes are that these fundraising events will not only increase donations to Orange Babies but also increase visibility for his team so that he may be able to secure more sponsors. "With more money, we can really grow the team and make more publicity for Orange Babies. If there are more sponsors who want to join us in the way we do it now, they are very welcome. I've noticed that the sponsors find it an excellent idea to back such a good cause because even their employees get a kick out of it and support the money spent on that team."
After seven years of managing a cycling team, Groenendaal admits to bouts of burnout. "Naturally there are moments where I feel like I've simply had enough – where I'm tired and I start to think it's time to do something else with my time. But now with Orange Babies as a sponsor, I feel it gives me a little lift when I need it most. On those times when I want to give up, I think - hey Frank, you're tired but there are women out there who are pregnant without support of family or friends – they're on their own and have nowhere to turn. Do it for them."
And for at least the next three years, he will continue to do it for them as the team's sponsor contracts continue through 2014.
For more info on the team, visit: www.orangebabiescyclingteam.com
For more info on Orange Babies, visit: www.orangebabies.nl