My journey actually started in late November when I spotted a brochure for the annual AIDS Lifecycle (ALC). This is an event where hundreds of riders hop on their bikes and spend a week cycling 545 miles down to L.A. to raise money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. A secondary goal is to simply raise awareness that AIDS continues to pose a serious threat both in the U.S. and abroad.
Since turning 40 a few years ago, I had been searching for something to do to challenge myself. The Lifecycle seemed like the right sort of grand challenge. And the fact that I would help people suffering from a horrible disease made my decision something of a no-brainer. So Dec. 7, I pulled the trigger. I went to the ALC Web site and signed up. Now I had six months to get in shape.
Training reveals that hills are my nemesis
Getting ready for the ride was broken into three components. The first was getting physically ready, not an easy job for someone 50 pounds overweight whose longest bike ride since my teens had been the grueling four miles from my house to the Country Waffles downtown. My first training ride was on the Iron Horse Trail from my house to Alcosta Boulevard and back. A round trip of about 15 miles. I strapped on a camelback to stay hydrated and set off. Nearly two hours later I was back at home, soaked in sweat and questioning whether it was too late to get back my registration fees.
I signed up for one of the Lifecycle training rides, which take place throughout the Bay Area. My first ride was in Oakland, a mere 35 miles around the city. The ride leaders were very kind, offering advice and support. It was here I rode my first California hill. Wait, did I say rode? What I meant to say was, I started up the hill, panted like a dog, stopped, started up again, stopped, thought about the possibility of having a heart attack, started, stopped and walked my bike to the summit.
I had found my nemesis. If the road was flat, I could ride all day long. But on hills, my heart would pound, my breath would leave me, and I'd have a heck of a time staying on the bike. And AIDS Lifecycle goes through California and not Nebraska so I was going to have to learn to do hills.
This led me into the second component of preparation: Having the right equipment. My good friend Thomas, a biking enthusiast, told me right from the get-go that my bike would have to be replaced, noting the chain and padlock weighed more than his entire bike. Despite my denials, he was right. My 10-year-old Wal-Mart special weighed at least 40 pounds, probably recycled battleship parts. So I went on Craigslist and found a decent road bike without breaking the bank.
Thomas loaned me gloves and "clipless pedals" to maximize my efforts but I resisted getting the other thing I needed: bike clothes. If you've ever seen me, you know that spandex isn't my friend. But for long distance cycling you really need padded shorts, to help save wear and tear on the derrier, and cycling jerseys that dry fast and wick away all the sweat you generate climbing those hills.
The third part of getting ready was fundraising. You can train from now until doomsday but if you haven't raised the $2,500 minimum by Day 1 of the ride you are out of luck. You need to ask everyone you've ever known, and even those who you've just chatted with. And remember you're not asking the money for yourself, you're asking for the AIDS Ride. I went through my entire address book, my wife's address book and even the directory at my kids' school. During six months I sent out 500 e-mails and placed dozens of phone calls. By May, I was halfway there but starting to get nervous. While trying to figure out if a bake sale or a poker night would generate more funds, I sent out more reminder e-mails and got on the phone. The floodgates opened, and a total of 48 people donated to the ride; I ended up with $3,115.
At last, it's time to go
By the end of May, I had ridden more than 1,200 miles training for the ride and my fundraising was in place. It was time to get in the saddle and point myself south. But first I had to go through "Day 0," aka Orientation. It's basically a registration process, which involves checking in your bike, turning in outstanding pledges, getting processed and meeting your tentmate.
My tentmate was a genial San Franciscan named Howard Schieman. Howard is a Realtor, a bit older than me, and started riding as a way to lose weight. Somehow he had signed up for this long distance ride but if the long days facing us even slightly fazed him, Howard never showed it. He brought a calm good humor to the proceedings and no matter how long the line was, he made it seem like that was exactly where he wanted to be. I'm not the chattiest person by nature, but Howard talked to everyone. He would start conversations and just sort of include me in. I met more people standing in line at Orientation than I had in the previous six months of training rides.
In retrospect, the great thing about Orientation is it teaches you to stand in line, a skill that everyone would need in the next seven days. After four hours of lines, safety videos and checking in, we were officially part of the ALC and could finally ride the next morning - after a long, mostly sleepless, night.
On Day 1, I got to the Cow Palace around 5 a.m., dragging my wheeled duffle, sleeping bag and water bottles, looking for the gear trucks. Fortunately, a couple of friendly stewardesses were there to direct me to the right spot. Afterward I found the first line of the day, for bagels and Gatorade. The Cow Palace was packed with people, most wearing bright yellow jackets and helmets, ready to hit the road.
Around 6:30 a.m., after Opening Ceremonies, 2,300 of us slowly filed out of the Cow Palace and onto a stretch of parking lot leading out to the road. Both sides of the lot were lined with people cheering, honking horns, and ringing bells. The families and friends of the riders and roadies were there to see us off, but also there were people who had lost someone to AIDS, who turned out to make sure we knew our work was appreciated. Not to minimize the lives or work of soldiers, but I imagine the sendoff we received was similar to that of soldiers going off to war.
Unlike soldiers though, our support system gets to stay with us through our entire tour. They made it possible for us riders to get through the day, cheering us on, offering snacks or just giving a smile and a thumbs up. As I spun through our first long climb - 10 miles uphill - with only a minimum of cursing, I was given licorice, M&M's and cookies. The sugar buffet kept my cranks turning and the miles disappearing.
That first day went by fast, as I was buoyed by the great sendoff and the wonderful people on the route. Once we got going, I learned some lessons quickly. First off, when you arrived at a rest stop, get in line fast. There was a line for everything. And I mean everything. What do you expect with 2,300 people all wanting the same stuff?
The second thing I learned was to use lots of "butt butter." Butt butter has lots of names but basically it is a non-greasy lubricant that you put on the inside of your bike shorts and your more delicate areas to help reduce chafing from being in the saddle all day.
The third thing was that modesty is an outmoded commodity. With over a hundred people in line for the porta-potty, bushes started to look pretty darn good. And as far as re-applying your butt butter? Just reach a hand down your shorts, goop it up, and get back on your bike.
A mobile tent city
At the end of each day we would ride into camp, always to cheers. The camps are a massive undertaking involving incredible levels of organization and care. Imagine a city of roughly 3,000 people, complete with homes, showers, restrooms, medical facilities, shops, a post office and a restaurant. Now, imagine packing up that city and moving it to a new location every darn day. The gear trucks were always there, shower trucks were pumping out the steaming hot water, and dinner was served promptly at 4 p.m.
Upon arrival each afternoon, a corridor of applause swept me to bike parking, where I'd leave my trusty cycle overnight. Then it would be off to the gear trucks to pick up my sleeping bag, duffle and tent. Once the tent was up and gear was stowed, a hot shower waited. In order to save space in my pack, I'd listened to the advice of veteran bikers and used "camp towels," which claimed to absorb 10 times their weight in water and dry faster than cotton towels. I don't know how well they absorbed, but it was like drying off with a one-foot-by-one-foot square that always felt damp. Oh well, I was supposed to be roughing it. Right?
Rinsed and refreshed, it was time for dinner. Now we may have been roughing it, but they certainly weren't shy with the food. There was plenty of it and it was pretty darn good. Always a salad, meats, veggies, bread and a dessert. You could go through the line as many times as you wanted between the hours of 4-9 p.m. It was kind of like being on a cruise ship ... if you had gone in the water and pushed the boat to a new port every day.
Usually during the latter part of dinner there would be some sort of entertainment. The directors of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation or the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center would almost always speak, delivering camp news, talking about how our efforts were going to help or telling inspirational stories of the ride and those involved. Other nights we had a Roadie Fashion show, with costumes from all the "themed" rest stops. My favorite was the talent show held on Day 5. One of our riders, Albie Park, got up and read a powerful poem he'd written to honor a loved one lost to AIDS. A roadie performed a piece she'd written, full of anger and hope, dealing with living with AIDS for 18 years. There were lighter performances as well. A 67-year-old woman belted out a rider's version of the popular George M. Cohan tune "Over There" titled "On your left." And a young man named Roland did a David Lettermanesque monologue on how you could tell it was Day 5 on the ride.
Once dinner was done, you could stop by the camp shop, stop by the medical or massage tents, or hit Information Services to check for messages of support. By 9 p.m. things would start to quiet down as exhausted riders would snuggle into their sleeping bags to get ready for another day on the road.
A hill called Quadbuster
That was our routine each day. What varied was the scenery and the hills we had to climb. Even after all the training, I would always tense up, breathe fast and just generally panic a little when I would see a hill. Previous riders have named many of the steeper climbs and we newbies got to hear - and stress - about them. There was Quadbuster, the Evil Twins, the Seven Sisters and a host of others.
Those were the moments that tested me as a rider, and showed me how far I had come. Working my way up the 1.3-mile climb on the Quadbuster I reflected (between pants) on how I had changed since I started this journey. The first time I tried MacArthur Hill in Oakland, I had to walk my bike. And now I was climbing, albeit slowly, up the hill they'd been using to scare us riders since Day 1. Reaching the top of that hill, hearing the cheers of the roadies and riders who'd made it to the top before me gave me such a feeling of accomplishment that tears sprang to my eyes and I couldn't speak for a few minutes.
The entire seven days were filled with moments like this, both highs and lows. The high of beating both long climbs of the Evil Twins, followed by the realization that I still had 77 more miles to ride that day. Some days, the route just melted before me, each vista opening up before me with energy and color. Others, each pedal stroke was an effort and each rider who passed me by an enemy to be defeated. I think I experienced every emotion possible at some time during that week. I laughed and sang, sighed and wept; but no matter what, I kept pedaling. No matter how tired I was or how crummy I may have felt, I was determined to ride every single inch. Some days I stayed just minutes ahead of the "sag team" responsible for bringing riders back to camp if they couldn't keep the pace.
Candles held high
The week swept by and before I knew it, our final night in camp had arrived. And that was the night it became real for me. Not the riding, not the physical part. That I had down. But I had been so wrapped up in my own head and my own challenges that I'd lost sight of why we were riding.
After dinner, the riders and roadies gathered on a beautiful beach in Ventura and held a candlelight vigil for those who had been lost to AIDS. I was toward the back of the crowd and as I filed past all of these people I'd been riding with for the past week I saw them in a new light. Many held pictures of people who'd been taken before their time, all because of a disease with no cure. I saw the group of riders known as the Positive Pedalers (each member is HIV positive and still makes the ride each year) bravely holding their lights aloft as though daring the wind to blow them out. More than 2,000 of us made two huge concentric circles on the beach, holding our candles high and creating our own bright constellation right there on the sand.
For several minutes we stood there, candles held high, each wrapped in our private thoughts and prayers. And then slowly, one by one we moved to the restless ocean and let its waves douse our light. I watched as one young woman, candle in one hand, a picture of a young man in the other, tried several times to put out her flame in the waves and foam. Grinning back to her friends, she laughed, "He always was a stubborn one." I laughed and cried right alongside her.
That's when it hit me. I started this journey for myself. My health, my ego, my sense of place in the world. I determined that night that I would finish it for all those who had passed before or who were forced to live with a virtual death sentence hanging over their heads. The thousands of people struck down each year by AIDS.
With a renewed sense of purpose, Day 7 went by more quickly than I could have hoped. I chewed up and spit out any hill foolish enough to be in my path. I stopped at rest stops long enough to put on more butt butter and refill my water bottles and then it was back on the road. Lunch was 15 minutes at a McDonald's because I didn't want to wait in the lines. Before I knew it I was in L.A. and passed a sign that read "Last Hill." Then one that read, "One mile to go." Then I was there, riding into a cacophony of shouting and applause. I rode about a hundred feet before I saw my wife Cindi and my kids, waving and smiling. They held pompoms and a banner saying, "We love you." All the other cheering faded away as I drank in the sight of my family and their smiles. I had done it. I looked down at the odometer on my bike and it read 569.9 miles. Somehow I had ridden every single mile.
I cheered in some friends who arrived a short time after me and then it was time to go. Unloading my gear was bittersweet but I knew it wouldn't be the last time for me. There will be an ALC next year. And the year after, until AIDS is no more. As long as that is happening, I'll be there, too. Whether as a rider or a roadie, I will be back next year. Because now I know what I'm riding for. And it's worth it.