Just over a week ago I endeavored to ride my bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles over the course of seven days to raise funds for programs that provide HIV/AIDS education, prevention, research and medical services, medication and counseling for those who seek help at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. At my not-so tender age of 44 the decision to take on the AIDS Lifecycle (ALC) for a third time felt incredibly daunting despite the many mornings this winter and spring that I spent training -- in and out of arm and knee warmers (depending on the weather), lathered in sun screen and sporting heavily-padded spandex that still failed to save my back end from the evil doings of the bike seat. All of the training in the world could hardly prepare one for the physical and emotional roller coaster that is ALC. And that’s just part of why I’m so drawn to it.
I grew up and came out in the age of AIDS. The first time I recall being aware of HIV/AIDS was during a conversation that took place among coworkers at my first job at a family-owned bakery in the rather tiny town of Plainville, Conn. I was 16 and it was 1984. With no malice or ill-will the people at my job in my suburban town truly pondered if any of us was at risk from HIV/AIDS simply from touching a doorknob or sitting on a toilet seat. The science that disproved such assumptions may have been out there but in our little world we didn’t know it. So much fear accompanied the word AIDS.
A few years later I came out, and the shaping of my lesbian identity very much hinged on trips I took to New York City, particularly those visits that took me to my first Pride parades at which AIDS activism was front and center. The immediacy to not merely end the epidemic but to understand it and to force the government to acknowledge there even was one (President Reagan had still not uttered the words HIV or AIDS publicly at that point) was more powerful than anything I’d known prior or since those nascent days.
At the time I was visiting the city fairly frequently my friends Ron and Mac lived in artists’ housing at Manhattan Plaza on 42nd between 9th and 10th. It was 1987, and for the first time in decades the wait list for apartments there had dwindled to nothing. The residents – actors, dancers, choreographers, writers, musicians—were dying, and there were apartments available. Four years later Mac died too. Later, I would lose another actor / artist friend, Michael, to AIDS. Even as a young lesbian, for whom there were literally no statistics about infection rates, my youth was shaped by those who were sick and those we all lost.
Today, several of my friends are positive, including my two best friends. Thanks to research, education, meds and access to medical services theirs is not a death sentence, although they were diagnosed nearly 20 years ago. Still, stigma abounds around HIV/AIDS. While immeasurable progress has been made in the 31 years since the first infection was documented, there is still so much more to be done.
I rode in my first Lifecycle in 2008 for the challenge -- to push my limits and myself. But beyond that I rode and raised funds to give back, to honor those I’d known and lost, and in some ways, to honor my youth. I returned to Lifecycle in 2011, and before I left closing ceremonies I signed up for this year. After rolling into ceremonies just a few days ago, I stepped up to the registration tent and signed up for next year’s Lifecycle. It’s just a part of me now. It’s what I do.
AIDS Lifecycle 2012 Day 3:
Following our harrowing day two in the rain, we departed King City on day three under undeniably sunny skies. One of the shorter days on Lifecycle, the 67-mile route would take us up the formidable –really only in legend—Quadbuster, a fairly steep 1.3-mile climb that takes us up to about 1,500 feet. Eventually we would wind up in the wine country of Paso Robles.
We collectively set out down the bike path that led out of camp and out of the city, this is after riders whose bikes had been left at bike parking at Rest Stop 2 and Lunch in the rain the day before, found their bikes. We were told that the tireless roadies worked through the night loading, transporting and unloading bikes while someone catalogued just where each bike was in bike parking. AIDS Lifecycle is a well-oiled machine, and the ingenuity in ensuring folks found their bikes was just a thing to behold.
After Rest Stop 1 thousands of veterans and newbies headed toward Quadbuster. For those who train on hills, it’s a challenge, but unlike the hills of Palos Verdes or even Chevy Chase or La Tuna Canyon here in LA, Quadbuster’s really just a legend. I got into my low gears and cranked steadily, albeit not terribly quickly, up the hill. As a veteran rider I did miss the shouting and cheering that typically occurs at the top of the climb. The military banned us from gathering at the top because it was conducting drills of some sort. While there wasn’t the usual party, with music blasting, and drag queens cheering us on, Neil Giuliano, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, did stand by the side of the road encouraging riders up those few last feet.
From there it was a swift descent to Rest Stop 2 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Having noticed some trouble with my gears skipping I headed straight to bike tech, and they set me on my way. Next up we rode on to a beauty-school themed Rest Stop 3 at Pleyto Plaza Store. I stretched, refilled my water and went back to bike tech as I’d noticed a slow leak in my back tire. Meanwhile, other riders were having their nails painted right there essentially in the middle of nowhere.
Again, bike tech set me on my way. Flats are just a way of life on the ride. We call out when we see junk, glass, nails, shell you name it, in the road, but with thin road bike tires they are inevitable. I’ve always got tubes, tire irons and CO2 cartridges on my bike should I need to change a flat road side. Lucky for me this year, I had two slow leaks I discovered at rest stops, so bike tech was able to swiftly fix them. If it were up to me alone I’d be roadside for hours attempting to fix my flats.
Next up we were off to lunch in Bradley, where, as of the 2010 census, the population was 93. Lifecycle is just about the biggest thing to happen in Bradley, so the school holds an annual barbeque and fundraiser. Throughout the year kids make buttons to sell by donation only at the fundraiser. Last year I was perusing the buttons when a girl behind the table pointed to the one she though I should buy. It depicted a smiley face and read, “Keep Smiling.” It’s been on the back of my bike since I bought it. This year I picked up an orange button that has AIDS Lifecycle written on it with hearts around it. If that weren’t enough, I also bought a hand-embroidered bandana the kids made that read “AIDS Lifecycle 2012.” Between the barbecue, the sundries, goodies and baked goods sale Lifecycle helped Bradley raise enough money to pay for its after school programs for the next year.
Just a side note, thank you to the powers that be that repaved the shoulder on the 101 that leads into Bradley. It used to be an absolute soul-crusher to sit on a bike seat over several miles of battered road. This year, it was an absolute breeze thanks to the repave. My back end thanks whomever drove that to happen.
Day 3, if it’s not too hot, is really just one little party after the other – as bike rides go. From lunch it was another 12 miles or so to the next stop where the crew at Rest Stop 4 sets up shop at Mission San Miguel. They traditionally dress in drag and perform a dance routine to raise money for the mission. This year the theme was Best Little “4” House in Texas, and while I was hoping they’d do a drag number of “Hard Candy Christmas,” they put on a hilarious, raucous and filthy dance routine for hundreds of riders per performance throughout the day. We riders may be sporting wicking and spandex but I really have to hand it to the rest stop crews donning wigs, stockings, corsets, full makeup and more.
Day 3 ends just over 11 miles after the mission at the Paso Robles fairgrounds, a truly whimsical camping spot. That night the evening announcements were sponsored by the Positive Pedalers, “a group of people, living with HIV/AIDS, committed to building a supportive and inclusive community for others and ourselves through participation in bicycle-related activities.”
Susan -- the woman with HIV who’d fought breast cancer and AIDS, whose daughter spoke at opening ceremonies--got up to speak to thunderous applause from the riders and roadies. She shared that her daughter had convinced her to be a roadie, and that she’d, in fact, been handing us our lunches all week. Throughout the program various people took the podium to relay often heart-rending, moving stories reminding us all of why we’d undertaken the task of riding 545 miles over the course of a week.
The bike path out of camp.
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Cheering riders on atop Quadbuster.
Near rest stop 2 after Quadbuster.
Rest stop 2.
Words with Friends themed rest stop.
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Annual Bradley BBQ and fundraiser.
Lunch in Bradley.
Tracy with our friend Ben.
Viagra cheers riders on.
Rest stop 4. The Best Little '4' House in Texas.
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Taking up a collection for the mission.
The rest stop crew performs.
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AIDS Lifecycle 2012 Day 4:
The fourth day of Lifecycle has always reminded me of the old Wide World of Sports slogan – “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” Clocking in at a cool 97.7 miles for Paso Robles to Santa Maria it has always been the most challenging day of the ride for me despite making to the halfway to LA point and the stunning vistas past the monolith in Morro Bay.
We set out bright and early on another crisp, sunny day toward the ride’s other legendary hills, The Evil Twins, which are essentially a seven-mile climb to the Halfway to LA point, where, anyone who’s got a Facebook friend who’s done Lifecycle will know, we take the holding-the-bicycle-above-our-heads / Halfway to LA picture that inevitably becomes our profile pic for a few days.
I made it to the first rest stop just nine miles from camp to refuel for the climb. There, SheWired’s associate editor Boo Jarchow was forced to stop at the medical tent due to a persistent and painful knee injury. Against my better judgment as I would have liked to make it to the halfway point together, I left Boo behind at the rest stop. I knew that if she couldn’t ride that one of the amazing sweep vehicles would take her to the next rest stop, but I was heartbroken knowing she might have to miss the halfway celebration at the top of the twins.
Thanks to the endless hill training I did with Shifting Gears and the Chain Gang during training rides this year, the Twins were really no big deal. Case in point – training really does make a difference. I was hanging around at the top of the Twins taking my requisite photo and chit chatting with some riders when I heard Boo scream my name. She had forged on to the top of the Twins, no sweep vehicle and no walking the bike. There’s something about being on the ride that pushes some riders past their limits. For some it’s a competitive spirit, for others it’s about making every mile for their sponsors or the people they’ve loved and lost, for many, it’s a little of both.
The descent down the Evil Twins is exhilarating or scary as hell, or a little of both, depending on one’s level of comfort level riding at 30 mph or more. I don’t like to go faster than 30 but people blow by me.
Next up, we began to near Morro Bay and the iconic rock that rises out of the water. I’ve passed it twice on my bike before and each time I’ve thought that I’m beyond lucky that I get to see that in my lifetime – and that I rode there on my bike.
It was then on to lunch at Cuesta College, and I was already feeling a little behind the 8 ball, as it were. I left lunch just a half an hour before it closed, which meant that, unless I pedaled like the wind, or avoided stopping the rest of the day, I risked getting closer to the caboose (the last vehicle on the route), and therefore getting sagged all the way to camp. By the halfway point my saddle had become a veritable hot potato, and I was trying to ride out of the seat as much as possible, so as not to further injure myself.
I made it through Pismo Beach to the water stop at mile 67.3. I was hot and wildly uncomfortable from the seat. I made the decision, and it was not a light one as I am one of those people who truly wants to do every last mile of the ride, and swept to Rest Stop 4 about 18 miles out. Even from the comfort of our sweep vehicle, those 18 miles of rolling hills on roads dotted with farms and fields and 18-wheelers whizzing by, feel like the longest, most grueling miles ever.
From Rest Stop 4 I got back on the bike and road the 11 miles of tail winds into Preisker Park in Santa Maria. That night we bunked down at the Historic Santa Maria Inn where we stayed in a room that once housed Jimmy Steward. The room next to us was once an overnight home to Judy Garland. Did I forget to previously mention I’m what they call a princess? I don’t camp in tents for lifecycle. For a while I tried to hide the fact that I was a princess, ashamed that I wasn’t as hardcore as the rest, but at the end of the day, I’m an incredibly light sleeper, and hunkering down with less than an inch between tents and all sorts of sounds abounding would just lead to miserable days of riding.
Rest stop 1 before the "Evil Twins" and "Halfway to LA"
Yep, that's a line for the port-a-potty.
Boo and Tracy at the halfway point.
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The view from the top.
Boo's half way shot.
Tracy's half way shot.
Rest stop 2 just north of San Luis Obisbo.
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Summer of Love themed rest stop.
Loving the views.
Rest Stop 4 Oktoberfest.
Photos by Boo Jarchow unless credited otherwise.