TOO DAMNED EARLY
It’s 3:20 a.m. when my alarm goes off. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Ugh. I finished packing and went to bed three hours ago. I’m not alone. Right now, 1,839 AIDS LifeCycle riders are getting ready for a seven-day, 585-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise much-needed funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
The next two hours are a blur. My ride shows up at 4:15 a.m. Somehow we end up at the Cow palace, our starting point, sometime after 5 a.m. We give our gear to the gear guy, grab some of the provided food and make our way into the bike storage room to make some last minute adjustments to our bikes. I’ve stupidly brought along a new bike bag, not realizing I bought a bag that requires me to take off my bike seat and make adjustments to my stem. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but at 5:30 a.m. with little sleep and an 85-mile ride about to start, I find it overwhelming.
THE BIG-WIG KICKOFF
Luckily, I figure it out with a minute to spare before the group kickoff, complete with speeches from all three big wigs associated with this event, Mark Cloutier, executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center; and Chris Cole, director of the AIDS LifeCycle. These aren’t your typical big wigs though. Cloutier and Jean are doing the ride. I see Cole running around like a whirling dervish at every rest stop. Because they are that rare breed of leaders who care, their speeches move the crowd. I see some tears in the audience as we all hold hands and remember the devastating toll this disease has taken on our community this past 25 years. The crowd cheers when we learn that 1,839 people in the room have raised more than $8 million. Whoa!
We’re ready to roll day one, an 85-mile ride from San Francisco to Santa Cruz along the beautiful coast, but first the LifeCycle staff ask us to put on red helmet covers that read: “Not another 25 years.” AIDS is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. It’s 25 years since the first instances of the mysterious immuno-deficiency virus were discovered in gay men in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As we ride out of the Cow Palace wearing these caps, I look up to see thousands of riders in a sea of red. I think of a red tide.
As we ride out onto the main road, I feel a bit of panic. I’ve never cycled in such a large crowd. “On your left,” cry riders. “Slowing! Stopping!” We’ve been well trained by the leaders on our training rides. Of course, we’ve all had to listen to the same boring safety speech every weekend. Apparently, it worked. Everyone seems to know the rules of the road.
A few miles out, the riders start to thin out and settle into a single line. The intensity drops as we settle into a routine we’ll be doing for the next seven days. As we reach mile 10, 15, 20, it’s hard not to think about the more than 550 miles we have left to go. Later in the ride, when the fatigue starts to set in, we start to think constantly about getting through the first day.
Early in the ride, I witness my first crash. A woman missed a turn and rode straight into another rider. They both go down with a loud crash. I watch the woman slide across the pavement. The man is unhurt, but she looks pretty scraped up. Down the road, I see an attractive man who apparently fell on his face. One side of his face is swollen and it looks a little bit like hamburger. Later, I find out that another rider was taken to the hospital. It reminds me that this is a pretty dangerous sport, particularly when you have almost 2,000 riders riding together.
HILLS, HILLS AND SOME MORE HILLS
The early half of the ride has some tough hills. Most people are fine at this point, but I see a few people walking their bikes up the steeper parts. How will they cope with the next six days, I wonder. I guess I’ll find out.
Some early mist and fog keeps us cool through lunch, where we sit at a park overlooking the coastline. We’re at mile 41 and some people are having pain problems. Luckily, the volunteer massage therapists are on hand working through these pain points so the cyclists can keep going.
The food at lunch is good. I have to admire the AIDS LifeCycle for putting on a quality show. No disgusting fake turkey sandwiches here. We get real sandwiches with decent ingredients and, of course, enough Gatorade to flood Giants’ Stadium.
After eating with my buddies Dion and Joaquin—and admiring the very … er … interesting painted nails of the guy sitting at the other end of the table from us (silver nails complete with embedded diamonelles), whoa!—we are ready to go.
I dash into the bathroom to apply some more chamois crotch cream. One of the few problems on a long ride like this is chaffing. We’re on the road again. Dion is a fast cyclist and I find myself struggling to keep up. We ride through some of the prettiest coastline along the Pacific with high cliffs, winding roads and pine trees high above us. I’ve lived here for 10 years, but I’m still in awe of it.
Later, the sun comes out and we start to heat up, or rather, bake. I’m still wearing my black rain shell and I’m too lazy to take it off, so I feel a bit cooked as we get close to Santa Cruz.
THE PIE LADIES
We’ve seen a bunch of people cheering us along the road, but I’m most impressed by the pie ladies. Five or six women who set up a little spot about 20 miles outside of Santa Cruz where they are giving out slices of fresh pie. Who can resist such generosity? We screech to a halt. I have a slice of pumpkin and Dion has something blueberry-ish. Never underestimate how good sugar tastes at mile 65. We wolf it down, thank our amazing hosts and hop back on our bikes.
She’s standing on the side of the road just outside of Santa Cruz holding up a sign with a picture of a man, presumably her son, and the words “1950-1996” printed in block letters. She gives us the thumb’s-up sign. My buddy tells me she was there last year with the same sign. We’re silent. Despite our tired legs and aching shoulders, she’s reminded us of the real reason we are on this ride.
A SEA OF TENTS
Arriving at the campsite, I find myself once again in the warm embrace of the well-oiled machine of the AIDS LifeCycle. They quickly scan me in with a wireless device and send me on my way to put away my bike and get my AIDS LifeCycle tent. It’s an easy-to-set-up pup tent. It takes me a few minutes, then I’m off to take a shower. Yes, a hot shower. This is glamour camping. AIDS LifeCycle uses the same trucks FEMA uses for disaster relief. They’re really nice—nicer than a lot of showers I’ve been in—my body thanks the shower gods for providing them as I scrub the day’s grime off my body.
With any endurance event, one needs to expect and get used to pain. I’ve already seen people limping around and I expect it will only get worse with each day.
In honor of this pain, I thought I’d end each of my daily logs with a personal pain-o-meter, so here goes:
Day one pain level: 1.5 out of 5
• Left knee: Moderate pain on the outside of the knee from a recurring IT band injury. I figured this would be the first to flare up. I’m hopeful that some stretching and Ibuprofen will cure it.
• Left shoulder: Another problem area for me from my swimming years. Shoulders bear the brunt of the downhill for many cyclists and I’m one of them. Here’s hoping for flatter roads ahead.
GET THE PODCAST
To hear other perspectives on the ride, visit experience.aidslifecycle.org.
Jeff is rider no. 2111. To make a donation to Jeff or to the AIDS Lifecycle in general, visit aidslifecycle.org.