and lives to tell about it, and repeat it over and over and over again. This coming June I'll be participating in my thirteenth AIDS charity bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
I'm not the only one here who raises money for the cause and then goes out to do some sort of intense physical activity to celebrate our efforts. Fellow Kossack anotherdemocrat will be doing something similar in Texas, in April. I hope you'll consider going here to support her efforts. But I also hope you'll also go here to help mine.
Having cribbed her idea to do a diary as a means of generating funds, I thought I would also plagiarize something another non-Kossack friend of mine is currently doing by telling you all how I came to be part of the community of souls who spend a week each June riding a bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for--and awareness about--HIV and AIDS.
Please continue past the now-famous DK orange squiggle of doom and I'll tell you all about it.
The first California AIDS Ride (also known as CAR 1--we like our acronyms) took place in May 1994. Several hundred men and women rode their bikes about 600 miles to raise money for the LA Gay and Lesbian Center's Jeffrey Goodman Clinic, which provides low-cost health care services to those living with HIV. The following year the even took on a second beneficiary: The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, one of the oldest AIDS service organizations in the world. San Francisco-area people soon came to constitute the majority of ride participants.
Following CAR 8 in 2001, the beneficiaries severed their connection with the organization that produced the California AIDS Ride and began AIDS/LifeCycle as a self-produced event. There was one more AIDS Ride in 2002 but the energy and the bulk of returning participants moved on to AIDS LifeCycle, or ALC. This year's ride is ALC 11. Since 1999 I've participated every year except for 2002, when I took a break.
For me, raising money for an AIDS charity is a no-brainer. I have been HIV positive now for decades. I lost many friends to the epidemic over the years; my partner Mario died from AIDS in December of 1992; my previous partner Bob passed away not long afterwards. I've been fortunate in certain respects in that my health has remained good; I've been able to keep earning a living. I've been lucky to have access to professional and non-professional support services, so I've never actually needed to make use of the ones provided by most of San Francisco's AIDS-related community organizations. But naturally I've wanted to make sure those organizations remained available to those who DID need to access them not only as a matter of principle but also because there's absolutely no guarantee that I won't need their assistance someday. I did my first AIDS Walk in 1987 or '88 and did several more through the early and mid-1990's. My mom has participated in 22 of them so far. Need I remind you she's awesome?
It's not as though I was a stranger to cycling. There have been various periods in my life when a bicycle was, by choice, my main method of getting around town (other than buses and subways). During the 1980 New York subway strike I biked to work--Jackson Heights to lower Manhattan (about 15 miles each way; at the time it seemed like an enormous undertaking. Now it would scarcely register). During the time I lived in Washington DC in the early '80's I did rides out to the suburbs on a somewhat regular basis and once did a day trip to Harper's Ferry and back with a gay sports group. Though I'd always hated gym class and did my best to avoid it when I could, I wasn't totally averse to sports; as a kid I was a fairly decent baseball and softball player. I took up running in my late 20's for fun. When that started to take a toll on my knees I switched to working out. So it's not as though the idea of intense physical exercise was entirely foreign to me.
As the AIDS Ride became a widely-known event in San Francisco in the mid- and late 90's, a number of my friends participated at least once. They asked me for donations, which I was more than happy to give. One or two of them started pushing me to join them but I resisted. It seemed far above and beyond anything I'd ever be capable of. Strangely enough it took a rather serious illness (not AIDS-related but still disturbing) to convince me to take the plunge.
Preparing for my first ride was an experience. What follows is a brief (or perhaps not so brief) account of how things unfolded:
September: Registration. I signed up at the ride booth during San Francisco's Folsom Street Fair. I also started biking to work instead of taking mass transit. I've kept on doing that, except of course, when the weather's bad. One of the great things about living in San Francisco is that it's seldom too nasty for riding a bike, particularly if you're wearing the right gear.
October: First training rides. The first one was the kickoff, involving what seemed like hundreds of men and women at various levels of cycling skill. I'd never before participated in a large group ride, where there were specific rules and protocols to be followed. I thought of myself as reasonably uninformed but I'm pretty certain I never knew (because I never worried about it) that cyclists are treated like drivers in most important respects. Stopping at stop signs and red lights is in fact not optional though if you bike in San Francisco you'd never know it. The hand signals I learned in driver's ed actually meant something when you were on a bike. And if you're making a left turn on a bicycle, you do it from the left-hand lane, just as though you were driving a car! (I'm not kidding; I really had no idea.) Official training rides began (then as now) with an explanation of where we were headed, followed by a safety speech delivered by ride leaders.
On my second training ride I learned that my friend Donald-David who'd been most persistent in trying to convince me to do the ride, had passed away.
November: I found out that you really need to learn how to read directions when heading out on a ride in areas you aren't familiar with. I got lost in Marin County with a couple of other first-timers. We were trying to find our way to Tiburon.
December: After several medium-length rides that ended with me coming home absolutely miserable I finally gave up on the idea of using my eight-year-old hybrid to get me to Los Angeles. Not only was it the wrong way for me to go; it was also too large (good enough for a short jaunt around town but nothing more). My final training ride on the hybrid included that rarest of phenomena--snow flurries just outside of San Francisco. The following week I found out how much it hurts when you break a bone.
January: So this is what "hand therapy" is like...it hurts almost as much as the injury. I didn't do any riding in January.
February: I started riding again; my first training ride got canceled after we'd started when it began to rain. Important discovery: cycling gloves don't do well in clothes dryers. The gel padding exploded. Shortly after I started riding again I took a previously scheduled trip to Hawaii--Oahu and Maui were on the agenda. I brought my helmet, shoes and pedals with me. On Oahu I took a ride from Waikiki to Hanauma Bay. While on Maui, I signed up for a ride down the side of Haleakala Volcano. We were trucked up to 7,000 feet with bikes (the company installed my own pedals for me and the tour leader scheduled some "extra miles" to complement my training. It's hard to practice climbing when you spend all your time going downhill).
March: Lesson One: On the right bike, it's possible to go fifty, sixty or seventy miles without feeling like a complete wreck afterwards. And I did say not a COMPLETE wreck. Looking back now, it strikes me as a bit amusing that I view any ride shorter than 50 miles as "not long." Back then, it was still a challenge to go that far.
Lesson Two: If you don't know how to do it already, learn how to fix a flat tire BEFORE you need to do it out in the middle of nowhere. And if you need help, don't keep insisting that you're okay.
April: Lesson Three: Stay away from streetcar tracks when you're riding a bicycle. Heading out from home to do a training ride my wheel caught in Market Street's trolley tracks. I was thrown face-first into the median strip, losing four teeth in the process. This experience drove home for me the wisdom of wearing a helmet and shades when riding a bicycle. Without those I'd have lost my brains or at least an eye. The important thing though (besides being glad I had friends) was that I kept in mind how important it was not to let a fall scare me away from riding. Ten days after the accident I did my first 100-mile ride. I even finished before dark!
Lesson Four: If you want to ride a long distance, you'd best get started early. I am NOT a morning person yet I suddenly found myself awakening earlier on weekends than I did on weekdays. I STILL don't like it but I do it anyway.
May: Back-to-back riding is important. I did a couple of 100-mile rides and then got back on my bike and rode again the following day. The grand finale for the month was a three-day extravaganza with the Positive Pedalers, a group of cyclists who like myself are living with HIV. On Friday we rode from Sausalito to Guerneville, sixty miles by car but 75 on a bike. The next day we did a short ride from Guerneville to Healdsburg and back; the final day was the return to Sausalito. We had a great time and I met some wonderful people, many of whom are still my friends. And one of the most important lessons of that experience and of my life up until now: The best way to combat the fear and stigma surrounding HIV is to be open and honest about living with HIV.
Here's a picture from that weekend...
On the left is Jonathan Pon; along with my friend Donald-David, he helped found Positive Pedalers in 1995. Jonathan passed away in December 2001. On the right is Rod Thornton, co-chair of the group at the time. Rod passed away within the past couple of years.
June: As the ride approached I made sure to allow plenty of time for the final preparations. I think I unpacked and repacked my gear three times before getting it all to fit in one bag. I was taught something which I still swear by: Nobody wants to do laundry after spending all day riding a bike; for multi-day rides, carry clean cycling clothes for each day of riding. One of the best things I learned from my fellow-riders was to pack each day's clothing in a ziploc bag and place it inside of my sleeping bag at night so I didn't have to don ice-cold cycling clothes first thing in the morning.
Before you get to embark on your journey, there are certain last-minute hoops to jump through. The day before the first day of the ride (once known as "Day Zero" and now referred to as "Orientation") covers the essentials:
- Did you raise the minimum? When I first began riding it was $2,500. The figure was increased to $2,700 in 2001. With the ending of the CAR and the advent of ALC, the minimum went back to $2,500, then increased to $3,000 about five years ago. During my early years, all of the money I raised showed up in check form. Subsequent to the first AIDS/LifeCycle, the main method of giving became web-based. You do need to make up any shortfall before you can proceed; if necessary by bringing checks and/or cash with you at the last minute. Or you can pledge to make up the difference between the minimum and what you've raised with a cutoff in mid-July. Either way, if you haven't made the minimum by the day before, there is a line for you to stand in. Waiting in lines is part and parcel of the ride culture and the experience.
- Did you forget to send in the form containing the basic information about your emergency contact, doctor's name, insurance, health needs? (Again, as of a few years ago, there is a web-based system that takes care of it.There's another line for you to stand in.
- If you've taken care of this stuff you're ready to watch a safety video. Safe riding and adherence to the law is drummed into riders consistently throughout the training season. This is both altruistic and practical. We want everyone to get to Los Angeles in one piece; there are riders with varying degrees of cycling skills and everyone has to share the road. There are legal requirements and rules of group cycling. One of the most important of the latter (besides always wearing a helmet) is never to pass another rider except on their left-hand side. And to let them know when you're doing so. In addition the practical and safety considerations, the ride can't happen without permission from the localities it passes through. There aren't too many places where the authorities welcome chaos on their streets. If riders don't obey the law (by running traffic lights or stop signs for example), we hear about it later. Finally of course the ride has to have its own insurance coverage, and that coverage comes with its own set of requirements.
Of my first ride I recall but a small portion of the video content. It starred the heads of both the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation as well as AIDS Ride producer Dan Pallotta. Much of the safety and legal aspects that we'd had drilled into our consciousness on every training ride was reiterated. In addition there were explanations of life on the road and in camp. The most important part? If you need to visit a porta-potty during nighttime hours, DON'T LET THE DOOR SLAM!
- After you watch the safety video you receive a wristband to show you've done so. THEN you REALLY check in. The most important part of the remaining process is tent assignment. Everyone gets assigned a tent, and everyone needs a tentmate. This doesn't mean you actually have to sleep in your tent every night. But you have to have a tent assignment and a tentmate nonetheless. There are no singles (at least officially) with the exception of those few who have medical issues that would make it unwieldy to share a tent.
There are six campsites during the course of the ride. Some change from one year to the next while others have been constants as long as I've been riding. Some are quite lovely; others...less so (though all of them are safe and sanitary and have enough space to accommodate everyone). There are usually motels and hotels in the vicinity of the campsites. Some folks stay in one every night (this is referred to as the "Princess Plan"). Others, like me, stay in a motel or hotel once or twice. After a few days of sleeping in a tent, showering in a truck--after waiting in line--and using porta-potties, you really appreciate a mattress, a bathtub and a toilet that flushes.
This brings us up to the beginning of my first ride. Think you'll get a good night's rest before the first day? Wrong. Everyone shows up anxious, even the veterans. There is stretching, there are speeches, there are tears. Friends come along to Opening Ceremonies to see us off.
After all the anxiety that I wouldn't be able to raise enough money, or that no amount of training would render me capable of bicycling approximately 575 miles over seven days, it all came together once I hit pulled out of Fort Mason on that crisp, sunny morning of June 6, 1999. I rode every single mile. I raised over $4,000. I learned what I was capable of; I learned how empowering it can be to live openly as someone with HIV; I learned a great deal (though not everything) about cycling. Seeing that it is, indeed, possible to start with a limited capacity and ride a bike for a solid week, I began volunteering to lead training rides for the following year's event. I may be getting old; what doesn't get old is the joy of watching a newbie turn into an experienced cyclist.
Thus began my odyssey on a bicycle, that's continued, virtually without interruption, until the present time. In 2006 I broke my collarbone a month before the event and spent the week accompanying the event photographer but I was still there. It was actually an enriching experience. I learned a great deal about photography during those few days. At the end, after checking out the state of my healing they let me borrow a bike and ride in to Closing Ceremonies (I didn't get on a bike again for another six weeks but even those few minutes were worth it). During my first three rides I rode every single mile (or as we like to say "EFI--Every F#@king Inch!" In year four I learned that sometimes the best way to take care of yourself is to acknowledge your limits; I missed about 40 miles one day after being up most of the night worrying about a sick tent-mate. In 2007, I allowed myself to get dehydrated one afternoon and missed out on about 50 miles; last year I missed the final 28 miles of the longest day of the ride.
Things have changed a great deal since my first ride. In 1999 many people didn't have cellphones; cameras mostly held film (going digital was really a great awakening for me!); many folks rode older and heavier bikes. On my first ride, virtually all of the men were gay; most of the women were lesbians. Nowadays the demographic is much broader; only a bare majority are gay or lesbian now. The quality and cost of gear has increased; so has the number of serious cyclists. And yet somehow everyone seems to get along.
The ride is a great thing to do but naturally what's important is the cause. Over the course of my first twelve rides I've raised some $67,000 for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Since I need to raise at least $3,000 this year, that will bring me above the $70,000 mark. There are many people who raise more than I do but the important thing is that I raise as much as I can.
So here's what I want you to do. Click this link and make a donation. You can do that, right? It's for a
Because it's good to leave your audience smiling, here's a little something NOT from that 1999 ride but from AIDS/LifeCycle 9 in 2010. I know many of the people who appear in this video; believe it or not, it really captures the incredible spirit of the event and of the community. I hope it'll inspire you.