The BTAA: A Most Unwelcome Surprise

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The BTAA: A Most Unwelcome Surprise

I dreaded writing this post. I didn't want to do it, and so I've been putting it off for weeks now, but not writing about it doesn't make it less real. So here goes.

In June of 2014, I got sick. Like, ugly, ER sick. After several days of fighting it, I ended up spending the night in the ER with a fever that made my bones hurt and stabbing pains all through my belly. After blood tests, pee tests, an ultrasound, and a CT scan, they gave me antibiotics and sent me on my way to recuperate. When I made it to a specialist months later, they looked skeptically at me and told me to "come back if you end back up in the ER." Clearly, I was wasting his time. 

A year passed, and nothing happened. I got on my bike and didn't look back.

Until I started to get tired. Like, really tired. I thought it was poor sleep catching up with me that made 60 miles seem like an eternity, but then the nausea came back. "Eh," I thought. "Everything makes you nauseous. Just chill out, get some rest, and carry on. You'll be fine."

Then came the belly stabs, the dangerously high fever, and the body pains. It was back, with a vengeance, and when the first doctor I saw sent me off with medication for an ulcer, I knew without needing further evidence that he should probably never have become a doctor. Also, that there was no way that this was an ulcer. By midnight, I was in the ER experiencing déjà vu, silently cursing the specialist who'd dismissed me so flippantly 15 months earlier.  

Five days later, I was discharged from the hospital with antibiotics that make your ligaments brittle and the bleak prospect of spending the next two months off-bike (doctor's orders, because ligaments). 

I began my trip knowing full well that there were myriad ways in which this trip could end. I knew, and I went anyway, because it was a dream that had lived only in my heart for far too long. Right from the start I told myself that if I had to stop, it would be alright. By now, I'd made it 3,000 miles already—I tried to convince myself that I should just be glad I'd had such a great ride. 

But I'd tasted the freedom of the road, and I felt robbed. Every time someone wrote me to ask how things were going or when I'd be back, I'd feel my heart do a little twist and couldn't bring myself to respond. I still don't want to. Two weeks after I arrived back home, I ended back in the hospital again, with the same symptoms and a mystery illness that an additional week at UCSF couldn't solve. 

And, through all of it, I just really wanted to be back on my bike. I still do. 

 

 


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The BTAA: Gear(less) Head

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The BTAA: Gear(less) Head

Once upon a time, when I was a naïve youth, I wrote a blog post about what I was planning to bring with me on my bike adventure. The sheen of innocence disappeared after a weekend or two of galavanting about with my bike fully loaded, and I realized that coming back from those trips would shed little light on what was actually useful when on a bike tour of any length, be it a weekend or several months.

Now that a few thousand miles have passed, things are different. Now that I've inspected dozens of other packing configurations and my tent materializes on flat(ish) surfaces with a glance, I am ready to talk about gear.

For those of you reading this and planning your own bike tour packing list, take a deep breath and relax: as long as you can transport it safely, there is no wrong way to do it. 

In theory, you can bring whatever you want. 

In practice, if your gear weighs half what you do, you've likely overdone it, but don't fret—you can (and likely will) ship the extras home, or give them away.

Here's what I've learned:

1. Weight matters, but only for some things

The total load you're carrying is going to affect you, whether you're carrying a camp chair or wheeling your armchair behind you, so to an extent, the total weight doesn't really matter. You'll get where you want to go, eventually, and you will be fine. 

Some things, like having enough spare tubes, socks, a book, and maybe a speaker, are worth their weight in gold. The enjoyment-per-ounce makes the number of ounces immaterial. But when you're considering what weight to shed, after a few weeks, there seems to be a general consensus that a lightweight tent or hammock setup is the way to go. 

For me, the lightweight list includes:
- Tent/sleeping vestibule
- Sleeping bag
- Down jacket (bonus: it's extra compact when it's extra lightweight)
- Cooking gear, if you're bringing it

2. Size matters for everything

Were you thinking of bringing a 3-man tent so that you and your bike could cuddle at night? Even if it weighs 200 grams, it'll take up more space than a 1-man or a hammock setup, which means you'll have to pack it in every day with all the rest of your stuff. The less space your things take up, the fewer bags you'll need to ride with, and the less time you'll spend fighting your gear into them in the morning. Trust me on this one: do not bring a bigger tent than you need. Riding with your one and only? Bring a 2 person vestibule. I know they seem small, but it really is all the space you need.

3. Pack two pairs of shorts, and two jerseys

Especially if you're a female (for practical reasons, not nonsense societal ones), but in general this is a reasonable number of articles of on-bike clothes. It gives you enough to do laundry without having to be militant about it, so it's not stressful if you have a long day that sees you at camp after dark.  

More than that, and they'll sit in your bags without pulling their weight. Less than that, and you'll have issues that I can't mention in polite company.

4. Bring a knife and a multitool

Ideally, one with a bottle opener and a corkscrew ;)

There are few things I grew to have a strong affinity for the way that I did for my knife and multitool. You will use them more frequently and for more things than you might imagine at the outset of your trip.

5. Cookware is mostly optional

I thought I would cook every day, and that I'd for sure need a pot and a stove for all of the food I'd be making, until my friend accidentally set my pot on fire and discovered that I got on just fine with a roll of aluminum foil and a camp fire. And when it rained or there was a fire ban in effect, I was surprised at how many combinations of cold foods worked out just fine. 


6. Get a map

I set out hilariously unprepared on this front, and basically assumed that everything would work itself out. It did, in the form of friends who had books and maps on the route that we found ourselves mutually on, but had it not been for those friends, I would have seriously regretted not having one. 

The ACA has maps that are a godsend, and I strongly recommend investing some time in them. Google Maps will only get you so far, and will occasionally lead you astray. Like that one time it told me to take this road:

Just take this bridge to the path that's clearly been maintained on the other side!

 

7. Wear sunscreen

Wear all of it, all of the time. Every two hours, kids, mmmkay? 

 

In the end, here's the packing list that I was happiest with:

Bike gear:

- Two pairs of shorts
- Two jerseys
- Two sports bras
- 4 pairs of socks (small. Worth it. Worth it every time)
- 2 bandanas
- Patch kit
- Boot
- 2 spare tubes
- 4 CO2 cartridges
- Bike multitool (anyone who doesn't have one will end up borrowing one at least once. Don't get caught with your pants down.)
- Bike lights, front and rear (You think there's no way you're going to ride so long that you're riding in the dark, until you find yourself riding in the dark, and you reeeeeallllyyy do not want to do that without lights. Also, fog is a thing that's easy to forget about but can be hazardous without lights)
- Two water bottles
- Gas tank pouch
- Sunglasses
- Helmet
- Riding shoes (not everyone bothers with this. I met many cyclists who just wore regular shoes and had toe cages instead, which saved them the weight and bother of carrying extra shoes)
- Phone
- Trauma kit, which you will hopefully never need

Off bike gear:

- Two shirts
- Compressions tights
- Running knickers
- Two bras (I almost exclusively wear sports bras. I brought what effectively could be called training bras, and they were perfect.)
- Flip flops
- Running shoes (great for hiking around and stuff)
- Down jacket (featherweight. Pricey, but oh so worth it)
 

Camping gear:

- Tent (one man, featherweight)
- Sleeping bag (ultra lightweight)
- Sleeping pad (ultra lightweight)
      A brief aside here: I got the lightest weight one on the market, and it was so loud that it woke me up every time I moved, and even occasionally woke other riders up at night. Maybe consider that when selecting a sleeping pad.
- Travel pillow
- Aluminum foil (For cooking on a campfire. Amazing for vegetables, quesadillas, grilled cheese, and garlic bread. If you want pasta, coffee, etc., get a pot!)
- Lighter
- Waterproof matches
- Knife
- Multitool
- Battery pack (there will be days where you have no electricity and want that phone for directions or photos or maybe, just maybe, placing a phone call)
- Charging cord & wall plug
- Head lamp

Toiletries:

- Shampoo
- Conditioner (I tried living without it and won't make that mistake again, but my friend Sabrina found she had no use for hers.)
- Body wash, which I also used as face wash
- Razor
- Toothbrush
- Toothpaste
- Moisturizer
- Eye cream (totally no regrets on that front. Your skin and hair take a beating; why make it worse than it needs to be?)
- Sunscreen
- More sunscreen
- Contact solution
- Contacts, plus a few extra pairs, just in case
- Nail clippers
- Tweezers
- Q-tips

Miscellaneous:

- Carabiner (these always come in handy in unexpected ways)
- Notepad
- Pen
- ID
- Monies—cash as well as credit card/debit card
 

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The BTAA: For Narnia! And Aslan! And Gryffindor! And Hufflepuff! And the House of Stark!

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The BTAA: For Narnia! And Aslan! And Gryffindor! And Hufflepuff! And the House of Stark!

“Hey, we’re at Elk Prairie. Where are you guys?"

Steve's text hit my phone at 6:30 pm, as the sun dipped less lazily than I wanted it to toward the horizon. With that, my tenuous reception—our connection to the outside world—disappeared, and Mark, Mike, Yoshi, and I began the waiting game. Every time someone rolled into camp, we'd check the time and look expectantly at the entrance, willing them to arrive even as the dusk gave way to darkness. Over a truly unconventional supper combination—even for cyclists—of quesadillas, peanut butter and banana melts, rice-a-roni (the San Francisco treat!), apples, beer, and whatever else we happened to have in our panniers, we held out hope and staved off heartbreak.

The next morning, we arose and planned the remainder of our route, still hopeful that we’d find a way to regroup and ride together again. When we finally had service, we exchanged a flurry of text messages with the other group, trying to make plans that would bring us back together, but in vain. The mileage just wasn’t going to work out. Mike and Mark had a hard deadline for arriving in San Francisco to meet Mark’s girlfriend, so taking a rest day or riding a minimal distance to close the 25 mile gap was out of the question. 

Team Narnia had been rent asunder.

I know what you’re thinking here. “Little Fish,” you’re thinking (or maybe not, since you may not have psychically intuited the road name I was given by Team Narnia), “Little Fish, let’s not be dramatic here. “Rent asunder”? Really? Heartbreak? Every fantasy fiction book ever phoned; they want their words back. Also, Team Narnia?” 

Allow me to explain. The morning of that fateful day had begun gloriously. As we swept down the coast, we often stopped for photos, videos, and general revelry, proclaiming as we went that we must ride on.

“For Narnia!” 
“For Aslan!”
“For Gryffindor!” 
“And Hufflepuff!” 
“And The House of Stark!”

Because we were (obviously) hilarious and clever, this became our rallying cry. Mike would always round out The House of Stark majestically, and we would roll out. Just a typical day of glory with our friends. NBD.

So, naturally, we were kind of/totally devastated by our separation, and the phrase “rent asunder” is totally appropriate. There weren’t even enough people to name all the different factions; someone would have to double up (the horror!). Mark, Mike, and I spent the next few days looking at photos of our time together, wondering how they were doing, exchanging texts with them, and missing them acutely. Yoshi had joined our group a bit later, and we spoke longingly of them, borderline pathetic, regaling him with stories. As we talked and missed them, one of us—Mark, maybe—mentioned that we should leave messages or gifts for them along the way, perhaps food at camp or something equally unlikely (how on earth were we going to coordinate where they’d be camping without giving it away?). We moved on to other things, but lightning had struck for me.

Messages! I thought of all of the encouragement I’d seen on race courses and along the way, and realized that sidewalk chalk was possibly my new favourite invention. If we couldn’t be together, at least we could leave ridiculous and encouraging things along the way.

When Yoshi and I rolled into Fort Bragg, I picked up a box of coloured chalk. This is absolutely the kind of thing I love to do, and I could hardly contain myself. As we rode, I cackled and squirmed and thought of all the things I could say, my devastation somewhat ameliorated by the thought of their discovering our notes on the shoulder of the road. At the top of a medium-ish hill, I began:

 

“Do your ears hang low?"

 

“Do they wobble to and fro?"

 

“Can you tie them in a knot?"

 

“Can you tie them in a bow?"

 

The ride toward San Francisco had just regained its epic lilt. 

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The BTAA: One Is the Loneliest Number

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The BTAA: One Is the Loneliest Number

It was a scorching, humid day as I left Portland, which, if the rumours are to be believed about the Pacific Northwest, is akin to spotting a unicorn. I knew better, of course. Since crossing the Lewis and Clark bridge, which is Washington's way of giving cyclists the bird on their way over the border, I'd survived three days of 40℃ in Oregon's breezeless lies ("this never happens, I swear!"), and only one day of downpour. Secret's out, guys.

I'd decided to bike to the coast in one day, marking my first official century—you know, the type that one does on purpose, instead of simply to find their way back from whatever random place they've wrong-turned their way to. Not only that, but I was considering doing back-to-back centuries for the next six days to get into San Francisco again. If that seems totally nuts to you, then I'm going to go ahead and say that you may not entirely be incorrect about that, but...well, I was lonely.

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Don't get me wrong; I'd hung out with amazing friends that I waited far too long to see again, and I connected with total strangers who have restored my faith in humanity. But I hadn't met one other cyclist yet. Not a one! And I was hungry for a chance to delight in the shared experience of bike touring, to talk about the beauty we'd seen, the amazing generosity of strangers, and whatever else touring cyclists talked about together. And if I couldn't have that, then maybe I would just crush my way through my trip so that I could appreciate my own ridiculousness and savour the ache of my muscles.

No sooner than had I hatched this scheme, however, did I wander into a bike shop in Newport, OR, and meet my first, second, and third fellow touring cyclists heading south down the coast. To my immense surprise and delight, two of them—Mark and Mike, from Calgary— were cycling from Victoria, BC, to San Francisco, and were making camp at the same campground as me that night. They reminded me at once of my friends, full of laughter and an unquantifiable sense of genuine goodness within them. They bickered lightheartedly and with ease, and you could tell immediately that their friendship was the deep-welled kind, the stuff that inspires only the best quotes that are found on greeting cards everywhere. They felt like the Touring Cyclists' Welcoming Committee, and I immediately knew that if they liked me even half as much as I already liked them, my hundred-milers-to-SF plan was toast. 

When I told them that I was traveling alone and hadn't met any other cyclists alone the way, they were surprised, and told me that they'd been riding with a small group of other cyclists that they'd met along the way, and that I'd likely meet them all that evening. Sure enough, when I stopped to get groceries a few miles from camp that afternoon, I met three other riders, one of whom greeted me with, "You must be Michelle!" They'd heard about me from Mike and Mark. 

Sabrina, Alistair, Noah, all strikingly good-looking and good-natured, had met on the road toward the Washington/Oregon border, and had known each other for a few days already. We spent the better part of an hour chatting, and although we'd just met, it felt like I'd known them for ages. 

We grabbed some extra beer from the store, headed into camp where we met up with still more riders, and rapidly became a ragtag riding family, playing in the dunes at sunset and chatting around tea lights and stove fires late into the night. 

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The BTAA: Aren't You Scared?

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The BTAA: Aren't You Scared?

On my way through Washington, I stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. It was 90ºF, and I had been detoured 10 miles out of the way due to an unexpected road closure, and had managed to get myself lost (yet again, to the surprise of no one), and was now 85 miles into what was meant to be an 80 mile day. I pulled up and parked my bike against the side of the building, then headed in to replenish my water and sports drink supplies. When I approached the counter, the lady behind it asked me where I was headed. I paused just long enough to feel awkward, trying to decide what the correct answer was. 

"Seattle," I replied, finally. It was only a couple hundred miles away, but she looked impressed and launched into a series of questions. 

"That's so far! Aren't you scared? I would be scared. SO many big trucks out there! And you're so little! What about cancer? Are you wearing sunscreen? Your right here"—she gestured at her nose and cheeks—"they are a different colour! In my home country, they wear a covering. Maybe you should wear a covering, too."

I laughed a stilted laugh, replied that I was scared but also excited, assured her that I was reapplying sunscreen as often as I remembered, and exited stage right as quickly as I could politely accomplish.

Conversations about my trip are a bit awkward for me. It's not that I'm not excited about it so much as it is that I'm so excited that I fear I'll end up being that person who just drones on tirelessly about themselves. I also don't want to sound like I'm bragging about this totally awesome thing that I'm doing. At the same time, lying about it would be a bizarre and inappropriate response, and there's this part of me that really wants to brag about this totally awesome thing that I'm doing, so when people ask me about it I find myself  hesitating. What do I say? If I say I'm on a bike tour, do I tell them I'm heading to whatever place I'm planning to sleep that night? To San Diego? When I consider it, the ego in me wants people to know that my trip to San Diego involves a large, easterly detour, because "just going to San Diego" seems like this normal thing that everyone's doing these days, and I want it to be known that I am a unique snowflake. My life is hard. 

There are two main lines of questioning you get when doing something big in your life, and so far it seems to apply to any major life choice you make:

1) Practical questions. What are you doing? How long will it take? What kind of preparation is involved? 

If someone is well acquainted or experienced in whatever it is you're doing, they might have advice or more specific questions and thoughts for you, but this is the crux of almost every conversation you have the moment your life comes up. Be prepared for the fact that your adventure is, well, adventurous, and people want to know all about it, maybe to gauge how certifiably nuts you are, maybe because they think it's cool, or maybe because they're working up the courage to embark on their own adventure. 

2) Fear questions. Aren't you afraid? I'd be afraid, they often tell me. What if you die? What if you get raped? What if you get attacked by a bear? (Ok, that last one probably doesn't apply to all major life choices. But maybe it could!)

And here's the thing: of course I'm afraid. Of course I think about the possibility of death, or what things that could befall me that might be worse than death. There are rational fears, rational fears that I worry about beyond the borders of rationality, or with more frequency than might be healthy, and there are less rational ones, like the concern that everyone in my life might forget that I exist in the few months that I am not in the vicinity.  

So I prepare, like any reasonable person would, and keep an eye out for potential disasters. I stop at stop signs, listen to my gut when something feels unsafe, and check for cars before venturing into shoulder-less sections of road. I carry bear spray and people spray, too. But I do not hold back. 

Consideration of fear alone results in a terribly skewed decision-making tree which, in my mind, would lead to a mad reclusiveness within padded walls built (and disinfected!) entirely by oneself in a wide open plain away from any/all trees. I don't even know how you'd go about eating food. From a less ad absurdum perspective, it still seems like a colourless world devoid of meaningful connection, and it breaks my heart. 

I am afraid. Afraid of all of the things that could happen to me out in this massive, unrelenting world that wouldn't even skip a beat if it lost me. I am afraid of the day when everything seems to go wrong, when I'm sitting on the side of the road, out of water, bike mangled, in tears, alone. I am afraid, and there are moments when I am tired and think about catching a train to the next place. I am afraid of not being good enough, in all the ways that one can be not good enough, which is a lot of ways, especially when you are the critic. 

I have not bested these fears. I don't stare them down with an epic determination that is generally accompanied by a soundtrack and a 90-minute resolution. I don't have advice on finding courage or being unafraid. I am not an avid cyclist who can't imagine life without a bicycle. I am a girl who is sometimes afraid, sometimes giddy with glee, who is alone but not quite as alone as she imagines. I am a girl who has decided to ride her bike for a while and see what the world has to hold.

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The BTAA: Wish You Were Here

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The BTAA: Wish You Were Here

Oftentimes, I have a lot to say. Too much, some might argue. But there's something almost entirely ineffable about the great outdoors. Beyond description, It eludes even the most talented photographers of our day, try though we might time and time again to capture the expanse, the callous and deadly beauty of the things we observe. When we look at a photograph, we are surrounded by the noise, scents, and awareness of our present environment, removed from the gin scent of juniper berries, the thundering of an invisible river, the stillness and peace of the wooded grove. Without them, one is bereft of the awe that is instilled by the moment. 

And yet, here I am, full of photos. In every moment that I have captured an image, I have been stopped by a wall of emotion, struck with the full force of my surroundings or the journey I am on. So, despite the futility of it all, I want to share some of them with you, with one large, red-flag, bold lettered caveat:

"I GUESS YOU HAD TO BE THERE" has never applied more. Go. Be there. Find the spot and drink in the heady sensation of being immersed in something so much bigger than you are.

I hope you enjoy them.

 

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The BTAA: A Thousand Kindnesses

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The BTAA: A Thousand Kindnesses

There's something about waking up feeling better that is akin to getting a snow day when you've forgotten to do your homework. 

I awoke on my second day in Canmore feeling refreshed and eager to get on my bike. I fixed myself breakfast and made extra to share, feeling grateful for all the acts of kindness that I had experienced since deciding to embark on this trip. The day before, when I'd been too sick to move and needed food, Clayton, who was also a guest at the hostel, offered me fixings for anything I needed in order to take care of myself. Before long, I had warm soup and a delicious sandwich in my belly.

But before that, even—before I'd even left San Francisco—the goodness that exists in people had shown itself to me. I am exceedingly lucky to have the friends I have. Without them, I would be lost. Yet, the world holds so much more goodness than we often believe it to possess, and to simply call it luck would be to sell humanity short. 

When my plans were dashed after I'd sublet my place, my friends gave me space in their homes. When I needed a bike because mine had been stolen, the good people at Fitwell came to my rescue. When it needed fixing, multiple bike shops donated their services and discounted their products for me simply because they knew I was going on an extended bike tour. When my knees hurt and I was worried about making it on my ride, 3DBikeFit, a premium bike fitting service, graciously covered my fit.

Every one of these acts has saved my ride, and every kindness since has enriched the adventure.

Theresa and I, near Takakkaw Falls

On my departure date, when I checked in for my flight, I was upgraded to first class and my baggage fees were waived with a wink and a smile. I arrived in Calgary to one of my closest friends, Theresa, waiting for me and excited to spend time with me. Not only did she make space for me while I was in Calgary, but she also booked me into a hostel to sleep in when I was sick and unsure of where to stay, and even came to visit me a few days in to make sure I was doing ok. 

I rolled through the lush mountain scenery into Banff, past the Vermillion Lakes, and down the peaceful Bow Valley Parkway, filled with the kind of happiness that comes from discovering the altruism in others as well as yourself. As I waited for Theresa and her husband, Adam, to meet me (they'd gone on ahead to check on campsite availability, since everything appeared to be booked), a server from a nearby restaurant walked by. On his way back, he stopped to offer to fill my water bottles, which were empty. Theresa arrived shortly after to tell me that the campgrounds were full, but the wilderness hostel up the way—which was full—would find a way to make room for all of us. 

A memorial to Canada's first internment camp

Hello, BC!

The next morning, a few minutes after I got on my bike, it poured. Rain hurled itself down from the sky, making it difficult to see and rendering the road dangerously wet. I pulled into a visitor centre, and ran into a couple that I had met at the hostel. They offered me their car and data plan to warm up and double check my route. When the rain slowed down a bit, I headed out again, only to have the skies open up once more.

I rode a harrowing ride with single lane roads and rocky shoulders until I reached Golden, soaking and shivering. I pulled into the nearest establishment, and took cover. My server set me up with their WiFi and told me to stay as long as I want, and while I did my friend Patrick helped me sort out lodgings so that I didn't have to camp in the cold after the ride I'd had. 

When, finally, the rain gave way to sunshine and I made my way to a hostel which provided free camping in the back to cyclists. There, I made the acquaintance of a wonderful Scottish hostess and the firefighters that had made their home there while out battling forest fires. 

The rain came down again, but by then I was warm, safe, and dry, shooting pool and sharing a beer with my newfound friends.

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The BTAA: It Begins!

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The BTAA: It Begins!

Remember what I said about plans? The top lesson that I have learned so far is that planning anything outside of the vaguest inclinations will all go to waste, and are all illusions of control that we rarely have over our lives. To wit:

Prior to arriving in Calgary to begin my ride, I phoned a local bike shop and made an appointment so that I could make sure everything was in good working order after coming off of a plane. I was all set to bring it in for Saturday morning (I flew in Thursday afternoon), which would have been great except that my bike didn't make it on to my flight. Or the flight after that. Or for three subsequent flights, in fact, until someone at the airline made it a priority to finally get my bike to me.

This would have been more problematic, but it all kind of worked out because my friend and support crew of one, James, was loaded down with an unexpected amount of work, and needed a few extra days. 

Which was all fine and dandy until I considered that summer weekend traffic to Banff would be unruly, at best, and I realized I should ride on a day ahead of him, thus avoiding traffic. So, I packed up my things to hit the road, and went to bed after several hours of giddy sleeplessness.

Which was great, until I woke up with the fiercest headache this side of the Atlantic, a sore throat, an upset stomach, and blocked sinuses.

Whatever. I was getting on my bike.

 Why did I ever leave this place? Oh, right. Winter.

Why did I ever leave this place? Oh, right. Winter.

I strapped my supplies on, stopped by my friend Theresa's office to pick up my toothbrush and hat, and headed out to begin my adventure...by heading southeast instead of northwest for the better part of an hour. By the time I passed the spot I had started from, I had lost two hours of my day, with an already late start due to illness. I know this all sounds very face-palm moment esque, but it was a beautiful day, and a solid dose of over the counter pain meds allowed me to ignore most of my ailments. Plus, I only got turned around a handful more times before making it out of Calgary (seven is a handful, right?).

Lesson number two bears mentioning here: unless I am intimately familiar with my surroundings, I am directionally challenged and can be relied upon to go entirely the wrong direction.

On this trip to date, without fail, every time I had the opportunity to turn more than one direction, I got it wrong. It's part of my charm; I don't have any intention of getting better at it. Anyone planning to see me en route, take note: if you're waiting for me somewhere, please allow 10-120 minutes for potential/inevitable navigation failures.

As I rolled toward Banff, the struggle to keep food down was tempered by the absolutely mind-blowing scenery. British Columbia is excited about how pretty it is, but its neighbour to the east gives it a solid run for its money. Rolling green pastures are set against the backdrop of the Rockies, while the Caribbean-hued Bow river winds its way alongside perfectly paved roads. In the mountains, deep forests give way to sheer rockface on standing giants that dwarf the sky. It is breathtaking in its majesty, and is a perfect way to kick off a bike tour, sick or otherwise.

As I passed my halfway point, I realized it would be very nearly dark by the time I got to Banff, and that making it to my intended campsite wasn't going to happen. Thankfully, my friend Theresa organized a hostel bed for me just outside of Banff in a small town called Canmore. By the time I got in at 7:30, buying food nearby was not an option. I stopped a group of people to ask about where I could grab a bite, and it turned out that they owned a food truck that had just closed. Graciously, they gave me a box of kimchee fried rice, gratis, and sent my on my way up the 15%+ grade gravel road to the hostel to settle in.

I awoke the next morning to a text that James was still delayed and a sore throat fit to kill. My head throbbed, and the floor swam in front of me. Closing my eyes offered no reprieve, and the pain prevented me from going back to sleep. I thought of riding anyway, but reports from another man who showed up as well as a search of my own told me that there weren't any campsites available for almost a hundred miles west of me, and I was in no shape to ride further than that. Given how I was feeling, it was excuse enough for me. I postponed my plans to ride, booked an extra night to stay, and spent the day curled up in fetal position hoping for the worst to pass.

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The BTAA: The Best Laid Plans

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The BTAA: The Best Laid Plans

I need to interrupt my ALC story briefly to update you on the BTAA. (For those new to the blog, that's short for Bike Trip Across America!)

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." So proclaimed Robert Burns in 1785, and it remains true to this day. So it is with the BTAA.

As I prepared to embark on the AIDS/LifeCycle, my friend and BTAA riding companion, Gavin, was making his way down from Eugene to San Francisco on his bike, aided by a friend who was driving a support vehicle. By the time he'd crossed the California border, however, disaster had struck. Within days of leaving Eugene, his knees had mutinied, destroying the possibility of riding any distance over 10 miles. By the time I was mid-trip on the ALC, he (with the help of a handful of medical professionals) had come to the devastating realization that the BTAA that he'd been dreaming of was not to be. When I returned, he shared his news with me, and although we tried to find a way to salvage our plans, it became clear that the best course of action was for him to head back to Charleston to take care of his knees.

So it goes. He was not the first, and certainly not the last rider whose adventures were stayed by injury. 

I now found myself in the unenviable position of recalibrating and evaluating my options on the cusp of my planned start date, trying to figure out what to do next. I was frustrated, angry at the sudden changes, and angrier still at the helplessness I felt. I had put my life on hold, effectively, in preparation for this trip. I didn't have a job, and I'd sublet my home. I wanted to ride my bike. I wanted to experience the highs and lows of life on the road, to intimately understand the quote, "You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have."

I sat down with my friend Kenny to work through the different challenges and considerations, to look over the route, and figure out what else I needed in order to travel alone.

Alone. My parents were not thrilled. Alone? Wasn't there anyone I could go with? My friends weren't psyched about it. Alone? As a solo female? What if something happened? Other riders I knew thought I might be OK; there were always risks. Had I heard about the wild dogs? What was my plan for dealing with weirdos? There were some real weirdos out there. I heard their concerns, and I shared in them.

Whatever. I wasn't giving up my bike ride.

Sometime back in the day, when riding to and from class constituted a bike ride, I'd decided that one day I would ride my bike from my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, out to the coast, and then south to the US/Mexico border. Because, you know, casually commuting places within 10 km of your home gives you a good sense of what it'd be like to do a tour that would take longer than a month. The truth was that in those short rides I took around town, I had discovered what it was like to be alive, and to be present in that aliveness. It gave me a freedom that couldn't be found in running, while still keeping me in the midst of it all, which wasn't possible in the insular metal/glass bubble of a car. It left me giddy with possibility, and from this possibility the idea of a long bike trip was born.

Now, as I considered my options, the idea of this route dusted itself off and presented itself to me as an alternative to biking across the country. Perhaps it was appealing because well-behaved dogs made me uneasy, to say nothing of wild ones; maybe it was because I would get to begin "at home" in Calgary. Whatever it was, it felt right, like stars shifting into alignment.

In order to give myself time to lock things down, I pushed my trip out to 8 July. As my plans shifted and began to unfold in this new direction, it seemed more and more that this was the correct choice. I was able to get a pro bike fit. My close friend, James, would be able to leave Calgary with me as a support vehicle, and would see me through to Vancouver, where I could hang out with my sisters for a few days. My dad was satisfied that, if need be, he himself could drive (aggressively, without sleeping) to any spot along my route within 24 hours. Plus, I could hit Zion and Arches on my way south by detouring a mere 1,700 miles!

I would be equipped with a satellite device so that friends and family could follow me along the route which, assuming I was able to complete the whole thing, now surpassed my original BTAA plan in mileage by more than 600 miles, and looked roughly like this:

 

My mother always said that if you wanted something badly enough, it would come true. A little over decade ago, I didn't realize how badly I wanted this trip, but in the years that have passed, it seems that everything I have done has been in preparation for this adventure.

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The BTAA: ALC Part III

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The BTAA: ALC Part III

I love Day 3 on the AIDS/LifeCycle because the route is fantastic. It begins with our first significant climb of the week, the infamous Quadbuster, stops through the small town of Bradley for a fundraiser lunch and Mission San Miguel for the best drag show that ever was, and ends at the fairground in the quaint wine town of Paso Robles. 

Today, despite being excited about what’s to come, I am cranky. I’ve slept poorly for the last two nights thanks to the person who is inadvertently perfecting their chainsaw mimicry on the other side of my paper-thin tent. My knees kinda ache. I’m running ever so slightly behind schedule. I can’t find my bike. Again. Each rack has its own cocktail-themed name, and despite remembering which cocktail I’ve racked up at, I can't find my bike on the first try (or on the second, third, fourth, or fifth try). I’m pretty sure my bike has magical invisibility features that no one’s let me in on yet, which would make a great security feature if it worked on anyone else.

Thankfully, Patrick’s kind enough to save me a spot in line while I search and, in classic ALC Love Bubble fashion, a small army of people assist in locating my bike. A few moments later, it’s been located, I’ve acquired a bike guardian to stand by my bike from now on to make sure I don’t lose it ever again, and I’m ready to head out. With a friend at my side (figuratively—single file only!), a hill ahead, and the delightful chill of the morning to bolster my spirits, I push my crankiness aside and enjoy some friendly banter with other riders, some of whom I’d met in line the morning before.

On the ALC I do my utmost to live by the mantra they set forth during orientation:

     Be kind. Be supportive. Ride safe, be safe. Don’t slam the port-a-potty doors.

But. But, but, but. I am cranky, and that seriously shortens my temper if I’m not vigilant. I have forgotten to be vigilant. People have settled into the riding routine and can get a little loosey-goosey with the safety rules. As we ride the 8 miles toward Quadbuster, our first significant climb of the ride, I encounter a cyclist who won’t move to let me pass safely, and who won’t communicate their reason for their refusal to move. I’d recount it for you, but it’s arduous, petty, and full of expletives, mostly on my part (sorry, Mom). The bottom line is that it's unsafe behaviour, and it pisses me off in a very non-Love Bubble kind of way. As soon as it’s over, I regret my words and am ashamed that I’ve let the ALC down. I’ve failed to be kind, supportive, and safe, and it’s not the way I want this rider to remember the ride. When we pull into the first rest stop, I look for him to reconcile and apologize, but he’s nowhere to be found.

I leave Patrick at Rest Stop 1 to prepare for his planned quintuple ascent of Quadbuster, since I’m only planning to ride up once, and head onward to the hill feeling small and disappointed in myself.

The steep part of Quadbuster is 1.1 miles, and defeats many a cyclist on their way up, which provides one of those surprising opportunities to witness how the ALC brings out the best in people and also confirms that Patrick is a total beast on the bike (because 5 times areyouserious). As riders of all strengths and capability levels make their way uphill, those struggling are often not only cheered on but literally pushed uphill by those fit enough to take on the challenge. Toward the top, a small contingent of riders wait off of their bikes to give people a push. My friend Kate is among those giving a helping hand. I leave my pity party aside for a bit to cheer other riders on, to reconnect with the Love Bubble, and it works. Seeing people put others before themselves is humbling and heartening. 

 

At the next stop I connect with my teammate, Genevieve. We roll out together and head toward lunch, where the township of Bradley is holding a barbecue fundraiser for their school. Parents flip burgers and supervise while the children take our orders and dole out condiments. A girl I’m pretty sure isn’t actually old enough to be in school yet takes my order, then directs me to the cashier. It’s an adorable, incredible touch-point that allows us to bring a bit of the Love Bubble to the “real world”. The events of the morning are far behind me (ok, it’s only 10:30 AM, but that’s late in the day on the ALC), and my crankiness is all but forgotten. 

 

Genevieve and I arrive early at the Mission San Miguel, which means that the incredible roadies of Rest Stop 4 are still “putting their faces on”. The MAC Cosmetics team in San Francisco generously volunteers their time every year, driving from the city to the mission to do makeup for the team. It takes a while, but it’s always worth it. I tour the mission, chat with a friar, and instigate a small massage train before settling in to watch an 80s epic hair band battle between Jem and the Holograms and The Misfits. There are no words that will do it justice, so you’ll just have to see for yourself:

Finally, we head in to camp. My knees are sore, but Genevieve is cool to take it at whatever pace I’d like, and we cross paths with my friend Tim who rides in with us. Tim and I have been friends through three ALCs. His laugh-out-loud-funny sassiness is tempered by a genuine soul and a warmth that lights up a room. 

As we ride with the wind at our back (a rare and pleasant surprise for Day 3), I get to know Genevieve a little more and am blown away by the things I discover about her.  She has ridden Mauna Kea, which is arguably the most extreme cycling climb in the world, used to participate in equestrian competitions (among other athletic endeavours), and loves the work she does in education. She’s smart in a way that gives you hope for the future of American education. She’s humble about all of this, but everyone else who knows is happy to brag on her behalf, and so am I.

 credit: Georg Lester Photography

credit: Georg Lester Photography

On shorter riding days, they pull out all the stops at camp. I meet up with my girls at the lounge (next to the dance party, because the ALC does everything in style), and we get to know one another a bit better over root beer floats. Theresa, aka TDo, Jeri, Erika, Seema, and I hang out for a while before deciding to wander out of camp for food. We wander off in our own directions to get ready to head out.


Paso Robles presents the boon of being able to foray into local establishments and bring the love bubble in contact with the “real world.” This real world includes beer (only once your bike is parked and you’re off the course, naturally), which means it’s a world I want to be a part of. I wander around lost, looking for my team, but by the time I’m headed in the right direction they’ve headed back to camp. I’m starving. Thankfully, Patrick has finally made it in, so we meet up to grab a bite and celebrate his impressive feat. On the walk to meet up with him, locals stop me to ask how my ride is going and to high-five me. I am excited to connect with people outside the ride, to see and hear how the AIDS/LifeCycle has touched lives beyond camp. 

When I open the door to the restaurant, it’s swarming with ALC participants and locals alike, laughing, talking, and sharing in the Love Bubble experience. Patrick has ordered in advance of my arrival, but we are in a magical place where the fish is battered and fried in a way that prevents you from tasting it, which makes it edible to this non-fish eater. We order beer, which comes in red plastic cups because they’re out of normal glasses.

I’m in heaven.

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The BTAA: Part II of the ALC 2015

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The BTAA: Part II of the ALC 2015

The AIDS/LifeCycle course opens every morning at 6:30 a.m. with two exceptions: Day 2, when the route is 109 miles long, and Day 7, to allow all riders to make it into the finish line in time for closing ceremonies at 3 p.m. 

In my world, because of my aforementioned anxiety about riding with 2,499 other cyclists and also because I’m totally nuts, the AIDS/LifeCycle requires a disciplined morning routine that begins at 4 a.m. Irrespective of bed time or quality of sleep, there is no place for the snooze button. 

In an ideal world, this gets me to my bike between 6 and 6:15 a.m., although the love bubble effect of taking care of one another and my desire to not seem aggressively militant about a ride that is meant to be savoured almost invariably means I will fall short of my goals. 

On Day 2, I am unapologetically militant about getting to my bike.

 When my alarm goes off at 4 a.m., I’ve already been up for 15 minutes. I nudge Sue, my tent mate, then dress, pack up the last of my things (I pre-pack everything the night before and organize my morning products for maximum efficiency), then head to prepare for the day and eat breakfast. 

Without my usual friend group who are also gung-ho about leaving early, I feel freakishly strict about my morning routine, especially surrounded by veteran riders who haven’t had the same experiences as I have and virgin ALC riders who don’t know what to expect. I don’t want to scare anyone with group-cycling horror stories to justify my actions, so I get ready alone. 

By the time I return to the tent basically ready to go, I am astonishingly ahead of schedule. It’s 5:15, and I’m ready to rock. 

I head to the bikes, discovering that I’ve forgotten which row I parked in the day before, and trot up and down the rows looking for it in a panic, grateful that I’ve arrived 45 minutes early to bike parking. It takes another 15 minutes to track it down, and there are a handful of people already in line waiting to get out of the gate. I’m with like-minded people, and suddenly I feel like my sense of urgency is perfectly rational. 

As we wait out the last 30 minutes before the route opens, a fellow in line behind me comments on the extra bottle cage that’s on the underside of the down tube of his friend’s bike. This catches my attention because it’s pretty strictly for touring purposes. If this guy has a cage installed, he’s probably gone on some two-wheeled adventures. As it turns out, I’m right. We talk excitedly about where he’s been and about my upcoming trip across the country, which quickly turns into a group discussion between 5 of us. The time flies by with my early-bird compatriots, and soon we are out on the road. 

Immediately, trouble strikes. My quads are sore, and it’s making my knees ache. I send my newfound friends off on their way, telling them I’m going to hang back and take it easy until I can get my hands on some painkillers. Before I have a moment to feel alone, a rider passing me slows down and offers me his Advil. When it’s safe, we pull off to the side. It turns out he’s a doctor; he hands me a few pills to take right away, then leaves me with another dose and a timeline for when to take them before wishing me well and heading off. 

This, again, is what the ALC is all about: taking care of and helping one another so that we can all make it safe and sound to the finish line. It’s not just by following the rules, and it’s not just by saying nice things; it’s in the details. It’s overhearing or seeing someone struggling and giving them a hand, whether it’s a push up a hill, encouraging words, or anti-inflammatory drugs. It’s a hug on a terrible day that someone sees you need without you having to say so. In the real world, we’re strangers, and that is enough to make us keep our distance. On the AIDS/LifeCycle, we’re family, and free hugs don’t require signage to give or receive. 

Just as I’m clearing Santa Cruz, Patrick happens to pass and then recognize me as we head toward Rest Stop 1. Patrick is a quiet, incredibly patient, sharp-witted cyclist who loves biking uphill and fixing bikes. He’s good for a cheer-up when you’re down, and will never feed you platitudes or any of those other terrible lines that are meant to make you feel better but only subtly let you know that you’re not OK as you are. He is one of my favourite people on the ride, and when he slows down to roll with me I’m grateful.

An hour later, when my rear wheel gets an entire screw lodged in it, I’m doubly grateful. Not only is Patrick good company, but he also happens to have the large patch (called a boot) that I need (I only have small ones). As we prepare to jump back on the bike route, Patrick’s rear wheel goes, too. We swear up a storm, and pull our bikes back off the route. Three tube changes and several expletives later, we’re back on the road and heading the few miles into Rest Stop 2 to buy a new tire because Patrick’s isn’t going to hold. 

IMAG1157.jpg

By the time we finally get back on the road toward lunch, we’re in a hurry. We both like to be ahead of the pack, so we hustle through lunch, chatting briefly with a few teammates and fellow riders before grinding on. Past Rest Stop 3, I lose Patrick. Unbeknownst to me, he’s stopped not once but twice to help riders in need. I pull off to the side to look for him, and when he comes hauling up the road he is a freight train of anxious energy. I jump on my bike and try to keep up as we hightail it to the Otter Pop Stop, an in-between-stops stop replete with bumping EDM, Bears in tutus (capital b, Bears, as in fabulous, hairy, barrel-chested, gay men), cookies from The Cookie Lady, Otter Pops™, and hula hoops. It’s one of my favourite spots on the ride, both for the photo opportunities and the homemade cookies that the Cookie Lady labours over for weeks without asking anything in return. 

 

After pictures and cookies we get back on the road toward Rest Stop 4, but I mistake the hand signals of a roadie to mean that Rest Stop 4 is closed, so we head directly to camp. It has been a long, arduous day of bicycle mishaps, but there’s no one I’d rather have spent it with. A roadie sees my slumped posture, and walks my bike for me and asks how it went. I tell him it was great, but also tell him about the frustrating parts.

He leans in and gives me a long, big hug. It is exactly what I need. 

 

I'll be back  soon to tell you all about Days 3 and 4. 

 

Until then,

 

m

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The BTAA: ALC 2015 Begins or How Chella Got Her Groove Back

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The BTAA: ALC 2015 Begins or How Chella Got Her Groove Back

The AIDS/LifeCycle, 2015 edition. Where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose. 

It begins well in advance of Day 0 of the ALC. It begins with a year of fundraising, training, and discourse. It begins with a commitment to do something good for yourself, for others, and for the world. 

It culminates, of course, in the AIDS/LifeCycle. One week in which we carry one another 545 miles down the state of California as a reminder and testament to the fact that we are greater than the sum of our parts, and that our individual actions echo and ripple. When we strive to be our best selves, in times of tears and difficulty as much as moments of joy and ecstasy, incredible things happen.

As Robin Williams once said, the worst feeling in the world is not feeling alone; the worst feeling in the world is being surrounded by people who make you feel alone. At the beginning of each AIDS/LifeCycle, this is the fear that I am confronted with: that I will be surrounded by thousands of people and feel utterly alone. 

On Day 0, Orientation Day, we are a mishmash of strangers—riders, roadies, volunteers, and supporters—trying to make our way through long queues to attend the safety meeting, confirm donation amounts, buy gear, and get tent assignments. We are new and veteran, gay and straight, scared and excited, arriving from all over the globe to participate in a weeklong bike ride. There are throngs of people, and it’s kind of overwhelming.

Our team meets for breakfast before Orientation, and I arrive feeling a bit nervous. I’m riding with an all women’s team this year, She Spoke, and joined the team pretty late in the game, so I worry that I’m intruding. I feel alone, afraid all over again that this will be like it can be out in the “real” world, and that I will feel like an outsider without my posse. We chat through our meal, already sharing stories of being robbed, of crazy rides we’ve done, bragging on one another’s behalf when we know a cool fact about another team member. These girls are an impressive bunch, but they don’t hesitate to let me be a part of their conversation. Still, the knot of fear and aloneness isn’t gone.

We head to orientation to get our tent assignments and to drop our bikes off. My tent mate, Sue, is doing her first ALC this year at the tender age of 66. She’s got a kickin’ pink bike, bangs to match, a personality and hug that make you immediately feel loved, and has kindly agreed to my stringent early wakeup policy (hello, 4 AM!). I silently hope that I make an OK tent mate. 

When Day 1 comes, we arrive before 5 AM to load our gear on to the gear trucks, roadies already hard at work to make sure that our ride will be safe and smooth sailing. 

I look for Sue, but she’s lost in the swarm of people. I run into Erika, my good friend whom I met on the ALC a few years ago, and who is the captain and founder of She Spoke. She has just cut off most of her luscious locks because she’d used it as an incentive to reach a fundraising goal. Short, spunky, and in full mother hen mode, she tells us where to meet, but when I head in I am overwhelmed and can’t find anyone. The knot tightens as I stand alone.

Greg Sroda, the Ride Director, takes the stage to kick off the ALC 2015 opening ceremony. A fellow rider takes the stage, and the lights dim. We are asked to hold hands with one another while a riderless bike and dedication flags are carried forward, a symbol of the fight against HIV/AIDS and those we have lost to the disease. It’s a somber moment, and I find myself unable to hold back tears.

Then the lights go up, and the CEOs of the SF AIDS Foundation and the LA LGBT Center arrive on stage to give us the good news: we have raised a record-breaking $16,309,913 that will largely go toward services, awareness & prevention, and medication for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS. The crowd goes wild and, with that, AIDS/LifeCycle 2015 is open to the road. 

During the first 8 miles of our ride to Santa Cruz, before we’re required to ride single file, Kate, Theresa, Ari, Erika, and a few other teammates roll with me. Through the excruciating stop-and-go pace of the beginning miles we crack jokes and shout out our team name, call and response style. The knot loosens and I begin feel less alone. By the time we’re finally rolling more consistently, though, I’ve lost track of them again and head off on my own. 

A confession: being caught up with everyone on the ride makes me anxious. On my first AIDS ride, I was in a mixed group of novice and veteran riders when I crashed my bike, head over handlebars, and face-planted into the pavement as we entered the Pacific Coast Highway. I landed myself in the ER with a sprained jaw, cracked and chipped teeth (one of which would require an emergency root canal), and bits of gravel lodged in my hands and chin. As a result, I make it a goal to get out of camp early every morning and to stay ahead of the pack because it's more spread out and feels safer. 

Day 1 is always hectic, with everyone riding out at more or less the exact same time, and this means that there are a lot of people all along the route; there’s no way to spread out. By the time I’ve reached Rest Stop 1, I’m feeling pressure from myself to get in, get out, and get ahead of the rush. I stop to grab some food and water, then hurry out back onto the road. 

The rest of the day rushes by. At each rest stop, I look for old friends, hoping to reconnect and feel like the ride veteran that I am, but my search is in vain. I see familiar faces, but no friendly ones until I reach Rest Stop 4, the last rest stop before camp which lays only 6 miles ahead. 

To me, Rest Stop 4 embodies the spirit of the AIDS/LifeCycle. This team of roadies spends months fundraising, brainstorming rest stop themes, selecting costumes, and choreographing dance numbers to buoy flagging riders and give the ride some extra flair. Today, they are dressed as golfers—lady golfers, of course; drag is totally their thing—which is the tamest getup they’ll rock all week. 

Tina (that’s his stage name), my friend and colleague, knows I didn’t get to ride last year and how hard it was for me. He greets me enthusiastically and instantly makes me forget that I was ever feeling alone. A few other RS4 roadies greet me with equal warmth, and by the time I’ve taken photos and am rolling back toward camp, I am fully ensconced in the Love Bubble.

At the edge of Santa Cruz, I find myself riding alongside a fellow rider. Together, we ride into camp, whooping and hollering with the excitement of finishing up our first day. Camp is fairly empty still, so I grab my gear, find Sue’s bag, and head to our spot to set up our tent. Then I find Erika’s bag, bring it to her camp site, and help a handful of others set their tents up before heading to the showers.

At the beginning of each AIDS/LifeCycle, this is the fear that I am confronted with: that I will be surrounded by thousands of people and feel utterly alone. Yet in the space of a few days, those fears will prove so wildly unfounded that my defenses and armour will fall away. 

This is the legacy of the AIDS/LifeCycle, of The Love Bubble, of that traveling tent city which, ironically, comes together each year in the hopes that, one day, we will no longer have to. 

The AIDS/LifeCycle is in full force, and I can hardly wait for Day 2. I'll be back with more on the ALC soon.

Until then,

 

m

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The BTAA: An Intro to the AIDS/LifeCycle

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The BTAA: An Intro to the AIDS/LifeCycle

I remember the first time I heard about the AIDS/LifeCycle. It was 2004, and I was summering in San Francisco between semesters at university, standing on the platform of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station waiting for the train. 

 credit: tofighthiv.org

credit: tofighthiv.org

Across the tracks, a billboard announced the upcoming ALC: a seven day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles in support of the end of AIDS. I didn’t know anyone with AIDS or HIV, and I had never heard of the SF AIDS Foundation or the LA LGBT Center, but a bike ride for a good cause sounded like something I wanted to be a part of. Besides, it was going to occur right around my birthday—it falls in the first week of June—which somehow made it more appealing.

My birthday and the ride were only days away and I had no bike or training, but I decided that one day I would do this ride. 

Fast forward to 2010. I’d graduated from school, had been living in San Francisco for a few years and hadn’t forgotten my decision, but I also hadn’t worked up the courage to pull the trigger. An announcement was circulated in the advertising industry trades that an ALC team called The Red Pencils was being formed. The team would be comprised of advertising industry members; the leadership would reach out for sponsorship on our behalf, and we’d be responsible for our training and fundraising within our personal circles to reach the minimum $3000 fundraising required to ride. 

I signed up.

Over the next 6 months, I bought a new bike, trained with my new teammates, relentlessly harangued people for donations, and began to figure out my packing list until, finally, Orientation Day arrived, and then I found myself rolling out from the start the next morning, terrified that I had wildly overestimated my abilities.

A rider floated up alongside me and tried to strike up a conversation, so I shared my fears with him. 

“Ah, it’s your first ride?” He asked. I nodded. “Yeah, it’s kinda scary. I was scared my first time, too. Totally normal. Don’t worry. I made it through the first time, and you will too. It’s going to be amazing. You’ll love it.” 

By the time we’d made it to lunch that first day, my fears had dissipated and the city was well behind me. We took to the road, cheered others on, took pictures with drag queens, laughed at a non-stop stream of dirty jokes, and brought out the best in one another.  I became closer with my teammates, rode my first century (100 miles), ate artichokes, saw dolphins, made new friends, and discovered the consequences of being a cocky, novice rider.

 Lunch stop on Day 1

Lunch stop on Day 1

 Ginger Brewlay and I strike a pose

Ginger Brewlay and I strike a pose

 The Red Pencils team

The Red Pencils team

 Bike crash aftermath :(

Bike crash aftermath :(

As we made our way down the state and got to know one another, I discovered that HIV/AIDS was losing the battle to a group of people who lived life to the fullest, who managed their disease and found in it the silver lining of love, friendship, and acceptance that some had been seeking their entire lives. 

This group of people who had spent so long on the fringes of society had come together with their supporters and created their own weeklong, traveling cohort, dubbed by those in the know as The Love Bubble. They set up tents for one another, shared stories, looked out for each other on the road and in camp, laughed, loved, were inspired by others, and never once judged you for anything. It was—and remains—unfailingly altruistic, honest, and genuine.


I was floored by their generosity of spirit, and would come to miss the it rest of the year until it happened all over again. For four years, I rode the ALC every year, and was looking forward to my fifth but, alas, it was not to be.

Last year, in the days leading up to the ALC, I felt wobbly. I was dizzy, nauseous, and in more than a little pain. I thought it would pass, and dragged myself through Orientation Day, only to find myself shivering in a sweltering car, swathed in down jackets and the coats of my friends, headed to the ER.

“Do you think I could still ride even a part of it?” I asked the doctor. A laugh bellowed out of him, and he shook his head no.

“The only place you’re going to be is in bed,” he replied. “No ride for you this year."

I spent the week in bed, devastated to be missing the ride. I signed up for 2015, but it didn’t take away the sting of missing my favourite week of the year.

As I healed up and the next ride approached, I felt distant, inured from the Love Bubble and its effects. I thought about not doing it, and about finding some other adventure, but fundraised all the same because some part of me refused to forget how incredible it all was.

Then the AIDS/LifeCycle 2015 opening ceremonies began and I was right back in it. 

And boy, what a ride. I wrote a lot last week, trying to get it into daily posts for you but was stymied by technology. I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap of last week, and then I’ll see you a few days later for more on the BTAA!


Until then,


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The BTAA: Breathing is for Suckers

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The BTAA: Breathing is for Suckers

My eyes open before my alarm breaks the stillness. I stretch, feeling cozy in bed, and think about getting up to go for a ride or a run. I contemplate the weather and environment outside—if it’s too dry, my airways will constrict; if it’s too hot or too cold, they’ll constrict; if there are allergens that my body doesn’t like, they’ll constrict. I inhale, feeling that familiar feeling tightness in my chest, listening to the air rasp its way into my lungs. I exhale and listen to the whistle that is my breath’s constant companion, wondering if that’s how everyone's breath sounds. My friends have promised me that it’s not, that their breathing doesn’t come with noise on a regular basis, but there’s this unquenchable hope inside of me that somehow, my asthma isn’t real. Keep Reading

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The BTAA: Packing Everything But the Kitchen Sink

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The BTAA: Packing Everything But the Kitchen Sink

The beauty of bikepacking is that there are myriad ways to prepare and pack for it. You can have a rear rack, front racks, lowriders, gas tanks, saddle bags, frame bags, handlebar bags, stuff sacks, compression sacks, panniers, backpacks, or even a trailer. Because you have the assistance of your bike to haul gear and don’t need to carry it all on your back, you can carry as much as you want with you. Need a kitchen sink? Shower? Small couch? Hitch it up, friend! You might not go quickly, but you’ll be comfortable when you get there, assuming you don’t just dismount and pass out from sheer exhaustion. 

Gavin and I plan to bike and camp along the way with rare stops at hotels, and to cook as many of our meals as possible. This means we need the ability to carry our riding gear, shelter, clothing, food, water, cooking accoutrements, and cleaning supplies on our bikes, somehow. Keep Reading...

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A Girl and Her Bike

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A Girl and Her Bike

Welcome to San Francisco, home of the tech revolution, freshly-minted millionaires, and (at least) one adventure-ready girl who has committed to a bike trip across the continent. If you read the fine print, you’ll see that said girl (hello!) had her home burgled and was left bikeless.

In search of the ideal bike to replace the one that had been lifted, I reached out to my friends who ride, put the word out to strangers, and scoured the internet. After more than a handful of bikes that showed promise turned out to be dead ends, I began to despair. I was feeling the time crunch for training and getting back up to speed, but I still had no idea what I was going to ride. Keep Reading

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The BTAA (Bike Trip Across America): An Introduction

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The BTAA (Bike Trip Across America): An Introduction

It is a rare moment in life when an opportunity presents itself in conjunction with perfect timing. For much of my life, the Fates have enjoyed tormenting me with possibilities that felt more like predicaments, presenting thrilling chances only to have them conflict with other important life events.

Until my friend Gavin asked me to bike across the country with him, that tortuous trend showed no signs of letting up. I'd recently left my job in pursuit of happiness when I heard from him out of the blue, on LinkedIn of all places.  It went a little something like this:

Gavin: Hey Michelle, how are ya? Can you hook me up with an introduction to someone?  Also, any chance you'd like to bike across the US with me this summer?

Me: Gavin! Long time no hear! Intro: yes. Biking: Sure, why not? Keep Reading

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Pocket Noshes: Home Made Rice Cakes

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Pocket Noshes: Home Made Rice Cakes

Awhile back, we got sick of eating packaged bars out on the road and trail, so we started making our own food to pack with us. This recipe for rice cakes has been used by professional road racing teams for years to keep their riders well nourished out on the road. With that kind of endorsement, we added these to our jersey pockets and haven't looked back. Click through for a few easy rice cake recipes .

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Wider is Better

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Wider is Better

You should be running a wider tire than you likely are. Mountain bikers have known this for years, but road riders have been punishing themselves for years on super skinny tires in the name of aerodynamics and ultra light weight. Well everyone is finally coming around. Click in to read more about the benefits of wider tires and how they can make your riding easier and more comfortable.

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No Two Women are Built Alike

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No Two Women are Built Alike

Gender is not a driver of your body proportions. There is a common belief that all women all have long legs and short upper bodies. Our experience is that this is anything bu the truth. Women, being human people actually vary quite a bit from one to the next and there is no "women's body type."  Learn more about our thoughts on the subject in this post.

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