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.