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. 

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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,

 

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