It’s all Huey Lewis and the News’ fault.
A few years ago, after moving back out to California following law school, I somehow decided it would be fun to ride my bike to a Huey Lewis and the News concert. I think this notion was rooted in the remnants of some adolescent teenybopper fantasy I used to harbor that they’d someday play in my town, so the idea that I could propel myself to one of their shows under my own power appealed to me as a way to somehow scratch that old itch. However WHY I thought I could do such a thing is a bit of a mystery. The band frequently plays shows in Saratoga, a town in the southern part of the Bay Area near where I used to live and ride before law school — but not really near where I was currently living and riding. Plus it’s not like I was ever any sort of serious cyclist. Even when living in the South Bay I rarely biked more than 20 miles at one time, and during law school I hardly ever biked for any length at all. Nonetheless, once I got it into my head to bike to the concert, I had to do it. So I did, riding 65 miles south from my home in Sausalito to see my favorite band play.
Even though it was a taxing ride for me, I did it again a few more times over the next few years, until about two years ago when my plans were stymied. Their concert was going to be in the middle of the week instead of a weekend, thereby making the logistics unfeasible. “Saratoga on a Wednesday??? How am I supposed to bike there then?” I posted on a fan board. “Or am I expected to bike to Reno this year instead?” For, you see, the Reno show was going to be on the Saturday, and while I was fully joking in suggesting I might bike there in my post, as soon as I articulated the thought the mental wheels started turning. Could I actually bike to Reno I wondered? The googling of potential routes immediately commenced, and, yes, it turned out, indeed I could. And so indeed I did.
The Reno ride was about 200 miles over three days and required traversing the Sierras on Day 2 and what was then my longest one-day mileage record of 82 miles on Day 3. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and suddenly my cycling ability and confidence matured many levels – so many that when I rode the 65 miles to Saratoga for the concert last year, it was embarrassingly easy. Clearly I was going to need a new challenge.
I suppose I have always been somewhat aware of what used to be called the California AIDS Ride, the multi-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. You pretty much can’t walk into a bike shop in the Bay Area without seeing flyers for it. While I always thought it was something I’d like to say I’d done, I never could imagine it being an attainable undertaking. It was for serious cyclists, not an occasional weekend rider like me. But after the Reno ride I started to rethink the kind of cyclist I might actually be. Last year, in addition to the 65 miles to Saratoga, I also did 72 miles around Lake Tahoe and 86 miles from Sausalito to Santa Cruz. Day 1 of the AIDS ride, now known as AIDS Lifecycle, was just from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and I already knew I could do that part. It made me start to think that maybe, just maybe, the AIDS Lifecycle really was for people like me. Dipping my toe in ever so slightly, early this year I signed up.
But signing up was just the first step. There remained two initial obstacles to contend with in order to actually do this ride. One, it required a certain degree of training. While over the winter I didn’t lose all the fitness I’d attained last year doing the Tahoe and Santa Cruz rides, what with the limited daylight and other obligations I was juggling I found it challenging to get much time on my bike in recent months.
The other problem is that it required raising a minimum of $3000. There are some participants who can simply write their own checks to cover it, but this spring that was not an option for me. I needed to ask other people for money, and it’s an uncomfortable thing to have to do. On the other hand, I’d done it before: for some of my rides to Saratoga, I’d used the occasion to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for a disease that had sadly claimed the life of one of the News horn players. But in that case the ride and the cause were so obviously interconnected it was easier to approach people, particularly people connected to the fan community. Here, on the other hand, while I thought AIDS was terrible and the beneficiaries worthy (the LA Gay & Lesbian Alliance and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation) I didn’t see myself as so intimately connected to the cause. Supporting it just seemed to be the price of admission to get to do the ride, and in many ways I felt I was asking my donors to support me more than I was asking them to support them.
In fact, one person I asked to contribute actually took umbrage at the request. Given that the ride itself is so expensive to put on he decided that too much of his donation would be going to essentially subsidize what he believed was a biking vacation for me, and he couldn’t justify it. But his cynicism was misplaced. What became apparent over the course of the event was that the ride was so much more than just the ride. Certainly there were people like me who had signed up for the personal challenge. But there were many, many others for whom this was a cause they were deeply, deeply connected to, and their fundraising far surpassed the minimum. If all the riders had only raised the minimum the event would have raised only $6.6 million or so, and the organizers acknowledged that such an amount wouldn’t be enough to justify the expense of the event. But, as they announced at the opening ceremony, it turns out that a record number of 2200 riders had actually raised a record $14.2 million dollars. The ride may have been expensive to underwrite, but by underwriting it so that these 2200 riders could have a chance to take on this challenge, in exchange the beneficiaries got all these people to channel many, many more millions into their budgets. (Note: as I write this, my own fundraising total has surpassed the minimum to reach $3805, and I expect it to continue to grow a bit through the end of July.)
In fact it is important that the organizers didn’t try to cut corners. It is a huge operation to have what essentially amounts to a small town migrate incrementally down the coast, and the people doing the pedaling need a lot of support to do it. It’s why the AIDS Lifecycle has such traction for riders like me, because there’s really no other good, safe way to do a ride like this without the support the organized ride offers.
And that support kicked in early, first with things like group training rides and eventually an orientation day the day before the ride began. Everyone was required to convene at the Cow Palace arena to watch a mandatory safety video, drop off their bikes, get their tent assignments, and otherwise put all the logistical pieces in motion. The next day the ride would begin, and, as it would for the rest of the week, it would begin early.
For further illustration of what orientation day was like, see this Storify page of curated pictures and tweets.
Day 1: In the beginning (San Francisco to Santa Cruz – 82.5 miles)
At first everything seemed fine. We were asked to be at the Cow Palace by 5:00am so that Opening Ceremonies could begin at 6:00am. I was then on my bike and on the road by 7:00am. We had been given full access to a lane of traffic heading out of San Francisco, and the streets were lined with well-wishers cheering us on. Soon we came upon Skyline Drive up to Daly City and I was back on familiar road (it’s the road I take on the rides to Saratoga and Santa Cruz), and I always do better on familiar roads. Cycling is always vastly easier for me when I know what to expect. In fact, part of the reason this ride was such a challenge was because it involved plunging myself into so much unknown.
But sometimes knowing what to expect isn’t enough. I’d noticed in previous long rides that my right knee would start to hurt about 30 miles into it. It would be annoying and painful, but in the past if I iced it down that evening I’d be good to go the next day. Unfortunately on this day it started hurting at mile 15. And then after I started wiggling my leg around to take off the pressure it started hurting in a horrible, unfamiliar way that took my breath away. Compounded with an accrued lack of sleep from the previous three nights (not my fault), a cloud of gloom hovering over me relating to a situation I was not able to resolve before I left (also not my fault), and poor diet in the days leading up to the ride (this was totally my fault) I was already having a bad ride and I hadn’t even left my home turf. I got myself up Highway 92 reasonably decently (a rather steep, heavily trafficked climb up and over the ridge of the Peninsula), but soon after, on Highway 1 I was having a bad time of it, and it showed.
Which turned out to be a good thing, because one of the riders who happened upon me whimpering with each painful pedal was connected with the medical team. After telling him how much my knee was hurting he advised me to go see the Medical Tent at lunch (wait, there’s a medical tent?), and then a very nice medic there pointed me to the Sports Medicine Tent (wait, there’s a sports medicine tent?) to have my knee looked at. The physical therapist I saw (who got to know me and my knees quite well over the week) noted it probably wasn’t a problem with the joint but rather one of the muscles connected to it that was freaking out, and he massaged it back to a point of usefulness. The assistance and encouragement also did a lot to allay my anxiety that I wasn’t going to be able to do this ride and that everything I had actually done to prepare and all the support I’d gotten to enable me to take on this challenge were all going to have been for nothing.
I eventually limped my way into Santa Cruz, still stressed and scared and in pain, where I was met by very supportive bike parking attendants. But first, before parking my bike (they guarded them for us overnight), I went to the bike mechanic tent, where a very nice tech from Sports Basement helped me get fit for my bike. This is certainly something I should have done before the ride. In fact, it’s something I should have done years ago before I did ANY rides… He discovered that my right shoe cleat was mounted slightly askew, and that had probably been stressing my leg. Sadly, I have no one but myself to blame for the mounting – I’d done it myself, more than a dozen years ago…
Our camp for the night, as it did pretty much every night, basically took over a giant park. It felt like a giant multi-day music festival, but, what with there being no drugs, alcohol, or late night partying, there was also none of the disgustingness that tends to go along with them… Bike parking filled one ball field, and over a thousand 7×7 tents filled another two. After picking up my luggage at the trucks that had transported our things for us, I then went and found my tent, at grid space L-1, which seemed to be almost as far away from everything else in the camp as you could get… Happily my tentmate had arrived first and set up the tent, but no one was there when I arrived so I still had no idea whom I’d be sharing with. I packed up some fresh clothes and toiletries in a backpack and crossed all the ball fields to get to the showers (provided in six semi-truck trailers hooked up to a local water supply), then crossed back across the ball fields to the dining tent. A typical dinner was all-you-could eat with some sort of dressed salad, a cooked vegetable, one or two types of proteins (this first night was ribs), a starch (I think that night was potatoes), a roll with butter, and a pre-packaged dessert (I think this night’s was a pecan pie). While throughout the day the ride offered refills of water and Gatorade, at night there were also sodas, coffees, teas, milk (regular and the ever-popular chocolate), coconut milk, and hot chocolate.
At around 7:30 or so every night the ride organizers did announcements in the dining tent, first by the ride director who would sum up the day’s ride, give a heads-up about the next day’s route, and either scold or commend us on how safely we’d ridden that day, and then by Lorri Jean, the head of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, and Neil Giuliano, the head of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation – who was actually also riding himself. If nothing else, both Neil and Lorri provided textbook examples of what charismatic leadership looks like. The success of the event is due in no small part to their personal involvement and the motivation they provided, both in terms of general cheerleading and the nightly comments that reminded us why we were doing this ride and exactly who, on an individual level, through the programs and services their organizations provided, was benefiting.
On the first night however I didn’t catch all the comments – I’d wandered over to the cell phone charging tent, the nightly ritual to top off my phone battery. Then I found some ice at the Sports Medicine tent, hit the portapotties one last time (I didn’t flush a proper toilet for a week…), and crossed back across camp to my tent. By now both night had fallen and my tentmate had come back, so in the darkness came the moment of our first introduction.
“Hi, I’m Cathy.”
“Hi, I’m Harold.”
OK then. All part of the adventure…
See the Storify page of pictures from Day 1.
Day 2: Strawberry fields forever (Santa Cruz to King City – 108.1 miles)
Until last week the longest ride I had ever done was the 86 miles from Sausalito to Santa Cruz. Although I’ve long harbored the aspiration, I had never done a century (a 100-mile ride) before. But now, on Day 2, here was my chance, and the weather looked like it would be behaving this year. Last year the ride got scrubbed after the second rest stop due to it pouring, but this year it was clear skies, and, happily, a nice tailwind for most of the way.
Thanks to the tailwind I began to know my bike gears in a way I hadn’t known them before. Ideally, as one rides, one should keep a consistent cadence and adjust the gears up or down based on the resistance the road incline offers. With the tailwind I realized that it was worth it to shift into harder gears and force myself to accelerate a bit, because if I started to match the wind I could catch it and sail on it for miles. At one point I realized I was pedaling 25 mph, a speed easily attainable for me on a descent but almost twice as fast as my normal speed on a flat.
After hugging the coast for a bit we were now passing through the Salinas Valley, and it was strawberry picking season. It was a collision of worlds as these 2200 spandex-clad cyclists sped past the fields full of migrant labor hunched over the plants, but in her comments one of these nights Lorri Jean told the story of how one time, when some riders were stopped near a field, one of the pickers had come over to ask what was going on. Lorri Jean had explained who we all were and the cause we were raising money for. According to her story, the worker went away, and then came back with a fistful of change she had collected from her colleagues to contribute.
I don’t know, maybe the story is apocryphal, but I don’t think it really matters. What was starting to become apparent is that while there were people like me doing the ride out of a sense of personal challenge, for most people there it seemed more about the cause itself.
Maybe I’m spoiled by cognitive bias. I’m old enough to remember the terror of the 1980s when AIDS mowed down entire swathes of the gay population and was threatening to do the same to the heterosexual population, and a terrified public armed itself with pitchforks and torches – sometimes literally – to drive the infected out of their communities. I remember when my local newspaper refused to run Doonesbury cartoons featuring an AIDS patient because it was all too scandalous. To all too many AIDS was just desserts for the sinful, shameful behavior of gay people, and no tears were to be shed for their loss. It was in that climate that these rides began, partly to raise money, and partly to help dispel the stigma of the disease.
Yet maybe the campaign has worked too well in some respects, and maybe that explained my earlier agnosticism toward the specific cause I was raising money for. We are no longer ignorant of how AIDS is transmitted, it is no longer an automatic death sentence, and I tend to live in communities where gay people are a welcome part of it. At least as far as white, middle-class, socially-progressive people are concerned, the crisis appears to be over.
But it isn’t over: even the long-surviving infected can still take a turn for the worse, and AIDS is definitely not a disease that limits itself to white, middle-class liberal communities. In some of his comments Neil Giuliano talked about how, even in San Francisco, every day someone new gets infected, and how it is particularly problematic for gay minorities who do not generally have the support of their friends and neighbors to embrace their sexuality or understand their disease. It’s for them that we ride, so that both they and their communities can come to understand that neither need be something to so abjectly fear.
See the pictures at the Storify page for Day 2.
Day 3: Sometimes the wind really blows (King City to Paso Robles – 66.7 miles)
After doing nearly 200 miles over the previous two days, the shorter ride on Day 3 should have been a welcome respite. It wasn’t.
It began with a climb, up something known as the “Quadbuster.” But before that climb came 8.2 miles of a more gradual climb, which, much to my annoyance, I realized I was good at it. I don’t really like climbing: it’s hard and it’s slow. When I’m riding I want to get where I’m going in the quickest and most lazy way possible. But it turned out that on that initial grade I found a gear that permitted a cadence I could sustain, and I powered up those eight miles at a consistent pace. In fact, not only did I power MYSELF up it but also at least one male rider riding behind me on my wheel. Sure, I got passed by many – let’s face it, some people are really gifted cyclists, the people for whom the Quadbuster was a mere speedbump they could ascend and descend two or three times in a single bound – but among the mere mortals like me, someone for whom this ride was a challenge but not beyond the realm of possibility to succeed at, I was doing pretty well.
However my knees still hurt. Not as much as before, but a little, so I went to the Sports Med tent at lunch in Bradley to get them taped. And so began my series of tapings that left my legs with tanlines that look like a strange form of decoupage… The tape seemed to keep my right knee relatively happy (the original knee that had hurt me on Day 1) but ultimately I never found any tape combination that helped my left knee, which continued to loudly complain all the way to LA. The only thing that did moderately help was the thigh massage I got one evening at camp at Sports Med, which I think was the only thing that allowed me to continue the ride (I could hardly walk by then), but the reality was that the only thing that would ever help my knee was to stop pedaling on it, and that wouldn’t be possible for another several days and several hundred miles.
Another reason the day was difficult was because of the weather. This is the only day I really remember as being hot. While it could have been hotter, the lunch at Bradley was a bit uncomfortable, and that wasn’t the worst of it. The bigger problem was the wind. Normally the prevailing wind blows out of the north, in the direction we were riding. But on this day it was coming straight out of the south and with some force. It seemed to take ages to get from Bradley to Rest Stop 4, and from there the ride to Paso Robles was an unwelcome chore. Riding on my own I could barely maintain 8 mph and it was sapping my mental and physical fortitude faster than the miles were ticking down.
Fortunately I eventually got passed by some riders who were maintaining a pace line I could keep up with. The ride rules prohibited drafting, a technique you see in professional bike races. Following another cyclist provides a huge benefit in the form of reduced wind resistance, and it’s always something long-distance cyclists will try to do to save energy. The problem is, though, that proper drafting requires riders to keep their front wheel very close to the back wheel of the previous rider, and that can be extremely unsafe in case of a fall or even a swerve, which is why the ride prohibited it. But there were a lot of riders who were in teams, or at least in groups of friends, and they were having a much different experience than solo riders like me were. Even to just trail a fellow rider by a bike length still offered some efficiency bonus, so I hopped on the back of one of these team lines to get the benefit of it too. At one point I lost them while taking a drink and got too far behind to slip back into their pace line, but I decided it would be better on balance to push myself through the wind to catch up with them, rather than to resign myself to being on my own the rest of the way. I think it was the right call, and eventually I was able to pull into camp in Paso Robles at a respectable 12 mph along with the rest of the group.
But before Paso Robles had been Rest Stop 4, held at Mission San Miguel, an actual working monastery with monks and friars, which contrasted interestingly with the “Barbie Dream House” theme the Rest Stop was decorated as… Nearly all the rest stops on the entire week’s ride were themed in some way by the groups of roadies who ran them. For instance, one was western cowboy themed, one was Transylvania themed, an earlier one on this day was B-52s “love shack” themed, etc. This one was Barbie-themed, and the roadies dressed in pink dresses and blonde wigs. But lest anyone think that such displays of camp drag represented some form of sacrilege, the roadies also passed the hat among the stopping riders to raise money for the Mission, and by the end of the day had raised a few thousand dollars.
See the Storify page for Day 3 here. A tweet of mine got picked up by it, one that noted that there were at least 300 people with AIDS doing this ride, and that between them they’d raised over a million dollars.
Day 4: The next century (Paso Robles to Santa Maria – 97.7 miles)
I mentioned on Day 1 meeting my tentmate Harold. We got along well and over the week he became my friend on the ride. He tended to wake up and head out earlier than I did (I was still trying to catch-up on sleep from the week before, a very foolish predicament to find myself in) but from time to time we would overlap and keep to the same schedule, which we did after we got through Day 4’s ride. By then both of us were exhausted and angry.
While not technically a century, I’m counting this day as a century. Ninety-eight interminable miles is close enough, ESPECIALLY when the first 17 miles required climbing up to over 1762 feet (they called this climb the Evil Twins and they seemed to involve well over 1000 feet of elevation gain). True, there was a nice, long, fast descent right after the summit, but the next rest stop seemed impossibly far away and I started bonking again before I got there. On retrospect I should have eaten something at the top of the hill, which was touted as the halfway point to LA, but I was trying to save time and I thought the next stop would have been close enough to wait.
I found I frequently had a bonking problem in the mornings, which was unfortunate because the mornings are when I am generally strongest. I was eating breakfast (usually a bowl of oatmeal, some orange juice, hot chocolate, and maybe a few bites of scrambled egg and sausage), but after the first rest stop my energy would sort of dry up. I clearly had to keep grazing all day, but some of my favorite snacks (ie, Ritz peanut butter crackers) didn’t show up until the end. So I started hording snacks when I saw ones I liked so I’d always have something to eat, rest stop or no, although over time I realized it just had the effect of adding quite a bit of weight to my bike as I carried it around… All rest stops had orange slices and bananas (one even had peanut butter ON banana, which I liked a lot), and various granola bars, Clif bars, raisins, and other snack mixes, the exact selection of which varied from stop to stop (interestingly though there were rarely any goos or anything more high energy than a Clif bar). They also all had lots of water and Gatorade to refill our bottles with, but I was only drinking red fruit punch Gatorade and unfortunately they didn’t have it at all the stops.
That was the first grumble. The other grumble was how pressed for time I kept feeling. One thing I had learned on all my other long distance rides is that the only way one can do them is by simplifying one’s life. The only thing one should need to do that day is pedal. Nothing else, apart from eating and sleeping and hydrating. There can be no additional stress whatsoever or it will eat up all your energy. But on this ride each day’s route was only open for so long (usually 6:30am through 7:00pm), and while 12+ hours sounds like plenty of time to get all the miles done, what with needing to pack up and eat breakfast it was hard to get up and out on the road before 7:30am, and even the quickest rest stop took 30 minutes, what with needing to park the bike and then stand in line for food and portapotties. Lunch also generally took me an hour, especially when I needed to visit Sports Med again. So while I had thought I made good time up the Evil Twins, soon after I kept having the ominous sensation I was running late. The danger with running late was that if you were behind schedule coming into a rest stop, they would “sweep” you up and take you into the next one, and then you’d have to ride the bus all the way into the camp for the night, instead of finishing that day’s route. While it was nice to have that vehicular support in case of disaster, I felt I owed it to myself and the donors who had enabled my ride to actually ride every mile, and I didn’t want to miss a single one because of a scheduling snafu.
When we caught up with each other in camp, Harold expressed the same frustration. It was an enormously difficult route today, and we resented feeling so pressured. The ride organizers were also always talking about the unofficial stops along the way (i.e., on this day there were cinnamon rolls – which I did not stop for – and on other days fried artichokes, otter pops, etc.), but realistically only the very good cyclists, or cyclists who didn’t care if they rode every mile, could stop at them. For people like us who were more average riders they were a dangerous siren song and we wished the organizers had better prepared us for how to pace ourselves. That feedback applies to the whole ride, but on this incredibly long, difficult day in particular we both arrived in camp sullen and stressed.
Day 5: Practically a rest day (Santa Maria to Lompoc – 42 miles)
I think Day 3 was supposed to have been easier than it turned out to be, but because it wasn’t, by Day 5 we’d now had four incredibly difficult consecutive days in the saddle. Thankfully Day 5 was “only” 42 miles, which meant we got to camp shortly after lunch and actually had a chance to enjoy being there. (Normally we were always on a disciplined assembly line of sleeping > eating > toileting > showering > chamois creaming > eating > packing > unpacking > tent building > tent packing etc.). Because it was a shorter day, Harold and I opted to “sleep in” until 5:30am. I was also glad we were on the same schedule today because I wanted to see his red dress.
For while the ride was short today, it was “Red Dress/Dress Red” day, the day when all the riders donned something red, often also frilly or part of a costume. (A favorite sight was the team dressed up as a pelaton of Orphan Annies, replete with the orange wigs and black Mary Jane shoes…). It was quite the scene. I just wore a red t-shirt, but Harold wore a red dress with a sparkly necklace and earrings. As I told him, one of us needed to be the girl today, and it wasn’t going to be me…
I’m fairly trusting and have not had issues in any of my adventures before, although I suppose if you are a woman sharing your tent with a random man it helps if it’s a gay man. But on this ride it seemed like everyone was gay. Which wasn’t actually the case – for instance the two people I met on the trip back home the weren’t – but the AIDS Lifecycle ride does have the feel of being a 545-mile long Gay Pride Parade. Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it was quite nice. Not only did it supply a helpful dose of fun and fabulousness, but here is a community that has learned to be accepting and nurturing to itself and to all who connected with it. You didn’t have to be gay to be welcomed and supported and encouraged; you just had to be open to it.
Which brings me to the subject of the roadies, whom I’ve alluded to before. Roadies are a particular form of volunteer that joins the ride and helps make it work. Roadie teams shlep the luggage, man the rest stops, set-up camps, break-down camps, provide endless supplies of encouragement and cheer, and do any number of tasks that exhausted riders are not going to be able to do themselves. Many do this keeping even worse hours than the riders, and often in silly costumes. And many wouldn’t have it any other way.
Roadies don’t have to fundraise; it’s enough that they just give their labor. But, as one roadie noted in his comments at dinner one evening, the riders provide their labor too – riding – and they still need to fundraise. Thus many roadies affirmatively took it upon themselves to fundraise anyway. The ride happens, he reminded us, to raise money and help erase stigma. And we all have jobs to do to make it happen so that those benefits can be realized.
Day 6: A day at the beach (Lompoc to Ventura – 84.3 miles)
By this point an 85 mile bike ride no longer seemed so bad… And this day’s was pretty nice, at least comparatively. Looking back at the route sheet (for some reason I can’t really remember all of it…) it seems it did have 15 miles of climbing, but on that nice gradual incline I’m good at sustaining a decent pace on. And I don’t remember the roads as being bad. In fact they were pretty fast: we were on Highway 1 and Highway 101 for a lot of it, but I don’t mind having cars and trucks whiz by as long as I have a nice wide shoulder to ride in. The worst roads tended to be the narrow, Caltrans-ignored ones in the agricultural valleys that were all rutted and grooved. They hurt your bike, they hurt you, and they were impossible to keep up any real speed on.
Also somewhat problematic were urban streets. Fortunately many that we used had respectable bike lanes, but there were still a lot of stops and traffic lights and cars to navigate, which is very tedious, especially when you are clipped into your pedals. (Also it meant it took forever to get out of Lompoc in the morning.) And we were in for more and more of this urban interface as we approached LA. But first we needed to return to the coast and an area I’d never managed to visit before: Santa Barbara and Ventura.
Santa Barbara was up first, and I found it a very pleasant place to be. Also notable was that the city had set up an extra rest stop for us in a park we passed and doled out free ice cream (with toppings!). And that’s something else to note about the ride.
Like I said above, I’ve done endurance rides and events before, even organized ones, and there’s always neighbors and volunteers around to cheer you on. But the cheering on of this one was different. It wasn’t just “You go, girl” and the like; the most common refrain was, “Thank you for riding.” Taking this ride on had a purpose and value bigger than just ourselves, and so many of the people we passed recognized that and wanted to contribute to it too. It wasn’t just Santa Barbara and the ice cream; nearly every day we passed people parked along the road passing out strawberries or candy.
(Yes, I took candy from strangers. No strawberries, though, because, alas, I’ve always detested them. Even the smell of them, which made it rough going as we passed all those fields being harvested…).
At the same time, not everyone was so cheerful. It may just be a rumor, but I heard stories of numerous flat tires apparently caused by someone having put staples on the road just after the lunch stop. Maybe the staples got there by accident, but staples were what someone used to sabotage a stage of the Tour de France last year, so it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to believe someone with animus might have used them here. And it’s not so far-fetched to believe that such animus exists.
It was an interesting experience spending a week where gay culture predominated and straights were in the minority, sort of an inside-out version of the world we all normally live in. It was a very nice world, though, one full of whimsy and acceptance and wonderfully flexible gender roles. On this night however the ride organizers did pointedly acknowledge the participation of straight people, which is important because to the extent that the purpose of the ride is to reduce stigma, the straight riders who chose to participate help set the example. Also AIDS isn’t a disease that just affects gays: it affects everyone, and notably at the dinner this evening they showed a video of a straight woman with AIDS who had sought out the services of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center because she knew it could help her too.
Day 7: The home stretch (Ventura to Los Angeles – 60.7 miles)
Sixty miles hardly seemed like something to break a sweat over, but if there’s one thing I’d learned on the previous days it was that some of the hardest miles were the last miles. Any long distance ride is really a bunch of short rides, but sometimes the last short ones don’t really feel so short. Every mile feels like ten.
The whole experience of pushing oneself forward for all this distance is very hard to describe. I used to sometimes say to myself at the rest stops, “These next miles aren’t going to ride themselves,” and then, like a salmon driven inexorably to spawn, mount up and start pedaling, but both at the time and even in retrospect I find it hard to comprehend that I was in fact riding them. For much of the ride I was hardly consciously aware of my own pedaling. Just like I’m hardly consciously aware of my own breathing, I just did it. (Then again, it’s also clear that less blood than usual was flowing to my brain. I regularly found myself losing my capacity for words, something that almost NEVER happens to me…)
On this day the first 20 miles were irritating. Totally flat, but constantly interrupted by traffic signals, it felt like they should have been easier. Then we ended up on Highway 1 through Malibu, which was hillier and more fraught with passing cars, parked cars, and surfers with bike lane-blocking boards darting out between those cars, but somehow I didn’t mind this section as much. By this point I knew I was a climber, so when it was time to climb I dropped my gears down and just did it. Lunch (typically a sandwich, small salad, nectarine, cookie, and bag of potato chips) was at a picturesque Pepperdine park on a bluff above the ocean. And then from there it was just 16 miles to the end.
Those miles were probably the most sketchy, traffic wise, but with the wind largely at our backs we flew south to Santa Monica, at which point we dismounted and carried our bikes through a pedestrian tunnel under the highway. Which, I realized at the other end, was dumb: there was a metal rail along the side of the stairs that we could have used to ROLL our bikes so that we didn’t have to carry them, just like there’s a side ramp on the stairs at the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco. I was amused to note that significantly more serious cyclists than I didn’t seem to realize that there was an easier way to port our bikes, but then again, their bikes were much lighter than mine. Mine is a steel frame with steel fork LeMond Tourmalet, onto which I’ve mounted a pump, two bottle cages, an odometer, two lights, a rack, and a blue Nike duffel bag in which were apparently a few pounds of tools and snacks… That’s a lot of weight to lug through California! Happily, though, it all held up really well. Nothing broke, and, miraculously, I didn’t even get a single flat tire.
And all things considered, I held up pretty well too, I think, now that I’m away from the ride and have had a few days to recover. My knees are still complaining, but that’s probably mostly due to strain and poor stretching of my thigh muscles. They should recover. My seat-perching bits were very unhappy in the beginning, but a few days into the week I learned an effective regimen for “Chamois Butt’r” cream application, and that made the rest of the ride possible. My face also… I don’t know what went wrong there: it didn’t burn, but it got absurdly dry and for a while felt swollen (current theory: I’m actually allergic to strawberries). Amazingly, though, except for my fingers and a wrist that got a little strained, my entire upper body was totally pain-free, which is surprising given how common neck, back, arm, and shoulder strain can be from so many hours spent bent over the bike.
After the tunnel there was still one more final insult, a hill to climb up to get to San Vincente, which took us most of the way into Westwood. Five miles later or so, we were there and done.
As soon as we finished we got off our bikes and I took mine over to the shipper who would get it back north to me. I picked up my “victory t-shirt” and a few snacks and at first thought I’d wait for the closing ceremonies, but then I realized that my internal rhythms required me to just keep moving on. I picked up my suitcase and boarded a shuttle to the airport and caught the next flight home. It only took 50 minutes to fly up what had taken a week to bike down.
Would I do it again? That is the question everyone started asking the last two days. There are people who do it nearly every year. Harold told me the morning of the last day that he was planning to sign up again as soon as he got in. But for him the cause and community is a bit closer to home and the fundraising a bit less of an obstacle than I feel it is for me.
For me I always thought this ride would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and there is something to be said for moving on to new challenges. It has surely changed me, in ways I’m only beginning to understand, and I’m not sure how much there could still be gleaned by doing it again. It’s also very hard to be away from the world for a whole week (although in and of itself that was an interesting experience; I so rarely disconnect for any length of time I joked at one point the ride was almost like a monastic retreat!) And I spent so much of the time so miserable. I was always worried that not only might I be damaging myself, but that by forcing myself to endure it might make me end up falling out of love with my bike.
But now that it’s over I’m starting to miss it. It was such an unusual life to have for a week, awful and arduous while at the same time wonderful and even decadent in its simplicity. Like many other riders, especially first-timers, I’m finding re-entering my regular life somewhat challenging. There’s something about the last week I just don’t want to let go of.
It’s also true that the first time is always the hardest, plus it turns out I didn’t break after all. So we’ll see.
But for right now, this minute, once is plenty.