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AIDS/LifeCycle 2009: 545-miles of Drag Queens, Spandex and Clif Bars Along California's Coast

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On Sunday May 31st, 5am would become the new rush hour for the 2,150 riders and 500 volunteer-roadies as they filtered into San Francisco's Cow Palace, waiting with anticipation and excitement for the kickoff of the 2009 AIDS/LifeCycle. The 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles is one of California’s largest fund raising events, generating over $10.5 million this year for the HIV/AIDS clinics of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the SF AIDS Foundation. The 7-day route followed the coast south, with stops in Santa Cruz, King City, Paso Robles, Santa Maria, Lompoc and finally Ventura before leading riders into the VA Center in West LA.

At 6:30am, riders rolled out to a foggy, cold San Francisco morning cheered on by hundreds of spectators and supporters. It was the beginning of what participants describe as a "life-changing experience." And indeed it is...

People often say, "one person can make a difference". We speak these words, but do we actually believe them? It can be difficult to see the truth behind this phrase, as our potential impact is not always apparent or seems so distant. AIDS/LifeCycle (ALC) leaves a lasting impression on participants because the ride brings this phrase to life on a daily basis, demonstrating the impact one individual's actions can have on the moment, the day, the week, or the lives of others.

Riding for a Cause...

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Even before the ride starts, during the fund raising process, one donor who a rider may have barely known will surprise them with an extremely generous donation, and go on to to share a story about their own personal experiences with HIV/AIDS, concluding with a very humbling and genuine "thank you so much for riding."

This deep gratitude continues as riders pass individuals lining the side of road who cheer on and thank riders, giving them the extra encouragement needed to get up one more hill. On that hill, a rider may meet a member of the "Pos-peds" (HIV-positive cyclists who are participants), who directly benefits from the funds generated by the ride. This one-on-one experience will likely set that climb, and day, apart from all the others.

Throughout the week, riders and roadies alike exchange stories about why they are participating. Some go on to share that they would not be there without the services provided by the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, deeply personalizing each participant's fund raising efforts. One rider’s fund raising can actually provide months of medical treatment for an individual with HIV/AIDS. A few explain how this year marks the 20th anniversary of their diagnosis, a true testament to the progress that has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS as it makes them a "survival case".

Rolling Down the Coast...

No day on the ride is the same. As riders near LA, the terrain, weather and not to mention their bodies change. The one consistent aspect, however, is the unwavering level of support at literally every mile.

Day 1 takes cyclists out of the city, through misty forests and onto hills hugging the coastline headed to Santa Cruz. 19.3 miles into the ride, at Rest Stop 1, new cyclists quickly learn that absolutely nothing at AIDS/LifeCycle is done without an accompanying theme...and food.

Enter Ginger Brewlay, the best-dressed cheerleader on AIDS/LifeCycle. Since all cyclists must ride single file, the actual time spent in the saddle can be a solitary and quiet experience at times. After one of the many long climbs on Day 1, faint cheering noises break the sound of the churning pedals. Riders approach the top of the hill where a crowd of at least 20 welcomes riders to the top. They have been standing here, in the middle of nowhere, all day, greeting every rider with the cheers and applause (and candy). Ginger, in her magenta feathered sequin dress, silver hair and bright lipstick, stands out from the crowd, as she waves and blows kisses to riders in a Marilyn Monroe-like pose. She will be at the top of every hill, in a new fabulous outfit of course, for the next seven days.

On day 2, from Santa Cruz to King City, a roadside stop for fried artichokes amidst endless artichoke fields breaks up the daunting (read:107-mile) distance. Eventually, the artichokes give way to the scent of strawberries, as riders travel through some of California's richest farm land. With about 30-miles left to go, the infamous "Cookie Lady" greets riders, and offers up one of her thousands of homemade "Cookie Lady"-cookies.

After the the notorious 2-mile “quadbuster-climb,” on day 3, riders speed down the hill, hungry for a freshly grilled burger from the town of Bradley (population: 120). The town's school holds a B-B-Q fund raiser each year when ALC rolls through. As the growing line for burgers snakes through the town, a lady selling t-shirt's and baked goods informs riders that that thanks to last year's sale, they raised $8,000 and sent 11 kids to college. (The town’s next biggest fund raiser raises $1,000).

At the end of day 3, a 6'5'' toned man, named ‘Tammy’, rocking a turquoise "Tran Am" flight attendant uniform, 5-inch white pleather boots, bright red blush and a beehive-wig doles out oranges, bananas, Clif bars, homemade pb graham cracker sandwiches...and every other snack food imaginable at Rest Stop 4. Porta-potties (dozens of them) are decorated in photos and naughty faux graffiti. If this wasn't enough, they coordinate a dance routine and perform it for all the riders multiple times throughout the day. After the show, the flight attendants hand around a bucket, asking for donations for the Mission in San Miguel, since they generously donate their space to host the rest stop each year. Last year the cyclists raised $300 enough to help them repair their roof. This year, the Trans Am crew counted $2100. Clearly, they put on a damn good show and their dance is enough to give tired cyclists the extra push to ride the final nine miles to Paso Robles and call it a day.

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When riders arrive at the campsite for the night, the gear crew, dressed as slutty nurses and doctors, including one Asian-tranny sporting a homemade mini-tee reading "Rice to Meet You" greets them with a dance party, candy, and of course their bags and tent. They will be back the next morning, at 4:30am, dressed as pirates, gypsies, schoolgirls, Goths, or whatever that day’s theme is, as they load gear back in the trucks and head for the next destination.

Day 4 marks the half-way to LA point, and riders would get their first taste of southern California as they made the descent to the Pacific, passing though the beachy Cayucos, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach, where many would make the "unofficial" rest stop to refuel with freshly baked cinnamon buns while en route to Santa Maria. A buzz builds back at the campsite in Santa Maria as people ask "Did you hear about the man who proposed to his boyfriend at the halfway point, and he said yes!"

Day 5 is like waking up on the morning of prom (or Halloween) as people prepare to show off their red dress at the longest mobile fashion show also known as Red Dress Day. A man yells out “passing on your left sweetie! Ohh nice skirt!” and rides by in a red sequin dress, as 2,150 riders invaded the small Danish town of Solvang in wine country wearing sequins, feathers, fishnets, and heels - forcing one to realize that AIDS/Lifecycle is no ordinary ride.

On a cold and extremely rainy morning on a day 6, it is difficult to get moving, but the gear crew, food servers and medical team are all in high spirits, helping to ease the "pain". On the ride out, a roadie stands on the street and shouts to riders as they exit: “Good morning rider! It is now 6:52am! Have a wonderful day and I’ll see you in Ventura!” He’s been out here everyday, but on this day, his contagious enthusiasm forces out a smile, and allows riders to forget about the 15-mile climb lurking a few hundred feet ahead.

This level of support is a constant occurrence. The themed breakfasts, lunches, dinners, porta-potties, rest-stops, gear trucks, sweep/aid vehicles and even masseuses are a staple of AIDS/LifeCycle, supplying that extra boost of excitement and encouragement in the dark, early morning hours, or on mile 87 when your legs beg for a break. Even among cyclists, the second a rider stops on the side of the road, whether it be to take a photo or adjust their bike, passing riders will immediately slow down to make sure everything is okay before proceeding.

The Finish....

After a moving candle light vigil on the beach in Ventura, the mood the following morning, on day 7, is bittersweet. Months worth of training, fund raising and planning are coming to an end. With most sporting events, it's a race to the finish. This proves far from true on ALC. On this last day, the sense of community on couldn't be clearer, as people take their time at rest stops and throw in some extra long coffee breaks to prolong the short (61-mile) and fast ride back to LA. Following a leisurely lunch at Pepperdine overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, the 2,150 riders begin the final leg of the ride, through Santa Monica, up San Vicente and into the VA Center.

As riders pass through VA Center's gates, the cheering crowds bring back memories from the foggy morning just seven days prior in San Francisco. Except this time there are more familiar faces, like the shirtless boys from Rest Stop 4 dressed in lifeguard uniforms jumping up and down welcoming riders. What began as 2,650 unique reasons for riding has evolved into a concerted effort to arrive in LA and ultimately make AIDS/HIV a thing of the past by enabling the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and SF AIDS Foundation to continue providing their services amidst budget cuts.

Riders enter with a refreshed and renewed perspective on the impact and implications of selflessness, generosity and an open mind. As one reflects on the week, it is these countless little acts of kindness at each mile and beyond, that stick out, bringing truth to the fact that we can make a difference.

While it is hard to sum up seven days and 545-miles, AIDS/LifeCycle deserves praise for the money they raise and the people they draw to the ride; people that form a deep and unique community bond that sticks around, even after the sore muscles have subsided and eating seven times a day no longer seems normal nor necessary. At the end of the week, many have said that AIDS/LifeCycle "is an example of the way we want the world to be". Well, the road to a perfect world is long, and we may never get there, but riding out the journey on a bike certainly helps.

AIDS/Lifecycle 8 was Emily Lerman's first of many future ALC rides and is still amazed by and grateful for the tremendous support from family, friends and Team Midnight Ridazz.