Op-ed: AIDS/LifeCyclers Tell it Like It Is
Eric Brown: They call the AIDS/LifeCycle camp “The Love Bubble.” But, for many reasons it is so much more than that.
After venturing from San Francisco to Los Angeles from June 3-9, on my Specialized Allez road bike, I realized many things about myself, about the state of California, the people who are riders, the people who are roadies, and, more importantly, about the wonderful work done by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
About three months ago I decided that I would take the AIDS/LifeCycle challenge. In the meantime, I wrote here that I kept riding because of what the hills I trained on represented. Now, I realize that I rode for so many more reasons that lay just beneath the surface.
I realized that with some dedication and fortitude, I can accomplish a lot more than I ever thought I could. But I wasn’t alone. There were riders on the road that came from almost every state in the union and many foreign countries, who were in a variety of levels of physical fitness, from ages 18 to 81. The common thread that weaved the riders and roadies together was their compassion for one another, for those who have been lost to AIDS-related illnesses, for those who suffer from HIV/AIDS today, and those that they hope to prevent from ever being diagnosed positive. It really was a “Love Bubble.”
But, it was also the “Friendship Bubble,” the “Perseverance Bubble,” and the “California-is-the-most-beautiful-place-in-the-world-Bubble.” That last bubble never seems to go away, though.
During the opening ceremonies at The Cow Palace, which lies just outside of San Francisco, we heard from an inspiring rider who was riding for her mother. Anxiety, fear, and excitement were palpable in The Cow Palace that morning. But then we heard about her mother, a straight woman, who sat her two children down a little over a decade ago to inform them that she was HIV positive. Her mother’s admission of HIV status set the rider on a mission to battle this disease, and she has ridden for the past decade in AIDS/LifeCycle. Her mother was supposed to be a roadie two years ago, but then she was diagnosed with cancer and forced to fight that battle instead. However, like so many people on this ride, no hill is too high or too steep, and no battle is too much to bear, because she defeated cancer, and she is still living healthily with HIV, and this year, she was one of the magnificent roadies who took care of all of us riders this year.
As I sit here today with the raw emotions of completing the ride, I still do not know what to make of it all. I met so many wonderful people who supported one another, who cared for one another in the pouring rain to help the fellow rider and roadie fend off hypothermia on Day Two, who offered a stranger their shoulder to cry on during the candlelight vigil on the final night in camp in Ventura. For seven days, we rooted for one another to climb the “Quadbuster” to tame the “Evil Twins,” and to summit a ridiculous secret set of hills in red dresses (a phrase I never thought I would say in my lifetime). Then it all came crashing to an end.
As I rode my final two miles up San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica, the realization that I just accomplished something amazing began to take hold of me. I no longer had to prepare to rest up for the next day’s ride. I didn’t have to use a port-a-potty in camp that night. (Amen!) I just rode my boke from San Francisco to Los Angeles! As I thought about my friends waiting for me at the finish, and the slow tears turned into sobs, I don’t think I had ever been much happier or sad in my life at the same time. I was so happy to have defeated every climb, every mile and every obstacle, just as we will eventually defeat HIV/AIDS. But also, I was sad. I was leaving the “Love Bubble,” the “Friendship Bubble,” the “Perseverance Bubble,” and the “California-is-the-most-beautiful-place-in-the-world-Bubble.” That is, until next year.
I joined, as many others, because my friends were doing it and it sounded like a fun challenge. I also recognized the need to help those who couldn't afford their HIV/AIDS medications and, let's be honest, it selfishly looks great to put yourself out there to help others on such a grand scale. From the day I registered, my perception of this "charity event" began to change and the reality of being part of the ALC family began to set in. This community of thousands had suddenly thrown their arms around me in a welcoming embrace of support and encouragement. It seemed awkward at first. They kept telling me, "You belong here." I cynically thought, "What are they talking about? They don't even know me." But soon, the awkwardness faded and I stopped hearing them say it and I started to believe it myself.
I joined "Team Popular" as this was one of the highly recognized teams that raises among the most in donations annually and some of my good friends are on the team and some are even among the teams founders. There were a lot of events, classes, and training rides together as a team or through ALC in general. I had decided to do most of this by myself and didn't attend many of the Team or ALC events. In this regard, I think I missed out a bit. It may be a surprise for some to hear, but I am often uncomfortable in large gatherings of people I don't know, and will often avoid it. The desire for approval and acceptance will often throw me in to "performance mode," trying to impress people and will often have the opposite result. This comes from my insecurities of needing to be the best at everything I do or no one will notice me.
Knowing I wasn't going to raise the most money on my team and I certainly wasn't the most accomplished cyclist on the team, I kept missing the team training days after giving some lame excuse. Finally, my two friends on Team Popular, David Rae and Stephen Macias, got me to meet them one Sunday morning. They were not going to take anymore excuses. We started to ride and I was immediately mortified.
I barely knew how to properly shift gears, but these two looked like they were ready for the Tour de France. This was when it all changed for me. I expected their reaction to be one of frustration for having to "dumb it down" for me accompanied by the tension of feeling their realization of their mistake of not only inviting me along on their training ride, but allowing me on their team at all. Instead the reaction I got was much different. They both reacted with genuine encouragement, assistance, and excitement to have me along for training session, and as a team mate. I texted them later that day to thank them. They thought I was just being polite for including me. But that one session they played a major role in shifting my perception of the event, and in everything, really. I suddenly realized, it's not about winning at something that is important. It is about being part of something important that makes you a winner. My training rides got better and more frequent. My fundraising efforts increased and my involvement in team functions increased.
Over the course of the actual seven days of riding, the reality of the importance and significance set in. I met the rest of my team, who were coming in from all over the U.S. and even some from overseas. To be bound together with a common purpose and going through the struggles of pain, emotion, injury, weather, and sleep deprivation for seven days as a community will bring you close very quickly. In short, I fell in love with my team and the men and women of ALC. My existing friendships deepened and the new friendships I made have left me speechless. I didn't know that in the course of a week I was capable of caring for people I had just met so sincerely. This is a gift that the ALC gave to me that is priceless. However, my "Ah-Ha" or "Come to Jesus" moment happened on Day 6 of the ride.
Along the ride, we, as cyclists, experience thousands of supporters with signs, cow bells, etc cheering us on, thanking us and telling us we are heroes. Usually, we encounter these supporters with the group of cyclists you happen to be riding near while we approach a rest area. For some reason, on Day 6, as I approached the "Paradise Pit" rest area which is famous for serving the cyclists ice cream, I was all alone. There was not a cyclist to be seen in front of me or behind. The community had come out and were probably 50-75 people strong standing in a small area near "Paradise Pit." I heard the cow bells start ringing ahead in the distance. The cheers became louder as I got closer and the outpouring of support hit its peak, as it always did, when the riders pass by the supporters. Then I realized again that I was riding all alone. This reaction wasn't because the cyclists were approaching, it was because I was approaching. I thanked them as I rode past, got to "Paradise Pit," sat by a tree and cried as the overwhelming realization of what this event means to people and the significance of what it was we were all doing crashed down on me. I never felt so proud. I finished that amazing day with my friends at a breath taking, powerful, emotional candlelight vigil on the beach in Ventura and waking up on Day 7 ready to ride in to L.A. Well, I did it. We all did. I rode in to the VA center to the love and support I had now expected to see because of my newly discovered faith in the good of people. I finished the ride to the welcoming arms of my best friend of 20 years and other dear friends waiting for me. Their faces showed pride for my accomplishment and love for me. They have always felt that way but, for the first time in a long while, I recognized it and celebrated.
As long as I have strength to peddle a bike, I will be part of this event. Thank you ALC. Thank you members (family) of Team Popular. Thank you Roadies. Thank you supporters. And thank you, my heroes, who live everyday effected by or infected with HIV/AIDS as, to me, your stories, strength and courage inspire me and has helped me see things differently. It's not about winning at something that is important. It is about being part of something important that makes you a winner.
Why ride? Well, whatever the reason, it all comes down to a common goal. We are all riding to save lives. In many ways, and on many levels, the gifts and self realization/improvement that I take away from this, my first ALC experience, has saved my life in more ways than one. I can't wait to celebrate 20 years of this amazing event.
To be clear, before this day I’d ridden in the rain one time, and I’d promised myself I’d never put myself through that again. It’s just not fun or safe, and it’s cold. But we were committed as a team to do every mile possible of this ride, This is just too important an event to not give our all.
To clarify a bit, on day two of the ride, we faced a long 112-mile route. Riders were deluged with rain, hail, wind, and a downright cold day. Being the southern California genius that I am who assumed “It couldn’t possibly rain,” I left camp with no leg warmers, arm warmers or anything heat or warmth related at all. By lunch it was just too much to bare for most of the people I was riding with. I stomped over the gear tent and put on a bunch of gear to hopefully keep myself from freezing.
We quickly set off to try and cover the remaining 70-plus miles of the day as fast as possible. Working as a team, we pounded the pavement harder than any of us ever thought we could. This helped to keep us warm, but also helped get us from point A to B as quickly as possible. Along the way we still squeezed in a few seconds of dancing bears, attended a white trash wedding and while I remember freezing we kept the spirits high. None of us were brave enough to attempt to enjoy the “skinny dipping spot,” although I was later told by braver souls that the water was warmer than the air outside.
It wasn’t until about eight hours and 100 or so miles after we originally left camp that we heard the route had been closed behind us. We pulled up to where the final rest stop of the day should have been, soaking wet, and out of water and food only to hear that almost all the other riders had been stopped at lunch or sooner. I later learned that a local church and community center took in our stranded riders, and of course they turned this dismal day into an AIDS/LifeCycle worthy party, and experience. Everyone seemed to come back with smiles on their faces and ready to get back on the road the following day. A few people appeared to be wearing Project Runwayworthy gowns made of mylar blankets.
After spreading the water, we had left between us, we pushed the pace back to camp, luckily just 12 miles away with a nice heavy tail wind to push us. We pulled into camp in King City, which was surprisingly dry, sunny and warm. The feeling of accomplishment, bonding, and camaraderie for the few riders who were able to complete every mile of this challenging day was just overwhelming. Without the support of my Popular Teammates I’m picturing myself on the side of the road crying and giving up, instead of having achieved something great, and conquered a big personal and group challenge.
Days like this are what the AIDS/LifeCycle is all about, working hard, bonding with others, overcoming challenges, and turning otherwise difficult situations into life-changing experiences. The weather was perfect the next five days, and we continued to bond as a team. I’ve committed to being team captain again for Team Popular for ALC 12. I hope to bring more people to this experience, and to lead the team to blow past our huge $250,000 fundraising goal that we hit for ALC 11.
You belong here, in fabulous pink! If you would like information about joining Team Popular or registering for the AIDS/LifeCycle, email me at [email protected].
I grew up and came out in the age of AIDS. The first time I recall being aware of HIV/AIDS was during a conversation that took place among coworkers at my first job at a family-owned bakery in the rather tiny town of Plainville, Conn. I was 16 and it was 1984. With no malice or ill-will the people at my job in my suburban town truly pondered if any of us was at risk from HIV/AIDS simply from touching a doorknob or sitting on a toilet seat. The science that disproved such assumptions may have been out there but in our little world we didn’t know it. So much fear accompanied the word AIDS.
A few years later I came out, and the shaping of my lesbian identity very much hinged on trips I took to New York City, particularly those visits that took me to my first Pride parades at which AIDS activism was front and center. The immediacy to not merely end the epidemic but to understand it and to force the government to acknowledge there even was one (President Reagan had still not uttered the words HIV or AIDS publicly at that point) was more powerful than anything I’d known prior or since those nascent days.
At the time I was visiting the city fairly frequently my friends Ron and Mac lived in artists’ housing at Manhattan Plaza on 42nd between 9th and 10th. It was 1987, and for the first time in decades the wait list for apartments there had dwindled to nothing. The residents – actors, dancers, choreographers, writers, musicians—were dying, and there were apartments available. Four years later Mac died too. Later, I would lose another actor / artist friend, Michael, to AIDS. Even as a young lesbian, for whom there were literally no statistics about infection rates, my youth was shaped by those who were sick and those we all lost.
Today, several of my friends are positive, including my two best friends. Thanks to research, education, meds and access to medical services theirs is not a death sentence, although they were diagnosed nearly 20 years ago. Still, stigma abounds around HIV/AIDS. While immeasurable progress has been made in the 31 years since the first infection was documented, there is still so much more to be done.
I rode in my first LifeCycle in 2008 for the challenge — to push my limits and myself. But beyond that I rode and raised funds to give back, to honor those I’d known and lost, and in some ways, to honor my youth. I returned to LifeCycle in 2011, and before I left closing ceremonies I signed up for this year. After rolling into ceremonies just a few days ago, I stepped up to the registration tent and signed up for next year’s LifeCycle. It’s just a part of me now. It’s what I do.
Read Diaries from Tracy (pictured at left) on SheWired: