OpEd: AIDS/LifeCycle, A Five-Year Journey Through Pain and Kindness

By David Rae

Originally published on Advocate.com May 24 2012 7:43 PM ET

AIDS/LifeCycle 11 is coming up so fast I can hardly believe it. This will be my fifth time riding 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and I've had many amazing memories after countless hours in the bike saddle. I’ve landed on my head more than once, and plenty of tears have been shed—both from my eyes and from others’—and I’ve experienced too many random acts of kindness to mention.

Way back in 2007, when I first decided I wanted to do the ride, I went and found the only other person I knew who could put up a tent. I dragged him to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and we both signed up for this crazy seven-day adventure. I didn’t have a bike or any cycling gear or really any idea of what I was getting myself into. After several shockingly large shopping trips, I showed up at the “kickoff” ride with no idea how to do anything on or with my bike besides clip in and pedal. Luckily enough, a few veteran riders took me under their wings and helped cure my habit of tipping over at every stop when I forgot to clip out. They also taught me what kind of gear to get for a week on the bike and other crucial cycling tips, like when you don’t eat you will “bonk,” or basically run out of energy. This is not a fun way to ride.

Speaking of not-fun, I have two stories of landing on my head, one’s funny and the other, not so much. Luckily, I survived both. On day 6 of my first ALC, a lovely hammock was set up at a rest stop on the beach in Santa Barbara. I thought what could be more fabulous than a little relaxation before jumping back on my bike. I made a beeline for the hammock and jumped in head first. After coming thumping down on the ground in front of everyone, it became extremely apparent that this hammock was just meant  for show and had given out under my weight. Other than some rosy cheeks, I was no worse for the wear on this one. On another occasion, while training for my second ride, I took a big fall in Malibu, and literally, my face hit the pavement so hard I bounced back upright on the bike, and in the process of coming to a stop I wore off the entire bottom of both bike tires. I also crossed lanes and slid into the guar rail on the far side of the road up near the top of Latigo Canyon. I sat there for 15 minutes (or maybe two minutes—I was in shock, so I’m not really sure). I was too shaken to get my phone out of my pocket to call my friend who was ahead of me on the route. Luckily, I came away with nothing more than a broken bike, a scraped-up body, and just a copayment for the few hours I spend in a local hospital’s urgent care unit getting cleaned up. Fortunately, I was still able to host my annual AIDS Life/Cycle fund-raiser at my house, and running on sheer adrenaline (boosted by pain meds) was able to bring in a few extra thousand for this important cause from the 500 or so guests squeezed into my home. After some magic from the bike mechanics, my bike was repaired, and I continued training for and eventually completed my second LifeCycle.

While I may have shed some tears of pain during my big fall, one of the best memories from any of my rides is the tears of joy from a female rider I didn’t even know. I was standing at a rest stop on the last day of the ride, and a girl comes up to a group of fellow riders on our team, known as Team Popular, with tears in her eyes and says, “I just want to thank you guys, every time one of you pass me on the road you say something nice and give me some encouragement. So many times I wanted to pull over and stop, but you all pushed me to keep pedaling. Thank you!” It was such a simple thing to us, but just putting the positive energy out there was helping other riders, and made me want to go even further to encourage and help more riders. I think we probably just got bored saying “on your left “ repeatedly and it morphed into “keep up the good work,” “you’re rocking it,” and “almost there.” On the reverse, I can’t tell you how many people have passed me singing our namesake song “Popular,” made famous by Kristin Chenoweth in the musical Wicked. I’ve always felt that doing the actual ride is way easier than training. Being surrounded by so many people is just an extra motivator to keep pedaling. 

Sometimes the littlest things turn out to signify major accomplishments. When I first signed up, I was worried about being able to set up my tent. I quickly mastered that task, but changing tires was something that this princess took a little longer to master. Well, "master" is a little strong. Maybe "able" is more appropriate. I didn’t change my own flat tire until midway through my third ride. Let’s put this in perspective: I’d probably ridden 5,000 to 6,000 miles at this point, and had at least 20 flat tires. But with the ever-so-friendly AIDS/LifeCycle community, someone was always there with a smile on their face to kindly change my tire. There is a bit of a running joke: "If something is wrong with your bike, find a lesbian." Well, I didn’t see one, and I was on the side of the road with another rider who also lacked the skills necessary to make my tire work again. After 30 minutes and several attempts, I finally popped my tire-changing cherry. Once I’d done it once, the situation quickly reversed. I became the veteran rider, eager to lend a hand and change a tire for anyone in need. Since then, I must have changed 50 tires over the next year, surely paying back all the kind deeds others had done for me.  

Training, fund-raising, and completing this amazing event will literally change your life. I know It has changed mine. It’s really like adult summer camp, bringing back so many amazing memories, and wonderful people I have met over the years. With the ride just a few weeks away I need your support to reach my fundraising goal. Please make a tax-deductible donation and be a hero today.