June is normally the month that AIDSLifecycle would be taking place, although due to COVID it’s a virtual event this year (check it out, and perhaps make a donation, at Togetheride). My husband Dennis has been a supporter of ALC for many years, volunteering as a roadie. A few years back he got it into his head that we should actually ride, and somehow he talked me into it.
I’m glad he did! While it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, it was also one of the most rewarding. We trained for over a year, riding our bikes an average of 300+ miles per week to get ready. Of course when most of those miles are along the Southern California coast it lessens the hardship.
Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz
The ride starts out at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I was a little overwhelmed at first, looking out over the sea of bikes lined up and ready to go. My nerves quickly morphed into exhilaration; the opening ceremonies were inspiring, and riding out with thousands of other riders was an awesome experience. As the more experienced riders took the lead the crowd dispersed, and by the time we got to the coast we were in relative peace and quiet. I admired the stunning views during our ride down the coast, and enjoyed our lunch stop overlooking the Pacific. The ride continued south to our first stop for the night, a campground outside of Santa Cruz. 88 miles down, and only 457 miles to go!
Day 2: Santa Cruz to King City
After an amazing night in camp, we were ready for the 109 mile ride from Santa Cruz to King City, the longest day on the ride. I was impressed by how well the camp was run – great food, services, shower trucks, and even a camp store. All of it made possible by the fantastic work of hundreds of volunteers (Roadies Rock!!!). As we rode the seemingly endless miles, the road eventually flattened and we made good time getting to King City for our second overnight. The highlight of the day was the bear-hosted “Otter Pop Stop”. I was delighted by the many furry men in tutus serving up frozen treats. After riding so many miles I didn’t think that I had enough energy to join the dance party, but the call to “come dance with the bears” was too compelling to ignore. That night Dennis and I celebrated having completed our first century ride!
Day 3: King City to Paso Robles
While the ride from King City to Paso Robles is a short 63 miles, it starts out with the dreaded “quadbuster”! This monstrous obstacle comes right after rest stop one. The climb is only a little over a mile but it feels like you are riding straight up the face of a cliff. With my bike in its lowest gear I made the ascent. I didn’t realize I could move that slowly and still stay upright! Some of the riders got off and walked their bikes up, but I was determined to ride every single inch. Finally I joined the throngs at the top cheering everyone on; it was truly a “Love Bubble” moment! The ride down the other side was terrifying as well. I was constantly breaking to slow my speed while the crazies from “Team Fixie” (a group riding on fixed gear bikes) were hurtling past me like speeding bullets, their legs stretched out in front of them to avoid their wildly rotating peddles. Finally on flat ground again, I enjoyed the remainder of the ride into Bradley.
The lunch stop at Bradley was one of my favorite experiences on the ride. A town of about 100 people, Bradley goes all out for the riders. As you enter town the first thing you see is a bus with “welcome ALC” painted in huge letters along the side. Then you are treated to a wonderful BBQ lunch. Well, not really treated, they charge $5 and it’s worth every penny. It goes to a great cause as well, the town funds their school arts and athletic programs for the entire year from what they bring in that day. Seeing the whole town come out to support the ride was a very uplifting experience.
I was happy to reach Paso Robles, and not only because I had “quadbuster” behind me. I also got to “princess” that night. The ride is fully supported; you sleep in tents that you pack away and drop off at the gear trucks each morning. Those mornings made me realize I am not such a happy camper. Waking up at 5am (being slow riders we wanted to get on the road as early as possible), we had to repack our tents and all our gear in the cold and damp. The onshore flow in California ensures that first thing in the morning everything you are packing is wet from the heavy overnight dew. After struggling to get my tent back into its bag, I attempted to roll up my sleeping bag. Try as I might I could not get it back in its bag so I ended up kicking it until Dennis finally took over and got it under control. By the third night I was SO ready to sleep in a real bed.
The practice of renting a hotel room instead of sleeping in camp is known on the ride as “princessing”. Paso Robles is the best place to princess because there are several hotels within walking distance of camp. Dennis knew from prior experience that it was sorely needed at that point in the ride so he had made us a reservation. I’ve never appreciated a real bed more in my life.
Day 4: Paso Robles to Santa Maria
Waking up refreshed from my princessing experience, I was ready to tackle the ride from Paso Robles to Santa Maria. This is the second longest day on the ride, 91 miles, and it starts with the second most daunting obstacle on the ride, the “Evil Twins”. The twins are a pair of steep hills that rise 1000+ feet over a seven mile stretch. The payoff for conquering the twins is that you end up at the ride’s halfway point, a significant psychological milestone. I could barely lift my bike but had to summon up enough energy for this required celebratory photo.
Day 5: Santa Maria to Lompoc
Waking up in Santa Maria to the sight of thousands of riders dressed in red was amazing! This is the shortest day of the ride, only 43 miles. It’s also the most colorful day on the ride, “red dress day”. The climb out of Santa Maria is full of switchbacks, and seen from below it makes the line of riders winding up the hill look like a giant red ribbon. Wearing red is an opportunity to raise HIV/AIDS awareness while also showing off some fabulous outfits!
Day 6: Lompoc to Ventura
I hit a wall on day 6. Kept awake all night in Lompoc by some insect just outside our tent making a sound like someone playing an out of tune cello, I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure I was able to complete the 88 miles to Ventura. As we rolled into rest stop 1 Dennis kept me motivated. “All you have to do is ride to the next rest stop” he kept telling me. We lingered longer than usual at lunch and I got in a short power nap. We also lingered at rest stop 4 to recharge. Rest stop 4 is legendary for putting on fantastic entertainment and they didn’t disappoint that day. The rest stop was in an old mission, and I don’t think the founders ever imagined the building would host a full drag show! Part of the ride this day was along highway 101, and I didn’t enjoy riding along the shoulder as eighteen wheelers whooshed past. Soon we exited onto PCH and I relaxed, enjoying the second half of the day riding along the beautiful Santa Barbara coast.
That evening there was a very moving ceremony, a candlelight vigil on the Ventura beach. Taking time to remember the many friends we’ve lost to AIDS was an important reminder of why we ride. Thankfully the Ventura camp is right next to another hotel, so we had another night of princessing. After the toughest day for me, I was happy to fall, exhausted, into a real bed.
Day 7: Ventura to Los Angeles
The final day was a relatively easy 70 mile ride from Ventura to LA. We were again along the coast, riding through Malibu on the way in. The only negative that day was that I got my first flat tire of the ride. I panicked, worrying that the time it took me to change the tire would stop me from getting to the finish line in time. Turning my bike over to take the back tire off, I had forgotten to remove my water bottles, which rolled out and created a hazard for the other bikers riding by. Warning shouts of “water bottle, water bottle, water bottle” reverberated as a condemnation of my klutziness. With Dennis helping to calm me down, I finally got the tire changed and we made the finish line with plenty of time to spare.
We had done it! I was very proud that we had pedaled every single one of those 545 miles! I was also proud of the $15+ million we had collectively raised for HIV/AIDS services. We got a final reminder of why we ride as Dennis talked to a young man who had ridden in with a large pack on his back. He had ridden all 545 miles with it, and told us that the reason he was carrying it was because his brother had always wanted to do the ride but had recently succumbed to AIDS. He was carrying his brother’s ashes in an urn in his backpack, so that his brother got a chance to complete the ride he’d always wanted to do.