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The ultimate in politically correct travel just might be the AIDS ride. There are seven multi-day, annual bicycle events in various parts of the U.S. geared toward AIDS awareness and raising money for AIDS research and care. Veterans of the AIDS rides say they sign on at first for the personal chance to test their limits. The courses cover several hundred miles and, although cycling may be the greatest way to sightsee-at 15 miles per hour from a perfect perch-the days in the saddle are long and grueling. But it's the reminder that 34 million people around the world are currently HIV-positive and need help that keeps these fund-raisers pedaling. The challenge drew Savvy reporter Deborah Clark to take on the California AIDS Ride - from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As she reports, it was one heck of a journey - both physical and emotional,


By Deborah Clark, 7/20/2001

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Day Zero, San Francisco. Registration. Like all 28-hundred riders and 560 crew, I had to watch the safety and orientation video.

Excerpt from video: "...and let's imagine a community where blah, blah, blah..."
Yeah, great, I thought. Some people might do this to be part of a community, and that's nice, but that's not me. I'm all about the distance. 575 miles...all under my own steam. I'm fit...I'm disciplined...and I'm ready to go.
Music: "She's going the distance...she's going for speed..."
Turns out, I was wrong. It was all about community.

And I just wasn't prepared for that. I wasn't prepared to feel depressed after it was over because I missed my riding buddies so much, and I certainly wasn't prepared to miss sleeping in a tent next to 3 thousand other people. Me! I don't even like camping. Actually, I'm not always sure I'm that fond of people.

Chris: "Opening ceremonies, that's everything that happened. I had a big lump in my throat...I wanted to cry at everying. That's not me...that's not how I react to things typically."
That's Chris Prodd, a rider I met from San Francisco. He's right - opening ceremonies is when you first suspect that you're about to feel something completely different. Pallotta Teamworks, the company that organizes the ride, has this slogan: "I'm possible"...you know, Impossible...I'm possible. Dorky, right? But spend a week on the ride and it gets to you, really gets under your skin. You start to imagine a world where anything is possible.
Sound of video: "...imagine a world where anything is possible."
Argh. Oh my god...the human spirit. It's alive. I've been infected.
Cheerers: "Have fun out there riders, be safe. Hydrate, lubricate, urinate."
First off, every single morning, as you leave camp, the volunteer crew, staff and other riders cheer you out the gate.
Cheerers: "You guys rock. Woohoo! Thank you chicken lady. No, thank you."
Fellow riders cheer you up hills...or better yet, they help you get up them:
Rider: On your left...take me with you. Come on, you can do it...you're almost there."
Along the road there are people...complete strangers...who line up to yell at you. And it's not what I'm used to in LA: "get off the road, buddy." It's "thank you for riding. Thank you for raising money. Thank you for helping my nephew, brother, husband...whatever." You actually start to realize it IS a big deal. You've raised a lot of money - in my case $5400 - and you're riding really really far. Even when your butt hurts and you're sick of Cliff Bars and Pepperidge Farm goldfish. And don't get me going on the breakfasts. Let's just say cheese blintzes made for 3 thousand people aren't that good.
Rider: "You okay, Deb...need help?"
If you have to pull off to the side of the road, you instantly get dozens of offers of help. Then, you start doing nice things. For complete strangers. You stop because someone has a flat and you want to keep them company. One morning in camp I helped a woman carry her 75-pound bag to the gear truck because the steel rods in her jaw had swollen up from the humidity and she wasn't feeling so good. Trust me - this isn't how I usually behave.

And neither is this, doing morning yoga. But in Tent City it was the perfect thing. That's my friend Jim Jansen acting as yogi master, by the way. Check him out in Spielberg's new movie AI, he's the mecha who plops a spare eye into his smashed up robot head.

Deb: "You've really brought the quality of conversation down, Louis. It's usually so high brow."
I also wasn't prepared for how much fun we had. We spent a lot of time laughing. Maybe we were giddy from fatigue.
Deb: "David, you're not a little teacup..."
And gradually, you lose touch with the world outside the AIDS ride. It's not just me...I swear. Here's one of my riding friends Mel Gettleman:
Mel: "It seems like I've been away from my house for months...what my house looks like."
The one thing I did feel prepared for was the physical part...not that it was easy, but I never felt like I couldn't continue. The days were a real mix...one more than a hundred miles and completely flat...another hilly, but only 57.
Deb: "Here we are in Oceano...it's a beautiful day. It's 7:40 and it's probably 80 degrees already. We should be into camp by 1 or 1:30..."
As if. By the time that so-called short day was over...it was 2:30...I was exhausted.

Okay...there ARE hard times on the ride. Trying to sleep with a couple of dozen heavy snorers within a stone's throw isn't easy. Porta potties never had any charm to lose and there are days when the heat is so overpowering, 5 miles feels like 50. And bad stuff can happen: my friend Bruce had an accident at the end of Day 6 and broke his hip. He watched closing ceremonies propped up on crutches from behind a fence. Here's how rider Karen Grizzard from Dublin, California put it:

Karen: "Sometimes I find myself loving the experience. Sometimes I find myself hating it. I don't want to hang out with you people any more, I don't want to ride my bike any more. But of course it's a week, so then I get back on my bike and something really positive will happen. I'll meet and have a conversation with someone...see a beautiful landscape. It'll touch me in a way that evokes all this emotion."
Close: "Will the following groups please get their bikes...Positive Pedalers, LA Gay..."
And then suddenly it's over...and you're preparing to ride in as one group to closing ceremonies. In one of those horribly symbolic ways that actually works, there's no winner. Every one rides in at the same time. And you're faced with the prospect of returning to your old life: Mel: "It will be strange not being surrounded by...but I really don't have much choice.

I definitely went through withdrawal when I got home. For a brief period, I tried to hang on to this new person I'd become, going out of my way to do considerate things for strangers, driving less aggressively, that kind of thing. But I knew it would only be so long before my friends and family would start to suspect I was a pod, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and now I'm back to normal. So now I just think about next year, when I'll ride in California AIDS ride 9 and take that trip far, far away from everything, including myself.

I'm Deborah Clark for the Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources:

For more information on AIDS rides, visit http://www.aidsride.org.

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