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It used to be that if you were going to pedal hundreds of miles up mountain passes and through valley farmland, you were a Tour de France competitor. But traveling by bike to raise money for charities has become a sign of our times. The AIDS Rides, which started in 1994 as multi-day events to raise funds to fight HIV and AIDS, have drawn thousands of riders and raised more than $100 million so far.

Last year, our reporter Debra Clark saddled up for the California AIDS Ride, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. She quickly found out the journey is about much more than just pedaling -- both physically and emotionally.


By Deborah Clark, 3/29/2002 (Originally Aired 7/20/2001)

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Day Zero, San Francisco. Registration. Like all 2,800 riders and 560 crew, I had to watch the safety and orientation video.

Video: "...and let's imagine a community where..."
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. About 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 3,000 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" 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.
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 $5,400 -- and you're riding really, really far. Even when your butt hurts and you're sick of Cliffs Bars and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. And don't get me going on the breakfasts. Let's just say cheese blintzes made for 3,000 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 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 100 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 1:00 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, Calif., 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 anymore; 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, 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.

The California AIDS Ride is scheduled for June 2-8 this year. And there will be another, new fundraiser just 2 weeks earlier, May 13-19, called the AIDS/LifeCycle. With the two events back to back, appealing to the same group of potential participants, neither is signing on anywhere near the expected numbers of riders.

Savvy Resources:


AIDS Lifecycle

History of the AIDS Rides http://www.thecombine.com/aidsride/history.html

LA Gay & Lesbian Center and SF AIDS Foundation Prevail in Court

Stage Set For Dueling AIDS Rides

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