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Bears on bikes
Day 2: Part endurance event, part circus, part therapy

After doing the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles AIDS ride last year, UC Berkeley philosophy student Ben Spoer wanted to help organize a Cal team so he'd have more of a sense of community the next time around. He says he's riding this year "to help those who are so courageously living with HIV/AIDS, to open people's eyes, and in memory of Aunt Laurie." Having just graduated in May, the ride is also Spoer's way of saying "goodbye" to California, as he's about to move to New York to be a health educator for underprivileged high school kids. He reports here on Day Two's ride, from Santa Cruz to King City, Calif.

By Ben Spoer | 5 June 2007

— It's 10 minutes to 8 on a Monday night and nearly bedtime at the AIDS LifeCycle. I got into camp about two hours ago, and promptly ate and drank enough to make me vaguely resemble a pregnant woman (which is tough, considering I'm a thin, 6'5" red-headed man). But this is all part of the glory that is the AIDS ride.

To give you an idea of what life is like on the AIDS ride, I am going to start with Sleep. As you might guess, Sleep is one of the three big, important elements of a successful ride (along with Eating and Drinking). However, we need to get about 2,300 riders and volunteers sleeping in the same general area — in tents pitched practically on top of one another — so getting enough zzzs can be problematic. Around three in the morning, the snoring was finally loud enough to wake me.

  Cyclists' tent city
Cyclists' tent city. (AIDS LifeCycle photo)
 

"Who is sawing a bit of wood in my head?" I thought as I woke. When I realized it was the guy next door, I was forced to marvel at the human body (and try to get back to sleep).

This is part of the fun of the AIDS ride; the proximity of other people grinds down your inhibitions until you are absolutely yourself. This lack of fear and self-consciousness is something I missed a lot in the very image-conscious world of college. It's one reason I decided to do the ride again this year and one reason that those on the ride end up forming such a strong community by the final day.

A pitifully few hours after being awoken, I was on the road again, embarking on the longest day on the ride: 105 miles from Santa Cruz to King City. We left behind the brilliant beaches and para-sailors on the coast for artichoke and strawberry fields in "America's  salad bowl" — California's Salinas Valley.

Doing the AIDS ride is part endurance event, part circus, and part therapy. The first few hours of a given day are usually pretty manageable, but once your mileage counter tops 70, you start to wonder why you were so dumb as to sign up for something like this. That's when the circus becomes important: in the midst of that thought you're likely to witness something you would never see anywhere else. Today, for example, I saw a woman who looked more like a librarian than an AIDS LifeCycle volunteer dressed in a full-on Wonder Woman outfit, tights, and wrist guards, handing out oranges at a rest stop, as well as two grown women dancing in the middle of a packed dining hall to enthusiastic applause.

The ride is also like group therapy because of the immense amount of pain we all share. At the water stop at mile 75, I watched huge, bear-like men twirling streams of colored fabric to the beat of techno music. But there was also Mission Soledad, an unassuming white building in the Salinas Valley, from which emanated soft Spanish guitar music. Inside was a flag upon which riders were writing dedications to family, friends, and lovers they have lost to this heartless disease.

The emotion was too much for me to stand — seeing people I was growing close to so visibly, deeply wounded by something I can't effectively yell at, put my hands around, question, or attack. There, however, I did come close to understanding why, among other reasons, I do the ride: I am full of a young man's ambition and want to do anything I can to help change the world and alleviate the misery I witnessed in the Mission.