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AIDS/LifeCycle: A fleet of riders, halfway to L.A.

June 9, 2010 |  8:44 pm

On AIDS/LifeCycle, the word is "rider" -- not cyclist or biker, but rider. "Be safe, rider," goes the send-off each morning. (Wednesday, the ride's fourth day, found us camping in Santa Maria, more than halfway to L.A.) "Full stop, rider, then forward through the intersection," say the motorcycle-mounted volunteers at major crossings. "Welcome to lunch, riders" -- so it goes, through the day.

Aside from being easy to say quickly and at a yell, rider sounds a little gallant, as if this bicycling troupe of 2,000 were patrolling the roads of middle California rooting out thieves. But the gallantry of record here, the actual raising of money to treat people with AIDS and prevent its spread, was all finished by the time we left San Francisco on Sunday morning. Riding down the forearm of California -- like so many athletic endeavors -- is an act of nakedness and ambition, of risk.

The bicycle is an unfinished exoskeleton -- a metal prosthesis fitted (ideally) to the lengths and angles and posture of its owner but offering no added armor, no protection. In fact it only adds vulnerability to this colorful horde ranging from one coastal metropolis to another through strawberry fields in the Central Valley, through sore gusts of wind. For an acute increase in exposure it offers only -- in a trade-off that dawns on every 5-year-old as her parents first let go of the seat -- vaulting, unimaginable speed. (Anyone seeking proof of this description can seek out the descent on California 46 that -- after our fierce climb out of Paso Robles -- delivered us this morning to a day along the sea.) In a crash, a bike is only one in a chaos of hard foreign objects.

TentsBut for all its danger, the bike is also an affirmation of freedom, of strength, even of recovery. Over and over this week I've heard stories of coming to this ride that combine a loss -- often the AIDS-caused death of someone loved -- with a decision to reverse one's own physical decline, however mild (or potentially severe -- the Positive Pedalers, a group of HIV-positive cyclists, have a highly visible presence on the ride). For many people, the ride is no mere demonstration of commitment to "fighting AIDS." It's a lever, flipping the sentiments that accompany loss and failure into a tangible dividend for the suffering. Just as the bicycle lends a new scale to our physical movement, the ride multiplies our hope.

At day's end Wednesday, we had 200 miles ahead of us. The persistent doubts that accompanied the first half of the ride for a first-timer are gone, washed away in success and exhaustion. Tomorrow many of the riders will don red dresses, and we'll speed on to Lompoc.

-- Michael Owen

Above: AIDS/LifeCycle participants at an overlook on California 46 pose for "Halfway to L.A." photos. Left: A sea of tents in camp at the fairgrounds in Paso Robles. Credit: Michael Owen