I guess I'll start at the beginning. That's usually a good place to start, but I don't usually start there.
Day Zero tends to be very boring and repetitious. This one started out just a little differently. I packed all my gear and put it in Carmen's van. I had decided that it was silly to take two cars to work, so I'd just ride my bike in. I loaded up with what I needed for the office and had a leisurely ride to work. While on the way, I had one good cough. A good deep chest cough. That scared me. I was thinking that that would be just what I needed, a cold to start the ride with. But that was it, just the one cough, and I was on my way. I got to work, full of energy, bubbling over to everyone I talked to. It didn't take long for them to get sick of me and encourage me to get out of there. So I did. I went out and ran to the credit union, packed up my bike, my belongings from the locker room, everything I thought I might need. Then I dropped off a copy of the instructions for closing ceremonies and got Carmen. We hopped in the van and were off. The drive up was almost completely uneventful except for a brief moment at Dunkin Donuts when one of the customers asked about my Yoohoo pin. I tried to explain a bit about the Ride, but I think I lost him rather quickly.
We arrived at Northeastern University around 2:15 PM, leaving plenty of time for the necessary check-in. I got my card, went to the pledge office, and did the paperwork there. My Day Zero pledge total was $2,505.00. I'm proud of that, that was the highest amount I have ever turned in. Next up was getting my wristbands and tags. After that, it was out to see the orientation/safety video. The video is about a forty minute lecture on how the Ride works, and how to give hand signals, things like that. I settled in and found myself next to Caryn Francis, one of the first time riders from the email list. I felt like that was a good start to things. The video started out with the usual music and adrenaline-building lines about how much we could change the world by what we are doing. It always gets me choked up. Then Dan Pallotta (founder of Pallotta TeamWorks and originator of the AIDS Rides) was on the video. He talked about someone he knew named Alan. Dan felt that Alan personified kindness. Alan was the kind of person who kept extra sweaters that he no longer wanted in the back of his car, and if he saw a homeless person would stop and give out a sweater. Alan never made excuses for the kind of person he was, and was never ashamed of it. He didn't try to hide it, like many others. One day when Dan was shopping with Alan, he left Alan outside when he went in the store. When he came out, Alan was down the street helping someone cross a busy intersection. Dan went over and Alan introduced him to the man he was helping. The man's name was Tom. Alan had not only helped the man across the street, but had made the effort to learn the man's name. Alan took his own life in November 1999. No one is really sure why, but Dan likes to think it was because of the things that make us feel guilty when we are nice to other people. Then Dan revealed that Alan had not only been Dan's friend, but his partner.
After the video, I composed myself and went outside where Carmen was waiting with my official jersey, camera, and socks. We ran into Jennifer Shiao there, a crew member this year, Jennifer and I had ridden together (what riding there was to do) in AIDS Ride 5. I got my tent assignment, and we caught up on old times. Then it was off to get Carmen's mother and head out to the mall, where we picked up some clear glasses to replace the ones I misplaced, and have dinner. When we got back to her house, Carmen's aunt arrived to share some rice pudding and wine, and to give us her official blessing, complete with silver crown! Bedtime came around 10:00, in a very hot room. Neither of us got much sleep.
Ok, so I know I should have gotten up earlier, but 3:45 AM is obscene enough. We got up, got showered, and dressed, and got out of the house. After a short (but important) stop at the ever-present Dunkin Donuts, Carmen dropped me off at Northeastern just before 5:00. I stowed my gear in the "H" truck and got my bike and headed down to Opening Ceremonies. Since I was late, I missed some of the speeches, but I got there in time to hear Dan Pallotta talk, and to see the riderless bike led down the path. The riderless bike is always the first bike out and it symbolizes everyone who cannot ride with us, everyone who has already succumbed to AIDS, everyone who would love to be on that saddle, enjoying the ride. It is invariably a moving experience. I also got to hold hands with those next to me as we all shared a moment of silence.
And then we were off. 2100 riders headed out of Northeastern in a light drizzle which had started just before we left. Boston does a great job of providing us with a way to roll out. Since we leave at 5:30, there is very little traffic, but what there is is directed by Boston's finest. We leave to cheers from those who are lining the streets to see us off, the crowds thinning as we get farther from the University. Soon we are out of town and riding out down quiet roads.
Pit stop 1 appeared rather early, in the grayness of the now-rainy dawn. They all had on ponchos, and had good spirits, but the rain had already begun to take its toll, that was clear. Everyone, riders and crew, were subdued from the euphoria of the opening ceremonies. We loaded up with snacks and water, and one by one we were out on our way. I was looking for people from the email list, people whose rider numbers I had memorized, but I was out of luck so far. I pressed on.
As I rode, other riders pointed out to me that my bike pack was slipping. I stopped a few times to check it, but it was on securely. I vowed to stop at Pit 2 and repack it so it wouldn't slip around. This part of the Ride is quiet, it is still early morning, the roads are fairly deserted, and the steady rain made it unappealing for those who wanted to come out to cheer us on. I could feel the rain eroding my spirit steadily.
Somehow, in the grayness, I completely missed the sign to Pit 2, and when I realized that, my spirit sank even more. Now, soaked to the bone from head to toe (my cycling shoes were squishy) I resolved to simply pedal on until lunch.
Pit 3 was in the usual spot, a large open field with a big covered picnic area. Glad to be out of the rain, I found a spot to sit and tried to figure out my lunch. Even though it was only 9:00 AM, I was hungry enough to eat just about anything, but I had trouble with what I can best describe as a "make your own vegetable wrap." Dripping water, I pretty much just crammed it all in. The pit crew was ready with a lot of rolls of paper towels, which were helpful for drying out just about everything.
Unfortunately, the wind came through the covered area, and for the first time, I began to feel cold. So I was left with a tough choice: stay in the dry cold area, or go back out into the rain and ride and get warm. I knew that it was only a matter of time, so I went back out.
After Pit 3, the hills begin in earnest. There are a lot of climbs on Day 1, the booklet lists 35. Yes, that's right, thirty-five. And many of them are serious climbs. It was not long after Pit 3 that I began to notice thunder and lightning. Ah well. At least it wasn't snowing! There were a few riders off to the side of the road, but every one that I asked was all set without my help, so I just kept on. Somehow, I made the climbs to Pit 4, and by then it was actually somewhat dry. Pit 4 was kind of a construction worker theme, everyone had a hard hat and jeans and work shirts. I got a temporary tattoo on my left arm that said (oddly enough) "Pit 4". I gave the woman who tattooed me a Pez. She loved it. The rain had picked up again, so I figured I might as well move on.
From Pit 4 to Pit 5 are some long hard climbs. The booklet has little descriptions of them back to back to back: long, curvy crescendo; shady climb; steep & curvy hill; short blast of a hill. On and on. There are two things that the riders are most proud of on Day One: making it to camp, and making it to Pit 5. By Pit 5, most riders find that their legs are pretty much drained, and even some of the strongest riders are glad to have the chance to stop and rest there. I got my glasses dried by a nice crew member who got a Pez for her trouble. It's amazing how happy some people get when they see Pez. It brings back a lot of memories for them.
The rain had completely stopped at Pit 5, and the sun was breaking out. One crew member had stickers like this:
Gay Other Str8
Free 4 Ride
I said Straight and coupled and CT. She asked if my partner was along, and I said no. She laughed and said: "Then you're free for the ride!" I smiled and asked her to mark "coupled." She did.
I took advantage of the quiet sunshine and sat for a long time with some other riders, just talking. There seemed no point in trying to get into camp, as camp services don't open until 1:00, and there were so many people that I could spend time with right there. But alas, the recurrence of the rain made up my mind for me, and I decided that the sooner I got into camp, the sooner I could sit somewhere dry for a while. The distance from Pit 5 to Pit 6 is pretty small, only about 6 miles. They went by fairly quickly, but I decided to make one final pit stop and refresh my food and water supplies. While there, I got to talk to a few staff members, and give a Pez to my Rider Rep, Emo (Elizabeth M. Orrell.)
I hung out until the breeze made me chilly, then got ready to go. I knew that the next section was the hardest of the whole ride, and I wanted to get it over with. As I left, a crew member told me that I had 11.8 miles to go. That made no sense to me, as my odometer read about 79 and the day's ride was listed as 85.5. But I figured the crew had more information than I did, so I set my sights on a ninety mile day.
I don't know if I made it clear just how wet I was by this point. My socks had gone from pure white (brand new) to a nasty grey. My shoes squished with each stroke. My hands were pruney. My shorts even squished. But the problem after Pit 6 is not the water. The problem is the hills. The hills here are not only steep, but long and winding. As I would come around a bend, I could see that the hill just continued up. And every time I would finish one hill, there was another. Fortunately, I remembered the last hill, and as I struggled up it, at least I knew that once I turned that corner, there would be nothing more than a few short inclines. Riding through the University of Connecticut in Storrs always feels good, partly because I have been there often, and partly because I know it's very close to the campsite. When I got to the campsite, I went in with both arms out, flying like Peter Pan. Elliot was wearing some strange hat made of movie theater snacks, and he gave me a kiss (Hershey's.) I went to park my bike and found that bike parking was essentially empty. I turned around and said: "Where are all the bikes?" It was then that I realized just how fast a ride I had had. It was about 2:00 PM, and hardly anyone was in camp yet. I also realized something else at that point. The rain had gone, and the sky was almost completely clear. Jerry Calabrese came over and introduced himself to me, he worked in bike parking and had been on the email list, he remembered my rider number.
I wandered over to Camp Services to look for Jennifer, but she wasn't in. I left her a message and zipped over to Massage, where I got a quick (and VERY good) shoulder rub. Then I got my gear, set up my tent, and went back over to the day's finish line to cheer in riders and look for people I knew. It's really wonderful to watch the faces of people as they cross the finish to all the cheers. Some laugh, some cry. Some couples come across hand in hand, their bikes next to each other. Some struggle to finish, barely able to stay on their bikes one more minute. After an hour or so, I went back to Camp Services where I was told that Jennifer had come in and had no clue who Peter was! So I asked around the staff and found out that there were two Jennifers in Camp Services, but the one I was looking for had been transferred to the Sweep crew. So I went back out and cheered riders in until 7:30 PM. I kept thinking how hard it had to be for some of them, it had been fourteen hours since the rideout, and they were just getting to camp. I only found one more rider that I knew, Liz McGhee. After a shower and a bite to eat, I found a note in Camp Services from Jennifer to meet her there at 9:00. I went back out and listened to Dan Pallotta's evening address. He told us about a rider who had had a heart attack that morning while riding. The rider, Vincent, had then lost control of his bike and slid under one of the motorcycles that was accompanying the riders. At the hospital, they determined that Vincent had died from the heart attack, not the motorcycle incident. It was very troubling. It is the first rider to die while riding in any of the AIDS Rides. All evening events were cancelled. I went and found Jennifer and her new friend Teresa Marvin. We went together and got our tents ready for the night, and by then it was pretty late, so we all crashed. My tentmate, John, had arrived late and gone to bed early, so we didn't talk much that night. I was very glad to finally hit the sack after such a long day.
On to Day Two
I didn't sleep very well, which is surprising, because I was exhausted. But I tossed and turned a lot. I got up at 5:00 and went to get some coffee and chow. Breakfast was good, I always eat a lot on the Ride because I burn up a lot of calories. It was cold there. VERY cold. Jennifer showed up and we sat and talked for a few minutes, then I walked over to her van with her and met some of the rest of her crew. I went back to the tent and had a good chat with John Finn, my tentmate from Wisconsin who had to stop on Friday to fax some paperwork to his boss (of course the paperwork was ruined by the rain.) We packed up our gear and the tent and took off again. The day started off with a lot of downhill riding which made us even colder. I had arm and leg warmers on for the first time, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. After the downhills, we hit a lot of uphills right after. A lot of riders had trouble making it to Pit 2 with all the hills. But it was sunny, and it slowly but surely warmed up. Pit 1 was in full force this time, all in an Aloha theme. Pit 2 was staffed soley by people who work at the Fenway Community Health Center, one of the beneficiaries of the Ride. We were greeted at Pit 2 by three men dressed up like Girl Scout Brownies (!) I gave some Pez to some of the men working at the Medical tent. I had a few friction problems on Day Two, and ended up giving out a lot of Pez to those who helped me.
Pit 3 was all done up in a Harry Potter theme, and we had a filling (although dry) lunch of peanut butter sandwiches. The miles rolled by in somewhat of a blur on Saturday, the day kept getting warmer, and I shed the arm warmers then the leg warmers. The road levelled out and the day just felt good. After Pit 4, I found myself surrounded by a few riders who are faster than I am. I decided to try to keep up with them for a while, as I wanted to get into camp early again so I could have a chance to find some of the riders that I still had not seen. So I hung with this group for a while. The one rider I remember most clearly was 1416. It seemed like every few minutes one of us was passing the other, like a silly game of tag. We were timing the lights to try to get a jump on the green. It gave me motivation and helped pass some of the boring miles. At one point, I found three young girls on the side of the road with a card table and some water. I stopped for a drink, but to be honest, I stopped more for their sake than for mine. I wanted them to feel like they were part of this event.
Before long, we were heading into Bridgeport, where the people come out to celebrate the riders in a big way. The streets are decorated with hanging banners, the telephone poles have red ribbons hanging on them, and people honk their horns, wave and yell their support. Riding into Bridgeport is one of the most wonderful parts of the Ride. At the entrance to Seaside Park, there is a big arch to ride through, reminiscent of the Arc du Triumphe in Paris at the end of the Tour de France. I gave Elliot a hug and stashed my bike, then immediately went to cheer in riders. Within a couple of hours I was too tired and hungry so I ate and got ready for bed. I listened to a few minutes of the "RideWitness News" and heard from the Executive Director of the Callen Lorde Center (one of the beneficiaries of the Ride) about how his clinic would have had to close its doors if it weren't for this Ride. I found Jennifer, we got her tent up, and I went right to bed.
I slept very poorly that last night - the cough from Day Zero had finally developed into a full-blown cold. Again, the morning was chilly. I met Jennifer in the breakfast line and she introduced me to her new friend Andy who recognized me from the email list. Then we were served breakfast by a man named Don. Don had served us dinner the night before. I told him how impressed I was that he was there last night and then this morning. He said he lived to serve us. It was really touching. We packed up the gear, got the tents ready for them to take to the cleaners, I got some cold medication and got my bike for the final ride. It was still cold, maybe even colder. Seaside Park in Bridgeport is beautiful, but man, is it cold. As we rode out, the good citizens of Bridgeport were offering us mini bagels, muffins, donuts, etc. Those people are great. I was in a silly mood, while other people called out to advise riders of holes and gravel, I advised riders of things like crushed Dunkin Donuts cups and dead possums.
The ride went pretty quickly on Sunday, there were almost no hills at all. Some renegade riders from some other riding events went through our pack, weaving in and out of traffic and running red lights. No wonder people get upset with cyclists!
When we entered Westchester County, a big cheer went through the riders. We had made it to New York State! I made rather short stops at the pit stops Sunday, I still wanted to try to catch up with some of the people from the email list. At one point I got a wasp in my sock and he stung me twice! Just when you think you are prepared for everything! I did stop and help two other riders lubricate their drive trains. I brought all kinds of things with me, and lube was just one. I also gave them Pez (surprise!) Then, as we were in the city, a rider was stopped with a flat and no pump. I loaned him mine, but it still didn't fix it. So we went to change the tube, but he had no levers either! I loaned him some of those too. I hope next time he remembers things like that. I had been hoping to catch up with 1416 for the challenge, but at that point I gave up. So about two stop lights later, there she is. We finally talked for a few minutes, and I got to call her Becca instead of just 1416. Turns out she has done all the other AIDS Rides once, but her father wanted to be on the motorcycle crew for this one so she rode to be with him.
New York City is a great place to finish. There are a lot of people out on the street to welcome us. Of course, traffic is pure hell, but it's a fair trade-off. We parked our bikes at Madison Square Garden and went inside to sign in. I found one more person from the email list inside, Amy Hemphill. Amy had some problems the first day, and ended up unable to finish the ride for the second year in a row. But she has already registered for next year! That shows courage.
We lined up for the victory ride, and I sat to wait. Within a couple of minutes, someone was waking me up! Caryn had a flat tire and I talked her out of changing it, since we really don't ride at the end anyway. I found Becca (1416) and gave her a Pez. That got one of the other riders thinking, and he realized who I was from the email list because of the Pez! We proceeded slowly but surely down 8th Avenue, where the Closing
Ceremonies were already underway. When we finally got rolling down toward the stage, we were overcome with emotion, and all began waving our bikes in the air while crying and cheering at the same time.
The riderless bike came slowly down the center aisle, while Dan Pallotta spoke about remembering those that have been lost, particularly Vincent. Dan's voice broke as he talked, and I wept openly, along with most of the other people taking part and those watching. Then came the crew, running down the center aisle to the deafening cheers from the riders. The members of the crew are really the people who make the ride work. Without them, we'd just be a bunch of people out for a little ride. I was called aside by some of the riders who were looking for #5. It turned out that Jennifer was trying to find me. We talked a little about the difference between crewing and riding. The director of Callen Lorde spoke again, this time telling us that his clinic sees 30 people a month, and their year round care is paid for solely by the profit from this ride. Then, very suddenly, it was all over, and we were headed for our gear. My friend Charlie was there to pick me up, and I left him watching my bike. When I found my gear, I also found Don from breakfast and gave him the first Pez he had ever had. I had to explain it to him because you see, Don is blind.
I saw Jennifer again and introduced her to Charlie. Then we got into his car and headed home, a long trip from one reality to another. From a place where the main word is "kindness" to the every-man-for-himself dog-eat-dog world that we live in. All I can hope is that from time to time, I can reach inside myself and find that man from the AIDS Ride, and bring some of that kindness back out.
I've already signed up to do the Ride again next year. I really can't imagine a time when I won't be doing this ride... unless we find a way to stop the epidemic.