When it comes to bike touring, I thought I'd seen it all. I've ridden around the world, written a book on my travels, even done bike touring's No. 1 bucket-list ride — San Francisco to L.A. — four times. Then, one day in June, I found myself riding in a red blouse and a tutu.
It was Red Dress Day at the AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day, 545-mile tour from San Francisco to L.A. that is the granddaddy of fundraising rides. That meant that all 2,500 riders wore red dresses, which turned the roads between Santa Maria and Lompoc into Cristo-sized versions of the red ribbons that for a time symbolized the AIDS crisis.
Now in its 21st year, the AIDS/LifeCycle (formerly called the California AIDS Ride) is a true traveling circus, a movable tent city with checkpoints featuring kooky transvestite Cher impersonators, mock "Book of Mormon" elders spewing suggestive double-entendres, campy American Gladiator imitators, and full-on disco dance parties. Most of all, it's got an underlying spirit of caring and fun that momentarily makes you forget about the hottest heat and the steepest hill.
The distractions are welcome. AIDS/LifeCycle averages nearly 80 miles a day, including 85 on Day 1 to Santa Cruz and 108 on Day 2 to King City, and it socks you with 26,000 total feet of climbing. Mixing pleasure with the pain is necessary.
"We make it fun — like a gay summer camp," said Jim Key, chief marketing officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the co-sponsor along with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. "After all, most of the riders here are new to the sport. You get every background and body type. They need the fun stuff to get through it, spread the good word and come back. Because this ride is hard."
The daunting mileage serves its purpose, not only scaring rookies into serious training but also making it easier to raise money for AIDS research (a record $16.3 million this year), the ride's ultimate purpose.
Among the top money raisers was Ed Villeneuve, a 49-year-old investment banker from Calabasas who'd rarely exercised and never ridden a road bike until he did his first 12-mile training ride. He collected $16,019 for the 2015 event, more than five times the minimum requirement of $3,000.
"I was surprised so many people were rooting for me," said Villeneuve, now a trainer for the 2016 event. "I think people really like donating to a grand cause like this; it makes them feel they are participating."
The key is the perceived suffering, according to Christopher Y. Olivola, assistant professor of marketing at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business and co-editor of "The Science of Giving."
"I call it the Martyrdom Effect," he says. "Our studies show that we have this admiration for self-sacrifice. The more that people suffer for the cause, the more they get in contributions. A five-mile run will get more donations than a picnic, a marathon even more. I don't really know why yet, but donor and participant may find a hard event more meaningful, possibly more moral."
The issue of matching the suffering of the ride to the suffering of the cause led to a spirited debate at my dinner table one night during the ride: Were you more legit if you had a personal stake in fighting AIDS than if you just did this ride for the adventure?
For instance: Was 59-year-old Phil Meyer of Los Angeles, the boss of several HIV charities, who raised $14,125 and who had lost a lover and innumerable friends to AIDS in the '80s and '90s, more legit than Ashok Patil, 40, and his friend Brij Singh, 45, both fathers of two from the Los Angeles suburbs who knew no gay people at all, at least until the ride? Non-cyclists who heard about the ride and wanted a "cool adventure," they bought bikes and began raising money and training in February.
Or how about Richard Lagunte, a San Francisco paralegal riding in memory of his wife, Edna, who suffered a heart attack and died while riding a tandem bike with him during the 2014 event? Making a deathbed promise to finish the ride, he helped organize Team Edna, which raised $367,744, and rode the tandem by himself with flowers taped to the rear seat. Was he more legit than a 40-year-old woman who did not wish to be identified because she was embarrassed that she had no connection to the AIDS issue?
"I feel guilty when other riders tell me about their lost loved ones," she says. "I came here selfishly just for the epic bike ride." Unenthusiastic about raising money, she struggled to get $1,000 in donations, then paid $2,000 herself.
"You don't need to feel guilty," Singh told her. "You still raised $3,000 to stop AIDS."
AIDS/LifeCycle training info
Anyone who wants to try the AIDS/LifeCycle ride might consider getting the training started. People can learn to ride, find a ride and join a club before next year's event, scheduled for June 5 to 11.
Do a ride
A calendar of organized rides from Santa Barbara to San Diego from 20 to more than 100 miles is at www.socalcycling.com/fun-rides-tours.
Join a club
A listing of road bike and mountain bike clubs in the Los Angeles area, compiled by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation is at www.bicyclela.com.
Learn how to ride
REI Outdoor School has "How to Ride a Bike for Adults" classes for new or returning cyclists. The three-hour classes covering proper bike fit, safety, balance, shifting, braking and handling skills, including a short confidence-building ride on a bike path, are held in Redondo Beach, Bonelli Park, Marina del Rey and Centennial Park Santa Ana. A bike is provided.
Price: $70 (members), $90 (non-members); kids' classes $65 and $85.
Contact: www.REI.com/learn; enter "cycling" in activity bar
For information about the AIDS/LifeCycle event, go to www.aidslifecycle.org.
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