I looked around at the group of cyclists shivering in a parking lot at 8 a.m. on a chilly fall Saturday in Orinda, CA. “What the hell was I doing here?” I asked myself. I wasn’t a cyclist, but I had agreed to join my friend Val to train for a week-long bike ride to raise awareness and money for AIDS.
Would I even be able to do this? Would they accept me?
I was 59 years old in September 2014. The ride was nine months away. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle much over the years other than a mellow-paced, week-long ride in France to celebrate turning 40, nearly 20 years before. I was in decent shape from working out, but I was terrified of falling. I couldn’t easily unclip from my pedals when stopping, and had fallen several times because of it.
I was also a bit at sea. I’d come out as lesbian at age 25, joyfully immersing myself in the gay and lesbian community. But when I’d unexpectedly fallen in love with my now-husband in my early 40s, I’d lost nearly all my queer friends. I’d struggled ever since to find my tribe, my place of belonging.
Despite my concerns about cycling and fitting in, this ride intrigued me. AIDS was a cause that had been dear to my heart since the 1980s. And I hoped I might finally find a community where I belonged. Plus there was the physical challenge. It would be a great way to celebrate turning 60.
I had no idea what I was in for.
AIDS Lifecycle (ALC) is an annual seven-day, 545-mile bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Funds raised support testing and services for people with HIV/AIDS in each of those cities, with the goal of fighting stigma and ending AIDS. The training group I’d joined was led by a straight Hispanic couple. The group itself was mixed queer and straight, mostly men with a handful of women, with a rainbow of ethnic diversity in the group.
Sure enough, I fell on my first five rides. As I braked approaching an intersection, I tried unsuccessfully to clip out. “Shit!” I yelled, falling in slow motion, trying desperately to lean away from traffic instead of into it. A few weeks of bruised hips (and ego) later, I learned to clip in and out more easily. But being a beginner at anything was hard for me, as I’d internalized unrealistically high expectations of myself long ago. It would take me years to learn to give myself grace with cycling.
Over the next several months, we rode longer distances and climbed more hills. Val and other riders gave me tips and encouragement. And I’d stopped falling.
Riders ranged from their 20s to early 70s. Some were HIV-positive. No one cared if I was fit or fat, experienced or new to cycling, straight or gay or transgender, or White or anything else. What mattered was our shared cause and commitment. Together we laughed, cried, cursed, and pedaled through cold mornings, long hot days, and steep hills. My confidence grew slowly as the weeks went by. I was amazed that after just a few months I could ride 50, then 65, then 80 miles in a single day.
I fell in love with cycling. I loved feeling stronger, meeting each ride’s challenge, seeing the golden hills, pine trees and vineyards up close and through different seasons, and reveling in the good-natured camaraderie.
It wasn’t all roses. After one particularly grueling 88-mile ride on a hot day in May, a month before the Ride, I pedaled slowly into the parking lot, the last of the group to finish. Everything hurt. Other riders clapped and cheered, but I barely heard them. My husband Greg met me by the car, grinning and hooting. I slid off my bike, put my head– helmet and all– into his chest, and started sobbing. He wrapped his arms around me, holding me up.
“I can’t do this!” I mumbled into his chest.
He found my cheek with a kiss. “You just did, love.”
The week before the Ride, I was a bundle of nerves.
Was our training rigorous enough?
Would I be able to do the whole thing?
What if… what if… what if?
It wasn’t a race, but I didn’t want to be the last one in, ever again.
At dawn that first Sunday in June 2015, cheered by crowds lining the street, excited and anxious, I joined over 2,000 cyclists leaving San Francisco’s Cow Palace, headed through the fog over the hills to Santa Cruz. Averaging 82 miles a day through blustery winds, cold rain, and temperatures of under 40 to over 100 degrees, we pedaled our way to Los Angeles. Rest stops along the route provided welcome respites. Each had a theme, with costumed volunteers posing in playful tableaux or dancing to pulsing music, all of which was like a shot of energy, keeping me going.
I was moved to tears by locals lining the course, cheering us as we rode bumpy roads through rural towns, along fields of strawberries, lettuce, and artichokes, across mountain passes, and cruising the coastline. Some held signs with photos of lovers, sons, brothers, fathers, and occasionally women lost to AIDS. Playing loud dance music or the theme song to Rocky from boomboxes, they energized me. They sprayed us with water on hot days and offered Mylar blankets on cold, wet days. Some asked for photos with us, and hugged our tired sweaty bodies.
“THANK YOU!” they yelled at us, grateful for our dedication to ensure no one else would have to lose a loved one to this awful virus.
And the other cyclists themselves were a gift. “Love your tiara!” they hollered at me, nodding at the sparkling tiara I’d glued to my bike helmet. Strangers pushed each other up hills, fixed each other’s flats, shared snacks and water, greeted each other as they passed or were passed, offered hugs when others broke down crying. We all cried at some point along the ride— tears of pain and exhaustion, pride and joy, the beauty of the countryside, the tragedy of AIDS. I cried when I saw the ocean as we came over a hill near Morro Bay, an overwhelming mixture of awe, relief, and pride flooding my heart after 240 miles of cycling.
Painful saddle sores sent me to the ER at the end of Day 5 and kept me from riding the next day. But that evening I joined the AIDS candlelight vigil on Ventura Beach. It was cold and windy, the waves roaring and pounding. We stood together, candles raised and flickering, mourning our dead, hoping to save more lives. This was why I rode.
I crossed the finish line in West Hollywood the next day with my friends, a raised fist, and a huge smile. As a community, we’d raised $16.6 million. It was a milestone moment of pride and accomplishment, disbelief and gratitude. I was also exhausted, in pain, and ready to get off that damned bike. But something had changed in me. I’d confronted my fears and battled through bone-deep fatigue, lots of pain, and feelings of defeat. Even more importantly, I’d felt at home in this community, and wanted more of it.
Two months later I joined a different ALC team in Marin County and that team became my home. Over the next five years, I trained with them every weekend for nine out of 12 months. I rode every day of the Ride in 2017 and again in 2019 with no more medical issues.
It was in this team where I first heard “you belong here.” My heart swelled and my eyes filled with tears. It was not just a catch-phrase, created for the Ride by its marketers. It was how everyone treated each other. No one cared that I was a lesbian-partnered-with-a-man; they welcomed me fully as whoever I was. Finally, I belonged again. I’d found my tribe. Given its connection to HIV/AIDS, I felt I’d come full circle.
As a seasoned cyclist now, at 68, I just completed my fourth AIDS LifeCycle Ride this past June. It was glorious. I can’t wait for whatever comes next.
Ellen Schecter, PhD, is a retired psychologist. After a long career as an organizational and leadership consultant to corporations and clinical psychologist in private practice, she now lives in New Mexico with her husband, where she enjoys cycling, hiking, exploring her new home, and planning her next adventures.