AIDS/LifeCycle is a charity cycling event organized by San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Los Angeles LGBTQ center. Thousands of riders come together to ride 535mi/860km from San Francisco to Los Angeles. My friend Tyler did this a few years ago, and his travel blogs from that event got me intrigued. I wondered what an accomplishment it would be to pull this off, but I wasn’t sure if I’m up for it. This was back in 2021, half a year or so after I bought my road bike. I was already regularly riding, but 860km over 7 days felt like a whole new level.
The last mental hurdle was whether it’s disrespectful for me to join this event. AIDS is no more important a cause for me than any number of important social justice issues. My interest in this is really the challenge of riding. I talked to Tyler about this, and I justified it to myself thinking money I raise will be helpful for them.
The event was still good 4 months away. So I used it as a north star to work on my endurance. I took on progressively longer rides. I learned the pace in which I need to eat to function, and I learned what happens when I do not eat sufficiently, or when I get dehydrated. I took on a century ride, in which I befriended another rider who is also working toward this event. I attended a training ride day. I took on back to back rides. I climbed 700m every week, and practiced high speed descend.
Bit by bit, I built the confidence that I’m ready for this challenge. In my opinion, cycling is all about psychology.
The day before the ride out, I did a virtual fly by of the entire route in Google Earth, as a preview. It got me really excited. Finally, the event I’ve been looking forward to is happening! I have packed everything. My bike is tuned. New chains, new brakepads, and new sets of tires. I felt confidence, perhaps overly so. 15 years in the start-up world must have turned me into an optimistic person. I couldn’t imagine any outcome other than riding every mile on this journey on my bike and get to the finish line.
My wife and daughter was going to see me at the finish line, and that made me happy, too. I wanted to tell my daughter that if you set your mind on anything and work on it, you can achieve a lot of things. I thought perhaps that’d be an encouragement for a young woman who haven’t figured out what her life’s calling is.
I headed off to Cow Palace, dropped my bike, tested for COVID, got a negative result. That was one last hurdle, and now I was committed!
I woke up 4am, and lined up in the queue for the bus to Cow Palace. Early morning was chilly, we were in a bike outfit, which doesn’t withstand cold very well. The bus was a little late, and we all shivered in cold for 30mins.
There was an opening ceremony in Cow Palace. They carried a bike into the stage that symbolizes all the riders who were claimed by AIDS and no longer with us. A rider-less bike greatly emphasized the absence of the rider. They reminded us that we ride with them. As the narrator explains all this, his voice cracked a little and I could sense that he was trying to remain professional but he couldn’t contain all the emotions. That did it for me. I felt my eyes swell up. This community lost a lot of people to AIDS, and they still do. Not only just that, if you remember, AIDS in the early days was a very stigmatizing disease. This opening ceremony made me feel that suffering.
The roll out was nothing like I have ever experienced. Imagine two thousand riders and bikes all trying to come out of the small gate! As I finally rode off, I couldn’t contain the smile. So many people came out to send us off. Miles after we left Cow Palace, there were still people showing up on the road side and cheered us on. Even though the weather was drizzle, it felt great! I was told that the drizzle is supposed to be less than 0.1 inch/2mm. I was sure it’ll be gone in no time.
By the time I got on US-1 and started heading south alongside the Pacific ocean, the drizzle became full on rain. I started feeling really miserable. My socks were completely wet. Every time I pushed down, I felt that nasty feeling of squeezing water. This part of the ride was also in head wind. At one point, my camera broke down and it didn’t come on, presumably it got water in somewhere. I was so frustrated, because I was so looking forward to taking pictures during this 7 day trip. I stopped at a rest stop, but I was so cold I was shivering uncontrollably. That was the lowest point of the day.
But fortunately, by the lunch time, the rain stopped. Cloud and marine fog added mystic feel and gave me a number of picture-esque moments. I started feeling better. It also helped that I know this route from previous rides. Presumably because I’m lighter, I tend to be better at climbing, so on this route that goes up and down, I was able to overtake a plenty of riders. That also helped boost my confidence. I arrived at the camp site in Santa Cruz, and apparently I was within the first 10% to arrive.
Life in Camp
Every night, AIDS/LifeCycle sets up a camp. They hand out a tent to every two riders, and we set it up and sleep in it. They bring out the shower trucks, food catering, medical stations, porta potties, moving bike shops. The whole thing easily occupies a handful of baseball fields. That this much logistics is driven entirely by volunteers is mindboggling. I guess that’s what happens when you run the same event for a few decades.
I walked around this instant village for a while, then ventured out and found a local brewery, complete with live music! I sat there and enjoyed the dull fatigue in my muscle. Today was a comfortable 81mi/130km ride.
By my tent mate Tyler’s recommendation, we woke up at 4:15am, and got rolling at 6:20am as soon as the road opened.
The early morning in Santa Cruz was in dense fog. It felt mystical. I thought we could very well ride into Alice’s wonderland or something. I rode for a while with a local commuter and she was excited that we are all heading to LA. That made me happy.
As we left the city, the scenery changed to that of vast farmlands over rolling hills. I rode through huge strawberry fields and enjoyed the scent of them. Elsewhere, they were growing artichokes and lettuce. Farmers were busy at work from early morning. They too, like cyclists, want to avoid high temperatures and strong sun. At one point, I rode past a big harvester machine that slowly moved forward, as a dozen people on the ground busily picked up cabbage from the ground. They were blasting an uptempo Mexican music to keep the pace up. I loved seeing things like that.
The local market knew we were coming and served us artichokes and pies. I don’t know what they put in the dipping sauce but it was the best, ever. I also ended up having a pie. A good stop like that reminded me that this is not a race.
We left US-1 and rolled into Salinas, and then further south to King City. Today was the longest ride of 110mi/175km, that’s 5km longer than the longest ride I’ve done until that point. I knew I could do this, but I told myself I needed to go slow & steady. Luckily, we got an incredibly strong tailwind. I could pedal up to 40-50km/h on flat land and hardly felt any air! The pavement was miserable and the ride was bumpy, but that didn’t rob the joy out of this ride. I also rode together in a group of other cyclists, and I was happy that I pulled them.
When I arrived at the campsite, I still felt energetic enough that I could have kept going. This journey is going great for me so far.
Day 3 was an easy 65mi/105km ride. At 10mi/18km, there’s a big climb nicknamed “Quad buster”. The beginning of the climb is gentle and you gain about 200m, then the last bit is 8.5% incline gaining 140m. This was very much within what I can handle, but I stuck to slow & easy.
As I rolled down to the other side and started going through a country road, my right leg started hurting sharply when I pulled. The pain quickly deflated me. This was still day 3, and I still had a long way to go! I regretted getting carried away the day before. I didn’t need to go that fast. I should have stuck to slow & easy.
The lunch stop was at a local elementary school. They offered a fundraising lunch, I did my part, and I got to eat a hot burger in a shade. That made me feel better. Leg pain was also coming and going. When it was not bad, I pushed a little harder to cover the distance.
The road took us through a military base, which is basically giant land of nothing. The pavement remained mostly miserable, and my hands got pretty numb. I hated those long straight roads. You feel like you are not really moving. And the leg is hurting. I was feeling pretty low.
There was this one very steep but short climb. Over time, I learned my lesson that you should change into a lower gear before you start climbing, because changing gear when you are pushing a lot of power is a recipe for disaster. You do not have a lot of margin of error when you are going slow climbing up. So as I approached the bottom of the climb, I shifted down, I coasted and let the bike slow down naturally, preparing for a climb. As I did that, another rider took me over. He had a different plan; Go as fast while you are on flat, and muscle it over. Unfortunately for him and me, his plan didn’t work out. He rapidly decelerated as he went up, so much so that he became dangerously unstable. He was still on the “passing lane”, which is on my left. so I felt like I was blocked. That was a scary moment.
Past San Miguel, the last 20km section of the day was the most beautiful. The road was gently curving left and right, up and down, creating a change in scenery. They were growing grapes in this area, and there were many wineries featuring beautiful buildings. Occasionally, large trees casted big crisp shadows on the road. There were some livestocks. Lots of picturestops.
And just like that, I rolled into Paso Robles. Turns out this 65mi/105km wasn’t easy, but it worked.
For the first time in 3 days, I had the honor of setting up a tent. I took a shower, and ventured out to a local brewery to enjoy beer in an airconditioned indoor air. A couple came in, and from the wrist band we recognized each other that we were both participating in the same event. So we started talking.
Turns out only one of them is a rider, and the other guy is driving a car and following him to provide support. That way, every night they get to sleep in a nice hotel. How nice. I was also struck by his dedication to his partner. He’s doing this for a whole week! The rider was a talkative guy. So I really enjoyed this genuine conversation. He liked photography, he’s into Japan, we both obviously enjoy cycling. We had a lot in common.
As I was heading back from the brewery to a camp, I saw cyclists were still rolling in. The Sun was so bright it almost hurt. By this point, I realized that I’m on the capable side of the riders participating in this event. I seem to be always coming into the camp within the first 10% or so, the “quad buster” climb that they talked a lot about was a non-event. That made me proud.
At the same time, I felt ashamed. Most of the riders were going through a lot more suffering for the cause. By this point, I’ve run into a couple of scenes in which car drivers around us ask us what we are doing. And everyone describes it as (1) this is a fundraising event to fight AIDS, (2) we raised $17M, and (3) we are riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Always in that order. It was clear that the cause matters the most to them. They were so proud of how much money they were able to raise together. The joy of the ride seems secondary or even lower. They have a much higher moral motivation, and they are willing to go through a lot of misery for that. It made me deeply appreciate what they are doing.
Day 4 was a 90mi/145km ride. That’s a hefty distance. I have done a ride of this magnitude several times, but not after 3 days of intense riding.
I woke up feeling unmotivated. The sleep wasn’t great because the ground was uneven and hard. Still, I pushed myself. I woke up at 4:15am, got queued up at the gate by 6am.
As we waited for the road to open, I talked to a rider next to me. He was a veteran of ~10 times in 60s. He said he doesn’t know how long he can continue, but he’s hoping we develop a cure for AIDS and there will be one last AIDS/LifeCycle ride to celebrate that. I felt touched by that very thought.
We got going at 6:30am sharp. I was one of the first 20 riders out. The leg was doing fine in the beginning, but 5km in and as we started climbing toward the Pacific ocean, the sharp pain was back. I felt dismayed. I still got 140km to ride, including some good climbs. I tried not to think about all the rides ahead and to focus on the present. One stroke at a time. Left. Right. Left. Right.
The climb took us to the halfway point between SF and LA. Then the road descended toward the Pacific Ocean with a spectacular view. That high speed descent without pedaling made me forget the pain for a while and enjoyed the view. Gold, green, and blue. Colors of California.
At the bottom of the descent, we turned left and took US-1 south. US-1 is a high traffic road, so it was paved well, great, but as with any other high speed road, it was also very monotone. You could see that a gentle incline continues miles away. That’s really psychologically challenging. This was probably the lowest point in the day, and that’s when I came into a lunch stop.
A good long stop for a lunch rebuilt my energy. It was also a tailwind from there. I was flying, and next thing I know, I was descending down into Pismo Beach. I felt uplifted. People were having fun, and the Sun didn’t feel too bad with all the ocean breeze.
I took a lot of pictures, rested well at every pit stop from then on. By this point, the sharp leg pain was replaced by general fatigue all over my body. Even 1-2% climb, which in normal times nothing, felt like a major climb. I took them all on low gear. Eventually rode into Santa Maria.
Today, I have pushed myself so hard. I felt pretty proud.
I arrived at Santa Maria camp, took a shower, and I noticed I was coughing. I slept a little, and woke up feeling a little feverish. So I took the precautions and tested for COVID-19.
The result was positive. The staff said I cannot continue riding. Understandable, but very disappointing news, to say the least. I thought I was ready to finish this tour. For that to end abruptly like this… I didn’t know what to think nor what to feel.
I also felt ashamed. I thought about Tyler. I exposed him over the past few days, he could very well have it. I thought about the couple I talked to in the brewery yesterday. I exposed them, too. I had no idea where I caught it, but whatever that was, the intense riding and fatigue probably didn’t help my immune system. It also explains why I felt so tired today. I was already symptomatic.
But this was not a time to think. There were tons of things I needed to do. Find a hotel to stay that night. Small cities like this do not have a lot of hotels, and most of them were fully booked by this event’s participants who opted out of tents and decided to sleep in hotels. There was precisely one hotel left in the whole town, and it was a smoking room. Whatever. I booked the place before it’s gone. I had to pack up and prepare to leave. I had to tell the news to so many people. I went back to the tent, wore jeans for the first time I started this trip. I felt deflated as I dragged my heavy bag out of the camp, among the people who were in biker shorts, busy setting up their tents, and enjoying conversations. For everybody else this incredible journey will go on, but for me, it was over.
I remember thinking earlier in the week that even though we all get tested before the ride, with this many people it won’t be possible to keep it out of the bay. But I wasn’t expecting myself to be the one who caught it.
Tyler tested negative. I hope I didn’t infect him, nor other people. I’m glad I did the right thing by testing. The organizers were also very kind and helpful.
On the positive side, sleeping on a bed was amazing, and if I can ride 145km with a fever, I’d like to think that’s a testament of my will power to drive myself.
As I write this, I still haven’t fully digested what just happened. 4 days were too intense, and the end was too abrupt.
But one thing felt certain. I need to come back to this event next year, and finish what I started off.
So I just registered for next year’s event. I’m also far more invested in the cause, now that I’ve seen this community so up close, so I feel more OK to ask you this; If this writing touched you in any way, please donate to this cause from https://giving.aidslifecycle.org/participant/Kohsuke-Kawaguchi