7 day bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. 545 miles. That felt so crazy, so out of my reach. I attempted at this last year, only to catch COVID and retire. The first thing I did while I was lying in the bed was to sign up for the ride in 2023.
This was going to be the year in which I prevail.
First, I wanted to make sure I’m fit enough to finish this challenging ride. I wasn’t sure how much of the suffering last year was due to the illness, and how much was due to the lack of fitness. So I trained even harder than the last year toward this ride. Multiple 100 miles rides. 130 miles ride. Back to back rides.
And a few weeks leading up to the ride, I was very careful not to catch COVID.
Day 1: San Francisco → Santa Cruz
The day of the ride out, I woke up 4am and drove to Cow Palace, where the ride starts. The sky was dawning as I arrived. Long lines of cars were already there, dropping off riders. I felt the excitement and growing nervousness. This was going to be a big journey, the kind that I have never taken on before.
The ride out was a big ceremony. The riders lined up, and on 6:30 the road opened and people got going. This year there were 1500 riders, so it took a while for all of them to roll out. I was able to position close to the front, right next to Tyler, so we were able to ride out together.
People were cheering from the sidelines. Making noises, blowing soap bubbles on your way, waving, … It was a wonderful feeling. Hard not to get emotional as I set out to take on the longest bicycle journey I have ever contemplated.
The day 1 was “easy” 81 miles from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, over a road that I’m used to. Last year, this day was a miserable wet weather, but this year, the weather was perfect for riding Not too hot, not too cold, overcast.
One of the things I was mindful this year was to stay at the endurance pace and not to overextend myself. 80 mile ride is nothing for me, but I had to sustain rides of this magnitude for the whole week. Every time I felt I went too fast, I intentionally tried using photo stops to reset my mental state. This was not a race.
I also tried to stop at local food stops to have additional food time & rest. When I ride solo, eating is key attraction. AIDS/LifeCycle is a fully supported ride, meaning the fantastic volunteers set up regular rest stops, but those are snacks, and there’s no chairs to sit down on. I thought additional food stops would help me maintain the energy level, and give me long enough breaks to rest my body.
On this day, I saw a pie stop en route, so I stopped and ate a pie. Right before Santa Cruz, I made a short detour to a local brewery to enjoy a pint.
I arrived at the camp around 3pm. So far, so good.
Day 2: Santa Cruz → King City
We woke up 4:15am, had a breakfast, packed up & torn down the tent. The life at AIDS/LifeCycle is all about forming a line and waiting for your turn. Food. Shower. Porto potty. Ride out. Everything has a line. We were out on the road as soon as the road open.
As we entered Capitola, I saw an unofficial coffee stop. I talked a little bit with the host of this stop, and he said he discovered this event 20 years ago, and as soon as he heard about it, he decided to get his coffee shop involved. He said this is the best day of the year. I found it wonderful that this event is so important to him that he’s been doing this for two decades.
Once we left the cities, the land became vast. Day 2 is the longest ride. 110 miles. We went through endless farm lands, and the pavement was poor. I was particularly careful not to overextend myself, like I did last year.
At various sections, I was able to find other riders to work with, to speed up & save energy, including a man who I worked with yesterday. Other times, trying to find a ride mate was not so successful. Some riders didn’t want me behind them. Maybe I was too close to their comfort level? Or maybe they were creeped out when they found a stranger on their tail? I tried seeking their permission to ride behind upfront, but that had a mixed result, too.
As I rolled out from the lunch stop, I saw a local old lady who was offering free hugs to everyone. I talked to her for a bit, and she shared her story with me. She said she lost her only son to AIDS 12 years ago. And so she started getting involved with this event. A few years back, one of the riders crashed and suffered a major injury. He was hospitalized here in Salinas, where he doesn’t know anybody. She cared for him, and since then they developed a special bond and it’s as if he’s her son. I was touched by this story where AIDS claimed her son but AIDS/LifeCycle gave him another son. So many people en route had stories like this.
Near the 3rd rest stop, I decided to stop by a local restaurant and have better food and beer. As I was savoring, two ride volunteers came in, and we chatted a little. Her son and his husband did this ride a year ago, so she decided to volunteer this year, and brought her niece along. Over the whole week I developed a real friendship with them. If I didn’t take a detour this wouldn’t have happened.
Day 3: King City → Paso Robles
Last year, this was the day I started developing a leg pain. I was relieved to find out that this year I was feeling great. Either my training is paying off, or maybe it was due to COVID.
Day 3 features a major climb dubbed “quad buster”. For me, however, this is actually not all that bad. I’ve been regularly taking on far more serious climbs.
As we rolled out, Tyler challenged me how many times I’m going to repeat this climb. Every year, capable riders make the point of going up the hill, then instead of continuing on, they turn around, come back down, and redo the climb. I told him calmly that my goal this year is to ride every inch from SF to LA, and that I’m old/wise enough I don’t need to prove myself by quad buster repeats.
But as I climbed up the quad buster, I found myself thinking about it. I wasn’t feeling any body pains. It felt like a totally achievable challenge. I should have enough time. Why not? So I did.
As I descended down, riders who are climbing cheers you. People told me, wow you are a strong rider, you make it look so easy, etc. It made me a small scale hero, and I have to say it felt good!
The day got miserable from there, though, because the rain started coming down on us hard. This section of the road is fairly straight, and you can see miles ahead. I just turned off my mind and kept on pedaling. I found the hot coffee at one of the rest stops. That was incredible.
By the lunch time, the weather got better, and the life started feeling beautiful again. As I ride out from lunch, it was as if somebody turned on the light switch, and the sun came out, instantly making the world brighter. I still vividly remember that instant.
I made a brief stop toward the end at a local brewery, where I met a wonderful gay couple last year. They weren’t participating to AIDS/LifeCycle this year, but I wrote to them from the same brewery, that I was thinking about them. It’s the human connections that make these rides worthwhile.
Day 4: Paso Robles → Santa Maria
This day last year was really miserable for me, because I was feeling so weak from the illness. This year, I continued to feel great. I took this 90 miles ride with grace!
In fact I enjoyed this day very much; Early morning, after passing the half way mark to LA, we descended down a long smooth road toward the Pacific ocean. Ocean! There’s something exhilarating about that.
We then rode along the sea at various sections. Beach towns were full of nice stops. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops. I stopped at several of those places. I met several more local people who were supportive of the event.
All these food stops have changed my approach to the ride completely. Earlier, I was focused on getting to the next camp as sustainably fast as possible. Now I’m focusing on using up all the time that the road is open (6:30am to 6pm) to experience the journey as much as possible. It brought back serendipity to the journey that I so love.
Day 5: Santa Maria → Lompoc
I was emboldened with the idea of additional stops, on this day I decided to take it further. The official route today was mere 40 miles, so I added 20 extra miles to head to the beach.
I went through the middle of a huge farm. Some of the land was used to grow flowers, which made the ride extra pleasant. As I headed toward the ocean, the road got very straight and very quiet. No traffic in sight. Just some head wind. So once again I turned off my mind and kept on pedaling. Don’t push it too hard, just take it slow & easy.
I wasn’t expecting to find anything at the end of the road, but turned out there was an Amtrak station on the beach. I loved it. There was a young man sitting in a bench enjoying the day. We exchanged a few short words. Simple things like that made my day.
I made another brewery stop toward the end of the ride, when I resumed riding and started the last few miles toward the camp, the sun came out and made the sky blue. The warmth felt so good that suddenly I didn’t want to end the ride for the day any more. There were only two more days left. The day was still young and maybe I can still go somewhere…? I turned right into a random bike trail, and strolled around the neighborhood for a while.
I briefly thought about taking another 2-3 hours to visit Solvang, but decided that that was too much.
Day 6: Lompoc → Ventura
On this day, we crossed another mountain range to south and descended down once again toward the Pacific ocean. The route then headed east, along the ocean.
We had to ride on US-101 highway shoulders a lot, and that’s nerve racking. There’s no way to detour, no places to stop, and I’m either passing somebody worrying about cars on the left, or I’m getting passed and trying to make enough room for riders, hoping that there won’t be any sudden narrowing of the shoulder, which happens from time to time!
So when we finally left the highway and rolled into Goleta, which is UC Santa Barbara college town, I decided to take a bit of detour into the town. I had my 2nd lunch in a ramen place, and I followed college kids toward UCSB. The campus was full of bicycles, and cycling roads were everywhere. I’ve been here for my daughter’s college tour, and I wanted to celebrate this milestone that I rode my bike all the way to here, when I previously traveled here by airplane.
I took another detour to visit Santa Barbara. I rode through the main street, where no cars were allowed, and eventually got to the old mission. This downtown ride was wonderful. It was full of picture spots. The vibe of the town is really what I think of SoCal; Palm trees, white building walls, deep orange roofs. Surfing, skateboarding, beer!
Santa Barbara to Venture saw some of the most beautiful scenes of the ride. There was a bike trail along US-101, which gently curved right, hugging one bay after another. You see some beach houses here and there. If the weather was better I should be able to see Channel islands, but I don’t remember seeing them.
Wind was on our back the whole time. Really lovely day.
Day 7: Ventura → Santa Monica
The last day begun like any other day. This was a short 100km ride. I was a little sad that this is going to be over soon, but I was also glad that I get to complete this epic ride successfully.
The entire ride was along the coast. On this weekend, the weather was not great, but surfers and beach goers were still out, creating a peaceful scene. As we rolled into Malibu, the car traffic picked up and so are parked cars. It got difficult to make rapid stops for pictures, and I had to ride a lot more carefully.
I stopped by a local coffee shop, and another customer casually asked where am I riding from. I was proud to answer that I’m riding from San Francisco to Santa Monica over a week. She was awestruck. I was hoping I get to do this at least once during the week.
At the last rest stop, I reunited with Tyler, and rode together the last few miles toward the goal line. As soon as we got into Santa Monica, the scene became even more “SoCal”, and I started feeling really upbeat.
I wish I could have some photo stops, but I thought it was more important to ride with Tyler. He rides so fast and he never seems to be interested in riding with me, so this doesn’t happen often.
The goal line was set up in a parking lot past Santa Monica beach, and people were out in full force. So many people with hand made banners, cow bells, pom poms, bubble makers, whatever. There were even cheerleaders! I have never ridden with so many supporters around you. My wife and my daughter were there, too.
And just like that, my whole week has ended.
I stayed at a hotel near the goal line for the night. The morning after, we went out back to the beach. Sunday morning in Santa Monica beach was quiet, and the wind was calm.
The parking lot was back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened. The whole week was gone, just like that. For a moment it made me wonder if everything was just my dream.
I’m still not fully sure what to make of this intense, unreal week.
Going in, 550 miles / 900km ride felt astronomical. But now that I completed it, it didn’t particularly feel like a challenging goal. I wish I could be more proud of this accomplishment, but as is so often the case with me and my achievements, they just don’t seem worth all that much once I achieved them.
But the event was truly something. As participants often say, there was a definite bubble that separated this ride from everyday life. Everyone was so kind, so friendly, and so affectionate. People were so free, and so unapologetically themselves, it was inspiring. Not that I feel particularly oppressed, but such display of utter defiance to the social norm is encouraging. It makes you brave. Because in this ride, as a straight man, I’m a minority to the large group of LGBTQ people, so I’m keenly aware of what it feels like to be a minority.
I also got to know so many people, at varying depth. This event meant so much to so many people, in their own deeply personal ways. That was clear in their stories they shared with me. Many of them have been a part of this event for longer than a decade, sometimes two. Even after their age no longer allows them to participate as cyclists, they still show up in some capacities, sometimes unofficially. Collective they shape the culture of this event.
This is not a cycling event. This is something so much bigger that just happens to have the cycling component in it. It was another worldly.
I’m pretty sure I’ll want to come back to this event next year.