For the past 14 years, during the first week in June, nearly 3,000 men and women meet to begin one heroic challenge and one common goal: riding a bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles to help end AIDS and HIV.
Orientation, day one, a whirlwind of what was I thinking, followed by…where did these people come from….followed by….does his jersey really say that… followed by an astounding sense of trust and love.
I started the day two climb. We were 30 miles into the day. I was used to riding flat and not prepared for the challenge I had in front of me. Directly in front of me.
I wasn’t thinking about quad-busters, or what they call the evil twins, I was taking it mile by mile on a bad knee. The climb was probably nothing to a seasoned cyclist, but for me it looked as if I was hitting a stage of the Tour de France. It’s okay. I got over it—literally.
So there I was, four miles into this obscene grind (obscene by my standards) and I saw another rider pulled over on the road. I stopped to check on him, and if I may be completely honest, take a break. I didn’t like to stop on climbs for fear that my bike wouldn’t move forward again.
Oddly enough he asked me if I was okay. I told him that my knee was not thrilled with me. I tried to hide the pain.
“What are you in for?” I asked. He said “I need a breather. Cancer.” He tried to hide his exhaustion.
I extended my hand and unknowingly part of my heart to him. “I’m Ronna. “ “Nick.” We were both out of breath and nearly spent. He looked tired. I knew I was. I asked him if he had a full bottle of water to drink. “Drink,” I said. “We get to the top together. I’m not finishing without you.” It was at that moment I started to understand the community that is Aids/Lifecycle.
Aids/Lifecycle isn’t just a fundraising event. Yes, they have training rides to teach you how become better in group rides. It showed be how to become better in groups of people. Period. You see, Aids/lifecycle is indeed a community. It is an awareness. It is the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever been honored to be a part of.
When I was trudging up that climb, thinking that my body was going to collapse, I thought of the cyclists who were HIV positive. I thought of the men and women who couldn’t ride because they had become too sick or who had just lost their partner. I thought of my own close call.
I thought of the riders who rode so that when my heterosexual, non-drug-using boyfriend lied to me about his HIV status, I had help. My apologies for putting a dent in the stigma, but he was not gay. He is the reason I ride.
Most of the ride was truly surreal. I wouldn’t think that there were words for the feeling I had when Nick and I clipped back in to get to the top of that climb, but I would liken it to being in the front row of Wembley Stadium and Liam Gallagher (insert name of favorite rock star here) looks you in the eye while he’s belting out…oh…anything.
The following days allowed me time with the sports medicine tent. Adhesive spray, KT Tape and mass quantities of ice and Advil were involved. My knee wasn’t sexy, but I kept my spirit up.
Day six I rode almost every mile. I did not know it would be the night my life would forever change. That night at the dinner tent a story was told about a woman. I had come in a bit late and didn’t hear the start of it, or even her name, but I heard what I needed to hear. They told my story that night; my reason for riding, only her ending was not the same. She died. Her life was cut short. She is my reason for riding. She is the reason I tell my story now. She is why I need to be part of the solution and end the stigma. She is my hero.
Fifty miles in I was on the last day of the ride. It was as beautiful as it was painful. My leg was now taped from mid-calf to thigh, and blistered from my knee up.
I was fighting my way down the Pacific Coast Highway as I saw our team captain for UTAC, Until There’s A Cure. We pulled over because I needed to smoke, and I did. Full cycling kit. PCH. Two thousand cyclists, and a cigarette.
And as I clipped out off my bike, and put my right foot down, barely grazing the ground a pain unlike anything I can recall started in my toes and shot up my leg. I doubled over. There was no putting pressure of any kind on my foot—but I could pedal. The guys looked at me. ”Do you want to sweep in?” No. No fucking way. I’m nine miles out. I didn’t know how, but I was going to finish. Because she couldn’t.
I put out my Camel Light with my good foot, loosened the buckles on my shoes and clipped in.
Motor safety carried both me and my bike through the PCH tunnel.The last grind was less than a mile away. I should take this moment to point out that nothing feels worse to an injured knee than any type of climb, except maybe a sledgehammer. I looked up at Chattaqua Street. It wasn’t going to happen.
I got a quarter of the way up and just as I was about to lay my bike down, I felt a hand on my back and a voice said, “C’mon girl you’ve got this”! And that hand pushed me to the top of Chattaqua Street. Do you know that I never even saw his face?
The last three miles were grueling. The moment I crossed that finish line was bittersweet. My eyes welled up with tears of relief, pain, and pure joy. My heart filled with accomplishment. There is nothing to describe what ALC gave me that week, and there may be no way I can ever give back to the people who have changed my life forever.
All I can do is keep fighting for those who can’t. And I will not stop until we, together, have won the fight.