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Ride report: AIDS/LifeCycle 8


For my fourth ALC ride, I wanted to shake things up a bit and have a few things be different. But I never imagined that they would be this different.

Going into this year's ride, I knew that my training had not been all that it should have been. Some of that was simple laziness on my part, some of it was due to our freakish weather, and some of it was due to the illness that hit me just one month before the ride, when I should have been near my peak. So I had no delusions about riding every mile or riding faster than before, even with my new bike that had not yet seen an ALC ride.

Most of all, however, I wanted this year's ride to be fun -- a quality that often was lacking in my rides of previous years.

So it was with lowered expectations -- and more than a little trepidation -- that I set out on Day 1 last Sunday.

The weather was among the worst starts in recent years, with thick fog that turned in to a light drizzle from time to time. I managed to get a prime position at the start, so I was ahead of nearly all of the other riders, and this gave me a somewhat less-stressful trip out of San Francisco, where sheer congestion often slows riders down and sometimes even causes collisions.

I was pleased to make it all the way up the 1.2-mile Highway 92 climb without stopping, and I was early enough that there wasn't a traffic jam on the ugly part of the highway into Half Moon Bay. Nonetheless, I was getting in and out of rest stops quickly, and I was at lunch on the beach at San Gregorio before 11 a.m. The short but moderately steep rolling hills of Highway 1 were annoying enough to take very slowly, but I still rolled into camp at Santa Cruz a full hour ahead of last year, and at a pace that was just about the same. (And I set a new top speed on my bicycle -- 31.5 mph, a pace that I did not match for the rest of the week.)

This was all well and good, because it then gave me more than two hours to sit in camp and greet other riders while waiting for ... my ride home?! Yes, after Day 1 this year, I went back home to Mountain View for the night, to get to bed early and enjoy my own comfortable bed. I got about seven hours of mostly sound sleep, and I definitely felt rested for the next day. But also, since I didn't bring any luggage with me on Day 1 (why would I?), the beginning of Day 2 felt more like the actual beginning of the ride for me as I hauled my backpack across camp to my gear truck.

So, with Day 1 under my belt, I approached the 108 miles of Day 2 with more trepidation. But I quickly fell into the same routine: Ride at a reasonable pace, don't linger at rest stops, and plow on through. This served me well through the first half of the day, and I was again at lunch very early. From here, however, the day got more difficult -- the wind was not as favorable to us as in past years, and the rigors of consecutive days of riding were beginning to catch up with me. (I had not done two consecutive long-mileage days during the training season -- a serious error on my part.)

Around mile 54, shortly after turning onto River Road, I felt the need to stop at the only gas station on the road and sit for a couple of minutes while having one of my "emergency" energy gels. (This is the same gas station that serves as Control 1 on the Santa Cruz Randonneurs 200k Chualar ride that I did last summer.) While there, a random passer-by asked me about the ride and was highly supportive -- the first of several times this happened while I was at places other than official ALC rest stops. That gave me the motivation to press forward -- again, apparently somewhat slowly and deliberately. The terrain around mile 70 of the ride is hugely deceptive; the road looks flat, but it's actually a fairly moderate ascent, causing one's speed to drop considerably for no apparent reason. But after Rest Stop 4 (where I got my picture taken with the cast this year!) and the turn onto Metz Road, the final ride into King City was exhilarating with awesome tailwinds. In the end, my speed for the day was slightly faster than last year's pace, and I appeared to be in about the first 30% of riders who had arrived in camp.

That's where the next change came -- I went to the gear truck, grabbed my backpack, changed from cycling shoes into street shoes, and walked the half-mile to my hotel for the night. I had pre-booked hotels for the remainder of the trip, reserving rooms as early as last October to get spots that were somewhat close to camp in most cities. And instead of the free food in camp, I walked across the street to Denny's to indulge in a long-abandoned guilty pleasure of mine: the Super Bird chicken sandwich, with fries and a salad.

After another somewhat fitful night of sleep in a real bed, I returned to camp early enough to be among the first 25 or so riders to start Day 3 promptly at 6:30 a.m. The first 12 miles of the route are almost entirely uphill, culminating in the 1.2-mile "Quadbuster" climb that ranges generally from an 8% to 10% grade. Perhaps I could have made it up Quadbuster all at once, but I felt no need to even make the attempt, so I stopped several times to take pictures of the scene. After that came about 22 miles of mostly gentle terrain, past Rest Stop 3, where regular gas was selling for $3.69 this year compared to $5.29 last year. The descent back to Highway 101 filled me with dread; last year, I very nearly lost control at almost 30 mph. This year, I took it much more gingerly and descended without incident, even if everyone else was wondering why that guy with the nice bicycle was going so bloody slow on such a wonderful hill.

A mile of freeway riding on 101 took us into the small town of Bradley for lunch, and even though I was somewhat early, the line to get burgers from the local school was easily an hour long, as usual. So I again did the routine I started last year: I walked directly up to one of the cashiers at the head of the line, gave her $10, and told her not to worry about getting me any food -- and then I walked next door to eat the free lunch that ALC was providing to those who weren't eating as part of the local fundraiser. Best of both worlds, if you will.

While eating lunch, however, other riders were starting to point at the sky. Off in the distance, the sky was getting dark. Dark as in Midwestern-style storm dark. That was my cue to hurry up and finish eating and get back on the road, thus jumping ahead of the several hundred riders still waiting for a burger. And indeed, on the 5-mile stretch of old El Camino Real south of Bradley, I had the road seemingly to myself for almost the entire distance -- a solitude that's rare on ALC. The solitude was tempered, however, by noticing that the dark clouds seemed to be coming closer. And by thinking about what was ahead -- our return to Highway 101.

South of Camp Roberts, the shoulder of U.S. 101 is in a condition that can only be described as disastrous. The original concrete slabs that were used more than 50 years ago to create the freeway are still there, but they are deteriorating. And they've come apart, so asphalt was used to fill in the holes, but winter frost has caused the asphalt to expand and leave massive bumps every few feet. The result is a ride that's painful at best and extremely dangerous at worst, given the traffic going at least 70 mph just a few feet to one's left. There's a narrow strip of pavement just to the right of the white line that's not so bad for riding, and that's where I and most other riders try to go. And to make things worse, the pavement was freshly wet, apparently from the storm that was playing hide-and-seek with us. (The photo is from the not-so-bad -- and still dry -- part before Bradley.)

But of course, I'm not the fastest rider, so when other riders came up behind me, there was a problem. If I stayed where I was, I was blocking the progress of other riders. But if I moved to the right, I was smack in the middle of the bumps and holes that were potentially serious enough to damage me and/or my bicycle. I looked back often to see if anyone was approaching and, if so, I tried to find a spot where the pavement wasn't so bad and I could briefly move to the right.

Then I heard a shout behind me. "Right!" And a rider passed me on my right. Yes, my right. That's strictly against ALC rules -- and against common sense. Then I heard another shout. "Left!" And a rider wearing the same matching jersey as the first rider passed me on my left -- by crossing the white line and going to a lane of freeway traffic. And then another shout. "Move over!" By now I was somewhat flustered, and I moved over quickly without really looking -- right into a large pothole. I called out a nasty four-letter word very loudly as the third rider -- in the same matching jersey -- passed me. "Keep pedaling!" he yelled as I desperately tried to avoid falling over when coming out of the pothole and back into the minefield of bumps and holes. Thankfully, I avoided further incident, but my mood was soured, and my bicycle was quickly getting covered in mud and grime from the wet pavement.

So as I pulled into Rest Stop 4 in the little town of San Miguel, I was in no mood for entertainment. I wanted to get my bike clean and get back on the road. The cast of Rest Stop 4 had gone all out in today's theme, which apparently centered on flight attendants for the fictional "Tran Am," and there was some type of show going on. I just wasn't feeling it, and I didn't even stop to watch as I got a fresh bottle of water and walked back over to clean the grime out of my brakes and from above my front wheel. This was a shame, because apparently this particular rest stop was the overwhelming crowd favorite of the week -- and I was too wrapped up in frustration to even notice it.

This year's route from San Miguel to Paso Robles was new to me (as predicted earlier on this blog) -- a return to Highway 101. But there was a new and scary 15% hill to get there; it was mercifully short, but it started to rain somewhat significantly as I climbed the one-block hill. I pulled into a gas station at the top of the hill to take shelter under a canopy and a change into my windbreaker, and another passer-by asked about the ride and was impressed by what we were doing. After a few minutes, the rain subsided into a merely annoying drizzle, and I headed back to the freeway for the final few (surprisingly hilly) miles into Paso Robles, where again it started to sprinkle as I reached camp, roughly 10% slower than last year's Day 3.

As I've done every year in Paso Robles, I headed to a nearby hotel for the night, but I returned to camp for training ride leader pictures and to hear the evening announcements. I stopped by the massage tent and was pleasantly surprised to find an opening for the one 15-minute massage I was allowed for the week. I was mildly amused that massage therapist Nick was confounded by my leg pain, which was in horizontal lines just below my tan line on both legs, not oriented vertically as one might expect.

Also in Paso Robles, this was the one night of the week that I shared my room with someone else: Jack, who wanted a quiet night and electrical sockets to recharge his gear. We had some pleasant conversation about the ride and our backgrounds -- but more importantly, we both slept soundly, which was what we were there for.

As Day 4 (at 94 miles, the second-longest day of the ride) began, the bike technicians in camp had thoughtfully set up spots for us to wash our bikes after the grime of the previous day. I had some extra time, because we were told that the 6:30 a.m. opening of the route had been delayed. Due to construction on our route out of the city -- which I wrote about in April -- one lane of the road had been torn up and was all gravel. We were supposed to get police support to do one-way traffic control so we could ride on the paved side of the street, but it didn't happen in time for the early riders, so we had to walk our bikes for about a quarter-mile.

After that came the Evil Twins, the long ascent to 1,762 feet that marks the symbolic halfway point of the ride. Much to my surprise, I did the entire 5-mile climb without stopping, even though I purposely took it very slowly and in my lowest gear so as to avoid irritating my legs. But because I had gone so slowly, the lines at "Halfway to L.A." were already very long, and I didn't feel like waiting, so I took off on the longest descent of the week, a thrilling 9-mile ride down to the coast and Highway 1. Again, I feathered my brakes nearly all the way down, never exceeding 29 mph (I passed nobody, but dozens passed me), and I reached sea level without incident.

Then came the incident.

I was rolling southbound on Highway 1 at a fairly good tailwind-assisted speed, and I was just a mile away from Rest Stop 2 as the shoreline opened up in a cascade of scenic vistas. It was time for a picture, so I quickly signaled that I was stopping, and I stopped, and I dismounted. And I heard my right leg go snap as an unbelievable pain shot up the side of my body. What had I done? I had no idea, but I was standing there grinning madly and still giving the thumbs-up sign to the dozens of riders who were passing me. I tried to stand on my right leg. No way. Had I broken it? Fear turned into panic as I continued to give the thumbs-up. I tried moving the leg from side to side, and the pain was incredible. After a minute or so, I was able to stand on both legs without much pain. I wondered what to do.

The rest stop was only a mile away, so I figured I could make it there pedaling with just one foot if necessary. I slowly and carefully got back on my bike and started to pedal very, very slowly. Much to my surprise, it didn't hurt much. I was able to make it all the way to the rest stop without further trouble, but when I stopped and dismounted there, I could only limp very slowly to bike parking, and from there it took several minutes to limp the long distance across the rest stop (why is everything so bloody far away from everything else at the rest stops!?) to the medical tent.

I explained my situation, and the medical volunteer said, "We're going to sag you to lunch," where a more extensively-staffed medical unit was available. But what if I didn't really need that? Perhaps I had merely pulled a muscle and could massage it back to health? "If you stand here, you're going to get sagged," I was told. (I think I'm paraphrasing there.) Could I work on myself until the rest stop closing time -- still two hours away -- to see if I might improve? "Sure." I hobbled to the back of the medical area and took two folding chairs, raised my right leg, and began to gingerly massage it. Sitting next to me was a rider who was being pulled from the route for the whole day, although I never quite found out why. He was not a happy rider, and the medical volunteers were trying to make him feel better. I pointed out that he was wearing the jersey given only to riders who had raised $5,000 or more, and I reminded him that was what really mattered. I don't think he was buying it.

I worked on my leg for almost an hour, stopping occasionally to try to take a short walk around that part of the rest stop. I could feel that I was making steady progress, but it was very slow, and walking was still very painful. Might I be able to make it the 16 miles to lunch by myself? I finally decided to give it a try, because I was still (perhaps foolishly) committed to trying to ride Every Friendly Inch. At my slower pace, however, I was facing the very real threat of missing a closing time and being taken off the route anyway.

After 12 miles, I reached Morro Bay, and I was hungry -- and not feeling particularly social. As I went by a small shopping center, I pulled in to a Subway and had a foot-long meatball sandwich. Yet another passer-by asked, "Are you one of the AIDS riders?" They, too, offered their congratulations to me. The comfort food made me feel somewhat better, and my walking wasn't getting any worse. More importantly, my cycling didn't really seem to be affected all that much anymore. But I still was facing time constraints, and the long "lunch" stop was approaching. So I did something I'd never done before: When I arrived at lunch, I called out to the parking volunteer that I was skipping lunch and desiring to ride on through. She was understandably surprised, but she waved me on by, and I immediately gained about an hour on the clock -- but I also lost the opportunity to visit the medical tent. (Opportunity or danger? I could have been pulled from the ride.)

After a brief detour through Camp SLO -- an active military installation where we were prohibited from stopping or even taking pictures -- I passed through San Luis Obispo with a very favorable tailwind and started to head south toward Pismo Beach. At mile 60, I rounded a corner and saw a surprising and welcome sight -- the "Disney" sweep vehicle belonging to Cindy, who had rescued me twice during our Altamont Pass Double Metric in May. We hugged and chatted, and I told her my story. She was surprised that I was still riding, and she offered me a ride. I was strongly tempted, but I declined, especially since another rest stop was just a mile away. I did, however, ask for a ride to my hotel later that evening, since it was about a mile away, and there was no way that I was going to be able to walk that far with a heavy backpack.

At the rest stop, I dismounted and found that walking was somewhat less difficult. While I was massaging my leg, other riders started to come up to me and say, "I heard about your leg!" As far as I can remember, I had only told a couple of people, and I had put it on this blog. Word travels quickly in ALC land!

By now, I was determined to make it through the rest of the day. After stopping at a 7-Eleven in Pismo Beach to buy a fresh stick of lip balm -- where another rider said he'd heard about my leg -- I was somewhat confident that I could finish the route by the 7 p.m. cutoff time. Then there was something new. To get from sea level to inland for the rest of the day's ride, we have to climb about 200 feet. In 2006 and 2007, we went on a long but moderate climb up Highway 1. Last year, we lost permission for that route and took a longer route that had a couple of moderate climbs. But this year we went a completely different way: on Halcyon Road, which I'm told had been used in the old California AIDS Rides and was nicknamed "Agony Hill." I quickly found out why.

As I rounded a corner and looked ahead, a massive hill confronted me dead-on. If you know the Arguello hill in San Francisco that's right before the entrance to the Presidio, imagine a hill that steep (maybe 15%?) but perhaps five or six times longer. I unclipped my right foot from my pedal so that I could stop quickly at slow speed if necessary, and I began to slog my way up the hill. Stopping was pointless, because it would be nearly impossible to begin pedaling again on such a steep incline. Staying clipped in was dangerous due to the risk of falling over. Surprisingly, however, the only pain I felt while doing the climb was back in the horizontal-pain areas of the previous day. My damaged right leg didn't really bother me, and I made it to the top, so exhausted that I stopped for several minutes -- and blogged about it, of course.

The final 24 miles of Day 4 were mostly uneventful if not overly exciting, and I arrived in camp much later than usual but still well within the cutoff time. After parking my bike, I decided that my reserved hotel could wait, and I hobbled directly to the sports medicine tent. The wait was about 45 minutes, and this gave me plenty of time for high anxiety over my fate. Had I permanently damaged a serious muscle? Was I about to be shipped off for X-rays? Surgery? Was my ride over? Was my riding over for good? My mind was in unpleasant places, and I was still hot, sweaty, and dirty from riding.

Finally, my name was called, and I told my story to the sports medicine volunteer therapist. She started feeling around and quickly made a diagnosis: I had suffered a second-degree tear of my soleus, an interior muscle that was behind the larger gastrocnemius muscle. And she was most impressed at the sheer bulk of my gastrocnemius, the large muscle at the rear of the lower leg. She even had trouble finding my soleus. And this was good news and bad news -- good because the soleus was only a minor muscle that would heal itself within a few days, and bad because any type of external treatment such as icing would have little effect because it couldn't penetrate my massive gastrocnemius (aka my Legs of Steel -- it's official because Sports Medicine said so!). "You're not going to die," the therapist said, "and you can keep riding if you wish." Just avoid soft ground, she said, which was no surprise to me, because the bumps and holes of soft grass was especially irritating to my leg. Alas, most of our rest stops and camps are full of soft ground. Cindy returned to give me a ride to my hotel, where I ordered a pizza for delivery and was asleep by 10 p.m.

Day 5 was all new this year, a longer 67-mile route that had been selected to bypass a school in the small town of Casmalia. (Why did we need to go 25 miles out of our way just for that? I don't know, but I've always suspected that there was some other reason, perhaps connected to nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. It's just one of those things that we apparently do not need to know about.) Fortunately, my leg seemed to be slightly better in the morning, and after yet another gracious ride from Cindy back to camp, I was on the road at about 7 a.m. for Red Dress Day -- which for me, as usual, was merely Red Jersey and Red Gloves Day.

The long climb up Foxen Canyon Road was annoying and slow, the long and gentle descent into Solvang was nice, the much-feared headwinds to Lompoc largely failed to materialize, and the incessant small hills of Santa Rosa Road were annoying and slow. I vaguely recall rolling in to Lompoc in mid-afternoon, but the day was mostly a blur to me as I focused on trying to not aggravate my sore leg, which was still a bit sore but slowly improving. And I was still touched and amazed that nearly everyone I knew was asking about the leg! This for me was perhaps the most gratifying part of the entire week -- that I have so many friends on the ride who care about me. I'd write more about that topic, but I'd quickly get all mushy.

Lompoc is the only city where our camp is a long way from the actual town -- at least a mile to anything, and more like 3 or 4 miles to most everything else. Various attempts have been made in past years to run city buses and private shuttles between the camp and town, and I was fortunate to quickly get a seat in a private vehicle that was shuttling riders. This year's effort was organized by a local high school's cheerleading booster club, and as the mother/driver explained to me, the local car dealer that provided vehicles last year did not do so this year, so the parents had to quickly muster a fleet of their own vehicles. The rides were officially free, but a donation cup was available, so I quickly and very silently put a folded $10 bill in the cup as I exited at my motel.

When I checked in at the Motel 6, I walked by the laundry machines and saw that they were not in use. Score! Even before going to my room, I opened my backpack and gathered all of the dirty clothing. I removed my jersey of the day and put on a T-shirt, and I loaded all of the clothes into the washer and then went to my room. My favorite pizza place in Lompoc was only about a quarter-mile from the motel, and after I put the laundry in the dryer, I was able to walk there with just a little bit of pain and only a slight limp. I walked back to the motel, gathered my laundry, and retired to my room for the night.

At 4 a.m. on Day 6, I woke up and looked outside. Everything was wet.

At 5 a.m., when the local morning news started on the TV, the radar showed light to moderate showers over much of our upcoming route. I was scheduled to meet Cindy at 5:45 next door at the Holiday Inn (her lodging was far more luxurious than mine), and when I walked over there it was only sprinkling lightly. (And in that short walk of less than a block, another mother in an SUV stopped and offered me a ride to camp, which I declined. Kudos to them!)

When we arrived at camp, we found a state of minor disaster. The rains had been heavy enough to cause flooding in several tents. Many sleeping bags were soaked and unusable. Clothes were wet, and even some personal electronics had been damaged. Sprinkles would begin and then end and then begin again. But when we signed up for ALC, we knew the rule -- the ride continues, rain or shine. I had my leg warmers, my arm warmers, shoe covers, and my jacket, and we had done one notorious training ride in the rain earlier in the season, so I was ready for whatever was ahead. And at 6:30 a.m., the route opened, and I rolled out with a few dozen other intrepid riders.

As soon as we began heading south on Highway 1 toward our first 1,200-foot summit of the day's 85-mile route, the rain began to intensify. Within a couple of miles, it was raining steadily, and riders were getting flat tires in incredible numbers. Semi-trucks passing by us would whip up huge waves of water that would crash into us. Every minor intermediate descent was a disaster waiting to happen, and I took them almost as slowly as I was climbing.

But I persevered. After all, I seemed to have largely overcome my leg injury and my lack of training, and I was now beginning to think that Every Friendly Inch might just be attainable again this year. This was a test of my determination and commitment, and I was determined to make it.

And at 8:15 a.m., I made it to the summit at mile 15, where Rest Stop 1 was set up. As I approached, a roadie called out, "You will be held at Rest Stop 1 for safety reasons." Perhaps the weather was worse than I had been imagining. I (carefully) dismounted and began to walk toward bike parking. Then another roadie reached into a box and gave me a small bag. "In a couple of minutes, you'll be glad you have this," he said. The bag contained a Mylar survival blanket. I kept walking toward bike parking, where a third roadie said, "Pack 'em in tight; there's going to be a lot of bikes here shortly."

The ride had been suspended. Nobody was being allowed to continue for now. I was soaked to the bone, the wind was blowing, and drizzle was still coming down intermittently. We didn't know what was happening. We milled around for a few minutes, wrapping ourselves in our blankets as we got colder. Rumors started to fly. 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. Nobody was being allowed to leave, and riders were continuing to arrive. The rest stop staff was getting overwhelmed.

Then one of our coach buses arrived and parked by the side of the road. This was not a good sign.

Finally, an ALC staff member grabbed a bullhorn and made an announcement: The ride had been cancelled for the day. There had been serious vehicle accidents ahead on Highway 101 where we would be riding, and it was considered unsafe for us. Moreover, we had a CHP permit to use a lane of the freeway over a narrow bridge with no shoulder, and the delay had made it impossible for us to get all 2,150 riders through the zone before the end of our permit time. We could ride no farther. We were free to ride back to Lompoc if we wished, where we would be bused to Ventura. Or we could wait there ... and be bused to Ventura. (I used my camera to make a video recording of this whole surreal moment, but for some reason, I did something wrong and failed to save the recording.) Of the several hundred riders who had gathered by that point, more than half started to ride back. I decided not to do that, mostly because I feared for my safety on the descent, even though the rain had largely stopped by then.

And then it hit me: For the first time in my four years with AIDS/LifeCycle, I would not be riding Every Friendly Inch of the ride. I'd written about this moment several times, trying to give advice on what to do if it ever happened. None of that prepared me for the reality. I had come so far, and I had worked through an injury to get there. I had sacrificed months, and I had continued training even in poor health. I had just gone 15 miles in some of the worst weather I'd ever bicycled in, and now I was being told I could not go any farther. And it wasn't even my fault. That part hurt the most. I walked behind bike parking to be by myself, and I took off my survival blanket, folded it, put it on the wet ground, and sat down. I almost cried. Perhaps I even did so once or twice; with the intermittent sprinkles continuing, I really couldn't tell. Several of my friends were there, sitting in chairs and huddling together under blankets, looking much more upbeat than I was. I didn't want to be any part of it. My dream had ended.

More buses arrived and departed, full of riders. Several dozen of us were still there. I was perhaps hoping against hope that the route might reopen, especially since the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds. But as the crew of Rest Stop 4 arrived and began to help the Rest Stop 1 crew dismantle tents and supplies, it was clear that we were done. Finally, nearly three hours after I arrived at Rest Stop 1, the last two buses arrived to take the remaining riders on the 90-minute ride to Ventura. I sat there mostly silent as we passed through Santa Barbara (where the day's half-inch rainfall was apparently an all-time record for the entire month of June) and along the coast -- the most scenic part of the entire week, some say -- to San Buenaventura State Beach, our camp for the night. We arrived at 12:30 p.m., and our day was over. I slowly sulked the half-mile to my Motel 6. I pondered my options. Why continue riding? Why not just rent a car right here, claim my bike, and drive home that night?

After a couple of hours, I walked back to camp to try to improve my spirits. It was still largely deserted; most of those who had returned to Lompoc were still stuck there waiting for transportation. (I'm told that one group of apparently wealthy riders hired a stretch Hummer limousine to take them to Ventura.) A small lunch station was set up in a corner of the dining tent, with the sandwiches and snacks that had been intended for our lunch stop in Santa Barbara. Nearly all of the camp service tents were empty, their occupants still back in Lompoc.

I walked back to the motel and dozed in and out of sleep for a couple more hours before walking back to camp yet again. (All of this walking couldn't be doing my injured leg any good either.) By then, more people were arriving. I looked for friends in the dining tent but found none, so I took two seats in the back and worked on my leg while I took in the scene around me. I frankly don't remember much of how I spent this time; I was too wrapped up in pondering my options and considering whether I really felt any need to keep riding. At some point I apparently made my way through the actual dinner line, but I don't remember anything about who I sat with or what we said.

Finally, 7:30 p.m. arrived -- time for the evening announcements, which I was very curious to see. This time, I recorded the first five minutes, which I've already posted here. It was clear that the day's efforts had been Herculean in scope, and the years of contingency planning had clearly paid off. Volunteers were selflessly giving double and triple effort, and people really were coming together in the face of adversity. It was the first time in the 16-year history of California AIDS rides that an entire day of riding had been cancelled. (When the weather worsened shortly after I had started riding for the day, many other riders had not even been allowed to leave Lompoc.)

Even though the day had been a washout -- one that apparently cost the organization between $8,000 and $10,000 in unanticipated expenses -- it had been a moment of community. And with that I was able to return to my motel with a slightly revised plan: see how I was feeling in the morning, when I could still decide to skip the final day of the ride.

Of course, you probably know the ending by now. I did indeed ride all of Day 7. And I reached Los Angeles at my fastest Day 7 pace ever, although I'd have to put an asterisk next to that, since I had nearly an entire day of rest before that. We even had yet another couple of raindrops at our lunch stop in Malibu. When I reached the Los Angeles city limits, several other members of Different Spokes San Francisco were there, and we all posed for impromptu group pictures under the sign. I rolled past the finish line to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers, I quickly dropped my bicycle off at the shipping station, I retrieved my backpack and changed clothes inside a porta-potty, I returned to the finish line to cheer other arriving riders, I walked to closing ceremonies and watched most of the other riders ride in, and then I drove a rented van with five other riders back to Mountain View, arriving home at about 12:20 a.m. Sunday. I could tell you more, but by this point you probably don't care.

My total distance for the week was 497 miles. With the exception of the rainout, I rode every inch, even the nasty Halcyon hill. And I finished in good enough health that today, two days after the ride, I was back on my bicycle for a short 15-mile ride to Sports Basement and back to replace my deteriorating saddle.

So there's the play-by-play. But what does it all mean?

Perhaps it's still too close to the event for me to have any grand awareness, but a few things seem apparent. First, for me, the decision to use hotels all the way was extremely wise -- and extremely prescient, given what happened. The extra hour or two of sleep that I got each night might have been just the thing that gave me the extra energy to ride more than I had anticipated. Some folks love camp life; more power to them. To me, it's always been one of the least-enjoyable aspects of the ride, and I didn't feel like I was missing anything that I would have truly enjoyed.

I went into this ride with a goal of having more fun than in previous years. By and large, that didn't happen, although there certainly were times where I was having fun while encouraging other riders or while stopped at impromptu gatherings by the side of the road. (Those donut holes on the morning of Day 7 were fabulous.) And after my injury, the ride turned more into a personal challenge, and I wasn't feeling very fun. This disappoints me. Year after year, I see so many other riders having a week of huge fun, and I only seem to capture just a tiny part of that. (But no, that doesn't mean I want to get in a red dress.)

Paradoxically, even though so much of this year's ride was "new" -- either in terms of route or in terms of unexpected occurrences -- it didn't really feel new. When I approached the VA Center in Los Angeles for the first time in 2006, I was near tears. This year, it wasn't even close. Instead, I was shocked that I had arrived at the end without passing by the Peet's where we were supposed to gather to watch arriving riders! And instead of riding into the finish, I instead headed off-route and back onto San Vicente Blvd. to find the Peet's, where members of Different Spokes San Francisco gathered for a while before officially finishing. For me, the fourth time across the finish line wasn't nearly as exciting. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the downsides of using hotels every night -- every day of the ride felt like a separate one-day training ride. At the end of each day, I'd return to comfort and warmth -- and television, which meant that the widely-touted feelings of "alternate reality" on ALC were largely missing for me.

I've always waited at least a few weeks after a ride before registering for the next year's event. And again, perhaps it's still too close to the event for me to be clearly analyzing the situation. But as of this moment on this day, I'm not feeling any special need to do the ride again next year. I'm considering staying active as a training ride leader, perhaps driving support vehicles on longer training rides to meet my ride-leader commitment, but I'm wondering what more I can get from the ride.

But that mind-set is horribly selfish. After all, the ride isn't about me or you or anyone else -- it's about raising money to fight HIV and AIDS, and doing so in a challenging economy where such money is more essential than ever. My donors don't give money to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation so that I can have seven days of drama on two wheels; we are united in our cause.

However, quite frankly, I know that a lot of my donors have donor fatigue after four years. When it seemed like I might not make my $3,000 fundraising minimum this year, I pressed my donors hard, and many of them still aren't happy that I did so, no matter how noble the cause. Because I have devoted so much of my life to ALC over the past four years, my social circle now is largely other ALC participants, which makes fundraising all the more challenging. (That said, I'm pleased and honored that so many other riders, roadies, and staff members donated to my ride this year.) Some of my donors have already told me that they really don't want to be approached a fifth time. In this economy, some simply can't afford it.

But there is indeed a special feeling of community on the ride. And as I said way back above, that feeling showed itself the most for me this year when so many people took a genuine interest in my condition after my injury. Back here in the real world, I don't have a lot of people who care about me that way, and I wish that weren't the case. Through all of the challenges, trials, tribulations, and butt cream, this personal connection is the one memory that I will cherish the most from this year's ride. (Although I'm also keeping my survival blanket as my most tangible souvenir of the week.)

What does this all mean for me and the future? I'd love to give you a definitive answer, but the best that I can do right now is ... I don't know. I guess that means there's more to come.

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