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I  had the privilege of participating in AIDS/Lifecycle 2018 and rode my bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles in June.

It was the 25th year of the event that started as the California AIDS Ride to raise awareness and funding for HIV/AIDS-related research, programming, and resources.The San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center have continued that legacy lead a significant amount of our country’s most progressive efforts to provide medication and resources for treatment and prevention of HIV, while working to reduce HIV-related stigma.

More than 3,000 riders and support staff worked to make this event successful, breaking the record from previous years by raising more than $16,600,000 by the time the ride began, and additional donations are being accepted through the end of the fiscal year. All business and event-specific information aside, this ride is much more than a bunch of people completing one long-ass bike ride.

It was like nothing I have ever experienced. This ride was life-changing.

In 2016, I did my first ALC. I thought about doing it for many years, but honestly hadn’t been on a bike in more than 20 years. I had been working as a therapist and program director with gay men, focusing on holistic health and HIV concerns for most of my mental health career. So many people in my life are either infected with HIV or affected by HIV. Yes it’s my work, but it also hits me on a variety of deeper levels.

Like many of my peers, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t aware of this virus and its devastating impact. For so many younger people, they may have never known a reality without HIV. In many communities, our intimate or social interests have been impacted by fear, shame, stigma, or anger. HIV has caused us to change the way we may have lead our lives if it didn’t exist. Regardless of our status, HIV has the potential to affect us all.

As we engaged our journey through California, one of the major mantras for ALC is “ride safe, be safe.” It speaks to the importance of being essentially a thoughtful and defensive rider. You need to be aware that you are surrounded by moving cars and hundreds of other riders.

What they neglect to tell you is that flooding emotions can happen at almost any time during the ride. It can be very challenging to push up a big hill or race down a road with tears streaming down your face. A few of us adopted an additional phrase of “ride hard and cry ugly.” A great friend of mine partially defined the phenomenon of ugly crying on the ALC as tears mixed with sweat, Powerade, dirt, sunscreen, and bugs as he rode 545 miles while remembering how HIV has impacted him and those he loves, how much the event fundraising will impact people in his community, and the relationships that he built with others. It’s uncomfortable, intense, cathartic, and beautiful.

Since I rode in ALC previously, I knew what to generally expect from the experience. Unfortunately, two years ago as I celebrated my first successful ride, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando happened. We were faced with a grim reality that the celebration of completing ALC was far outweighed by the tragedy. Many of us were left feeling powerful emotions regarding the shooting, as well as somewhat emotionally abandoned after the ride. Many ALC participants talk about the “love bubble” that is formed around us. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rider or a roadie providing support. You feel connected to something bigger than just yourself. You feel joined with others and a larger society focusing on hope and our ability to change the world. The bubble was unexpectedly popped two years ago, and many of us grieved together.

This year I got to experience the ride again and prayed that the world didn’t fall apart further during or immediately after I finished. I had some people attempt to engage me in conversation about current events and political goings-on during the ride. I asked them to back off because I wanted to take that week to unplug from many negative stressors of daily life so I could focus on why I was participating in ALC. It was about being present to think about how HIV has affected us individually, nationally, and globally.

For me, I got to fly down a hill at over 30 mph, and rode hundreds of miles on a bike while my boy parts were folded up like an origami swan in padded biking shorts. The name tag on the back of my bike read, “Stud Monkey” and I loved the variety of goofy things people said to me as they passed me on my left side. Everyone had favorite parts of the ride, but many of us became big fans of the team from Germany who loved to wear white spandex that left little to the imagination. There was humor, laughter, music, adorable people, a talent show, tons of food, and hundreds of Otter Pops with dancing hot guys.

AIDS/Lifecycle was physically challenging and emotionally intense.

I’m not that much of a bike enthusiast. I don’t generally wake up in the morning and think that completing an 80-mile ride will relax me. I don’t participate in additional rides focusing on other diseases or causes. I train for this event because it’s important to me. I put my heart and my body through discomfort for a purpose.

During the ride, my butt and legs were sore and my heart was heavy, but my soul felt amazing and empowered. Participating in ALC doesn’t cure HIV or eliminate its negative influence in our society, but it did provide a strong showing of people engaged in making an impact. Although it’s unfortunate that more people don’t have the opportunity to experience this, due to financial and time constraints, there are so many other ways to get involved in their local communities to help others in need and reduce HIV stigma.

Everyone prepares for ALC in different ways. Many of us complete training rides in our communities and go to the gym. Of course, developing increased speed, stamina, and endurance can be extremely helpful with an event like this, but also being passionate with a big heart can help push through rough spots when your body or mind tell you that you want to stop. I’m a thicker guy, and was definitely not at the front of the line for getting into camp each day. I had a red plaid bandanna from my husband and blue rubber bracelet from one of my best friends wrapped around my handlebars, so when I look down I had a constant visual reminder of why I was putting myself through this.

It’s interesting that, despite ALC being an individual activity by design, where people focus on their own performance, it actually functions much more like a team event. We are one large crew, and most of us have a vested interest in everyone feeling strong, successful, and fulfilled. Riders often offer support to those struggling to ride up a difficult hill, and people give thanks for doing nice things in camp. We cry on each other’s shoulders and create friendships. We form our own type of family during the week of riding and working together. We collectively dream of a time in our world when HIV will not affect us. Through events like this, we strive to develop more effective treatments, a potential cure, and methods to reduce the negative impact of the virus on individuals and our society.

HIV, in some capacity, has been a part of my life for a long time. At times it has been a source of fear, sadness, and anger. It has also made me feel connection and hopefulness. Being part of this ride isn’t about gaining praise for doing it. It’s about a group of individuals doing something to help others and showing solidarity.

I ride because I hate this virus and what it does to people. I ride for visibility. I ride for people I know and for some I’ve never met. I ride for my friends affected by the virus. I ride for those who have been infected for 30 years. I ride for those who have been positive for three months. I ride for those who are scared to get tested. I ride for those who are scared to come out as positive. I ride for my community.

This is why I fight. This is why I ride.