The 2015 AIDS Ride, my ninth and Tania’s seventh, was another emotional and physical rollercoaster. Every year we sign up with bright feelings of anticipation that turn to dread as the summer wears on. We do a few determined training rides. The pitch increases as the precipitation forecasts come in. Then on the big day, we take to the familiar course and the bad feelings melt away because after all, riding a bicycle around Cayuga Lake isn’t all that hard.* At the end, we’re always treated to a big, warm celebration of this once-a-year community.
* Here Tania and I disagree, but I think it’s about as hard as a hike – a really long hike.
This year’s ride raised $201,500 for the fight against AIDS in the Southern Tier by the end of ride day (Saturday, September 12), with more coming in. Our two-person team, Cats of Short Street, raised $1,100. We are among the slowest riders in the pack, but just like the hard-bodies, we turned a few pounds of flab into muscle, received valuable bragging rights, got soaked clean through, and visited the familiar landmarks one more time. If the key to successful aging is forming healthy habits — in other words, becoming addicted to things that are good for you — the Ride For Life is a great fix.
The opening ceremony starts around sunrise. It’s a half-hour of thanks and heartfelt mission messages with a celestial backdrop (see top photo). This year the riders were impatient because the weather forecast said that showers were likely by mid-morning, with steady rain later in the day, so the further you ride before 9 am, the less rain you’d endure.
We set off at 7am and climbed two large hills heading north on Route 34B. The first hill ends at the southern border of Lansing and the second, more serious one is a big down-and-up number formed by the drainage of Salmon Creek. At the top of the second rise, at a North Lansing roadhouse called The Ridge, two women stood at their car and clapped and yelled encouragement at each rider (click on the photo to make it bigger). These amateur cheerleaders are one of the best parts for me. A total stranger pops up at odd moments and makes you feel great for five seconds. Couldn’t you use one of those right now?
The long downhills are another favorite of mine, and there’s a good one when you turn off Route 34B and coast down Center Road, just south of Genoa, to get to the first food stop at King Ferry Winery. We pulled out of that stop at 8:40 am, 17 miles into an 90-mile ride, just as the first raindrops started to leak from the clouds. It rained off and on, and increasingly on, for the rest of the day. Fortunately, there was no wind and the temperature held steady in the mid-60s, so hypothermia was not an issue like it was last year*. But after you get used to wet socks and the spray on your face, a long ride in warm rain isn’t bad at all.
* Weather-wise, the 2014 ride was a monumentally awful day.
Of course, wet pavement is slicker. As we turned back onto the highway (now Route 90), an ambulance sped past, siren blaring, and all the riders immediately knew what that meant. A few miles later, we caught up with it just as they were loading a man onto a stretcher. He had gone off the road into a deep ditch and was injured in the fall — but not seriously, we later learned. Maybe he shifted his weight and moved his handlebars in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Bicycling is like driving, except it’s slower and you don’t wear a seat belt.
We cruised down Pumpkin Hill (hyper-alert) and through Aurora, then climbed past the huge faux new money temple of MacKenzie-Childs, past the site of Cayuga Castle, and into the second rest stop at Union Springs. I admired the headgear of Ned Buchman, who was on his 15th Ride. Ned had bolted a stuffed killer whale to his helmet. “Every year I choose a theme,” he said, “and this one seemed to work.”
Well done, Ned. At the rest stop, he melted the hearts of the South Seneca High School women’s varsity soccer team enough that they asked him to pose for a group shot. As we rode away, Tania reminded me that we forgot to put cat ears on our helmets.
North of Union Springs the ride gets flat as the lake gets shallower. The landmarks here are the large, permanent field signs of Upstate Citizens for Equality that say “No Sovereign Nation- No Reservation.” Since 1980, the Cayuga Indian Nation has pursued a legal claim that the 64,000 acres bordering the north end of the lake are theirs and were taken from them illegally by treaties they signed in 1790s. Although the Indians are right in a legal sense, political wrangling and inter-Nation fighting have stalled their claim indefinitely.
We turned onto Route 20 and headed west, crossing the Cayuga Inlet bridge and the Montezuma marsh, dodging roadkill as a steady stream of cars and trucks tore by us. Riding on the shoulder of a busy highway is something to be endured, and it was a relief four miles later when we turned onto Gravel Road (which is paved) and headed south at last. The lunch stop in Seneca Falls was beckoning.
The lunch stop is pleasant — maybe too pleasant. Old friends are there, and hot soup, and tasty sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies, and it’s warm and dry. Last year we arrived at the lunch stop in a mildly hypothermic state and stayed for 90 minutes (so Tania could warm up). This year, 15. The ride works best if you treat it like a job.
Turning onto Route 89 South around 12:30, the sky was darker and the rain steadier. We got another hero’s welcome at the Toro Run Winery rest stop and I paused to take a picture of my favorite junk shop sign, but the rain made it important to concentrate on the road just as our growing fatigue made it harder — so after mile 70, I focused increasingly on scanning the pavement.
“I’ve eaten so much sweet stuff and drunk so much Gatorade that I feel sick,” Tania said, and I agreed. “I need some real food.” And just like that, at the last rest stop, cold pizza! We each had a piece. In any other context, it would have been pretty yukky. But today, Tania said, “this is saving my life.”
We pulled out from the Bellwether Cider stop with 12 miles to go. The weather was dark, and a lot of people were getting flat tires. We were not, because we had a secret weapon — Mr. Tuffy tire liners, which are strips of Kevlar that go between the tube and the inside of the tire and virtually eliminate roadside flats. Racers don’t like tire liners because they add a few ounces to the weight of the bike. But if you’re long-distance plodders like us, they come highly recommended.
We stopped to see my friend and fellow Salt Creek Show DJ Armin Heurich, who was fixing a flat for his friend Anna. Armin was enjoying his seventh or eighth 100-mile ride of the year, and he usually does the 100-mile lake ride in a little over five hours. Today he was supporting Anna, an Ithaca High School senior who belongs to the school’s Cycling Club, which he advises. She was finishing her first Century ride at about the same pace as ours (eight hours, 13 minutes of riding), and she looked great.
We got through another screaming downhill into Taughannock Falls State Park, with nine miles to go. And then came the last hill, four miles from the finish line at Glenwood Heights. This is the last real challenge of the trip. It’s about three-tenths of a mile, at a pretty good pitch, and it happens after a long day when your legs have lost all their snap. You know you’re at the top when you see the sign for Terrence Flanigan’s Bam Bam Drum School. Bam, indeed!
When we finished, we were surprised to see that we had posted one of our fastest times ever for the 90-mile course (see “ride like it’s a job,” above). There was a party going on at Cass Park but also a hot shower waiting at our house downtown — no contest. We cleaned up, took naps, and then went to the celebration dinner at Stewart Park, where 300 riders and guests whooped it up and devoured a big meal catered by local restuarant god Gregor Brous. Man, it was great.
The riders and their donors gave a huge boost to the Southern Tier AIDS Program‘s services and counseling for 479 HIV-positive people in Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Tioga, and Tompkins Counties; outreach activities that reached 2,900 people with prevention instructions in the first quarter of 2015; a large syringe exchange program with an 84 percent return rate; and 238 meetings in the first quarter where a counselor sat down with someone at risk and let them know the facts.
Only about one-fifth of the HIV-positive people in the care of STAP are gay men. About one-third of clients were infected because of heterosexual activity, and one-eighth because of intravenous drug use or sex with a user. What AIDS patients almost always have in common is that they’re poor and facing a huge, complicated set of problems. They don’t have much of a safety net, either, except for STAP, so the Ride for Life generates money desperately needed and well spent. So thanks a lot to everyone who donated, and see you next year.