I did not sleep well before the 2021 AIDS Ride, which happened on September 11, 2021. Self-doubt kept me awake, as it often does before a challenging journey. And the doubts often come back around mile 70, when my butt hurts and my legs are rubbery and I need to pedal uphill yet again. But every year I am grateful that I pushed through it and finished, for several reasons. Here are a few of them.
The volunteers. There are six food stops along the 100-mile route, and the brief interactions we have with the volunteers can be joyful. Dehydration is one reason, of course, but the feeling is also real: it’s great to receive comfort and praise from a random stranger who gets nothing from the exchange except your gratitude. My favorite part is the cheerleaders. People grin and say “whoo-hoo” at you as you ride past, and every so often there are children with pom-poms bouncing up and down. This year, the best moment came from two shy teenagers at the Union Springs stop.
The cause. The Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP) raised $160,000 from the ride this year so far, with money still coming in (you can donate here). That is a decrease from the last ride in 2019, but it is also a victory because the ride didn’t happen at all in 2020, and we were worried that people wouldn’t come back. But 275 riders registered. Most of them signed up to do part of the 102-mile route: 14, 25, 42, or 90-mile routes are offered. Each rider raises a minimum of $300, which is surprisingly easy to do. At this writing, my team, the Cats of Short Street, has raised $2,788 from friends like you.
I think it’s easy to raise money for STAP because the need is acute and easy to understand. One of many awful things about the pandemic is how it has widened and deepened the gulf between the haves (you and I, relatively speaking) and the have-nots. In 2020, STAP coordinated care for 1,121 clients with AIDS and other chronic illnesses in the region centered around Binghamton and Ithaca, including 175 men and women returning after incarceration. Their food pantry served 1,592 people, their needle exchange program served 1,975, and their overdose medication saved 286 lives.
Those are just the numbers. STAP’s most important service may be the support and prevention it provides to young adults, especially LGBTQ teens who are often ostracized by family and friends. Supporting STAP is a nod to a wise teacher who said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)
The Route. When you’re going 60 miles an hour or faster on Routes 34B, 90, 31, and 89 in Tompkins, Cayuga and Seneca counties, it’s easy to forget how beautiful this place is. At 12 miles an hour, you notice. And the weather last Saturday was perfect. A light tailwind made the first half of the ride speed by, leaving plenty of time to look. The lake was bright blue, reflecting the sky. The fields were bright green, reflecting the recent rain that mercifully stayed away all day. For me, the best part of the route is the 17 miles you get to see only if you ride the full 102.
Tania elected to do only the second half of the loop this year — a bus took her 42 miles from Ithaca to Seneca Falls, and she rode back to Ithaca with us. But Hank and I had to see the county roads that wind through the vast marshes and muckland fields of Montezuma and Tyre. We puffed past a historical marker pointing out that the Cayuga Nation’s name for the Seneca River is “Squagonna,” which means Paradise of Mosquitoes. We climbed out of the swamp to tidy Mennonite homes with long strings of laundry drying in the breeze. Hank, an enthusiastic birder, kept a sharp eye out for the Roseate Spoonbill that had been recently spotted in the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t see her, but we did see lots of her friends.
The Training. Once you’re over the age of 60, it’s important to stick to your goals. The prospect of this ride remains daunting, even as it becomes familiar, because the last 30 miles are a challenge. Training is the way to make them easier, but for me it always comes down to mind over matter, plus about a gallon of fluid and 600 milligrams of ibuprofen every six hours. When it’s finally done, though, the shower feels amazing, dinner never tasted so good, and you sleep like a rock.
Thanks again, everybody. We’ll see you next year. And if you haven’t donated to the Cats yet, you want to join our team, or you’re inspired to give again, click here.