Letter sent to sponsors after the 500-mile AIDS fundraising bike ride in 2002.
There was a small sign above the tent with the jugs of Gatorade and boxes of Power Bars at the first pit stop on Day 3 that read: “Ask a fellow rider why you’re riding 500 miles in 6 days?” It was a good question. Couldn’t we have raised as much money without enduring so much hardship (“disuncomfortability” Emily called it)—sore butt; chafed thighs (aka the dreaded “saddle rash”); random jolts of pain from fingers, toes, elbows and the hinder parts; and general exhaustion and heat prostration, all from pedaling up and down the constantly “rolling hills” of Wisconsin from St. Paul to Chicago as part of the seventh annual (and as it turns out, last) Heartland AIDS bike ride.
I think you’d get a lot of answers, as many as people you asked, but the ones I came up with were:
1) It’s supposed to be hard, not a walk in the park, to instill humility, inspire onlookers and convince donors to “go the extra mile.” (It didn’t inspire everyone, though. A sign seen around Lake Geneva read: “Keep on pumping. Go AIDS.”)
2) We come to realize our pain & suffering pale in comparison to the genuine and transforming pain and suffering of people with HIV and AIDS.
3) The ride is meant to bring out our personal best, not just physically but through a camaraderie and spirit of cooperation which, properly encouraged, is transmuted to onlookers, friends, families and by extension, the community at large. Or at least that’s what the inspirational literature, signs and speeches delivered by the ride organizers would have us believe.
Some of us cynics found this last point—the inspirational messaging—amusing if not downright distasteful. But as one person pointed out, “What’s the matter with trying to inspire ourselves and others by our example?” Another good question.
But mostly I did the ride because Emily asked me, and we did it for our friend, gone 12 years. Nothing I did or could do could bring him back. But we raised $6,000 between us to benefit AIDS organizations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. And we shared—side by side by day and under our frail little pup tent by night—one of the great adventures of our lives.
Adventures such as awakening midnight Wednesday in Watertown to a thunderstorm breaking overhead, clapping the air and pelting us with such force we thought the tent was going to pull up stakes and blow away. As we huddled anxiously together, gathering our things, a voice outside rang out: “Grab your sleeping bag and head into the high school!” Hundreds of us slept on the gym floor, wrapped with Mylar sheets that crinkled like rain all night long.
I half-expected next day’s ride to be cancelled, but no, everyone dully filed out of the gym at 6 a.m. and we were on the road by 7:30.
Or Day 2, the hardest day, fighting perverse head winds and climbing and descending the incessant “rolling hills” from Menomonie to Black River Falls, when after 12 hours and 105 miles, and with 5 miles to go, we were flagged off the road because the route was closed. Darkness.
Or Day 3, in which after riding 65 miles I ignominiously sagged (hitched a ride to camp in a “sweep vehicle”) from inflamed butt and saddle rash. Was it on Day 3, riding alone in my blacktop stupor, that I composed the song, Darn Wisconsin (sung to the tune of On Wisconsin)?
Darn Wisconsin, darn Wisconsin,
Darn those hilly roads.
Sure it’s pretty and it’s peaceful,
But my butt is sore, sore, sore, sore.
Darn Wisconsin, darn Wisconsin
All those distant peaks!
Tell me there’s one more cent-u-ry
Or riding into Amish country and seeing the friendly kids in their overalls playing by the side of the road while their folks tend the farms and drive horse-drawn threshers. Or the cranberry bogs (“Cranberry Capital of the World”), where we’re served free cranberry ice cream from a roadside stand. The Monet haystacks. The Renoir sunsets. Scores of lovely people, from all parts of the country, all ages, all physical specimens, all manner of bikes (including two tandems and three recumbents):
Mary Jo Kelly, another Allstater; Dean Schott, a former colleague at the Sun-Times; Shelli and Sherrey, two sisters from Milwaukee; Jen, an MSW who works at an AIDS summer camp and whose kids authorized her to name her pains after them; Kris, a fitness center manager from Highland Park, and her husband Wayne, who trades at the Board of Trade; fellow Evanstonian Lou Weiss, crewing at Pit Stop 1, and his son, Gabe, a rider; Brandi from Chicago, who grew up on a farm in Indiana (and who is therefore unimpressed when I marvel at the Monet haystacks. “I’ve seen them all my life.”); Ellie, a newspaper photographer from Fort Worth; Peter, a flutist from Chicago; Andy, a lawyer and pianist, whose wife Annie is a violinist with the Ravinia Festival Orchestra; Christina, who drove up with us from Chicago; John, a business consultant from Thailand who flew in for the ride, and is seen after Day 1 at the medical tent of every pit stop having his bum knees worked over (incredibly, he rides every mile); Jennifer, a graphic designer from Villa Park; Joanne, a therapist from Evanston.
And John, a ride staffer, who informs us that skinheads cruise outside Camp 2 looking for trouble and fundamentalists picket at Camp 3 asking us to see God’s point. (We see none of this.) I talk with riders in part to build the images I wish to carry from the trip and in part to ward off pain and boredom on the road.
Three flat tires (what’s the deal with that?), and being passed countless times by people fatter, older and riding worse bikes than me (what’s the deal with that?). Feeling the hot sweat under my helmet and down my arms and legs, and the exhilaration of riding flat out for 15-20 miles straight and passing my first century at the crest of a hill by Hoen’s Farm with the sun setting and one more “freakin’ big hill” to go.
Emily & I ride together the first couple of days, but then she gets stronger and I get weaker, and she rides ahead. Good for her (though I trained harder). Emily wonders why I can’t figure out how to make the tent or organize my things, and also how I can remember so many peoples’ names and stories. I wonder at her grit and good sense, enjoying her wry humor and caustic commentary even as she is breaking the ride’s three cardinal rules: no whining, no whining, no whining. Gradually, adjusting to the hardships, she starts to enjoy herself and smile more, a truly beautiful sight. Perhaps the turning point for both of us is The Great Storm in Watertown (“Why couldn’t we have camped in Pardeeville?” someone asked the next day): how can it get any worse?
Or Day 5, Red Day, wearing red shorts and jerseys to celebrate our crossing into Illinois, another hard one. The sun bears down and I lack the strength even to sip water. (“Drink and pee, drink and pee, no I.V.!” the pit stop signs helpfully admonish us.) Dull with heat I make a wrong turn after 55 miles and ride an extra thousand yards before being overtaken by an ambulance and sweep wagon. I gratefully sag after lunch.
Day 6, the last day, the most festive, with a gentle flat ride from McHenry down to Libertyville and east through Highland Park to Sheridan Road, south to the Chicago lakefront bike path. One more flat tire (are the Bike Gods angry with me?) but fixed quickly by helpful riders—there’s that blasted camaraderie again!
And then we roll into Foster Avenue and wait for everyone to gather to begin the last stage. Outfitted in red AIDS Ride T-shirts we converge in one massive maroon-colored pelleton—1,200 riders—eight blocks to Montrose Harbor, cheered on by hundreds of well-wishers, friends and family. Our friend’s boys are there, young men now, who have missed his sly humor, worldly wisdom and parental authority but have grown up straight and true nevertheless. That’s when the ride turns emotional for me, and I finally break down and weep. Speakers praise us for being heroes, but we’re not. We’re just riders. He was a hero. He’s why we ride.
Thank you all for supporting my ride.
Rider # 1378