The First AIDS Bike-A-Thon

1985 BAT Gene Howard
Gene Howard, oldest participant in the first AIDS Bike-A-Thon

Those of us who lived through the early years of the AIDS epidemic recall tremendous fear and despair over a disease whose origin and potential cure were unknown, treatments just feeble stopgaps on the fast track to a final demise, and a constant background pall on the community with each passing obituary. There seemed to be nothing one could do except care for the ill and educate as many people as possible. But one thing people could do was raise money for services and out of this the AIDS Bike-A-Thon was born. The first AIDS Bike-A-Thon (BAT) took place on Saturday, April 6, 1985—30 years ago. By today’s standards the amount raised, $33,000, seems paltry; but at the time it was a substantial bonus for the fledgling SF AIDS Foundation. According to Karry Kelley, the 1985 BAT was the largest amount for AIDS work ever raised at a single event in SF and the subsequent BATs were the largest fund raisers for the AIDS Foundation until the Foundation began the AIDS Walks in 1987. Different Spokes went on to put on nine more BATs before passing the event on to Ruth Brinker’s Project Open Hand; under its aegis it lasted just one more year.

Although Different Spokes played the central role in the initial Bike-A-Thon and its subsequent success, contrary to lore we did not invent it. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, founded in 1984, approached Different Spokes in February 1985 for assistance and advice on how to run a bicycling charity event in order to raise funds for its operations. The AIDS Foundation was not yet the mainstream behemoth it is today and like many non-profits was dependent on donations. After several meetings between the AIDS Foundation and club officers, the Bike-A-Thon fundraising ride was announced for April—just a little over two months later. Bob Humason, then-President of Different Spokes (and who later was himself to die of AIDS), along with Michael John née D’Abrosca, past President and ChainLetter Editor-in-Chief, were the main forces behind club involvement and working with the SF AIDS Foundation.

Because the BAT was pulled together so quickly it was somewhat slapdash, yet the last-minute event managed to be a success, firing the imagination and zeal of participants—many of whom went on to organize and run subsequent BATs—as well as the San Francisco gay community. Keep in mind that subsequent BATs usually took 11 months to be planned and organized! In retrospect two months to pull off a never-done-before charity event was incredible. Within the club BAT was advertised and pushed for only one month (!) before it took place, a very short time to pull in riders for a 100-mile ride, nonetheless 63 riders managed to take to the road—not bad for an initial effort. In those days Different Spokes was a very small cycling club, so finding people to do a 100-mile ride just from within the club wasn’t going to be sufficient. The main form of recruitment and PR was an information and pledge table set up in front of “Hibernia Beach” on weekends for the month before the ride. [Note for you youngsters: “Hibernia Beach” was the corner of 18th and Castro where the Bank of America now sits, formerly the site of a Hibernia Bank branch, a local SF institution.] Perhaps it seems amateurish today—more suitable, say, for selling Girl Scout cookies—but it somehow worked.

The AIDS BAT wasn’t the first charity event for AIDS/HIV by far nor was it the first mass cycling event to raise donations (the first Multiple Sclerosis Society charity ride took place in 1980). But using cycling was a new idea for the Bay Area. Mass cycling events in the Bay area to date were primarily club centuries not directly concerned with raising funds for a cause (other than the clubs’ coffers), and cycling certainly did not have the sexy public profile it now has. In those days it wasn’t so much skin-tight Lycra as it was white tee shirts and Bermuda shorts; carbon fiber bikes were a mere twinkle in the eye, and aluminum was the ascendent “wonder” frame material.

The ride was called “Pedaling for Pride in ‘85”. To encourage riders there was no registration fee (although you had to register in advance). The only material reward for participating was a commemorative tee shirt and overnight accommodations in Guerneville. The club did organize sag support and first aid. Jerry Walker, who was then the owner of the Freewheel Bicycle Shop on Hayes Street and also a club member (he later was Vice President and eventually also died of AIDS), provided repair services. There were rest stops at 25-mile intervals and checkpoints every 12 miles to make sure everyone was all right.

The route was almost the same as the club’s Guerneville Weekend ride: north up Highway 1 all the way to Jenner and then east on River Road to Molly Brown’s Saloon in Guerneville (the traditional Guerneville Weekend route goes through Occidental to River Road instead). Those hills on Highway 1 took their toll: not everyone made it to Guerneville. But most did and the last one in is the gentleman pictured above at the awards ceremony, Gene Howard, then in his 60s. I recall club members Jim King and Tom Walther, who were considerably younger than Gene and who were barely ahead of him, swearing that they would make it all the way to Molly Brown’s before Gene—darned if they were going to let an “old” man beat them!

The following day there was a big party at the Woods Resort where prizes were awarded under beautiful, warm, sunny skies. Instead of leaving riders to fend for trips back to SF on their own, the BAT kindly arranged car returns for everyone and their bikes.

Instead of calling it a day, the aftermath of the first Bike-A-Thon was tremendous interest and energy in pulling together a second event, this time entirely under Different Spokes auspices. In order to pull off an even more successful event the organizing structure, although entirely volunteer and unpaid, became more formal with the appointment of a BAT Coordinator and committees to make sure all aspects of the event—publicity, fundraising, pledge collection, training, recruitment, facilities, etc.—were on track. Instead of the SF AIDS Foundation being the sole beneficiary, the club decided to recruit community-based AIDS organizations as recipients, a practice that continued until Project Open Hand took over the event. The club went on to organize a total of ten BATS before it burned out and passed the event to Open Hand.

Bike-A-Thon had a generative impact on Different Spokes. The event created a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm and in return the goodwill from the event led to a much higher community profile and our highest membership numbers ever, nearly triple the current number. But as the AIDS crisis continued, running BAT took a toll on the club. Partly it was the volunteer nature of the event: unlike almost all charity events, including the California AIDS Ride and the AIDS Lifecycle that followed BAT after its demise, the event was entirely volunteer run and supported by the club. Only in the last two years of the event’s life under Different Spokes was there recognition that the event itself needed to have some income in order to be well run and consequently made itself one of the beneficiaries. BAT was the primary focus of the Different Spokes for its entire run, needing nearly yearlong planning. Although it brought in new members and their energy, it also sapped the energy of the core leadership of Different Spokes. Eventually the club just ran out of juice as the core leadership either died of AIDS or moved on. What we have today is a legacy of community involvement and service that went beyond simply having a good time on a bicycle. Nowadays we have the AIDS Lifecycle that fulfills the same function as the original Bike-A-Thon. It’s a much flashier, well-organized, and successful charity ride, and like the BAT galvanizes and transforms at least some of the participants. There are many differences between BAT, the California AIDS Ride (also gone) and the Lifecycle. But a key difference is that for its first eight years every cent of donated money went to AIDS service organizations—the overhead was covered entirely by volunteer effort and goodwill: over $2.3 million. Now that’s a legacy worth remembering!

7 thoughts on “The First AIDS Bike-A-Thon

  1. with your permission I would like to quote from this article as part of my fundraising material for the Friends for Life AIDS ride from Toronto to Montreal, Canada.

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  2. I did my first ‘long’ ride on a BAT — 25 miles around Lake Merced, remember we did a couple of training ride with rider leaders giving us advice 😉 I got my first bad cramp next year when I did the BAT to Nicasio and back. Who knew you needed to drink lots of water. DSSF taught me a lot about riding and I am glad to still be a member almost 25 years later (joined in 91 I think).

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  3. Very informative, Tony! Thanks! Now I have to go try to find my Bike-A-Thon t-shirt for our old farts ride this afternoon …
    – Eric

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