The First Bike-A-Thon Riders: Dr. Bob Bolan

Today we have the AIDS LifeCycle as the main cycling event that raises money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and which involves the participation of literally thousands of riders. But the progenitor of the LifeCycle was the Different Spokes AIDS Bike-A-Thon, which began in 1985, 30 years ago. As I mentioned previously in the ChainLetter blog, just 63 riders completed that ride. They were the ‘pioneers’ of bicycle AIDS fundraising . But who were those riders? I thought that current Spokers might be curious to learn more about some of those first BAT riders. Surprisingly only a few of them were members of Different Spokes. One of those riders was Bob Bolan who, although now living in LA and no longer a Spoker—but an esteemed DSSF emeritus nonetheless—is still avidly riding his bike at age 68 (although not the red Tesch mentioned below; the Tesch died in one of Bob’s hell-bent crashes and he’s currently sporting a Spectrum titanium.) Bob and I got to know each other especially well after we bought and rode a racing tandem in the mid ‘80s and early ‘90s when we routinely terrorized centuries. Bob was and is preternaturally fearless so he captained and I stoked, and that meant all the fear got thrown to the back seat. So I learned to close my eyes and trust that Bob would get down a steep descent or through an chaotic paceline in one piece. He even managed to steer us through a steep, curving downhill where we broke 56 mph!

The following club profile was published in the July 1989 ChainLetter. This was during the dark days of the epidemic before protease inhibitors were discovered, fundamentally changing the treatment of HIV disease, and when mortality was nearly certain. What’s Bob doing today? In his own words: “I’m Medical Director and Director of Clinical Research at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where I have been for the past 19 years. I divide my time between patient care, administration, oversight of my large medical staff, doing research and working on local and national public health projects. These days I am mainly focused on HIV testing, linkage to medical care, the intersection between STDs and HIV, HIV prevention using pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxis and other risk reduction tools. I am married and my husband, Duke, is an RN who works at Keck-University of Southern California. Our two kids, Malcolm and Blair (American Eskimo dogs) round out our family and make for a noisy household in Pasadena. Things are very good. When my patients ask me nervously about my plans to retire I tell them not yet—I’m having too much fun!” And by the way, Bob has a few LifeCycles under his belt too.


Dr. Bob Bolan, the Man with a Mission

I’ve had the pleasure within the past year to get to know one of our more reclusive Club members, Dr. Bob Bolan. Although Bob and I have ridden together occasionally, it wasn’t until Bob diagnosed that we both suffered from Terminal Tandem Lust and a serious case of speed addiction last year that I really got to know him.

Bob rides the way he works: single-mindedly, efficiently, and fast. Having recently acquired a new red Tesch superbike, he is now burning up the pavement and making life rough for the other animals in the Club. You may see him in one of his new skin suits in a local race, or zooming up and down Mt. Tam on a weekend afternoon. Recently he completed the 100-mile route of the Bike-A-Thon and then the following weekend rode the Davis Double Century in 10 hours 25 minutes!

Who is this man who appears in a blur and then disappears up the hill at warp speed? In real life Bob is one of San Francisco’s hardworking AIDS doctors. A family-practice physician specializing in gay-related sexually transmitted diseases, Bob joined the front lines when the AIDS epidemic hit our community in the early 1980s. Bob has been an outspoken advocate for increased awareness of gay STDs both in the gay community and in the medical community. He has taught at UCSF, organized conferences, and written articles about both STDs and AIDS.

A clinician in San Francisco for over a decade with a mostly gay patient base, Bob has had firsthand experience of the devastating effect of AIDS. As you may imagine it’s emotionally stressful dealing with the daily onslaught of his patients’ chronic and debilitating illness, seeing death upfront, and with the Sisyphean task of fighting the AIDS crisis. Bob’s way of taking care of himself is cycling: ”Professionally it’s frustrating dealing with life, death, and deterioration. I feel ultimately powerless in the face of this disease, and bicycling is one way for me to be powerful and to assert my power and strength. The psychological benefit that it gives me is immeasurable.”

Although as a young boy he rode his bike on a paper route, like many of us fairies Bob was a pretty typical sissy growing up—he wasn’t athletic. He soon tired of being mashed by the bigger boys in sports such as football and put his energies into becoming a doctor. But Bob got bitten by the bike bug in the late ’70s when he was working in Madison, Wisconsin. In his cutoff Levis and tennis shoes, he would take off alone on day tours. Back then his longest ride was 45 miles, which seems paltry compared to what he rides now. “When I got home, my knees were so painful! I didn’t have any toe clips—didn’t even know about them. But shortly thereafter I got them to save my knees.”

After he and his lover Timmy moved to San Francisco in the late ’70s, Bob became a more serious cyclist. Since then he has increased his commitment to bicycling. He recognizes the important role of cycling in physical and mental fitness especially given his profession. Bicycling also helped him kick smoking and has kept the nicotine monkey off his back for the past eleven years. Nowadays Bob likes to do long, hard rides such as centuries. He’s not a big fan of touring or of mountain bikes because “you can’t go fast enough—I like to go fast!”

Other reasons why Bob enjoys bicycling so much: “I love to eat, and eat lots of junk food. When I ride I don ‘t have to be as discriminating in what I eat. But we older guys have to be careful because when we ride sporadically our appetites outlive our caloric requirements and then we get fat.” Bob’s favorite thing about bicycling? “Lycra on good-looking men.'” Now that’s something we can all get behind!