Shining A Light

AIDS Lifecycle is almost upon us, taking place June 5 through June 11. As you know it’s a week-long charity ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. This event started in 2002 taking over the California AIDS Ride, which started in 1993 and which was run by for-profit event promoter Palotta TeamWorks.

Fading from memory is that both of these charity rides had a progenitor, the AIDS Bike-A-Thon that ran from 1985 to 1994. Who ran those fundraisers? We did, or rather the previous members of our club did. An account of the first Bike-A-Thon can be found here.

Michael John, or “MJ” as he was familiarly called back in the day, was the club’s second president and also for a time the editor of the club newsletter, The ChainLetter, when it was printed (!) and long before it died and was reincarnated as the club blog. He recently sent me a scanned copy of the Bay Area Reporter (BAR) account of the very first AIDS Bike-A-Thon of April 6, 1985, which you can read below.

Gene Howard, last finisher at the first Bike-A-Thon 1985

A few notes about the article. Gene Howard, the last of the 62 riders to arrive in Guerneville was at the time one of the very few ‘elderly’ members of Different Spokes; he later perished in a terrible house fire unlike so many of the gay men in the club who succumbed to AIDS. He was a real sweetheart. The article mentioned the first person to arrive in Guerneville without mentioning his name. It was almost certainly Bruce Matasci, another club heartthrob. Bruce had been a semi-pro racer, having raced against Greg Lemond when Greg was a very young up-and-coming junior (and thrashing all the senior racers in NorCal). Bruce died of AIDS in 1991. Dr. Bob Bolan chased Bruce all the way to Guerneville but never caught him much to his chagrin. (No shame, Bob, Bruce was a monster on the bike even though he was no longer racing.) Bob was an AIDS doc in SF at the height of the plague and was the head of the SF AIDS Foundation at its very beginning. He later relocated to LA and is still the longtime medical director of the LA LGBT Center. Bob is still tearing up the roads down south.

Note that the fastest average speed for the hundred miles was 17 MPH. That’s average–an unpaced 100-mile time trial, and by the way the route had over 7,000 feet of elevation gain! Although Different Spokes of that era was a club composed for the most part of recreational and touring cyclists there were members who were very, very strong.

$33,000 seems paltry today. A top fundraiser for AIDS Lifecycle does well above that alone. In today’s dollars this would be just about $89,000–still just a modest sum. But you have to remember that charity rides were in their nascency back then and the entire event was organized in just six weeks. Everything from recruitment, fundraising, PR, logistics was put together quickly. And, this was long before social media existed so getting the word out was literally by word of mouth.

The other thing that may be difficult to imagine for those who did not live in that era is that these were very dark days in the LGBT community. Gay men were dying like flies. With no cure and no effective treatments let alone understanding of the disease, despair cast a dark shadow. Members would disappear for an interval, reappearing as gaunt wraiths, and then passing. Or suddenly their obituary would appear in the BAR. Those of us who lived through that time lost many friends and that grief and loss left a heavy mark.

Bike-A-Thon was not just a fundraising event but one of the first ‘lighthouses’ shining a path: the community could unite and everyday people rather than just medical researchers could do something to get through the plague years and provide some hope that we would see an end.

Can you imagine that? And here we are today!

2 thoughts on “Shining A Light

  1. Hey Tony, Thank you for this invaluable history.
    And I wish Alan and Bud and all this year’s ALC riders a great week. Thank you for riding ALC and for raising money to help those in need.


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