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Reprinted from The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

Rough Trade Diva Finds She's No Easy Rider
Carole Pope enters the week-long California AIDS bike marathon
in honour of her late brother and barely lives to tell the tale.

Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, July 3, 2000

Los Angeles -- A year ago, if anybody had told me I would cycle the 925 kilometres [575 miles] from San Francisco to Los Angeles in seven days, I'd have laughed. But I had a good reason to try. Four years ago my brother Howard died of AIDS, and I've seen firsthand the power of the services that help people living with HIV. I know Howard would have been here riding with me.

The California AIDS ride started in 1994, with 478 cyclists raising $1.6-million (U.S.) for AIDS services and education. So far, the annual ride has raised $45-million, and has grown into a national event. During the years I've lived in L.A., I've watched the ride's closing ceremonies and always found them moving.

Day Zero. I check in at Fort Mason, an old armory on the San Francisco waterfront. Before the event, riders are required to raise $2,500 in pledges and go on training rides to build up their endurance. I skipped the training part because I bike everywhere in Los Angeles. I won't make that mistake again. Just navigating the terrifying hills of Laguna Street to get here has exhausted me.

The mix of riders is not what I expected. There are doctors, accountants, entire families. I'd guess that half the riders are straight. Bike teams include The Positive Pedallers (riders living with HIV), Web MD and The Elton John AIDS foundation. Some riders have decorated their helmets with Ken and Barbie dolls, plastic bananas, bottles of Motrin pain relievers and anything else you could imagine. Some riders display photographs of loved ones they've lost.

Day 1. 5:45 a.m. We're back at Fort Mason for the opening ceremonies and an inspiring sendoff speech. At 7 a.m., more than 2,700 riders head out on to the street single file, psyched and full of energy.

We glide past the sepia-domed Palace of Fine Arts on our way out of the city. After 27 kilometres we arrive at our first pit stop, where we hydrate and wolf down the protein bars we will grow to hate, bagels, cookies and pretzels. There will be five or more pit stops every day, where volunteer medical students and nurses can provide "butt balm" or tape up brutalized knees.

As we leave the pit stop, I'm disconcerted that everyone is passing me, including people in much worse physical shape than me. There's David with no legs who is pedalling a modified three-wheel cycle with his hands. Someone informs me that doing the ride on a mountain bike without using slicks (smooth tires) will be a nightmare. I vow to confront the boys at my local bike shop who told me I could do the ride fine on my own bike -- when and if I ever get back to L.A.

As we ride along the California coast, I'm assaulted by panoramic views I can't really appreciate because inside my head I'm screaming in agony. This too will pass. We confront our first hill, called Satan's Slide, and it's a struggle. Every time we climb a hill, some man on the crew is standing at the summit dressed in full drag, cheering us on. A man known as the Chicken Lady appears out of the blue, willing us to make it. All very surreal.

The day ends in Santa Cruz, after 140 kilometres. At the campsite, I find that tentmate Silver has already pitched our tent. She has multiple sclerosis and is doing the ride on the back of a tandem driven by a hulking German man. She uses a rope to pull her feet into place on the pedals.

Our city on wheels has four medical tents, portable showers, a stage with live entertainment, and a kitchen where nurturing people ladle out mountains of food. I eat and fall into a stupor at 9:30 p.m.

Day 2. We're on our way to King City. We bike past sweet-smelling strawberry fields where migrant workers are bent over the crops. I have snatches of conversations with other riders as we pass each other. There are so many of us, it sometimes takes days to run into someone you know. We head through the butt-end of Monterey and reach our campsite, after 160 kilometres. That night, I go to the medical tents. I ask to see Pat, one of the four chiropractors, and she adjusts me.

Day 3. Today we will face the Quad Buster, an eight-kilometre hill. Some people fly up it. I do not, but there is the reward of rolling down it at breakneck speed. Our pit stops have different themes every day; today is The Wizard of Oz. There's the wicked witch of the north and several tin men with their faces covered in zinc oxide. Boys dressed in stripes are singing We are the Lollipop Men.

I meet a rider named Victor, who has done all 25 AIDS rides across the United States. He used to be a member of the dance troupe La La La Human Steps. It's 35C, and people are sagging. Riders who don't make it to a pit stop by a certain time are picked up and driven to the next pit stop or straight to camp.

Day 4. We climb over two warm-up hills to get to the intimidating peaks called the Evil Twins. It's exhilarating to charge down the second hill for what seems like miles. We're in Cambria, which is all rolling green hills dotted with cows -- shades of Tuscany, with intriguing looking wineries I make mental notes to visit. When you least expect it, people are parked at the side of the road, cheering the riders on and handing out goodies such as fresh fruit.

Day 5. It rained overnight, and water got into the tent. Silver and I joke that we were floating in our sleeping bags. It's still raining, and the roads are slick with mud. Mercifully the showers don't last long. People are exhausted, but this is a day for hills -- three big ones. Riders are blasted by the wind as they fight their way along the highway. I love listening to the gay boys make catty remarks as they whiz by, dissing each other's bodies. Sometimes riders pass me singing show tunes.

Day 6. Barbra Streisand Day, and the pit stops are inundated with Babs clones. Her songs blare from loudspeakers. We're greeted by a man in a sixties dress, with a red bob similar to the photo on the My name is Barbra album.

We ride through Santa Barbara, verdant and beautiful. A river, a magnificent hill, miles of beaches. I start to sway all over the bike path. Three women ride by and ask if I'm all right. I say I am, but one of them doesn't believe me and rides back. They escort me to the next pit stop, where I stick a bag of ice on my burning knee. One of them gives me some "GU" -- a liquid shot of herbs that gives an energy boost.

I get back on the road but am still weak. Eventually I turn myself in to one of the pierced, Harley-riding crew members. I'm picked up by a couple of medics who tell me I'm dehydrated. They take me to the next pit stop, where I'm whisked to the medical tent along with an HIV-positive rider with a locked knee. I'm admonished to drink lots of water and Gatorade and report back in the morning. Our campsite is at San Buenaventure State Beach in Ventura. It gets a bad rap from snobby Angelenos, but looks beautiful. Who knew?

Day 7. The energy level of the riders is palpable on the last day. We head out to a perilous highway that runs through Malibu. We lunch at El Pescador, a beach I love. Back on the road, a girl wipes out at an intersection ahead of me. Riders with cellphones call 911, and a fire truck pulls up almost immediately. The girl is furious and refuses to stay down. She wants to finish the ride.

We reach Brentwood, and are exuberant as we near the end of the ride in Century City. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. We follow motorcycle cops on our victory ride down to where friends, families and the media await. The crowd cheers, some riders burst into tears, others raise their bikes above their heads in victory.

For me, the most moving part of that Saturday afternoon was watching Ron and Shelly Goldman roll a riderless bike along with their late son Jeffrey's helmet on the handle bars. When Jeffrey was alive, he urged his parents to raise funds so that L.A.'s Gay and Lesbian Center could build a new HIV clinic. This year's ride raised more than $11-million.

Carole Pope co-founded Canada's most famous punk-glam band, Rough Trade, in Toronto in 1974.

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