AIDS Lifecycle Interview
Organized jointly by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, AIDS Lifecycle has become one of the country’s most successful, and most-attended AIDS fundraiser. Nearly 3000 people participate in the seven-day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles each year, fundraising to support AIDS education, prevention and treatment programs in California, a state that is second in the nation for AIDS cases.
I recently visited the L.A. office to talk with recruitment manager Jim Rudoff and coordinator Mary Zeiser to find out more about ALC.
Krista Carlson: How did AIDS Lifecycle (ALC) get started?
Jim Rudoff: There have been AIDs rides in California for 20 years. The first AIDS ride was California AIDS ride. The whole concept of AIDS rides was created by Dan Pallotta. We have him to thank for generating millions and millions of dollars—and bringing a lot of people into the cycling community who probably wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise.
Over the years he started charging more and more to produce the event, which meant that less and less money was going to the beneficiaries—to the point where approximately 65 percent was going to production costs. So what happened all over the country is that the beneficiary organizations, which included San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, essentially decided to create their own event and bring the production in-house. That happened 12 years ago, and we created AIDS Lifecycle.
Last year our cost of fundraising was 32.1 percent, which means that approximately twice as much money is going to the beneficiaries. One note about the beneficiaries: San Francisco AIDS Foundation is focused entirely on AIDS treatment, advocacy, prevention, and while the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center has many programs, the ride only supports the HIV/AIDS programs of the center.
How much is raised through ALC?
Mary Zeiser: We just broke our hundred million dollar mark, in the history of AIDS Lifecycle.
J: Last year we raised $12.8 million.
What are the programs funded by ALC?
M: We have a few different programs through the center that are funded by ALC. We have The Spot, which is a free testing clinic in West Hollywood; and we have an HIV testing vehicle, called the POW vehicle—Prevention on Wheels—that goes around to different neighborhoods to serve the high-risk population.
J: It also came with us on AIDS Lifecycle a few years ago, which was pretty cool. It’s great visibility—it’s a decorated vehicle and it really brought awareness throughout the state as we travelled through.
M: We have a HEP chapter here—Health Education Prevention—and that’s a team that focuses on nipping in the bud before it becomes a problem. They go out and do public outreach in the community.
J: The crown jewel of the programs that we support is the Jeffrey Goodman special care clinic. We have doctors and nurses on staff and they actually provide primary medical care to people living with HIV. Somebody could come in and get tested in the morning; they test positive, they go upstairs to talk to a counselor immediately. If possible, they will have a financial review the same day; they can see a doctor the same day, and they can get meds prescribed and prescriptions filled at our pharmacy and literally walk out the door with meds the same day.
M: Not to mention having been counseled by trained therapists. The Jeffrey Goodman Clinic sees over 2,600 patients [in a year]. The clinic began reaching maximum capacity, so they’ve done a build-out to expand and see more patients, to be able to treat it and cut down on the spread of HIV at a faster rate.
How did you both get involved with ALC?
M: I got involved with ALC as a 17-year-old who was really freaked out by AIDS. I identified a prejudice within myself and I wanted to fix that. So I did a Google search for AIDS, and when I saw “AIDS Lifecycle”—the word “life” next to the word “AIDS” stuck out. So I followed this link, I ended up registering myself for this bike ride, and—I started telling people about it.
I was still so scared of facing it, and meeting someone with AIDS or HIV, and then I came into this office—I shook hands with my cyclist representative, J.R. Billings. He introduced himself, and behind him he had posters similar to this jersey here, Positive Pedaler, and I pieced it together—this man who I respect, who gives me the information I need to reach my goals—he’s HIV positive. Immediately my prejudice was lost.
A couple years into getting involved with the ride I’d met so many people along the way, and ironically my sister was diagnosed with HIV. The ride has meant a lot more to me as the years progress, in different ways.
J: This will be my 9th year with the ride. I used to live up in San Francisco, and I had friends who had ridden since the early days of the California AIDS ride, so I always knew about it.
A friend of mine had just started working for the ride and said ‘Hey! Come to the kickoff party.” I was not a cyclist, as many of our cyclists are not. I was a performer, in fact. I teach and perform fire dancing and I do stilt-walking. So I decided to join the ride as a roadie.
It takes more than 600 roadies to make the ride happen. They’re all volunteers and they all work their butts off for the entire week of the ride, traveling with the event down the state. I was a roadie for seven years, and for the last four of those years I managed a team of 15 other roadies.
On my very first year with the ride, on night three, we’re in a town called Paso Robles, and that is the Positive Pedalers night. They asked everyone in the audience with HIV to stand up. And I did. The response from these 3000 mostly strangers was absolutely overwhelming—just filled with love and support.
Obviously the cause is important to me, and there are lots of ways to support the cause. It’s the community of the ride that has kept me getting more and more involved over the years—from roadie to team captain and now on staff. Aside from the cause, I think the ride itself is an absolutely beautiful and amazing thing.
What was your first ride like?
M: I had no idea what I was in for. I had not known anyone that was involved in the ride, and I had to find a tent-mate. You had to share a tent with someone, and I was still worried about meeting someone with AIDS/HIV. I discovered a website that led me to choose between different people to find a tent-mate. I ended up finding my very best friend, who has been by side since the very first year.
In preparation for the ride I didn’t do much riding. I rode my bike seven miles before ALC. So I was, uh, not prepared. I learned, on the ride, how to shift gears, how to clip in; I learned how to put my helmet on—I knew absolutely nothing, and I got all these amazing tips and pieces of advice from cyclists around me, who came from all walks of life.
In learning all these lessons I was surrounded by this amazing community—it felt like family. All these people are selfless—they’re all there to give back and it’s like, the one place where I can find, never a moment of discrimination.
The people are great, and on the ride itself I learned all the technical stuff, but the scenery—in riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles you pass by the most beautiful sights of California. You climb some hills, you get the views, you descend, and you pass through redwood trees at some point, the ocean…the strawberry fields! Right in June, when the strawberries are ripe for picking, so you smell that amazing aroma; you can’t get the Beatles song out of your head that day. It’s something that I look forward to every single year. You see dolphins in the ocean—it’s just some incredible things I can’t even describe.
How many people participate in ALC?
J: In terms of actual participation, we cap the ride at 2500 cyclists, and then it takes about 500-600 roadies to support them. We cap it at that number in order to protect the rider experience. A lot of it also has to do with preserving the community of the ride, so that as you move through your day, at meals and on the route, you actually will see people you know. 2500 is a lot; our average ridership is about 2300 for the last several years. It’s still a lot, but we really feel that going beyond that would just change the nature of the event in a way that we don’t want.
While browsings www.aidslifecycle.org I read that 21 percent of people living with HIV are undiagnosed. What does the ride do to address this reality and raise awareness?
J: The ride itself creates a huge amount of visibility. One of the things that I love about the ride is all of the small communities we touch throughout the state. People grow up—kids—knowing what HIV is and having known people all of their lives who have HIV, which greatly reduces the stigma, which it makes it easier for them to go get tested when the time comes.
The stigma around finding out that you have HIV and that you have to tell people prevents a lot of people from getting tested. It’s often easier for them not to know, so, reducing the stigma is a very important goal of the ride…the more people that get tested, the more people who know, the more people can get into treatment, and…the fewer people get infected. The ride funds, in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, major campaigns both locally and online—so they have a global impact—to encourage people to get tested.
When a friend of mine was doing ALC her mother refused to donate, insisting that AIDS was a “gay disease.” How do you respond to this attitude, and how can participants handle this sort of situation?
M: My sister has HIV and she’s straight. Unfortunately that’s a part of the stigma that comes along with this disease. It’s a pandemic and it’s affecting the entire plant. We’re evolving, slowly but surely, to educating people about the disease and to learning more about it; unfortunately the stigma is a huge part and that is definitely a conversation that a lot of our riders have with their donors when they’re fundraising. I’ve definitely changed the hearts and minds of a lot of my donors who put their foot down and they don’t want to contribute for the reason of it being considered a “gay disease” in their mind at first, and then once we talk about it and talk about the issues that are happening, people learn.
J: It is true that in the United States the majority of people living with HIV are gay men. Globally, that’s not true. Globally, the majority of people living with HIV are heterosexual. The most rapidly growing population in the U.S. becoming infected with HIV are men who have sex with men, of color. So men of color who have sex with men. And this is again where the stigma plays into it, because these are not necessarily people who self-identify as gay. They are often afraid to come out and afraid to protect themselves, or to even become educated, because of the stigma.
How would you describe ALC to someone who has never heard of it?
J: We’re doing a social media campaign right now called “You Belong Here,” and our participants, including us, are all recording 30-second clips specifically designed to tell somebody who doesn’t know very much or anything about the ride why you belong here.
We all have our different reasons. As I said earlier, the community is what brings me to the ride in particular, over other ways of fighting HIV/AIDS. In some ways that’s the hardest part to explain. We tend to talk about conquering the challenge or supporting the cause or the support that we offer—like, “this is an amazing opportunity to say that you have cycled from San Francisco to Los Angeles”—and all those things are 100 percent true.
The surprise, or the bonus, that most people are not expecting is the community. If you come ride with us on our training rides you’ll start to see it. We take care of each other. Of course that doesn’t compare to what you actually experience on the event…we call it the “Love Bubble,” actually.
M: It is so true! You’re in this mobile community of 3000 people for seven days, and when it’s over, it happened too quickly. It’s a space where you’re free to be who you want to be and encouraged… in every way.
J: There’s no question that the ride is a challenge. Emotionally, physically, and I think part of what makes it the “Love Bubble” is how much we encourage and support each other—because we all know that that’s what it takes.
You get back multifold what you give. It’s the kind of event where you can sit down at dinner with a complete stranger and say “Hey, it’s my first ride” and they will get up and give you hug. People’s stories are just amazing. You can ask anyone, “Why are you riding?”
Great talking to you both, anything else you think people should know?
J: If you want more information we offer registration workshops online, so you can do that from anywhere, and those are all on the calendar.
M: If they want to register for AIDS Lifecycle, we’ll give them a discount. Enter ALCLA and receive $20 off of the $85 registration… Do you wanna ride in AIDS Lifecycle this year?