AIDS LifeCycle: The Best Week of the Year

Imagine bicycling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one week, not alone, but in a peloton of thousands. For 545 miles, a team of roadies dedicate their time and energy to supporting your southward journey. The daily rest stops are extravagant events with costumes, dance parties, and drag shows, while the nightly camps provide relaxation areas, medical facilities, and excellent food. Everywhere – among the riders, the volunteers, and residents along the route – there is exuberance and joy. This is the AIDS/LifeCycle, a yearly charity ride that raises millions of dollars to fight HIV/AIDS. Our guide to the ride is Meg Shutzer, an investigative journalist, filmmaker, and spinning instructor who currently captains the inclusive WeSpoke team and has participated in the AIDS/LifeCycle every year it’s been held since 2016.

Episode Transcript

Meg: I feel really good about being an evangelist for the AIDS/LifeCycle because I think this week is so special and can be really life-changing.

Gabriel: You just heard Megan Schutzer share her feelings about the AIDS/LifeCycle, or ALC, a yearly charity ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In seven days on the saddle, riders cover approximately 545 miles, nearly 900 kilometers. The route includes parts of the famous California Highway 1, along the Pacific Coast, and ventures inland for long stretches. Although the ALC is unquestionably a physical challenge that raises millions of dollars to fight HIV/AIDS, it’s much more than that. It’s a unique and possibly life-changing experience that, at least for Meg, adds up to the best week of the year.

Sandra: You’re listening to The Accidental Bicycle Tourist. In this podcast, you’ll meet people from all walks of life and learn about their most memorable bike touring experiences. This is your host, Gabriel Aldaz.

Gabriel: Hello cycle touring enthusiasts! And now for something completely different. On the previous episodes of the podcast, we focused on bicycle travelers who have chosen to be independent or self-supported. However, you can also tour with support, meaning that you don’t need to carry all your gear on your bicycle. For example, you can ride with a group of friends and take turns driving a vehicle alongside. You can pay to be part of a tour group with professional guides and luggage transfer service. You can also participate in an organized ride for a good cause, such as fighting a disease. The AIDS/LifeCycle is one of the most ambitious of these so-called charity rides. I was fortunate to participate in the event in 2016, during which I met Meg Schützer, who today will share her experiences from riding the ALC multiple times. Meg, thanks so much for being a guest on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist.

Meg: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Gabriel: First of all, are you participating in the 2024 edition?

Meg: Well, I’ve been doing the AIDS/LifeCycle since 2016 and I’ve done it every year that they have the ride. And my first year, even like on the first day, we rode from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and I remember getting to camp and signing up for the next year. It’s sort of been that way for me every year since, like I sign up the moment that I can, and I know I’m going to be doing it the next year. So yes, long answer to your short question, but I will be doing the AIDS/LifeCycle in

Gabriel: Nice. And so how many years did it get canceled due to the pandemic?

Meg: There were two years. I think 2020 and 2021, they didn’t do the ride.

Gabriel: If 2016 was your first ride, then that means that when we met, you were on your inaugural ride. I always had this feeling that you were this super-experienced ALC rider.

Meg: No, I think it was just the enthusiasm. Yeah, seemed like experience.

Gabriel: And how did you find out about it?

Meg: I found out about the AIDS/LifeCycle through a friend of mine. I was actually very new to cycling at the time. I had moved out to California with a single-speed bike – I lived in the northeast of the US – and was quickly introduced to the hills and how challenging it could be to only have one gear. I came out here, started to ride a little bit more, and a friend told me about a team that was geared towards women doing the AIDS/LifeCycle and I was curious. I’ve been involved in fundraising for different aid support groups back in the northeast, where I had moved from, and was curious about this ride and also the challenge of riding from San Francisco to LA and doing that with a team and a community. That was my intro and I just decided, okay, let’s do it. And I really had no idea what I was getting into that first year. It far exceeded my expectations of what it could have been like.

Gabriel: I remember that the team name was SheSpoke. It was an all women’s team, right?

Meg: Yeah, it started about ten years ago as SheSpoke and the AIDS/LifeCycle, as you know from doing it, there are a lot of men on that ride, a lot of men. So I think for women in that environment, it was really nice to find other women to be on a team with and to sort of share experiences with. But actually, what happened over the last several years, is that our team has really evolved and we changed our name to WeSpoke to stand more firmly in support of our non-binary and trans teammates because this is a team that’s not just cis women. And so we have carried on with a slightly different name.

Gabriel: Just to clarify, when you say “cis women,” the cis is short for cisgender, which describes a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth. In other words, someone who is not transgender.

Meg: Exactly.

Gabriel: It’s interesting, because when I learned about it, I had the same interest in this ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, 545 miles. I had this interest in the physical challenge of it and I wasn’t new to cycling at the time and it seemed really cool. But I had no idea that it was this amazing community and I did the ride with my good friend Roger Levy, who maybe one day will be a guest on the show as well, and I remember being in San Francisco maybe for the registration and looking around and I say, “Roger, it looks like there’s a lot of homosexual men here.” And Roger’s like, “We’re in San Francisco and this is the AIDS ride.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I’m such an idiot.” Tell me about the community or the sense of purpose that you have found the ride to have, because clearly it’s much more than just getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Meg: Absolutely. I think the thing that sticks out the most to me about the AIDS/LifeCycle is how different it feels to be in a community where people are being so intentionally kind. I think as kids, we’re often in environments where we’re encouraged to be kind and to help each other out and do things like that, but as an adult, in capitalism, we just aren’t in environments like that very often and in this case, it’s like several thousand people who are just trying to help each other do this challenging physical thing in service of a cause. And so everyone already kind of comes into it feeling good about the fundraising for people living with HIV/AIDS. And then there are all these other opportunities to help out, whether it’s people who volunteer to spend a week of their time serving food or lifting bags or setting up rest stops. Like, lots of people are just doing that and not even riding their bikes. And then the cyclists themselves as well are always looking for ways to help each other. If someone gets a flat tire, like, five people stop and try and help them fix the flat. And so that environment feels really different from anything that I’ve ever experienced as an adult. Yeah, it’s very special. I think the fact that also it’s this queer community to me is really meaningful, and I think feels so different from the normative world that we live in, where in this case, you’re right that your average person on the AIDS/LifeCycle is a cis gay white man, probably. It’s very different. I think the AIDS/LifeCycle, there’s even more that they can do to be inclusive, like it is very white and it is very male. But it feels so joyful and fun and playful in a way that the rest of the world doesn’t. And you see that. Like, the rest stops are not just like rest stops with snacks and water. All the volunteers at the rest stops are in costumes or putting on a drag show. There’s just so much joy. And it feels like that is a big part of it as well. People often say the AIDS/LifeCycle is actually not that much about riding a bike. I mean, it is, like, you have to ride a bike, but it is also so much about this community and joy and the cause that’s really, really special.

Gabriel: Exactly. The rest stops are absolutely incredible. As soon as one edition ends, it seems like they might just immediately start planning next year’s because I don’t know… maybe three or four rest stops per day… And somehow the organizers and volunteers manage to put together a different theme at each rest stop.

Meg: It’s pretty epic.

Gabriel: It challenged my boundaries because, like I’ve said from the start, I was just so unaware at the beginning. What was that rest stop? It was with the Otter Pops, or whatever,

Meg:and I don’t know if it had an official name, but… The Otter Pop Stop? Yes.

Gabriel: OK, that makes sense.

Meg: Yeah, it’s on the second day of the ride, and it happens every year, and a lot of the community of queer men in San Francisco who aren’t doing the ride but care about the cause, they’ll head down to somewhere between Santa Cruz and King City, out in the middle of nowhere. And they’ll set up a rest stop with Otter Pops and a dance party. And, yeah, the costumes are amazing.

Gabriel: Here are all these men. There’s otters and then there’s…

Meg: Bears.

Gabriel: Yeah. At the Otter Pop Stop, some gay men present call themselves “otters” and others call themselves “bears.” Can you define those two?

Meg: Oh, gosh. You know, I’m not an expert on the terminology that gay men might use to describe themselves. So I don’t know if I feel comfortable distinguishing.

Gabriel: I seem to remember that “bears” are men who are just larger and have a lot of hair, I guess, which kind of makes sense.

Meg: Yes. And I think “otters” are, like, a subcategory, but slightly, like, smaller. I’m not really the expert on that. I could give you all the terms for queer women more confidently.

Gabriel: Friend of the show, Ondrej from Czechia has graciously agreed to clarify these terms. So, Ondrej, what is a “bear”? 

Ondrej: So, bear for me is like an older, hairy guy. I would say at least 30+, who’s usually very hairy, a little bit fat. That’s what I imagine. And they go to specific clubs, so they are bear clubs. They are bear parties where only people like this meet, even bear prides.

Gabriel: Very good. The second term is “otter.” 

Ondrej: So, otter is kind of a younger, more lean version of the bear. So he’s still hairy, but doesn’t have to be so masculine. Can be also a little bit more feminine.

Gabriel: Maybe a little less hairy? 

Ondrej: Yeah, maybe less hairy, but still hairy.

Gabriel: Bonus question. Do you know what an Otter Pop is?

Ondrej: Otter Pop. I mean, it’s probably someone who’s really young. In their early 20s, I would guess.

Gabriel: That’s a great improvisation. It was a trick question. An Otter Pop is not a homosexual term.

Ondrej: No?

Gabriel: It’s a product sold in the United States. The German equivalent, if you know it, is Wassereis

Ondrej: Basically, frozen sweet water in a plastic that you can then lick.

Gabriel: Exactly, that’s an Otter Pop.

Gabriel: The thing that was amazing was that this Otter Pop Stop, they had this group of – I guess we’ll call them bears – and they were inviting people to take photos with them. You could just sit on one’s lap and then another one would be touching your chest, or whatever, and another would grab your legs. And I just said to Roger, “There’s no way I’m doing this.” And Roger said, “Come on! Come on!”

Meg: Oh my God.

Gabriel: I ended up doing it. And for me, it was stepping out of my comfort zone. In the end, it was fun and I’m glad that I tried it.

Meg: And will that picture be posted with this podcast?

Gabriel: That might be for premium subscribers.

Meg: OK. Fair.

Gabriel: So that’s one of the stops. Which other rest stops come to mind that you are fond of?

Meg: Well, that’s a great one that you named. Rest stop four is just generally known for having great drag shows. And on the third day in particular, they put a lot of effort into the drag show that they have. So that’s a good one. On the same day as the Otter Pop Stop, like not much further along, there’s the place where people go skinny dipping. There’s the place where people get artichokes. There’s the cinnamon roll stop.

Gabriel: Mmmm. Cinnamon rolls.

Meg: It’s constant food. I think AIDS/LifeCycle – yes, again, like cycling, you do have to like pedal – but there’s so much food and so much celebration. It’s not your average bike ride.

Gabriel: No, no, not by a long stretch. If I remember right, the artichoke stop, it’s in Castroville, which is the self-proclaimed, maybe, artichoke capital of the world. And I think the cinnamon rolls are in Pismo Beach.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: Those are definitely great stops. And there’s an ice cream stop as well.

Meg: Oh, I forgot. Yeah, Paradise Pit in Santa Barbara.

Gabriel: There you go.

Meg: They have ice cream and toppings and you can… oh, that’s amazing. Oh, and on that same day, Day Six, there’s a dance party by the beach at rest stop four. Also really, really fun.

Gabriel: Right. I’m impressed by how you’re just rattling them off. The rest stops, are they more or less the same themes between years?

Meg: A lot of the rest stops are typically at the same places. So the theme of each rest stop might change. But a lot of things are similar. So, yeah, it might be like a Batman theme for rest stop or on a certain day in 2023, and it’ll be a different theme this year. But things like the Otter Pops or the ice cream sundaes at Paradise Pit or that dance party, those are the same year to year. They’ll just have, like, a slightly different theme.

Gabriel: OK, while we’re on the subject of this, there’s one more thing that came to mind, which was really quite touching, and that was in Bradley, the school that organizes this massive barbecue with the hamburgers to, I guess, raise money for their school district. Is that still going on? Because that was really, really cool to see all these kids joining together and everyone is helping out and cutting vegetables and frying burgers.

Meg: Right. That’s a highlight for a lot of people, the Bradley School lunch. And they definitely use this particular day, with all the AIDS/LifeCycle riders and roadies coming through, as… I think it’s their biggest fundraiser for programs at the school. And that day is typically really a hot day, so they both like have this barbecue where AIDS/LifeCycle folks can buy food as part of their fundraising. But also you can, I think, spend if you spend 100 dollars on a burger, you also can sit in air conditioning. I’ve never done it, but I know that some folks do. It’s kind of silly, but I think it’s a really special day also because it’s a rural community. It’s a place where – not to make huge assumptions and stereotypes – but not a place that’s typically known for being like very gay-friendly. Then you have this ride come through and the way that that community welcomes us is really special. And I think one of those ways that the AIDS/LifeCycle is also more than just about raising money for this cause, but it’s also about stigma and fighting stigma and also just awareness of this issue and showing the joy that this community brings. So I think that day can be really, really meaningful for folks and also just makes a huge difference for this school.

Gabriel: Yeah, it was certainly meaningful for me. And since I haven’t gone back since 2016 – And as you know, I hope to do so because it was such a great event – now, suddenly eight years have passed, which is also shocking. But as I was thinking about, what do I remember? The Bradley lunch is still very vivid in my mind.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: Another thing that’s vivid in my mind is the Red Dress Day. Again, I was completely oblivious. So I didn’t pack anything. I had no idea that it was going on, and I was shocked that Roger had something, and he put that on. It’s incredible the amount of effort that some of the writers put into this.

Meg: Yeah. So Red Dress Day is the fifth day of the AIDS/LifeCycle, and it’s a particularly hilly day. So as you’re sort of winding up the road because it’s a day where everyone wears red, it looks like an AIDS ribbon, that red ribbon, a little bit, climbing up the hillside. I think it started with people wearing red, and it had that, like, kind of beautiful feeling and imagery of the AIDS ribbon. But then it evolved to Red Dress Day, where almost everyone – and obviously, not quite – but almost everyone’s in a red dress. Some people go so far as to like put bike cleats onto high heels. People are dressed up! And yes, the effort is amazing. It’s really, really cool to see everyone get into this. Even people who typically wouldn’t be comfortable in drag or wouldn’t choose to wear drag. It’s pretty epic. Again, shows a lot of the joy that this community brings and, like, joy is a form of resistance. So it is, I think, a very special day, very striking, something that you’d never forget if you saw it.

Gabriel: Absolutely. Yeah, the visual of it, like you say, is just spectacular because there are several thousand participants on this ride. So to see this string of red contrasting with the California landscape is beautiful and very photogenic. So let’s talk about some other aspects of it. So first of all, since it’s for a good cause, sometimes these supported rides, they have a fundraising minimum and ALC is no different. Do you know off the top of your head how much that is?

Meg: How much you have to raise or how much they raise in total?

Gabriel: Oh, I was thinking about how much you had to raise, but I’d also be interested in how much the ALC raises in total.

Meg: Individuals have to raise 3,500 dollars. I think it increased about a year ago and every year it’s different, the amount that they raise, but it’s several million dollars. It funds the SF AIDS Foundation and the LA LGBT Center quite significantly. And I think one of the things when you look at these charity rides that people are often wondering is like how much of the fundraising goes towards putting on the ride versus the actual cause itself. And I think AIDS/LifeCycle has been incredibly intentional about keeping the costs of the ride down. So as much as possible, everything is donated and they’re able to really direct a very high percentage of the funds to those organizations. I think that’s just something that has been really front and center for them. I think it wasn’t always that way. It used to be called that California AIDS Ride. It changed at some point. And ever since that change, it’s been really, really focused on putting those dollars towards the organizations.

Gabriel: Yeah, that’s really important. And it was also made evident to everybody because one of the things that happens in the evenings are, you have this big tent full of people getting some food and trying to relax, and they really do a nice job setting up an atmosphere of fun and relaxation before the next day. There’s also these programs that they put on that, once again were very eye-opening for me, and it does talk about, in one case at least, where is the money going to? And you got a sense that they’re really helping a lot of people.

Meg: Yeah. And I just pulled up the stats. So in 2016, the year that you did the ride, they raised over 16 million dollars.

Gabriel: Wow.

Meg: The cost of fundraising was about 33 percent. So it took 33 percent of that to put on the ride and to pay all the staff all year who helped to do the fundraising. My understanding is actually that’s quite good.

Gabriel: Yeah.

Meg: So a lot of money goes back to the foundation.

Gabriel: Yeah, that’s excellent. Do you have the stats for last year?

Meg: The most recent one on the website was 2022. They raised 17 million. Or, over that, actually. Closer to 18 and very similar. Last year, I think, yeah, I’m not sure what it was. I don’t think it was quite as high. I think it was sort of post-pandemic. There’s, like, a lot of growth and then sort of settling back into something, but they just do an amazing job supporting the riders to raise that money.

Gabriel: Oh, yeah. It’s also interesting we touched upon WeSpoke, but I do remember that there were a number of teams or organizations that participated. One team came from Germany even, and I remember they had their German flag on their uniforms and there was another team where everybody was HIV positive. Talking to members of these teams, for them, the ride is the climax of months of training and fundraising activities. For the German team, for example, just figuring out the logistics of how to get them and their bicycles over. For some people, this is really a huge event, and they’re thinking about it and doing things for it months before the actual ride.

Meg: Yeah, I think that’s true pretty much for everyone. I mean, the logistics are a lot, even if you live in Northern California. But yes, if you’re coming from anywhere else, you also are flying in your bike. Also the training, as you mentioned, I think there’s no way really to train for seven days of riding unless you don’t have to work. It’s just really hard to feel ready for seven days in the saddle. But what the AIDS/LifeCycle does in California to support riders is really amazing. I mean, on my team this year, we have a lot of people who actually aren’t really cyclists yet. Maybe they have a bike. Maybe they didn’t even have a bike when they signed up. A lot of people on my team were in that latter boat, and ALC actually organizes training rides all year round, but they really ramp up in January. I know Northern California best, but I know that on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, there are training rides that are supported. So if you’re new to riding, there will be someone always who stays in the back, who helps anyone with a mechanical issue. You’re never out there alone, and they help you to get from a 20-mile ride at the beginning of January to 30 to 40 to 50 miles. They help you to ramp up. They lead from San Francisco, Marin, from the East Bay. Like, it’s like the support that goes out to people who want to do this ride, far before the week starts, is really incredible. And I see that as well with fundraising and community-building and packing and all the different things that go into planning your week on this ride, like the AIDS/LifeCycle staff. And then tons of volunteers really help make this possible for people. I guess I say that to acknowledge all the work that goes in to try to make this ride more accessible, because I think if they didn’t do that, you would have a ride that was all men, that was all wealthy men. They’re doing work to try and make this more inclusive and accessible to people. And I think there’s still a long way to go, but I am always impressed by the efforts that they’re making every year. Even more, there’s a ride that goes out every month. That’s a women’s ride, a BIPOC ride, a trans and non-binary ride. Like they’re just really working to make this community better.

Gabriel: The first thing that I remember learning about you that was very unique at the time was that you had made this documentary film, New Generation Queens, and you actually invited me to a screening in Oakland.

Meg: I remember. Yeah.

Gabriel: I went to Oakland, I saw your film. I was very impressed. Can you just tell a little bit about that film?

Meg: Sure. I’ll preface it by saying that I was working as a… I was doing strategy consulting. I was not trained as a filmmaker, but I was really passionate about the power of filmmaking, documentary in particular, in terms of opening our eyes to things that we just haven’t experienced ourselves. And sort of, I think they can take you anywhere. And I had been working in East Africa, specifically in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, and I started playing soccer there. There’s a women’s soccer team in Zanzibar. It’s an island that is kind of soccer-obsessed. At the end of the work day, not only is every field in use, but I would also say that probably every beach is in use for soccer. Every little alley, kids are playing soccer. It’s everywhere. But on this island with, I can’t even remember if it was like 800 men’s teams. There was one women’s team, and it took me a long time to find them because they practice on like a small corner of the Zanzibar prison complex. It was the only place that they were able to access fields or a space. Women in Zanzibar and on this team have to navigate a culture where a lot of people – like it’s pretty widespread – a lot of people believe that women’s soccer is immoral, that women should not play and that specifically, it’s sort of the interpretation of Islam there, that women’s soccer is against Islam. So this team, these women, as you can imagine, are bad asses. I mean, they’re going up against what they’re being told by their family and their community is OK, and they feel really strongly in part of why they wanted to make this film with me is that they wanted other girls to know that you can be a woman and a Muslim and a soccer player. They felt very strongly, like, those three identities are not mutually exclusive, and so it was not about condemning Islam. It was about interpretation, and it was very much about saying that, like, we love our religion, but we also love this sport. It was a really amazing experience to get to make that film and to get to work with the girls on this team to do that. They really were sort of like co-directors with me. I was traveling for work a lot, and so they got to see a variety of cuts and got to give feedback and help me shape the story. And again, that message – that you can be a woman and a Muslim and a soccer player – like they shaped that. And in doing that film, you know, when I made it, I never really thought anyone besides me and the girls on the team and probably my mom would watch the film. It actually ended up being something that festivals wanted to screen and that actually, I traveled kind of all over the world with it. It was quite surprising that it got that audience, but it also sort of for me was a moment that led me to question like what I was doing as a strategy consultant, then like actually led me to go back to school and to study journalism and film.

Gabriel: When you say strategy consultant, what exactly do you mean?

Meg: So I worked for a company that was a spin off of McKinsey. Rather than advising companies on strategy or like management, they advised foundations and nonprofits on strategy. And so it was actually a really cool work. Places like the Gates Foundation or the government of Tanzania or, like, a variety of different places would hire us to help them figure out how to do international development work. And it was very cool. But I just feel so grateful to have found journalism and to have been able to make that shift, because I think it just suits me better. I love it.

Gabriel: You went to UC Berkeley for that?

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: When I wanted to see what you were up to lately, you don’t pick the most light topics to delve into.

Meg: Did you find the New York Times story?

Gabriel: Yeah, I found it and I read it.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: It’s pretty disturbing.

Meg: Yeah, I spent probably two or three years on that project. It was an investigation into a juvenile detention center in Louisiana, where there’s just been a lot of abuse. Anything you imagine happening in a juvenile detention center in Louisiana has happened at this place. It started as a documentary and I made a film, but also in that process, realized there was so much more to uncover, so many more people to talk to. And it just became bigger and bigger. So, yes, I don’t always choose upbeat topics, but I think the reason that I do this kind of work is because I think it’s really easy to live in our bubbles without thinking about the things that we’re not exposed to. And I think, gosh, juvenile detention centers, that’s a thing that most people aren’t exposed to. Maybe you have a kid that gets sent to one or maybe you’ve spent time in one yourself, but if not, those are places that are really hard to see inside and partly to protect the privacy of those kids, but partly they’re allowed to be hard to see inside because people aren’t paying attention and don’t, in my opinion, don’t care enough. I would like people to care more. And so that’s, I think, where storytelling, whether it’s in print or on film, comes in, in my mind, as a way of opening people’s eyes to think about and care about something they might not have been exposed to.

Gabriel: Yeah, whether it’s an upbeat story or not, that’s something that I think you and I are both very interested in. And that’s the storytelling aspect of it.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: Yeah, it’s a powerful tool for sure. And I was affected by it in multiple ways. I could tell that it was a huge amount of work: the sheer number of interviews and hours and fact-checking. It’s apparent. So it’s obviously… now you said it took you two to three years. And I’m not surprised by that. Also, this picture that it paints is really… yeah, it’s a disturbing picture and it’s a failure on so many levels.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: And it’s still going on.

Meg: Yeah, all over the US, not just at this facility. I think that’s something that happens in juvenile detention centers and prisons and places where there aren’t eyes on what’s going on, where people don’t have rights.

Gabriel: Not only are you the captain of the AIDS/LifeCycle team and you also make movies and you also have investigative journalism reports in the New York Times, you also give spin classes. And my question is, do any of the people who are taking your spin classes, do they have any idea that you do all of this?

Meg: Just some of them, but a lot of them don’t. Because I teach a lot of cycling and I think probably many people that come to the gym think that that’s my full-time thing.

Gabriel: Right.

Meg: I teach at like 6 and 7 a.m. So really, it’s my really fun side hustle, my morning workout. And yeah, then I go do something different. But no, I don’t think I don’t think everyone knows that.

Gabriel: No, I would be shocked. A lot of people are like, “Oh yeah, that was the spin instructor. It was pretty cool. It was fun.”

Meg: I don’t know what everyone in my spin classes does when they’re not at the gym either.

Gabriel: No, of course, of course. Is there anything else that you do that I should know about, besides all of this?

Meg: Gosh, probably.

Gabriel: Any other volunteer work, jobs?

Meg: I volunteer at San Quentin, which is a prison.

Gabriel: San Quentin?

Meg: Yeah, here in Northern California.

Gabriel: OK, what do you do at San Quentin?

Meg: Teaching journalism and a video.

Gabriel: Wow, that’s incredible. So how is it teaching these things to inmates?

Meg: I feel like I’ve learned as much. And I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s like very much a two-way street in terms of the learning and their love of guys who are incarcerated there who either came in with journalism skills or have developed it on the inside. So really, it’s just a collaborative space where, if there’s something that I have learned that I can share, I do. They’re working on cool projects. And also a lot of the guys that I’ve met on the inside who have gotten out continue to be people that I collaborate with, which is very cool.

Gabriel: That’s so cool.

Meg: Yeah, actually, there’s a couple that – or at least one – that comes to my spin classes, which is it’s really cool. We met there and now he’s out. He’s making movies and works for a podcast and also takes class with me. It’s yeah, full circle.

Gabriel: So, you just finished with your spin class?

Meg: That was earlier this morning. And now I’m editing a documentary. There’s, like, a film residency program I met at their building working on an edit.

Gabriel: Can you talk about what you’re working on now or is it totally top secret?

Meg: No, I just started a film about a young guy who he was actually arrested at 16 for a robbery and sentenced to life in prison. He was 16, he was a kid, he was sentenced as an adult. And his case went all the way to the Supreme Court in the U.S. And they actually ruled that young people can’t get life sentences for crimes that aren’t murders, and so he was resentenced. It also changed the sentencing laws for kids around the country. So it was a really big case, but he still served 21 years and he actually just got out, maybe three weeks ago. He’s a year older than me. He’s 37, and has been locked up since he was 16. And the film that I’m working on with my co-director, Brandon – who’s sitting next to me, we’ve been editing today – The film is about his next chapter and what life is like on the other side, what he won from the Supreme Court, which I think going in, I thought would be just really a lot of joy and positive and great experiences, but actually has been way more complicated because our probation system here is really challenging. So it’s early, but that’s what’s keeping me busy right now.

Gabriel: What an exciting career you have.

Meg: Thank you.

Gabriel: Getting back to the AIDS/LifeCycle, the physical aspect of it is something that is definitely a challenge for some people who, again, having cycled all my life, I just took it for granted. I looked at the distances, the profiles, I knew what I had to do to get ready for it, and I just did it. I found out that’s not the way most people do it. And in a way, it’s good because it means that people who were not previously cyclists or people who could not even have conceived of getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles, on a bicycle, in a week, actually do it. That’s another one of the memories that I have, is someone who really had no experience, was overweight. And thanks to the support of the ALC training rides and the encouragement of people, they made it through. And it was such an achievement for them, just purely physical and mental achievement to cross that finish line in Los Angeles.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: I remember the most challenging climb of the entire AIDS/LifeCycle is on day three, it’s nicknamed the Quadbuster. It comes very early in the day, just as you’re getting warmed up and getting the legs loose. I was talking to somebody I didn’t even know next to me, and I’ve had these kinds of conversations so many times, like, “Oh, yeah, the climb’s coming up” and somebody will say, “Yeah, yeah, 12 percent grade” or “I’m going to be pushing this or that gear” or so forth, right? And I told this guy, I said, “Oh, yeah, climb’s coming up.” And he was this very muscular, lean man. He turned to me and he said, “Honey, you got the legs for it!”

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: That’s an answer I’d never gotten in my life before a climb. But that climb, the support, the people that were out there encouraging people was incredible.

Meg: I know, I know. It absolutely is. And you’re right, people of all different body types and athletic abilities do this ride and they provide support so that everyone can feel successful. I know some people decide, like, “My goal is to make it to lunch every day.” And they know that if they can make it, however far they can make it physically, that there will be support, there will be a ride to get them to camp or wherever they need to go. And so it’s truly amazing how much people volunteer to both encourage you on the hills, but also to be there if you need a rest. And some people do and like, that’s OK. Because again, it’s not about finishing every mile, necessarily, for everyone. I mean, some people, that’s their goal and that’s also great.

Gabriel: I think that’s a great point. The woman that I had talked to, she had set that goal as her own personal challenge. But it’s a great point. ALC also provides support in-ride if, for whatever reason, you can’t make it. They are there to take you and encourage you to start the next day, which is great, and a breath of fresh air and what can be testosterone-fueled rides like the ones that I’ve been on, where it’s “show no weakness” or some other nonsense like that.

Meg: Exactly. Yeah.

Gabriel: So let’s talk about the camps and the accommodations. How does it work?

Meg: When you start the AIDS/LifeCycle, you get assigned to a gear truck, which they have – I don’t know how many gear trucks there are – but it’ll be like a big moving truck and you get to drop off your bag with them every morning and your tent, which the AIDS/LifeCycle provides for you. And then you get to ride from, let’s say, San Francisco to Santa Cruz. And then when you get to Santa Cruz, your gear truck will be there and you pick up your bag and you pick up your tent and get to go set the tent up. They have like a grid. So you’ll be… you’ll have a particular letter and number and you’ll know where on the grid you go. Once you’ve done that camp, is your oyster. There’s a lot going on that you can do both to like take care of yourself and your body and also just to enjoy the community. So every day in camp, they have massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncture. They have a stretching area. They have these shower trucks that are actually very nice. They have really good food. They have like a camp lounge with these comfy little blow up couches that you can hang out on. There’s, as you mentioned earlier, an evening program at dinner where maybe people are talking about something in particular or there’s a talent show or whatever it might be. So there’s kind of a lot going on in camp and especially if you’re exhausted at the end of the day and you get into camp and your body needs something, you got to go to physical therapy, but you also need to shower. You got to get food. You kind of stay busy getting all those things done and getting ready for the next day. But I am very impressed with all the production that goes into just one of these camps. And then they do it seven days in a row… or six days in a row, I guess, six nights. But it’s really amazing all the effort that goes into putting these on. And each one is just this little city that has services for thousands of people. It’s really amazing.

Gabriel: It is. My impression was that it was super well-organized. And like you said, the theme was let’s help each other, let’s have fun. And so when you travel a fair amount like I have, you’re used to things like lost luggage or some kind of miscommunication. And sometimes you meet people who are just not interested in helping you out and it’s frustrating. And for one, there was very little miscommunication or confusion, and getting all of this stuff moved from one place to another is no easy feat. One time I remember, the volunteers at the gear trucks, they were even dressed up in circus costumes. And there was, like, the strong man and the lion tamer.

Meg: Right.

Gabriel: How can you help but smile when you see these people?

Meg: It’s amazing. They are giving up a week of vacation to lift your bag in and out of a truck all week. I mean, it’s just… and people do it because it’s actually fun. This community is so joyful and so fun and they care about the cause. It’s so many reasons.

Gabriel: One interesting thing, since you said that the majority of participants are gay males, one thing that I noticed was, here I was in my cycling clothes and every so often there would be this guy just checking me out from top to bottom.

Meg: Oh, my God.

Gabriel: Yeah. And I just thought, “This is what it feels like to be a woman.” This has never happened to me in my life and it was so odd. It’s like, this is what women put up with all the time.

Meg: One of the things, one of the things women put up with.

Gabriel: Yeah, one of the things. Maybe one of the more benign things, at that, but it was still, for me, again, another eye-opening moment. What are your personal favorite anecdotes from the years that you’ve participated? Can you think of an act of kindness from someone or maybe you had a physical problem you pushed through? I seem to remember that even on the year that we did it together, you had an injury that you were pushing through.

Meg: I feel like I always am pushing through some kind of injury. And all the med teams every year have taped me back together and helped me to get through it. It’s really hard to pick one particular memory. There are so many people that I met really early on that continued to be people that I see every year and feel this, like, special connection with because of meeting on the ride. I think of one person I met. The first day you finished in Santa Cruz and I was new and I just described sort of the camp and how much is going on. And I had no idea where the showers were. And so I just asked someone and ever since then and I’ve seen him every year since he calls me Shower Lady. It’s just those things, like, that was June of 2016. It’s been eight years, but I am still Shower Lady. I have a friend who is not a cyclist. She lives on the East Coast. She came out to do the ride a couple years ago and she had she trained indoors because she lives in the Northeast and it was really hard to ride in the winter. And so she’s riding on this bike outside, really for the first time. She was a bit unprepared. And she had clip-in pedals and the first day she had never used them, so she didn’t know how to unclip that day. Every time she had to stop, she just tipped over and this is the first day. And I was so proud of her. She made it all the way to lunch, which is like 30-something miles with many, many falls. Second day, she was using her pedals and not tipping over. The third day, she was figuring out how to use her gear and she was like, “Wow, that really makes hills feel better.” Seeing someone also experience the joy of cycling, and she was so proud of herself, she went the whole way on day three and I was just also so proud of her. Things like that, sharing those moments with people who are getting to feel their strength and what they’re capable of in this community is really, really special. And then I’ve met some of my closest friends and really family on the ride.

Gabriel: What do you mean, family?

Meg: Well, in 2018 on the AIDS/LifeCycle, I got engaged.

Gabriel: No way!

Meg: Someone I met in 2016 on the ride, but it’s not your typical, like, love story because we didn’t end up getting married. But she’s someone who will always be family. So it’s… and, you know, the ride is a very special time for us. We’re still really, really close. She does motorcycle safety, and I remember the first year met her on Day Two. On Day Three, I learned her name. And on Day Four… you know, like it just was a very fun little romance that developed over the week, not little because it turned out to be really, really big. And yeah, things like that happened on the AIDS/LifeCycle.

Gabriel: This is so crazy, Meg. I remember this.

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: I think at some point, we were riding together, because in 2016, there were some stretches we coincided and OK, let’s, yeah, ride together for a while. And then, after some miles, you said, “Oh, I got to stop here ’cause…”

Meg: Yeah.

Gabriel: “I’m meeting this motorcycle safety person.”

Meg: Exactly.

Gabriel: “Meg, I think you don’t really need the motorcycle safety person. I think you’re doing fine.”

Meg: I really did. I needed her. Yeah, it’s a very special time for us. So yeah.

Gabriel: Can you share her name?

Meg: Her name is Melissa.

Gabriel: Melissa. OK. Yeah, those are the things that happen. It’s a bubble for sure. And anything can happen during that week.

Meg: Totally, totally.

Gabriel: Even though you never got married, I’m glad that you and Melissa are still close. Does that mean that Melissa is still working as a motorcycle safety person?

Meg: She does moto safety every year, yep.

Gabriel: OK, so your roles have not changed at all.

Meg: They have not changed. No, I mean, I guess in 2016, I was just a rider on my team. And then in 2017, I became the captain of the team. So that has changed. Yes, I do the ride and I love it for myself. But so much of my experience now is supporting my teammates. And this year, we have about 20 new people on my team. It’s a really different thing to support that many new. Usually, we maybe have five or ten. So this is just like, “Wow, OK, all these folks need help with training and fundraising and packing and how to fix a flat and all these things.” So in that sense, my role has changed. But also, I still get to do the ride. I love supporting other riders, but then when it comes to that week, I’m like, “I’m going to do my own ride and see you in camp.” Like, I don’t… I guess that’s the time when I decided to be selfish and just enjoy my experience. As you know, when they’re that many cyclists, that you can’t really keep tabs on everyone. You can’t ride as a full team when people are different paces. So you kind of get lost in the crowd a little bit. Find the people that ride your pace.

Gabriel: Absolutely. We had a similar pace and that’s how we happened to ride together during several stages.

Meg: You’ve got to come back and ride again.

Gabriel: I know, I know. You’ve asked me about it at least a couple of times over the years. I do want to. It was just too much fun to never do it again, and I continue to bicycle and I probably will bicycle as long as I can.

Meg: Great. Yeah.

Gabriel: But I want to hear a little bit more. So you were a rider in 2016 and already the next year, you were the captain.

Meg: Yeah. I think that what you described earlier in this conversation of mistaking my enthusiasm for experience may have happened more broadly, but yes, it’s just part of my personality to become like an organizer of things.

Gabriel: You have all of these new people. So how many people from WeSpoke will be participating in 2024?

Meg: We have like 40 signed up. I know that a lot of those folks signed up at the end of last year, but may not actually be able to ride again this year. So somewhere between 20 and 40 or ride, I’m not sure how many.

Gabriel: So that’s a big responsibility to coordinate that on top of everything.

Meg: Yeah, it is, but it’s also very fun. I feel really good about being an evangelist for the AIDS/LifeCycle, because I think this week is so special and can be really life-changing. I want – our team is like for women, trans and non-binary cyclists – to feel they have a community within the community on this ride. And so it’s a pretty meaningful group to be a part of. And we also as a team have also always had a bit of a political bent. So we in 2017, we designed kits that were in partnership with another team that was a BIPOC team that, they were, like, Black Lives Matter kits in 2017. And in 2019, we created kits that were about trans rights. And I know we talked earlier about Red Dress Day, but we’ve done a variety of more political Red Dress Days. I think last year we were scrubs that had messages about access to health care for trans kids, as well as the abortion decisions that were happening in the U.S. and Roe versus Wade. So we are a team that is both into the cycling and the fundraising, but also in using our platform for various political messages.

Gabriel: What would you say then to somebody who was maybe new to cycling and was intimidated by AIDS/LifeCycle, wasn’t sure that they wanted to make the commitment. How would you encourage this person to participate?

Meg: Well, I think the first thing I typically tell people is that it’s, for me, the best week of the year, and that I have no hesitations about encouraging people to do it, or no reservations about it. But I think, more specifically, depending on what some of the apprehensions are, I would share that this experience is incredibly well-supported. So if you’re new to riding or if you’re intimidated by the fundraising or the logistics or whatever it might be, I would just let people know how much support there is to help make it possible for them to do the ride. One of the things that my team has been talking more about is, like, this is also a ride that’s raising money for people living with HIV/AIDS. And I think there are communities of people with that disease where this ride is not accessible for health reasons and otherwise. And so I think that’s where I would, like, push the AIDS/LifeCycle to do better. But I think that they can and will. Like I feel very hopeful. All that I’ve seen from this community is people stepping up and problem-solving and finding ways. So I would just encourage people to try and to use the resources that this ride provides to make it possible, and to meet them where they’re at, because that’s what this community does.

Gabriel: Cool. You’ve mentioned that it’d be nice if the ride could be more inclusive. Are there other, any other drawbacks that you’ve seen or areas for improvement in what is the best week of the year for you?

Meg: I have to bring some consciousness to that, which is it’s the best week of the year for me. But I am an able-bodied person without HIV/AIDS, without other diseases and health issues that would make this really, really challenging. I have the financial resources to be able to take a week off or to be able to take care of my body and my bike to be able to do this, right? I mean, I think bringing awareness to all the things that make this ride hard, that are beyond just the cycling. And I just want us to continue to be better and better about making this ride accessible and in touch with the issues that it is about. 

Gabriel: On June 2nd, 2024, two days after this episode drops, Meg and the rest of the AIDS/LifeCycle will begin their long ride from San Francisco down to Los Angeles. I, meanwhile, will continue to dream of joining them on another occasion. In the show notes, you will find links to Meg’s documentary, New Generation Queens: a Zanzibar Soccer Story, available for rent on Vimeo, as well as her website and her New York Times article, “Dying Inside, Chaos and Cruelty in Louisiana Juvenile Detention.”

Gabriel: The transcript for this episode is available on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist website. I welcome feedback and suggestions for this and other episodes. You’ll find a link to all contact information in the show notes.  If you would like to rate or review the show, you can do that on your favorite podcast platform. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. Thank you to Anna Lindenmeier for the cover artwork and to Timothy Shortell for the original music. This podcast would not be possible without continuous support from my wife Sandra. And thank you so much for listening. I hope the episode will inspire you to get out and see where the road leads you.   

Meg: This is not the kind of bike ride that has to be about riding. They call it EFI on the AIDS/LifeCycle, “every fucking inch.” Sorry, I’m not sure what your rules are on expletives, but…

Gabriel: I’m not sure either.

Meg: OK, so, you might have to beep that out.