My love affair with cycling was rekindled in 1998 just as my 11-year relationship was ending. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, cycling saved my life. Unemployed at the time, I had lots of time to train during the week, but no one to ride with, so I spent many hours in the saddle flying solo. Over the next couple of years, I would do many things solo, some for the first time. It seemed odd to go to a movie or out for a nice dinner alone, but on my bike, those solitary miles felt natural – like I was at home. I had plenty of time to think; I had plenty to think about. One thing I didn’t think about was being vulnerable or less safe than when I was riding with a group. That all changed when a friend was killed on a bike, hit from behind by a car just a few minutes after leaving home on a ride she had done countless times.
Being off the bike for three months no doubt affected my psyche. It wasn’t just that I was in pain and concerned for my health, or that I was missing out on training and building relationships with me teammates. Looking ahead, I knew that once I did get back on the bike, the team training mileage would be so high there was no way I’d be able to ride with the group. Outside of those training for AIDS/LifeCycle (ALC), my other cycling buddies were training for the San Diego Century, so their mileage was also out of reach for me. Riding solo was the only way I was going to get in any training before the ride. I got some good advice from a couple of different veteran cyclists who ride long miles, much of their training done alone. With that and a heart grateful to be getting back on the bike, I took the proverbial leap of faith and never looked back – except to check traffic.
In mid-April, I took my first spin around Fiesta Island on a mellow Saturday evening. I figured this was a pretty safe place to be alone on my bike. Carol took Birdie to the dog park there and we made it a family outing. Next, a lunchtime ride around work on roads I know well. Then, my first ride on my new bike the afternoon of Easter Sunday. While the weather wasn’t much fun with a cold wind and a light drizzle, the streets were deserted making for another safe ride.
Over the next couple of weeks, I was thrilled with the opportunity to ride with my friends and teammates, at least for some of the miles. One Saturday, I rode up the coast with ALC Team San Diego. Not more than a few miles out, the group was out of sight, but Brian, one of the training ride leaders (TRLs) who had planned to focus on his own training that day, stayed with me until I decided to turn around about 15 miles out. He helped me ride within myself – steady and strong but not too fast. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner that day and I appreciated that he gave me that time at the beginning of his training ride. The day was special, riding with the team and getting on my bike for a longer ride. I was so happy, I’m sure I had a smile on my face all the way back to the car. The next Saturday, I rode up the coast with the Trek group who was headed to San Clemente. I said farewell to them in Carlsbad and then again headed back to the car solo. The conditions were tougher that day with a strong crosswind and chilly temperatures, but I was pretty pleased with getting in another long ride. And on Wednesday following, I got out for my first Wednesday night ride of the season. I wasn’t yet climbing longer hills, so as everyone headed down Torrey Pines, I returned to the car on my own. Another satisfying ride, I was lucky to pedal some of those miles with Coach Darryl who has been helping me to get back on the bike since January.
With all of this solo riding, I was gaining confidence and once again enjoying my “alone time” on the road. Riding safely is always on my mind, but I began to realize that my fears about my safety while riding alone were staying in the back of my mind. I am a safe cyclist. I obey the rules of the road, pay close attention to my surroundings, avoid getting distracted, especially in tight situations, and work hard not to anger any driver. Still, just as with driving a car, you can be doing everything right and not avoid mishap. Life on a bike is still just life.
No matter my level of confidence or comfort in riding alone, I still prefer to ride with friends. For me, cycling is a social sport where I have forged many special, lasting friendships. One Saturday, I jumped at the chance to ride with the ALC folks again, but not long into the ride, it was clear that I couldn’t keep up. For all my training, I still wasn’t in good enough shape to hang with them, and what started out as a group ride became a solo ride by mile 10. Looking back, if I hadn’t put in all the solo miles to that point, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to continue on my own. I knew Carol was available to pick me up at any point, but knowing what I was capable of, I chose to ride on. From the time we parted in the South Bay until I pulled into the driveway at home, I had logged 34 solitary miles, my longest solo stretch ever. Chilly, windy and damp, the physical challenge compounded the mental challenge. Yes, adversity builds character, and I did feel a huge accomplishment that day, but I was exhausted. The next day, I should have gone out for an easy spin of 15-20 miles but I just couldn’t. When Carol asked if I was going on a ride, I said no – I had left every last ounce of my mental toughness on the road the day before and I just couldn’t face riding alone again. Instead, I talked myself into getting out of the house to put in some time at the gym with a late afternoon spin and light weight training. That workout helped me not feel totally defeated – and my legs appreciated it!
Last weekend, I knew if I wanted to get any riding in, I’d be on my own. Everyone I knew was either participating in the San Diego Century or otherwise occupied. I mapped out a route that was mostly familiar to me, but that I had never done in it’s entirety: from my home in Allied Gardens to Cabrillo National Monument. It was about 36 miles with some climbing and as it turned out, it was the perfect ride for that day. The thermometer read 65 when I left the house around 7:30. It was a bit cool, but there was no wind as I headed west through Mission Valley. I fully expected the winds to appear up on Pt. Loma, but nothing there either (except the treat of seeing Carin and Tammy on their way down from the point as I was headed up). It was such a pleasant ride, I didn’t give much thought to being out there solo. Riding down my street, I could feel the warmth on my back as the sun started to break through the May gray. I was home, and once again feeling at home riding solo – not alone.
I wrote earlier that riding alone leaves a lot of time for thinking. I reflected on the five years I spent single after my devastating break up in 1998. It took time, but I developed a rhythm living by myself, and like riding solo, really began to enjoy time on my own. Sure, I felt lonely on occasion, and during that time, I had one really bad case of the flu when I wish I’d had someone there, but I was never without family or friends; there was always someone who cared. HIV and AIDS have left many to die alone. Fraught with fear and ignorance, the early days of the AIDS crisis saw families, friends, entire communities abandon those infected and dying. Today, we know more about this disease, but the stigma alone continues to destroy lives. Regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, whether in the United States or somewhere in the developing world, lacking the knowledge or means to seek treatment can be a death sentence. An entire generation of children around the world is growing up without parents, some of them born with HIV. Who will care for them when they become ill? Who will hold them when they die?
None of us can predict how life as we know it will end. Like my friend on the bike, some of us will never see it coming. But more likely, in this day and age of medical miracles and ways to prolong life, most of us will see it coming, in the distance, the end of our natural lives coming into focus. If we’re lucky, we’ll have our friends and family with us until the end. Dying alone isn’t in anyone’s plan, but for some with HIV and AIDS, it is reality. My hope is that by raising awareness and funds through our participation in AIDS/LifeCycle, someone will get tested, someone will get treatment, someone will get counseling, someone will not have to face this disease – or death – alone. If just one person is helped, then every mile pedaled and every moment spent asking for support will have been a priceless investment in the human cause.