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We mob Fort Mason this morning, a boisterous bunch in stretch nylon pants and cleated cycling shoes — and a handful in drag, like the pair of glitter-painted nuns.

Some have glued mascots to their helmets, a rubber shark, a plush Road Runner doll, a pair of glittery ruby slippers and a pair of women who label themselves with Styrofoam birthday-cake letters, Mother and Daughter.

Riders munch on bagels, cereal and fruit, guzzling coffee and listening to speeches by the ride organizers.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown bounds onto the stage amid raucous cheers, saying something about his hope that one day we will ride bikes just for fun, secure in the knowledge that we have beaten AIDS.

And as he intones the California Aids Ride slogan — Will of Iron, Legs of Steel, Heart of Gold— I tune him out because second-time rider Barbara Quattrocchi is talking to me.

“I’m more nervous this time than the last time,” says she. “Last year, I was naive and didn’t know what I was getting into. But this year, I know exactly what it’s about.”
How was it?

“Ha!” She gives a rueful little laugh. “It was very hard, very hard.” But she never gave much thought to her age, 67, when she first heard of the ride and signed up. She had been riding a bike for about 10 years, a few miles a day, maybe 25 a week, and her 33-year-old son – though he had been dead three years, “told me to do it.”

Along the ride, in weak moments or at the base of big hills, she talked to him. “A couple of times, I’d say, `You got me into this, I need a little help here.'”

Then someone on the stage a hundred yards away asks the riders to fall silent, grab the hands of those next to them, and to remember the ones who are not with us today because of AIDS.

The adrenal buzz in the room evaporates.

Four riders wheel a riderless bike down the center aisle parting the crowd in this vast room and nearly every man and woman I can see grows red-eyed. Some weep. I think of Steve and Gary and I choke up too. It is uncontrollable.

And then, suddenly, we are off, astride our bikes, all 2,275 of us massed in packs. Someone drops the yellow tape holding us back. We pedal out into the streets through a gauntlet of cheering friends. My wife, Kristina jumps up and down, waving and shouting my name, and I wave back, “Goodbye! See you soon!” A week, I think glumly, and I can only ride on with the flow streaming out the gate.

Through the manicured military landscape of the Presidio, through the redwoods and sequoias of Golden Gate Park, and out through the eastern suburbs of Daly City, Hillsborough and Burlingame, we roll.

Rough, car-beaten asphalt gives way to the smooth, treelined lanes of El Camino Real. And the noise of cheerleaders. People have turned out all along the road, in twos and threes, clapping for each clutch of us that rolls past. Some hold placards with the names of dead friends, others shout, “Good luck!” and others just wave and cheer. And no matter how far we move beyond San Francisco, every mile or two holds a little cheering squad.

A mother has packed her three kids onto the tailgate of her pickup, and they scream, “Yaaaay!”, waving a handmade sign reading, “Thank you, you’re doing it for our children.”

An entire church congregation in their Sunday best surround a table with a neatly lettered sign promising “FRESH FRUIT.” They clap politely and smile.

Past San Andreas Lake, we buzz along, climbing up through the coastal mountains with little more noise than the ratchet and clink of changing gears, and the rush of passing cars. The heat grabs us. It must be well over 90, and we still climb, kicking derailleurs down to the “granny gears” and pumping legs swiftly to go easy on our knees.

I motor past an older man who is cycling gamely up the grade in cow-print cycling shorts,a helmet spiked with plastic dinosaur spines, and a paper sunflower trailing from beneath his seat. “Hey, can you lend me a few low gears?” he groans, sweating miserably.

“Yeah,” I say, “Who left the furnace on, anyway?”

Then we are down onto the Coast Highway, whipping through Half Moon Bay with a cool 10 m.p.h. tailwind and on across coastal meadows. Red-wing blackbirds swoop across the grass, and more luckless fauna makes itself known in the form of road kill. Nothing weakens the knees like passing a flattened skunk. I see three in the space of 15 miles.

We stop at San Gregorio State Beach for lunch–turkey, cheese and beansprout sandwiches handed out en masse by AIDS Ride volunteers.

Then I get back onto my bike and hurt. Who, I wonder, laid the sharp, rusty chain mail across my thighs and strapped it so damn tight?

Watching waves smash themselves to a fine film of lace against the ragged rocks below helps this pass, and I press on.

A few hours later, a pack of about a dozen of us roll into Santa Cruz, marveling at how easy the first leg seemed. And then it hits me, like the wave of oven heat that washes over us as we roll into camp. We have to make it all the way to Los Angeles in the next six days.

NEXT: Day Two, Inland toward Greenfield