California AIDS Ride Journal – Day Five, Thursday: 46 miles to Cachuma Lake

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

I wake to the sound of laughter.

Three-time California AIDS Rider Daniel is breaking down his tent and chatting with a fellow member of Positive Pedalers, a cycling club for HIV-positive riders.

“They made an announcement about the Positive Pedalers Club, and someone said, `Oh, I want to join!” says friend Merle, snickering.

“You’re kidding!” hoots Daniel. “They wanted to JOIN? I can tell them how to join Positive Pedalers real easily. I can help them join!”

“It’s easy!” Merle guffaws. “I can get you in, no problem!”

“We’ll get them a bike flag and everything!” Daniel howls, and the two double over in laughter, a moment of dark humor in the face of the pandemic.

Later, Daniel tells me, “People think I’m out here having fun the whole time, like this is some kind of vacation for me. I cry sometimes when I’m out there on the road, but people don’t see that.”

And we hit the road again.

This is a day of hills. We ride, a narrow line of polychrome jerseys and irridescent bikes, between roaring gravel trucks and broccoli field drainage ditches.

Then comes a long, churning climb out of Santa Maria, a steady 6-mile grade that by 9 a.m. has us drenched in sweat.

Pit stops for water, fresh fruit and chemical toilets are closer together today, but so are the hills. We lunch at 10, then face the first of two harsh climbs, a near-half-miler the organizers dubbed “Heartbreak Hill.”

As I slog up in bottom gear, two guys behind me start bellowing the song “Do Re Mi.” I opt for “Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz” in between ragged breaths, and a few riders chime in. The heat is obscene.

Next comes “The Wall,” a hideously steep half-mile incline. But most riders reach the top without walking, and are rewarded with a faceful of mist squirted by cheering volunteers.

A few of us–lunatics, surely–bomb screaming back to the bottom in the cooling, 35-mph slipstream and climb it one more time. The ride up is twice as hot for me the second time, but my grin at the top twice as goofy.

One guy claims he did The Wall three times, and a half-dozen riders who struggled to do it just once heap a raucous load of grief on him. At the top, people cruise off to a gentle downhill, laughing.

HIV-positive rider Brian Vatcher is stopped, hunched over his Bianchi before a sweeping view of Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. I ask if he’s okay.

He looks up, damp eyed. “I’m okay.” A gentle smile. “I just had to cry, that’s all,” he says, and a short while later he rolls into the next pit stop to tank up with water and josh with friends.

Refreshed, the riders swing tight, tanned legs up over sleek racing machines, neon-funky mountain bikes and department store clunkers for what seems like the hundredth time, and pedal on.

On the long, slow descent to Cachuma Lake, a clutch of bikers veer off the pavement, drop their bikes and sprint across the busy road to a corral.


A herd of them stare glassy-eyed at the nylon-sheathed goofballs on our side of the fence who gape, point cameras and giggle in disbelief. Bikers lean closer to pose, then run away cackling when the massive birds take huge, thumping pecks at their helmets.

Cachuma Lake is a broad, cool oasis. Barbara Quattrocchi rests atop a wall after dinner, the breeze riffling her silver hair in the afterglow of the sunset.

This ride is going harder on her than her first, in 1995. But she is serene. “I only made it to the lunch stop,” she says. “I started out to ride up Heartbreak Hill, and then I felt really weird. I thought, `Aaah, with this heat?’– so I turned around and came back.”

She fell asleep on the bus on the way to camp, then chided herself for being so weak. “But then I went by the medical tent and saw them carrying some poor woman out on a stretcher, and I thought, `It could have been me, baby.”

In the cool of evening, riders sip coffee and listen soberly to organizer Dan Pallotta rattling off the day’s casualties.

A steady flow of riders hit the medical tent each evening for strained knee tendons, knotted shoulders, road rash.

But tonight–as on every night in camp– Pallotta focuses only on the more serious victims (nine cases of heat exhaustion and a neck injury from a crash) and on hotdogging cyclists who are risking others’ lives.

Riders, he nearly growls, are still weaving out of line, failing to call out “On Your Left” when passing, and tailgating at high speed–or “drafting.”

Drafting involves a line of riders–usually on racing bikes–lining up behind each other so the front rider cuts the wind and work for the rest. It causes some spectacular wrecks.

“If you see anyone doing any of this, call them on it,” Pallotta says. “We’ve got to watch out for each other out there.”

Day Six, Friday, 89.8 miles to Ventura.