By Fabiola Manriquez
Years ago, as I was coming out of the closet, the AIDS virus was sweeping through the gay community. Marcus was my best buddy and confidant during these early days of my coming out and he was the first one I lost. A few years later, I lost Ricardo, my then-partner’s brother’s life mate of eighteen years. Then Jerry died, my former partner’s brother.
To raise money for AIDS research, the community organized bike rides running the length of California. Riders numbered in the thousands, starting in Northern California and going for seven days down the state and ending in Los Angeles. I volunteered for the closing ceremonies of the fifth.
The sidewalks were packed. Leading the group were cyclists living with the HIV virus and pushing the empty bikes that represented former riders who had passed from AIDS. Then, to a thunderous roar, three thousand riders and a thousand crewmembers blasted past us with the force of an airplane, raising the hairs on my arms.
Right then, I wanted to be a part of the actual ride. The next year, I volunteered for the crew, collecting the trash that the riders left behind each day.
The year after that I signed up to ride.
I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I had participated in four previous rides for the Los Angeles Marathon but that was only 26 miles. I was an active cyclist. I joined weekend cycling groups that road 25 to 35 miles regularly and attended cycling workshops. Every day I rode from East Los Angeles to my job in San Gabriel. I did that all year, in the rain or heat.
I owned a Specialized Hard Rock 21-Speed mountain bike. It was heavy. In the many months of training, most of the people I trained with had light racing bikes that cost thousands of dollars. My former roommate returned to the military and gave me this bike. I didn’t have much money and I figured that the Hard Rock would do the job.
At that year’s Ride, cycling teams came from around the world. I met riders from Japan, Africa, Switzerland, Europe, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, other states from the U.S. Then there was me, from East Los Angeles. Oh my God, their uniforms were as if they had walked out of a cycling magazine. I, on the other hand, rotated my nice T-shirts and my one Aids Ride #7 jersey that was a gift from my then-girlfriend. But my heart was in it, so I kept on.
Riders are supposed to raise money to participate – $2500 each. I attended fundraising workshops, asked friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances for their support. Students in Catholic school are committed by tradition to fund raise with sales of chocolates, raffles, and other goodies. So I thought I could easily raise the needed amount. But as the ride approached, I found myself with only half the minimum. People told me there was no way I would meet the quota. Some people even laughed and placed bets to see if I would make it. It hurt my feelings but I kept on.
I’d already arranged for travel, hotel, and time off work. The day before our departure, I made my way to my car after work and prayed and had a good cry. After a year of fundraising, I went to San Francisco with only half the required $2,500. That morning, thousands of people in line had envelopes, paper bags, and purses full of money. Now what should I do, I asked my girlfriend Deborah. A rider in front of us overheard my comment. “Make a sign with the amount you need,” he said. “Just walk up and down the line with your sign.”
I strolled the line for an hour and a half with my sign and my bucket. Every few minutes I would hear someone cheer me on as they would shout “Come on, honey, work it – fill that bucket!”
Bills kept flowing into my pint–sized bucket.
“Say hello to Benjamin Franklin, doll,” one drag queen shouted.
“Mr. Grant says hola, hola, coca cola,” said someone else.
I was handed checks and bills, and heard the sound of coins as they fell into my modest vessel of hope.
Finally, I got to the counting table. I wiped my face with a paper towel and put my little bucket of love along with the $1,250 on the tabletop and prayed. It came to $2600. A woman next to me had only $2400. I took out a hundred dollars from the stack of bills and handed it to her.
“Let’s enjoy the ride,” I said. With tears in our eyes, we exchanged a big hug.
It was still dark that morning when we arrived at the starting line — thousands of us. Just like when the DJ at a dance club raises the volume of the music, the noise elevated: chatter, laughter, whistles, drumming, and a couple of tambourines played right behind me. Like a New Year’s Eve party with music, noisemakers, banners, streamers, hugs, kisses, and the media.
We left with thousands of people cheering us on. Loud speakers blasted The Impossible Dream to carry us out on our 575-mile journey.
We rode a quarter mile on the 101 Freeway. Eventually that morning we rode through the countryside.
I had never visited most of the cities that we passed on those 575 miles. I had never heard of Lompoc or Paso Robles. The air was cleaner than in Los Angeles. In some spots, the green hills were so lush it took my breath away. The flowers, bushes, and trees were so bright and smelled so good I felt as though I was dreaming as I cycled mile after mile. There was a brief period on Day Three that I was totally alone, pedaling my heavy Specialized Hard Rock, for about 15 minutes without another cyclist for miles or the sound of a car.
Behind me was only the caboose. The caboose was the very last vehicle, a Nissan Pathfinder monitoring the riders and their safety. They made sure that no one was left behind and that no one was so slow that they wouldn’t finish each day in the time allotted us under our riding permit.
I should be honest and say that the caboose took me into camp on Day One since I was trailing so badly.
On the second day of the ride, I again rode far behind the pack of thousands. The sweet silence and breeze was so peaceful that I felt one with nature listening to the singing birds, bees, squirrels, crickets, and humming birds. At one point, I shouted hello and heard my voice echo so crispy clean that it was scary and exciting all at the same time. My voice carried and the warmth of the sun glazed my body.
Then I heard the beep of the caboose behind me. Again, I was too far behind the pack. I took a deep breath and pulled off the road and shook my head with disappointment. In the caboose that afternoon, I went through cards made from local second grade students with drawings and messages of gratitude and encouragement. It gave me the strength to carry on, even though I was the last rider.
On Day Three, it rained hard. After a long hard ride all I wanted to do was shower and sleep but the cold damp made it uncomfortable to sleep in a tent on the grass with our camping gear. On Day Four, the heat burned us and we didn’t have enough sunscreen to prevent roasting. High winds forced many riders to walk their bikes and a thick humidity made it difficult to breath. To make it even worse, some riders dodged bottles, cans, and trash from people driving by.
“Faggots! Queers! You deserve to die and you are going to hell!”
We heard that enough, but we didn’t stop riding. Religious fanatics shouted as we traveled from city to city. One sign that said there was no space in heaven for homosexuals. Skin heads tried to run a couple of riders off the road as they yelled insults while throwing bottles and cans at them. One night, a couple of drunken fools tried to fight their way into camp as we all slept, but our security handled it.
Because this was a traveling camp, everyone’s gear and tents were transported from site to site daily. We set up after the ride, showered, ate, slept, and prepared to do it all over again the next morning. Masseuses and chiropractors help ease the discomforts when we made it back to our mini village that formed each day.
On Day Three, I finally boarded the recovery bus and felt like I was among soldiers going home from battle. As I walked to my seat I saw riders with incredible sunburn, lacerations, abrasions.
At one point in the ride, I was waiting for a signal light to change in a town we were riding through. A gentleman in drag walked up to me.
“I want to thank you for riding for me,” he said. “It is because of you I am staying alive and can receive my medical treatments and medicine. I love you for doing this.”
We both had a big cry.
Along the ride, thousands of people cheered us on with banners, music, free ice cream, coffee, and donuts. One third-grade class up north near Lompoc made thank-you cards. I still have mine in my photo album.
Through the first days of the ride, though, I could never to do better than last. I was always trailing far behind the pack and near the caboose.
Then on Day Four, I was pulled from the ride.
I had ridden several miles when I felt a sharp pain in my chest and had difficulty breathing. Everyone had to have medical clearance before they could ride. I had mine, but the ride’s physical demands were too much for my little heart. I was pulled out and felt a total failure.
A retired nurse examined me.
“No one has ever died on this event and you won’t be the first,” he said.
They rushed me to the mobile hospital, and from there to the local hospital for an examination. A doctor told me I had to stop riding and rest for a couple of days. I couldn’t help but cry. The AIDS Ride nurse was standing by my bed. He held my hand and said that we would see if I could continue in a couple of days if my health improved. His eyes were also teary.
So I let it all out and had a good cry. Later, I was taken back to the camp and realized that I had at least two days of free time in an isolated area under a tree and there I had another good cry.
By this time of the day, I noticed riders returning. I sloughed off my sad mood and stood at the entrance to cheer them as they arrived. I helped them carry their gear and tents to their spot where they would break for the day’s camp.
Finally, the last day of the ride arrived. We were leaving Ventura County and heading into Culver City. The nurse examined me and cleared me to finish the ride. Of course, I cried again. I ate breakfast then got ready to hit the road. My girlfriend was so happy to see me getting ready but did tell me to stop if I found it too difficult. She gave me a big hug for encouragement and a high five.
“See you at the finish line, Fabi,” she said.
I got my bike and had a private minute alone. I kicked out the bike stand and got on my knees and asked God to help me finish the ride. Then I mounted my Hard Rock and pushed off with a big smile.
But that morning went poorly. I couldn’t keep up with the riders. Again, the caboose was behind me. Finally, I was approaching the rock at Point Mugu in Malibu and struggling up the steep incline. All of a sudden out of nowhere a young woman in her twenties showed up.
There she was, pedaling by my side in full AIDS Ride gear. She told me that the previous year she was exactly in my seat, feeling exhausted and needing a pep talk. She kept coaching me on changing the gears; pedaling and helping me find my rhythm. We finally made it to the top of the incline and moved to the side of the road.
I gave her a big hug and resumed my ride.
Now we came to crowds lining the road. They were cheering us on with banners, with music, honking their horns as we made our way, finally, into Culver City where the finish line stood. I pedaled on, pushing hard, watching the surfers ride their waves.
After several miles, though, I saw the caboose approaching and I knew I was again the last rider and far behind.
“Oh my God,” I shouted, “please let me finish.”
I rode hard for a few minutes.
“We gotta pick you up, Fabiola!” yelled the nurse from the caboose. “Our permits are running out and we are holding back the traffic. We might get fined.”
I was a mile from the finish line. I pressed on, hitting the pedals now with full force. My heart was pounding fast but I kept riding. Somehow, my chest no longer hurt. I had no difficulty breathing. My Aids Ride #7 jersey was drenched with sweat. Now cheers filled the air. Young folks were jumping, seniors were waving their canes, dogs were barking. As I passed, people chanted “Go! Go! Go!”
I was the last one riding.
In a few minutes, the quarter-mile sign appeared. I heard a siren whine. I took a quick glance behind me and could not believe what I saw. Right behind me was the nurse and his partner in the caboose, the ones who took me to the hospital and scooped me up twice. Behind them was an ambulance, a fire engine, and police cars, all with their lights flashing. They were waving cheering me on to the finish line. It felt like the end of a parade.
Thousands of riders had already finished the ride long before. I was alone, the very last one. I could see a sprinkle of the riders cheering me on as they were waiting to see who might be the last rider.
A young man along the route handed me a bouquet of rainbow streamers. Peddling hard, with new energy, I held it high in one hand, like the Statue of Liberty, guiding my bike with my other hand and with tears in my eyes.
The sirens were blaring. The crowd was urging me on. Men, women, and children were jumping up and down, holding each other. Others were cheering with their dogs, some on a leash while others in their arms. Some riders, friends, and family held their faces as they sobbed. I had never seen so many people taking pictures of me at the same time.
Whistles and cheers filled the air and pushed me like the wind those last hundred yards. I rode past the `Welcome Home Riders’ banner and they closed the gate behind me.
I fell off the bike, went to my knees, and sobbed, my body shaking. I told Marcus, Ricardo, and Jerry, `I did this for you.’
After a bit, I looked up. At the gate stood a crowd of people, packed together and crying.
That was a long time ago and a lot has changed since then. I don’t have the bike any more, but I still have the shirt that was once drenched with sweat.