Making a difference one peddle at a time

June 18, 2014
Noel Kelsch, RDHAP, tells the stories of Michael Long and Denise Compton, two dental hygienists who have participated in the AIDS/LifeCycle Ride, which is a seven-day, 545-mile bike ride down the coast of California to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS.

Michael, holding up his bike at the halfway point

When I met Michael Long and Denise Compton years ago, they were both in hygiene school, but they were located on opposite ends of the state of California. Passion is what I remember most about each of them. That passion took each of them on a road less traveled, and after many years, they met at the end of that road! Somehow, their passion put them in the same place at the same time.

Both Michael and Denise rode their bikes for a total of 545 miles in seven days, traveling from San Francisco, California, to Los Angeles, California. They were part of the AIDS/LifeCycle Ride (ALC), which is jointly produced by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. ALC brings HIV and AIDS awareness to the public, raises funds to provide services, and helps to end the pandemic that is still occurring today. Michael and Denise did this simply because they cared. Each of them has completed the ride three times. In 2014, ALC raised over 15 million with an event cost of less than 27%, and both Denise and Michael were part of that effort.

The goals ofAIDS/LifeCycle are to:

  • Increase awareness and knowledge about the services and programs offered by the benefitting organizations;
  • Increase awareness and knowledge about HIV and AIDS among participants, their donors, and the general public;
  • Increase AIDS activism and volunteerism among the participants and donor communities, inspiring them to become ambassadors in the fight against AIDS;
  • Provide a positive, life-affirming experience for people affected and infected by HIV;
  • Contribute to an increased understanding of the disproportionate impact HIV has had on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles; and
  • Encourage an environment of dignity and improved quality of life for those affected by HIV and AIDS.

Denise and Michael, high-fiving at the finish line

Denise’s story
Denise has a passion for helping others and for promoting full body health. She chose to be a part of the ALC journey because she wanted to “ride for people who could not.” When she originally registered for the event, she didn't have anyone in her life who had been infected with HIV or AIDS.

“I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to give back while doing something I loved – cycling,” said Denise. Now, she has thousands of people for whom she rides. She rides for the partners, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers who have lost their lives and for those who are living longer and healthier lives because of the services they receive from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. Since Denise joined the ride, many of her patients have gotten involved, as well. One of her patients even joined the ride with Denise as her trainer.

Michael’s story
As a gay man living and working in San Francisco's Castro District, HIV and AIDS are ever-present in Michael’s life. “I've sat with friends as they've been told of their sero-conversion,” said Michael. “Other friends have been hospitalized, as their HIV infection developed into AIDS, and [other friends] have died from [AIDS]. This battle is very personal for me.”

Ending the stigma
Separately, both of these hygienists saw a need to raise awareness in hopes of ending the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. Their words are strong and bring a message that we all need to hear. “For me, this is not just about money; it is about [increasing] awareness and social acceptance of a disease that impacts all of our lives,” said Denise.

“This is about raising awareness and eliminating the stigma [attached to] HIV,” said Michael. “So many people — friends, family members, colleagues, and patients — are still scared to share their HIV-positive statuses because they fear social backlash, abandonment, [and] disapproval. When an individual differs from cultural norms, acceptance can be challenging. Cultural competence and inclusion are at the heart of the American Dental Hygienists' Association’s Diversity Committee, and I am proud to chair this committee.”

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, one of the co-producers of the race, also looks to end the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS by refusing to accept HIV as inevitable. The foundation works to end the HIV epidemic in San Francisco and eventually everywhere. Established in 1982, their mission is to radically reduce the quantity of new infections in San Francisco. Through education, advocacy, and direct services for prevention and care, they are confronting HIV in the communities that are most vulnerable to the disease.

Training and endurance
Both Michael and Denise started participating in the event with no previous experience. Michael did not even own a bike! Fortunately, ALC offers training rides and workshops that begin eight months prior to the day of the actual ride, so first-time riders can get the head start they need. ALC riders train throughout the year, with a variety of activities including spin classes, weight training, yoga, cycling, swimming, and running. The cycling training is a mix of brutal, head-winded rides to gorgeous, sunny cruises down the coast.

As the ride’s start date approaches, riders must increase the miles and ride for multiple consecutive days. When properly trained, the brain and the bike can learn to work as one, resulting in a special feeling of euphoria for the cyclist. Between the extensive training and the weeklong journey, participating in the ALC ride requires dedication. The feeling of euphoria is part of the payoff for that dedication. Both Michael and Denise felt stronger, healthier, and more resilient after each ride.

Three cyclists, dressed up to raise awareness
about HIV and AIDS on Red Dress Day

The ride
“This ride is a highly organized, well-oiled machine,” said Denise. The stories about the ride are filled with events, such as the Paradise Pit, which is hosted by the community of Santa Barbara. The Paradise Pit is a pit stop for resting and recharge that has entertainment, food, and a gathering of supporters. Another event is Red Dress Day, when riders dress up in full costumes to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS.

Volunteers abound in the ALC ride. If the volunteer "roadies" did not set up camp in a new town every night, the ride could not happen. The roadies move gear from camp to camp; set up mobile showers (with plenty of hot water); make medical, chiropractic, sports medicine, and massage services available; locate areas to charge mobile phones; set up camp stores; and supply plenty of food.

“Our regular, everyday lives can be busy and stressful. Many of us seem to be glued to our phones or plugged in to our ear buds, ignoring the people and beauty around us. This event brought almost 3,000 individuals from almost every state in the U.S. and from 43 countries together. Although all of us ride for different reasons, we are together for common causes: to reduce HIV infection, to encourage HIV testing, and to improve health for people living with HIV. You might have just one minute with a fellow rider while waiting in line for food, or hours or days while riding down the central coast of California. You might have just one minute on the west edge of North America to share a story, to listen to someone's story, to touch an individual’s life, or to be touched. This is what I love about the ride, the bonds I make along the way.”

How can other people get involved?
Donate to the ride that Michael and Denise will be doing in 2015! Both riders shared that their donors are the true heroes. “I only pedal; they cheer, support, and provide the money for me to do the things I do,” said Denise. “Together we are making a difference and it makes my heart melt to see how many people get involved in this cause.”

You can also start a conversation. Get tested. Ask for help. Be well, and love. The ALC ride is an amazing cause and life-changing event. We can join together in an effort to bring awareness to this disease and stop the stigma. We can end this pandemic.

For a view of the experience, visit youtube.com/watch?v=0oswSdCk_Ic&feature=youtu.be.

Or, make plans to take the ride yourself at aidslifecycle.org! The website has event information, as well as suggestions for fundraising and training. General questions can be emailed to [email protected].

Noel Brandon-Kelsch, RDHAP, is a syndicated columnist, writer, speaker, and cartoonist. She serves on the editorial review committee for the Organization for Safety, Asepsis, and Prevention newsletter and has received many national awards. Kelsch owns a dental hygiene practice that focuses on access to care for all and helps to facilitate the Simi Valley Free Dental Clinic. She has devoted much of her 35 years in dentistry to educating people about the devastating effects of methamphetamines and drug use. She is a past president of the California Dental Hygienists' Association.