Cyclists depart SF for LA in AIDS/LifeCycle's emotional 540-mile journey

Cyclists arrived before dawn Sunday for the 2024 AIDS/LifeCycle fundraising ride, that began at San Francisco's Cow Palace with a 6 a.m. opening ceremony to launch the epic 540-mile ride that takes participants on a journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles over the coming week.

"Trying to end the stigma. One mile at a time," said Ken Cook, an AIDS/LifeCycle participant and team trainer who has been involved in the event since 2016.

"It's a huge community. And it's all walks of life. There are people that are positive. People that are negative. We have young people, old people, straight people, gay people. All nationalities," Cook said.

The ride, which began in 1994 as the "California AIDS Ride," switched its name to the AIDS/LifeCycle ride in 2002 and has raised more than $300 million for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center to help support services for patients with HIV and AIDS.

Participants raise a minimum of $3,500 to participate in the ride, which long-time riders affectionately call the "love bubble."

"We're like a family, and after 7 days together, I've made some of the greatest friendships and relationships I've had in my life," said Tamara Marsh, who is both an AIDS/LifeCycle participant and a mechanic with Mike's Bikes who volunteers her skills to help riders.  

According to the AIDS/LifeCycle organization, more than 139,000 people are living with HIV in California.  San Francisco has an estimated 15,811 people living with HIV, and Los Angeles County has more than 57,000 people living with HIV.

Cook is part of the generation that lived through the 1980s at the begining of the AIDS epidemic. He says he remembers when he and others were losing one friend a week to the disease.

Some survivors ride for themselves. Others ride for people they've loved and lost.

"I don't know of a gay person my age who didn't lose people during that period. And that's another reason we ride is to honor those people," Cook said.

Cook says his own battle for sobriety is what drew him to the ride.

"I know that I could not do that without being sober, and I wouldn't be sober without AIDS/LifeCycle," Cook said.

On his bright red bicycle, the words "I Ride for Jim" are emblazoned on the frame as a reminder of one friendship he'll never forget.

"Jim Ernst started riding the year I rode. He was an older gentleman 73-years-old. Also sober. And on Fridays, him and I would meet to have an informal AA meeting."

"While I was in the hospital, he got hit and killed by a car on his bicycle. And so I ride for my best buddy Jim," Cook said, looking down at his bike.

Along the seven-day journey from the Bay to LA, Cook says points of inspiration pave the way.

One of his favorite highlights is a woman who stands along the road just north of Santa Cruz. He says she has been there for decades with a sign showing her brother who died of AIDS.

"And she sits there every single year and passes out hugs. And there's no way you can get through there without crying, whether you're a survivor from the AIDS days or a brand-new rider," Cook said.

Justin Mora will be one of those first-time riders, who says he will be pedaling in memory of two friends who died recently.

"I think about them...artistic and excellence on their part," Mora said. "Back home in Mexico, they struggle with the stigma and also the resources."

The money raised by each rider helps the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Los Angeles LGBT Center provide meals and medical treatments for patients in need.

"That really touches my heart and makes me feel more compassionate and engaged," said Charley Cramer, who will be on her first AIDS/LifeCycle ride this year.

"It's so challenging emotionally, psychologically," Cramer said. "I am not an endurance athlete. I had never ridden more than 5 miles before starting this training."

The theme this year is "Ride out loud."

"Not all of society is accepting and Ride Out Loud, I've had twice now, angry drivers yelling expletives to get back to San Francisco," Cook said, pointing down to his t-shirt with the slogan, "I got this yelled at last week in Sausalito of all places."

Those encounters are reminders, Cook says, that the stigma still exists and why the AIDS/LifeCycle ride is so important.

The riders hope their visibility during the week-long journey through California might also pave a path towards acceptance and hope.

"I actually also have an autoimmune deficiency," Marsh said. "The whole great thing about AIDS LifeCycle... if they find a cure for AIDS, the great thing is the trickle-down effect. It doesn't just affect people with AIDS. It affects people with any autoimmune deficiency, so cancer, leukemia."

"Bob Katz has been riding with us for 25 years. There are many riders who have been riding every single year," Cook said. "Bob is a longtime survivor, and we see him out there every year, so you know, I ride also to honor him."

One of Bob's expressions that I've sort of adopted myself is "We will ride until this ride doesn't happen anymore. And this ride will keep happening until HIV/AIDS is eradicated," Cook said. 

The AIDS LifeCycle ride is scheduled to wrap up on Saturday, June 8th with riders crossing the finish line at the Santa Monica pier.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at Call her at 510-326-5529. Or follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU and read her other reports on her bio page.