by Jim Provenzano
"A bicycle is the perfect machine. It's gorgeous, even drop-dead gorgeous," wrote author Lucy Jane Bledsoe in her novel Working Parts.
No doubt Bay Area lesbian and gay cyclists would agree since collectively they've probably trekked over a million miles on their beautiful bicycles. From AIDS rides to Critical Mass, Gay Games events and Different Spokes recreational rides, their wheels have been turning for decades.
Cathy Johnson is one of these cyclists. A former member of the Gutterbunnies, a whimsically named group of riders, Johnson said she's completed eight AIDS rides in both of their incarnations (California AIDS Ride and the newer AIDS LifeCycle).
Johnson's participation in the Gay Games goes back to 1990, where she turned 40 at Gay Games III's opening ceremonies in Vancouver, British Columbia. A runner then living in St. Louis, Johnson ran in the 1500-meter, 5-kilometer, and 10-kilometer races.
By the time of Gay Games IV, she had moved to San Francisco and competed in the New York track and field relays. By 1998 in Amsterdam, Johnson said, "I was a member of Team San Francisco, but still felt connected to St. Louis, so with some old friends, we put together a relay team. We had people from around the world."
In Sydney, Johnson won a silver and a bronze in running events.
Now 55, she's medaled at each of the past four Games.
"I've always been an athletic person," said Johnson. "But growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn't an easy thing to do. There weren't team sports for girls in school, so I played baseball in the streets with boys."
Johnson started running as part of the 1970s running boom to quit smoking, competing in several St. Louis races over the next several years.
"I'm competitive," she said, "but I wanted a bigger gay sports community. In the late 1980s, I happened to meet two women who'd been to the first two Gay Games, and thought it would be fun to be able to go someplace as an out gay person."
So Johnson helped organize Team St. Louis. "Like other early burgeoning movements, for me, in a personal way, it was really exciting," she said, "to be with gay and lesbian people, doing something I'd loved all my life, and to be part of something large than myself."
The idea of participation over victory at the Gay Games is also important to Johnson, particularly at long distance running events. "I really love that it's open and there aren't entrance standards," she said. "It really doesn't matter where you come in. You get cheered anyway."
Having made lifelong friends from the Games, and in the AIDS rides where sheï¿½s raised over $35,000, Johnson said she also found a new appreciation for cycling when her years of running took its toll on her knees. Cycling offers an easier form of distance competition for her.
Entered in the individual time trial, the road race, and the team trial, Johnson may still be competitive, and has recently begun timing her training rides. "But the important thing is about doing my best, that I do the best that I can do; that's all I can control."
Laura Petracek, the women's outreach coordinator for Different Spokes San Francisco, will be participating in Chicago in the triathlon, an event in which she also participated at New York's Gay Games IV.
A runner since her 20s, like Johnson, her switch to cycling was partly due to knee injuries. Her doctor's suggestion of cross-training led to an interest in triathlon.
"It's not about winning," said the former New Yorker, who has lived in San Francisco since 1994.
In fact, for Petracek, it's about surviving. After being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2000, she endured six months of chemotherapy treatments, struggled to get her life together, and didn't do any sports activities for over a year. As she recovered, she joined the Berkeley Triathlon Club, which she said, fortunately "has lots of dykes" among its me
Swimming, she said is her preferred aspect of triathlon. "I'm horrible at cycling and running." Still, the three-in-one event is part of her agenda in Chicago; a half-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride, and a run of 3.5 miles.
Robert Quon, an internist at Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo, is also a LifeCycle veteran and will be competing in individual time trial, circuit road race, and the team time trial at Chicago's Gay Games.
He also competed in Sydney's Gay Games with several other Gutterbunnies alumni. Quon, 37, said he won't be doing another cycling event, the criterium race, which is a one-mile course group event, partially, he said, "because that's where all the crashes happen."
He prefers the individual time trial â€“ nine miles of racing against the clock. Riders start at two-minute intervals, and are ranked in different categories, licensed and unlicensed.
"The biggest event is the circuit road race, which takes place last," said Quon. "By then, you've figured out who's who and you know who your competition is."
"It's more of a fun thing for me." Still, Quon has hired a trainer to improve his efforts. Earlier this month, Quon completed his seventh AIDS ride. He's previously raised a total of almost $50,000, and had pledges of $7,400 for this year's ride.
Dave Glidden, Different Spokes' president, will be competing in Gay Games VII in the criterium, mountain bike, individual time trial, and road race. In the team time trial cycling events, he'll be competing with Tom Brock, Jerome Thomere, and Lance Holman.
Glidden began riding in 1998 but said he rode erratically. "Joining Different Spokes in 2002 had a huge impact on my training and general knowledge of cycling," he said. "It's a great group. I've had a lot of fun and gotten lots of inspiration."
Since joining the club, he's completed two LifeCycle rides, 11 century (100-mile) rides and four 200K (125-mile) rides, including the Death Ride in Tahoe.
Glidden rides primarily in Marin, where he lives. "I love being able to ride to and from my house without having to drive."
Tom Brock, the vice president of Different Spokes, is another Lifecycle veteran who is going to be on Glidden's Chicago-bound cycling team.
Brock credits a 1994 AIDS ride in New York with getting him into cycling. "It sounded like a great event, so I bought the bike and then started training." Brock also rode in the first Boston to New York AIDS Ride, and since moving to San Francisco, has completed two AIDS LifeCycle rides.
At 550 miles, and with 100 miles ridden each day, Brock learned how to build up his stamina. For team cycling, which he'll be doing in Chicago, "We really have to work together to go as fast as we can," he said.
"Cycling is now very much a part of my life," said Brock, 44, who works for a nonprofit research group, and got a new bike shortly after moving to the Bay Area. "My 'Californication' is complete."
Like most cyclists, Brock will box his disassembled bike and check it as luggage on his flight to Chicago, which will be his first Games since New York's 1994 events. There, he didn't compete, but volunteered and was given the interesting assignment of oiling up physique competitors. "When duty calls, I like to answer."