Heroes in the Fight: Meet Kurt

“I simply forgot to be afraid.” That’s how Kurt Schade knew AIDS/LifeCycle had changed him, ten years ago on a wicked hill in Northern California.

Then a first-time ALC rider, Kurt still saw himself as an unathletic, book-loving kid who got picked on in gym class, not as a cyclist who could ride 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But after hundreds of miles of training, “without really even noticing, I had secretly proven myself wrong about who I was and what I was capable of. The doubt was gone, and in its place was this crazy little notion that if I just kept pedaling, I might surprise myself.”

Today, Kurt is helping legions of riders surprise themselves and discover new strength and new community while fighting HIV/AIDS. This year will be his tenth as a rider or roadie—and his ninth as a training ride leader for AIDS/LifeCycle, the seven-day ride to raise awareness and funds to support San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the HIV-related services of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

Join Kurt on this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle. Sign up today with the discount code “KURT” and you’ll get $40 off the normal registration fee. Hurry! The offer ends March 31.

“I started the Intro Series for New Riders to give those who were most afraid a place to start,” Kurt explains. “If you’re scared, or if you think you’re too old, too out of shape, or too slow—all those things we tell ourselves—then this is your place. We’re every shape, every size, every shade, all ages. I train grandmothers who reach the top of Mt. Tamalpais feeling victorious and triumphant. It’s just amazing.”

Without downplaying the challenges—physical, mental, and emotional—of training and riding in ALC, Kurt asserts that “the greatest challenge is believing you can do it. Every week I meet people who have been told, ‘You can’t do that!’ at some point in their lives. But if you start small, and keep proving to yourself that you can do something new, you start to reveal possibilities—and that is life-changing.”

Kurt sees parallels in the struggle against HIV/AIDS: “We’re fighting a disease that we were told we couldn’t do anything about,” he says. “In the ‘80s, we thought we were all going to die, and it didn’t seem like anyone cared or was going to help us. It didn’t seem as if there was much hope. And yet we kept having little victories: one more piece of legislation, one more company doing some research, one more doctor who found something, or one nurse who walked into a hospital room and didn’t wear a mask. Whatever the victory was, we learned what we can do. I think that’s what this ride has meant to me, and what it means to a lot of people.”

Riders in Kurt’s nine-week series start with easy, flat routes, and the focus is not on speed but on cycling essentials, from “clipping in” to road safety, from proper hydration to confidence in traffic. He tells his riders, “You have so many other things to think about. Speed will come.” It’s an approach that turns newbies into confident cyclists who go on to complete the week-long ride through California. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see where someone starts, and then where they go,” Kurt says.

And some go far, indeed, not only completing AIDS/LifeCycle but returning as ride leaders to coach the next generation of beginning cyclists over hundreds of training miles. One example? Joseph Pulice, who showed up for his first-ever ALC training ride fresh from injuries and a two-week hospital stay. “With Kurt's patience and perseverance, I made it through the training, and I rode every inch of every mile on the way to L.A. that year,” he says. Joseph joined Kurt as a training ride leader the very next season—and then, Kurt adds, “he went on to become an Iron Man triathlete! We need to be reminded that we can do things that we say we can’t.”

Kurt started his own journey with AIDS/LifeCycle after dropping off a friend at the opening ceremony and getting his first glimpse of the amazing community of riders, roadies, and volunteers. “It’s how so many of us get caught!” he laughs. “The community is what I felt I needed then, even more than the event itself.” He hears similar perspectives today from participants in his training ride series: Even though it might mean getting on a bike at sunrise, “riders tell me they look forward to coming on Saturdays because of the people and the community. The community is what makes it strong.”

And that sense of community extends beyond the thousands of ALC participants as they ultimately make their way south from San Francisco. The route is often lined with cheering friends and family members—and sometimes lone supporters. Kurt describes a woman who stands at the side of the road into Santa Cruz, quietly holding a picture of her brother, who died from AIDS-related causes in 1996: “She stands there all alone, every year. We are her community for a day. There are a few thousand people who care for her that day.”

“I think the community goes both ways,” he continues. “There are people who support us, and there are people who don’t feel so alone, because this ‘moving town’ full of love comes through once a year and reminds them there are other people living with HIV, and others who have lost people they love. I think it makes people feel less alone.”

Kurt also sees how communities and individuals benefit from the services funded by AIDS/LifeCycle donors. “People have told me their lives were literally saved by the programs at San Francisco AIDS Foundation—people who got into a program for substance use, or got tested, or got legal advice,” he shares. “I knew one person who was having horrible insurance problems and his HIV meds weren’t being covered. He got help with his coverage through the foundation; otherwise, who knows what would have happened to him?”

Being welcomed into the ALC community also helps people come to terms with their own HIV status, Kurt has noticed: “I have watched people blossom throughout the training season and 'come out' as HIV positive. For some people, it’s the first time they have felt comfortable disclosing. I think there’s a level of comfort people get from the training rides, as they start building that intimacy on the road.” Kurt encourages his riders to get to know each other: “You can ride ALC fast, you can ride it slow; you can ride it hard or easy, in pain or in joy; but if you ride ALC as a stranger, you might pause to wonder if you're really riding ALC at all.”

What does Kurt find most rewarding about volunteering to train new riders for AIDS/LifeCycle? “I get to witness transformation,” he replies. “After a hard ride or a particularly hard hill or challenging route, riders will sometimes thank me. I tell them, ‘I didn’t do anything! I didn’t push the pedals or carry you up that hill. You did that! I was just there and got to witness it.’ It’s very humbling to see how people are changed. I'm doing my part to ensure there is a place for that to happen in people’s lives.”

Inspired by Kurt? Register today and join us for the ride of a lifetime. Don’t forget to use the discount code “KURT” when you register. We also invite you to share your inspirational stories about AIDS/LifeCycle in the comments below. Why do you ride? Did you sign up because of Kurt’s story?

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