Team Spoke & Weal Discuss Inspiration And Perseverance For Their First AIDS/LifeCycle Event
Are you familiar with the AIDs/LifeCycle (ALC)? ALC is a seven-day cycling tour that starts in San Francisco and ends in Los Angeles. Yes, it’s the same state – but as we all know California is gigantic. For LGBTQ purposes: It would take you anywhere from six to eight hours to drive from San Fran’s Castro to LA’s West Hollywood. Now, imagine doing that on a bike? Yep, it’s going to take you seven entire days – and tons of people actually do this! The LifeCycle, originally starting in 2002, is a charity event for cyclists, staff, and those who want to take a bike riding journey with an incredible group of people to raise money for HIV/AIDS services, remembering those who have succumbed to AIDS, and bringing attention to a virus that has plagued our community since the ‘80s.
The ALC isn’t all just biking through terrain, there’s actually some fun allotted for the participants. One event I’ve seen across social media is Red Dress Day where everyone wears red, especially dresses, tutus, or something creative and drag queenish. The rest stops provide entertainment, food, hot showers, charging stations, and an endless amount of staff who ensure good energy with upbeat attitudes and random activities for the riders, like a talent show. The riders don’t have to worry about sleeping arrangements besides bringing their own sleeping bag – the staff sets up their faux tent city before their arrival at the rest stop of the evening. For those who are unable to complete a full day of cycling there is no worry – vehicles will pick up the slack and bring you to the rest stop at the end of each day. So, it kind of appears like there isn’t necessarily too much to lose if you’re up for the challenge.
While some adventurous individuals may think the ALC is a destination vacation or adrenaline rush – I would be absolutely mortified. I was thrilled to learn this wasn’t a race, but a journey. Still – physically I don’t think I could stomach the long seven day stretch. On top of the extreme work outs, you have to factor in the weather conditions and camping for a week straight. I absolutely couldn’t currently make the cut. At all. So, it begged the question: Who are these people who go on this ride year after year? It’s not one or two people: Last year the ALC raised over sixteen million dollars for their cause. That’s completely wild if you think about that many people moving together in one setting: It’s like a community of generous gypsys who begin traveling at 6:30 in the morning and stop to relax thirteen hours later.
I began searching and found out the only people who seemingly receive praise for their participation are reality stars like RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Courtney Act and professional attention seeker- I mean, Big Brother houseguest, Frankie Grande. Congressman Adam Schiff and Olympian Gus Kenworthy (who has raised an astounding eighteen million this year alone) are also notable names on the list of riders. Those people, however charitable they may be, didn’t necessarily interest me as media darlings tend to mostly have a separate agenda when it comes to charity. It was time to find showcase new riders who are your everyday Average Joe’s seeking the adventure of a lifetime. I got to speak to Team Spoke & Weal who are primarily based in Los Angeles and have one team member in Chicago.
Team Spoke & Weal was pioneered by Dell Miller, an openly HIV Positive man who lost both of his legs to Meningococcal Meningitis due to immune complications related to his HIV diagnosis. I was able to sit down with Miller and teammates he recruited, including his husband, Samuel Lleva, business partner Christine Thompson, and best friends Financial Advisor, Ryan Apuzzo, and Chicago-based Gay-Religion Journalist, Michael O’Loughlin. Greeting the easy-going team is exciting. They aren’t boujie or vying for viral fame. They are calm and collected – as a team should be, happy to speak of their journey ahead. Let’s hear what the have to say:
Mickey Keating: Alright so I know Dell was the ring leader in all of this, but I heard it’s everyone’s first time doing the AIDS/LifeCycle. I applaud you because this is not something I would be able to do whatsoever. Not this year at least. On top of being in a what I’d assume is a great physical condition, you also have to be willing to fundraise. This isn’t just a sign up and you’re good to go. What made each of you want to participate and dedicate your time to benefit the charity?
Dell Miller: Living in Los Angeles for six years, you hear so many people talking about it. I’ve donated to so many people, but I have never done it. I wanted to do it this year, but I also have a personal story that comes with it. I was afflicted with meningitis five years ago. A lot of that is linked to people who have HIV or AIDS. It was less about meningitis, but HIV is something I’ve lived with since 2007 – wow, that’s a long time. I’ve never been super active or involved with the HIV community, but I knew this would be my time to do something. It’s time to help find a cure. I decided I wanted to do it and it was easy to rally my husband, Samuel Lleva, in. Eventually, my closest friends and colleagues wanted to join in and the hair salon Christine Thompson and I own, Spoke and Weal, decided to sponsor the team so I began building. It’s our business that’s a fairly new company and it’s a first for us. We’re currently at ten ALC team members [the five of us] and some hair stylists at our various locations in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Samuel Lleva: First, let me start off by saying my husband is Dell Miller, [so it was easy for me to join]. This team wouldn’t exist without his story. I’ve been challenging myself with exploring new life changing experiences. I thought I would only support Dell on the side, I didn’t really want to do the ALC. But, after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (seemingly a hike from Mexico to Canada) I felt like I was conditioned to do something this big. But, the cycle is cycling compared to walking or hiking. I come from a very conservative, Catholic family. We don’t talk about HIV or AIDS, no one talks about those things. I wanted to do this to bring awareness to my group of friends who are in conservative places like my hometown. AIDS doesn’t only affect gay people, it affects everyone in the world. You think HIV and think that person is dying, but people with HIV are out here living. I wanted to showcase HIV isn’t a deathbed anymore.
Ryan Apuzzo: I can’t remember but I think I was with Dell the day before he went into the hospital for almost a year with meningitis. I’m so happy he’s still here. When he brought up the ALC to me, I was very hesitant at first, but I’m such a push over! Sure, I can raise five-thousand-dollars, easy! [Laughing] I’m not a cyclist either, I love spin class – I mean, I take six months off and debate if I want to cancel my gym membership, but, ya know. I have a lot of friends in their fifties and they will tell me how their friends passed during the AIDs epidemic. That’s something I always think about. None of us really know what happened during that epidemic and the Ronald Reagan Administration when they ignored the entire LGBTQ community who was being affected by AIDS. I’m doing this for them – the people who were lost and died in the ‘80s.
DM: It’s a huge family. There’s people who have done the ALC for a long time who are excited to meet new faces. They always tell me it’s going to be a week that changes your life and you’re going to have such a great time. You’ll be a part of this family forever. There’s people who have been doing this for seventeen years who have no plans on stopping anytime soon. No one is catty, everyone is willing to help.
Thompson, one of the team’s cisgender, heterosexual females moves me with her response.
Christine Thomspon: I think we’re an unlikely, misfit group. We’re getting out of our comfort zone. Yeah, I’ve done spin class, but I’ve never ridden on a road bike before. I’ve known people who have done it and they claimed it was life changing. Once Dell decided to do it, I thought it sounded like a cool idea. I’m a [straight, married] woman who has been in the beauty industry a long time. I’m talking back when AIDs and HIV was unearthed, when it wasn’t understood, [the very beginning]. Early in my career, I lost a lot of people that I worked with. I didn’t know what was happening to my friends [as they kept dying]. Over the years, I’ve watched the research and progress and I participated. I did Project Angel Food in the early ‘90s. I haven’t done something for the community for a long time. I thought this would be a great thing to do.
Michael O’Loughlin: What Dell has experienced, personally, with meningitis is incredibly powerful. To see him now without legs now which was only made worse from being HIV positive – it’s inspiring that he’s still doing the Lifecycle. I knew that’s when I had to do this. In the past three years I’ve been interviewing people for my podcast, Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church, who were a part of the AIDS and HIV epidemic in the ‘90s. They spoke about losing loved, surviving, and their own HIV diagnosis. I’ve gotten hundreds of letters and emails who haven’t grappled with the trauma of it yet. It’s been a moving experience for me. I’m not a cyclist, but when Dell reached out I really considered it. I eventually jumped on board and within a few days I raised my fundraising goal of thirty-five-hundred dollars. This is my way of giving back to everyone who has given their time to me and my podcast. I’ve been practicing now with spin classes and meeting up with some of the fellow Chicago riders since that’s where I live. I haven’t practiced much because there’s been snow on the ground.
MK: I know you’re all friends, but have you discussed the sleeping arrangements yet? Besides dehydration or hot flashes I think that would be my biggest concern for the week! Someone’s bound to be sleeping next to a stranger!
RA: (Laughing) Well we have a four-story tent.
DM: They want it to be fun. You’re not just riding and going. They want it to be fun. They have charging stations and lounge area. One night they’ll have a movie night with popcorn and snacks. There’s another night where they have a talent show. Then, one of the nights towards the end they do a night of remembrance to those who have passed from HIV and AIDS. One of the days is dedicated to Worlds AIDS Day where everyone wears a red dress as they bike. Some people do full on drag [on this day]. They try to make the rest stops fun. You’ll pull over and go dancing and get to dance for as long as you want.
SL: Social media is a great way to find others who are participating [so you won’t feel alone]. [The ALC riders and staff are a community.] I meet a lot of people on training rides, they are the best for networking. We go and meet other teams and they invite us to events that they are throwing. The ALC organization throws events where people can connect at. We recently went to the Holiday party.
O’Loughlin concludes by stating why the ALC is extremely important eighteen-years-later in 2020:
MOL: I believe people think of HIV and AIDS as something that happened in the past. There’s twenty thousand new HIV diagnosis in a year and most of those are men who have sex with men. Younger members of the community don’t realize that. It’s important to know that it’s still a problem. While you can live a long life with HIV, you have to know your life is going to be changed.
The ALC begins on May 31st, 2020 and will conclude on June 6th. If you’d like to donate to the unique first timers of fabulous Team Spoke & Weal head here.
Writer’s Note A: This is the opinion of one Instinct Magazine contributor and does not reflect the views of Instinct Magazine itself or fellow contributors.
Writer’s Note B: Quotes have been edited for clarity.