Every year the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation co-produce a charity bike ride that spans 545 miles taking riders on a 7-day journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles. AIDS/LifeCycle is a life-changing ride that not only demonstrates the endurance and strength of each rider, but their desire to raise critically needed funds for HIV/AIDS-related services and bring awareness to how HIV/AIDS affects the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. The ride provides a positive, life affirming experience for individuals affected by HIV/AIDS and having raised over $200 million since initiating in 1993, AIDS/LifeCycle aims to end the stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS and pay tribute to those who have passed from AIDS-related causes. This year the ALC ride will take place from June 2nd-8th.
The ride is not for the faint of heart and training happens year-around for those who are building their endurance for long stretches of cycling and preparing for different weather conditions. Over the years, AIDS/LifeCycle has garnered attention from many public figures who have aligned themselves with the ride’s mission. Last year, we spoke with Variety correspondent, Marc Malkin, and his personal journey that has lead him to train for AIDS/LifeCycle. This year, notable personalities Gus Kenworthy and Frankie Grande, have also joined the ride and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Many riders choose to take on AIDS/LifeCycle as part of a team. Teams provide support and get riders motivated to train and reach goals. They are also a great way to obtain fundraising goals as this effort is crucial to the cause. Anyone can form a team so long as there are two or more individuals who are committed and up for the challenge.
One team that hopes to raise their fundraising goals is The Bearded Ladies, a group from California that has raised over $100,000 for AIDS/LifeCycle since their first ride in 2015. The Bearded Ladies is comprised of mixed gender identities, sexual orientations, and made up of individuals of color, representing Latinx, biracial and multiracial identities, and some living with HIV. They are a creative group that is passionate, culturally informed and focus on the building dialogue and raising awareness by representing the communities most affected by HIV/AIDS.
The Bearded Ladies were created in 2015 by partners Chris Gomez and Frank Pancucci, who wanted a fun and creative name for their first ALC ride. The term “The Bearded Ladies” originated from a trivia team Gomez and Pancucci were part of at a local Hillcrest gay bar in San Diego. Year after year, Gomez and Pancucci have been joined by a force of new members who wish to join their fight for HIV/AIDS and in their fourth year, The Bearded Ladies has grown to include six passionate individuals who aim to raise at least $35,000 by the time they start pedaling on June 2nd. The Bearded Ladies promote their fundraising efforts on social media and by holding fundraising events and selling team branded merch.
Each year the team comes up with a vibrant and imaginative theme for their cycling kit which explores a different version of the “Bearded Lady”.
2016 was a burlesque-inspired tattooed bearded lady.
2017 was a celebration of gender-fluidity with Magnus Hastings’ image of famed drag performer, Grace Towers.
2018 had a cultural appeal with the Lotería-inspired rendition of the bearded lady as “La Barbuda”.
2019 will call for a resurgence of The Bearded Ladies with a mermaid theme which celebrates the ocean and resilience.
The Bearded Ladies co-captain, Frank Pancucci tells Instinct:
We believe the Bearded Lady is a symbol of empowerment, pride, and bad-ass self-love. The Bearded Lady is brave, beautiful, gender-bending, culturally-connected, powerful, unapologetic, sexy, magical, leads with the heart and is intuitive to the needs of others. The Bearded Lady is an acknowledgment, affirmation and celebration of those who have found themselves outside the margins of familial, societal or religious “norms,” and a home for those individuals to come together to form new family and new community.
The Bearded Ladies are a fierce team of individuals including team captains Chris Gomez and Frank Pancucci of San Diego, Lucy Balestreri of Redlands, Andrea Vazquez of Sacramento, Alexander Barrera of Los Angeles, and Rafael Gonzalez of Moreno Valley.
Meet The Bearded Ladies and be inspired by their stories of strength and why they ride for AIDS/LifeCycle:
Chris Gomez – San Diego, CA | Co-captain/Rider
HIV/AIDS does not discriminate against age, gender, orientation and has never been isolated to a particular city, state or country. For almost sixty years, this pandemic has affected so many — entire communities of people, families, lovers, colleagues, neighbors and friends.
I am one of those people. I am living with HIV.
In February 2000, I was diagnosed as HIV+, with a substantially high viral load and a weakening immune system. With access to insurance and programs, I was fortunate to have my medical treatment and medication covered and in turn, I was able to lower my viral load and being to manage my HIV. By doing this, I have been HIV undetectable for almost as long as I have been HIV+.
I recognize that it was access to care that provided me with the services that I desperately needed at the time of my diagnosis and in the years following. It is that same access to care that is currently being threatened with potential cuts to federal and state funding or greatly reduced budgets that impact those who rely on these services to live.
Frank Pancucci – San Diego, CA | Co-captain/Rider
Participating in the AIDS/LifeCycle, now in my fourth year in a row, has been one of the most challenging, humbling, rewarding and love-filled experiences of my life. I have learned so much about sacrifice and perseverance, about the power of community and collectiveness, about the kindness that I never knew could exist from complete strangers, and about the capacity for love that exists to rally thousands of people and supporters around a common cause and mission.
The ALC Community is seriously like no other; it is incredibly caring, open-armed, love-driven and supportive beyond words, and the people I have met through the ride make it so easy to want to come back over and over again. Over these four years, the Bearded Ladies has become a very tight knit family and we rely on each other for love, encouragement and support not just pertaining to the ride, but in our day-to-day-lives. The team and what is represents is so special to me.
I ride for my husband, Chris, who is HIV+ and who knows, firsthand, the importance of having access to quality care and medical services, and I ride for my brother, Vince, who works every day in HIV research at the LA LGBT Center. I ride for my mentor, Deborah, who guided me through my work in HIV education at BIENESTAR Human Services. I ride for the generation who was lost to AIDS and for the generation who survived and needs space to come together to find healing and understanding. As gay and multiracial, I ride for greater visibility and awareness that HIV/AIDS is still impacting the many communities I belong to. I ride because the current Administration is a threat to HIV/AIDS funding and the values I hold dear to my heart. I ride because I want to see the day when we have no new cases of HIV/AIDS.
Lucy Balestreti – Redlands, CA | Rider
ALC goes beyond the seven days we ride our bikes in June. I ride because it is a commitment to others and to myself to keep striving for change, to fight for a cure, and to raise awareness and shine light where there is darkness. There are still many corners of our communities that are unaware of the need for HIV/AIDS education and research. Although I know I am only a small part of the machine, I feel that we all play an integral role in the fight against AIDS. Riding has become a wonderful addiction. I look forward to the week of ALC every year and I encourage any one that is interested to join the fight as a rider or a roadie!
Alexander Barrera – Los Angeles, CA | Rider
Four years ago, I made the decision to ride a bicycle across the California landscape not knowing for certain what I was getting myself into. What began as a simple (simple, ha!) challenge for my 30th birthday has evolved to something far greater than what I could have imagined.
Since my first ride in 2016, I’ve made the 545-mile trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles 3 times over. The AIDS/LifeCycle mission – to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding those living and thriving (yes, thriving!) with HIV/AIDS – is something that has penetrated deep within me. As a queer Latinx person, being stereotyped and marginalized is something that I identify with so I do my part in speaking up for those who can’t – past, present and future. Given the nature of our current administration, now is the time more than ever to push society in a direction full of more compassion, empathy and kindness.
I’ve learned so much on the ride about self-perseverance, the power of vulnerability, and more importantly the LOVE that brings people together. It’s because of my participation in this event that I met my chosen family members – The Bearded Ladies. I can’t imagine another group of beautiful souls by my side when I ride down for the fourth time this coming June.
AIDS/LifeCycle and the people I have met along the way have transformed me forever!
Rafael Gonzalez – Moreno Valley, CA | Roadie
I was diagnosed with HIV in 2004, after falling very ill and laying on what I believed would be my death bed. My immune system was barely hanging on with 20 T-Cells. I was in and out of the hospital for weeks at a time, and I had some time to reflect on my life. Nobody ever talked about HIV, not in my community. It was something you saw on TV happening to other people, not anyone I knew. I did not recall it ever being discussed at school, and my friends were not talking about it. I knew that if I survived, I would make it my mission to educate others.
HIV did not kill me. I got my first job educating the community less than a year after my diagnosis. I wanted to go into every school and talk to every student about HIV and how to protect yourself from getting it. 14 years later, I continue on that mission to educate others. There have been many advances in treatment for HIV, there have also been many advances in prevention tools. Knowledge is power, and the more people know about HIV, the more people can remain negative or get in care if they are positive. The AIDS Lifecycle bike ride allows me to contribute in many ways; raising money for services, bringing awareness by talking about HIV leading up to the bike ride and by taking care of ME.
Andrea Vazquez – Sacramento, CA | Roadie
When I first heard about AIDS LifeCycle years ago I had interest in it as an athletic endeavor/challenge and when I told my inner circle about my interest, I was laughed at. No one had faith in my ability to fundraise or ride, including myself. By 2015 though, my life had changed in a million different ways. A cousin of mine completed the ride in 2015 and she shared her experience with me. I had also just started a new job for the state, working at the State Office of AIDS, in the Prevention Branch. One of the managers was kind enough to share a presentation with the staff about his 10+ years’ experience with ALC. I don’t know what exactly made me do it—maybe it was FOMO, maybe I was inspired by the pictures and personal testimonials, maybe it was my new work environment and my genuine interest increasing access to HIV Prevention and Care or maybe it was that for the first time in a long time I actually believed in myself—but I signed up. That week in June of 2016 was life changing. Pushing my body in the saddle, making new friends, experiencing the Love Bubble, and traveling our beautiful state on two wheels was an experience I will never, ever forget.
Through the connection of another, Frank, Chris and I began spending quite a bit of time together and by Day 3, we were riding together in a pack. To this day I honestly believe if it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have made it through Day 3 or Day 7 of that year. Their moral support, encouragement, humor and heart helped me push myself through the two hardest days of riding I have ever done in my entire life.
Since 2016, this is my third year as a Bearded Lady and it will be my second year as a Roadie. In the Roadie role I feel like I can provide support, encouragement, joy and love to the riders. I am not a strong cyclist and I don’t particularly enjoy riding a bike (whoops!… there is my dark, dirty secret). I do however LOVE hugging people (with consent) all day long, lifting heavy bags and helping people orient themselves when they get to camp. I feel like I get to be the proud friend/sister/teammate to those dragging themselves into camp after a long day. I feel that as a Gear and Tent Roadie I have found my home on the ride. So I will come back, year after year.
Help The Bearded Ladies reach their fundraising goal and contribute to the dissemination of vital services for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Support the efforts of the thousands of riders who make the 545-mile ride each year and be an ally for research and change with any possible amount. Put your faith in teams like The Bearded Ladies who pedal their way toward ending HIV/AIDS.
For more information on AIDS/LifeCycle visit: www.aidslifecycle.org
Be an honorary Bearded Lady by donating here: www.thebeardedladies.life