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    Blast Boston Bureau

    Before I signed up to participate in the Boston->New York AIDS Ride 3 (Presented by Tanqueray), I had already made another commitment -- to spend three weeks house-sitting for my parents in their small suburban split-level in Pennsylvania. This meant, unfortunately, that for most of the month of May I would be 400 miles away from my bike. And as my "Rider Rep" was quick to remind me, I was already behind schedule if I was to train properly for the Ride.

    The solution to this problem emerged, reluctantly and without instructions for assembly, from a box in my parents' attic. It was my mother's old exercycle, which had taken up space in my former bedroom for several years, until Mom decided to join a health club and the bike went up the treacherous attic steps to make room for a sewing table.

    While I set the exercycle up in the study, my mother looked on and muttered vague recollections of how the thing had fit together the first time. Then I began my training as my parents set out to cut a swath of poorly composed snapshots across southern Europe.

    My Rider Handbook, under its section labelled "How To Train," mentions exercycles in the same breath as swimming, rollerblading, and cross-country skiing -- as "acceptable" alternatives to on-road cycling but still no substitute for the real thing. This proved to be especially true, I soon discovered, on my mother's exercycle, which had apparently been designed by someone who had never laid eyes on an actual bike. The principle was the same -- you sat, you grasped handlebars, you pedaled -- but the seat was shaped like a pregnant stingray, the handlebars were set at a vertiginous, medieval-torture device angle, and the Bozo-sized pedals had pinching plastic straps that left bright purple bruises across my insteps. Despite these challenges, I sat on that damn thing for 20 minutes every morning, pedaling and reading the morning's headlines to take my mind off the pain.

    By the time I returned to Boston at the end of the month, I was in no better shape and had not even begun my fund-raising. Fifteen hundred dollars still loomed between me and the Ride. I resolved to address this situation as soon as possible. The following week, perhaps.

    Meanwhile, two of my friends, Greil and Lester, had been inspired by my commitment and resolved to join me on the Ride. It would be a blast, they assured me; we would be like the Three Musketeers. I had to respect their decision, but secretly I was a little disappointed. I had the reputation of being perhaps the least athletic of my coordinated-challenged peer group, and had been looking forward to the Ride as an opportunity not only to disprove my doubters but actually set myself apart. Besides, the Ride was supposed to be a way for me to meet people, especially women, and it was clear that Greil and Lester's vision of training consisted of only the three of us, Three Musketeer-like, male-bonding across the countryside.

    Perhaps sensing that they were crashing my party, Greil and Lester reluctantly agreed to come along with me on one of the group training jaunts listed in our AIDS Ride newsletter, Ride On! The ride's starting point was an athletic field on my side of town so we agreed to set out from my house.

    Greil and Lester arrived late, of course. "Is there anywhere around here we can get some Powerade?" they wanted to know, standing on my front porch in bicycle shorts and toe-clip shoes and already looking better-prepared for the ride than I would ever be.

    By the time we got to the rendezvous point the training group was long gone. "Don't worry," Greil and Lester proclaimed, "we'll catch them!" If we'd had swords they would have crossed them, but I was starting to feel less like Athos or Porthos and more like the Moe of the Three Stooges, cursed with the comically futile task of trying to maintain order. Greil and Lester rode with a reckless abandon that startled me; for most of our route we were on a crowded rail trail, and the two of them zipped full-tilt past baby strollers and between rollerbladers, bobbing and weaving and chattering merrily away in full ignorance of all the muttered oaths and dirty looks we were engendering. When we got to the end of the trail and entered traffic they were even worse, riding side-by- side, running stop signs, never using hand signals. Someone, stuck behind us for a long stretch of state road, finally zoomed past with a long, vindictive honk, which Greil and Lester responded to with incredulous outrage.

    "You didn't leave him room to pass," I explained.

    "So what?" one of them replied. "He can wait two seconds."

    It suddenly occurred to me that I might be spending the summer training with two of those rogue cyclists who give all bikers a bad rap. I thought about explaining to Greil and Lester my theory that obnoxious drivers are the product of obnoxious cyclists, rather than the other way around, but I decided it was wiser to save it for later, when we weren't in danger of being run down by some testy suburbanite in a sport utility.

    Remarkably, we did manage to catch up with the training group. They had stopped for a rest break at their halfway point, a post- modern sculpture garden in the charmingly rustic New England town of Concord. There were about fifteen of them, lounging and stretching amidst bikes and water bottles under a towering sculpture of sloppily painted scrap metal.

    I don't know what I expected my first pack of fellow AIDS Riders to look like -- I hate to think I honestly thought they'd be just like the smiling, attractive people in the Ride brochures, but I suppose up until that moment I had been taken in by the romance of it all. These were morally and physically vigorous people, after all. They were dedicating their time and bodies and spirit to a worthy cause. It stood to reason that they would be bright, attractive, warm-hearted, a cut above the shuffling masses.

    Instead, they were typical New Englanders in bicycle helmets -- not unfriendly exactly, but politely aloof and mildly suspicious of enthusiasm in any form. When Greil and Lester and I burst into their midst, thrilled to have caught up with them, a few people offered wan hellos, but most went on quietly munching granola bars and doing hamstring extensions. There was nothing resembling a group dynamic; most of the riders had obviously come in pairs and met none of the others. There were a few individuals sitting loosely grouped to one side, but their conversation seemed detached and sporadic. Greil and Lester took one look at them and briskly headed off in search of a place to refill our water bottles.

    After a few moments, a tall, gray-haired but youthful-looking man came forward and introduced himself to me as the ride leader. I gave him our names and he gave me three copies of an indecipherably hand- scrawled and badly Xeroxed route map. He was visibly annoyed by our late arrival. "Try to keep up with the pack," he said. "I'm not technically responsible for anyone's safety here, but the Ride office still takes it out on me if anyone gets lost or injured."

    Greil and Lester returned with our water and a few minutes later we set out. The ride leader, on a lightweight touring bike, quickly established a grueling pace and within minutes a few stragglers had disappeared around the last bend. A few minutes later, we were among the stragglers. Soon, with only the ride leader's chicken- scratch map to guide us, we were hopelessly lost.

    Several hours later, we finally stumbled across the athletic field that had been the ride's starting point. There we found the ride leader and a few other cyclists loitering in the parking lot. "Thank God," said the ride leader when he saw us. "I was beginning to think I'd have to wait here all night."

    We explained that his map was rather hard to read, to which the leader shrugged and said, "Well, you made it back, didn't you?" He checked us off on his list, got into his Subaru station wagon, and drove off.

    That was my last experience on a group training ride. I decided to cast my lot with the Three Stooges.