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Nathalie Pelletier and Martine Riou

Wheely Big Show

by Jim Provenzano
Bay Area Reporter
April 2003

Cyclists in Sydney got a warm welcome and a well-run event at Centennial Park, despite a few reroutes to avoid potholes.

Among the many competitors in the four events at Gay Games VI (Individual Time Trial, Circuit Road Race, Team Time Trial and Criterion Mountain Race), several Bay Area riders were part of the informal collective known as the Gutterbunnies. They're also part of the growing number of cyclists participating in local AIDS ride fundraisers.

Cathy Johnson competed in three events as an original Gutterbunny, which had a "Girls" and "Boys" team. The Gutterbunnies organize fundraising and training rides. Although composed of Californians, they drafted a few others to fill out their ranks at the Games.

"We had a few honorary bunnies for the girls," Johnson said, "with four people per team; one from Israel and one from Australia. The Boys recruited a guy from Chicago."

Johnson said she enjoyed her fourth Games, mentioning that knee injuries ended her running career.

"As it turns out, you can do it with three people, but it's an advantage to have four people, in case of drop out or mechanical problems," she said.

In prior Games, Johnson competed in track and field in relay events. This was her first time competing in cycling.

"I didn't know what it would be like," she said, "If it would have the same collective spirit. People were friendly and interested.

Cycling events were divided between licensed and unlicensed riders. Team and individual races were originally a 15-kilometer race of two laps, but changes made it more like 13K, or eight miles, Johnson said.

"They changed some things based on differences for men or women, age and which event it was," said Johnson. A huge pothole changed the route at the last minute.

Over 250 people signed up in all cycling events, including mountain biking. The Gutterbunnies took medals in the 30 -35 women's categories, and in the 50-60 age group in men's races.

Mariam Garfinkle took a silver in Individual Time Trial, a gold in the Circuit Road Race in the 45-49 age group, and a bronze in Team Time Trials.

Johnson won a silver medal in the Individual Time Trial and Circuit Road Race, and a bronze in the Team Trial, both in the 50-54 age group.

All cyclists shipped their bikes easily, adding it as checked baggage.

"It's certainly not like when I was running, and only had to pack a singlet," joked Johnson. "None of us had ever shipped bikes, so we lined up a bike shop in Sydney to help us put them back together."

Riding on the left side of the road, and doing it while jetlagged, led to a few adjustments.

"We wanted to keep riding," said Johnson, so the cyclists agreed to meet at Centennial Park for some warm-up laps. But on her way there, she made a right turn, forgetting Australia's English driving routes, barely missing an oncoming car.

Johnson, now more comfortably on the right hand side of the road, is training for AIDS Lifecycle 2, which trails from San Francisco to Los Angeles June 8 - 14.

Men, most being in their 30s, were in more competitive levels, and finished fast, but without medals.

Dominic Campodonico placed high in all of his races, including the unlicensed Individual Time Trial (6th place in the 30-34 age group), fifth place in the Circuit Road Race, and sixth place with the Gutterbunny Boys team in Team Time Trial. He also got his personal best times in most events.

He said that most of his races were spent jockeying for position "with some guys from South Africa, and the Netherlands. The three of us were relatively competitive."

Like others, Campodonico's preferred wheeled stomping grounds include the Marin Headlands and the Tiberon Loop. While training for the Games, he trekked the Canadia Road in Woodside, which is closed for cyclists on Sundays.

Along with also doing the AIDS Lifecyle, Campodonico will ride from Seattle to Portland ride on July 12 in a different, non-fundraising trek.

Not that this ride will show he?s slacking, since he's already raised between $30-40,000 with the Gutterbunnies.

He even did some outreach while down under. "I mentioned the Lifecycle to other people from other countries, and they were interested."

Nathalie Pelletier and her partner Martine Riou were among the international cyclists. The couple shared the distinction of being the only Games competitors from Toulouse, France. They also racked up seven medals between them (four gold, three silver), and happily wore the medals along with the French flag in Olympic Park while en route to watch some diving events.

"Our team also had two girls from Canberra, and one from Ottowa, Canada," said Pelletier, proving the global friendship exhibited at the Games. "We make a very good team."

She noted that competing was easier in Sydney, while European races are more competitive. Pelletier began cycling as an eighteen-year-old, while Riou only started in 2001. They trained together in their home countryside.

They also found time to see figure skating, volleyball and aerobics. "It was fabulous. Very beautiful guys and women."

Like many Games participants (Pelletier also competed in cycling in Amsterdam in 1998), they enjoyed the Opening Ceremonies, where they marched with over 150 Parisians, dozens more from Marsailles and Bordeaux, and about 30 other French compatriots. They hope to compete in Montreal in 2006 ("Bien sur!"), along with an even larger contingent of French athletes.

Robert Quon competed in three events (all except Criterion). He finished fourth in Circuit Road Race and fifth in Individual Time Trial in the 30-34 division. He was the top US finisher in those divisions.

"Nobody from our country beat me," he said with astonished pride. "I didn't realize it until afterward. That truly gave me the idea that this was an international competition. In Australia, pretty much everybody was speaking English. But there were people from South Africa, all over the world."

Quon only started cycling four years ago to fundraise for an AIDS ride at the insistence of a friend. The doctor of Internal Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo thought his friend meant that he should volunteer for the medical crew.

"But then he convinced me to ride. At first I said, 'Are you crazy?' I hadn't been on a bike since I was 16."

Quon tried doing the Tiburon Loop, and had to take the ferry home. "I had more muscles hurt than I thought existed in my body."

Since then, Quon has seen a total transformation in his life. This year will be his fifth AIDS ride. He started out with what he thought would be his bike for life, a $400 hybrid. But for Sydney's Games, he splurged on a $7,000 custom bike. "To me it was worth it."

Many local cyclists made the shift from being a participant in the Pallotta Teamworks rides to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Lifecyle. After a rancorous battle, several lawsuits, the AIDS Foundation, like several other non-profits, took it upon themselves to create their own rides. Pallotta and his various entities eventually claimed to have closed their businesses, but continue to contract with the Avon Breast Cancer Walks for a steep fee.

Quon sees the AIDS Foundation's creation of Lifecycle, now in its second year, as "a positive move," he said, "putting the fiscal responsibility where it works better. When you watch your own books, you're gonna control your finances. The first year was a building year. It took a year to regroup and strategize, and I think they did an excellent job at that. It's only going to grow until we get back to raising millions of dollars."

The now self-described "gearhead" assures novices that while, "It's a daunting thing to say you're going to ride your bike to LA," it has proven worth the effort.

"As accomplished a cyclist as I've become, it's still not easy," Quon said. "You can get hurt. It's a lot of time to train, to fundraise and do every part of it to get you there."

At one point, exhausted and sore during a ride, he pulled over in frustration, until a member of Positive Peddlers rode by him.

"It really dawned on me; 'Why are you here? Not to bitch and moan. You're here for a reason, and the person that passed you by was the reason.'"

One of those Positive Pedalers is Bob Katz, who competed in the Men's Over 40 Circuit Road Race. This was his first competitive event.

Having done three AIDS Rides, and the LifeCycle this year, Katz was among the people who wrote a letter to AIDS Foundation asking that "something be done" about the rides, even before the controversies over Pallotta reached a high point.

He hopes that the Lifecycle will improve. "But as much as anything, it's economic," Katz said. "Some new rides hand over 100 percent of proceeds. Registration costs have even been lowered." Katz will also ride in the annual The Ron Wilmont Ride in May.

At Sydney, he wore his Positive Pedalers jersey. "We like to have a presence at every AIDS-related cycling event."

Katz came in fifth out of five in his age group, (50-54) but with several younger competitors behind him, he said he felt good about his race. "What's amazing is the quality of the people; some incredible cyclists."

Following the Games, he visited "pretty much everywhere" in scenic New Zealand. Locally, he's a training ride leader for LifeCycle, with groups riding mostly to Marin.

"We're hoping to branch out to East Bay each weekend," Katz said. "In April we'll go from Pleasant Hill to Pinole, and into Sonoma Country. One of the legacies of the AIDS Rides is a huge archive of training ride routes, which have been fed into the LifeCycle library."

Despite the hills and distance, Katz enjoys riding more than ever.

"You get to a point where it doesn't seem to get any more difficult."