Those unfamiliar with AIDS/LifeCycle — the annual weeklong bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that raises money for HIV/AIDS care, testing and prevention — have likely never heard of the Otter Pop Stop. Nor are they familiar with the joy that can come from the simple act of being handed a popsicle.
Named for the fruit-flavored popsicles many of us remember fondly from our childhood, the Otter Pop Stop is one of the most well-loved rest stops on the AIDS/LifeCycle route. It takes place during Day 2, following one of the ride’s most grueling stretches, which is one of the reasons why for ALC riders it holds such a special place in the heart.
“The history of the Otter Pop Stop is a really great story of giving,” says Eric “Wink” Maltman. And it’s a story that doesn’t begin with popsicles but cookies.
“It starts with Ginger Brulée,” Maltman says, “a volunteer cheerleader who was tireless in fabulous outfits and heels, every day cheering on the riders, usually along the steepest hills. Ginger inspired Christy Muller, a beautiful person who’d volunteered as a roadie for a few years, to think of something unique that would help lift the riders’ spirits at a tough point on the ride. Christy decided she’d bake a cookie for each rider and hand them out along the route on Day 2.”
Muller is now better known among AIDS/LifeCycle riders and roadies as the Cookie Lady. “It’s a special person that bakes 2,400 cookies for complete strangers,” Maltman says.
“Our Kyle Tonazzi was a rider in 2005, and just after mile 80 on Day 2, he hit a wall,” Maltman continues. “Kyle tried skinny-dipping in an icy cold river, but even that didn’t help. He thought he was finished for the day. Still pushing, Kyle came upon Christy the Cookie Lady, wearing a big cookie costume. They met, Kyle got a hug, ate a cookie (or three) and was motivated by Christy’s spirit and generosity. Kyle was recharged, and he had a strong Day 2 finish and then made it all the way to Los Angeles.”
Kyle Tonazzi didn’t ride the ALC in 2006, but knew that he still wanted to ‘pay it forward,’ contributing something to the ride like Christy Muller and so many others did each year, all to help encourage and show appreciation for those making the long haul. “So with a sparkly tulle-filled flash, the Otter Pop Stop debuted in 2006 at Mission Soledad,” Maltman says.
Twelve years later, the Otter Pop Stop is still going strong. The riders of this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle, which wrapped June 9, were treated to popsicles and furry guys in tutus as is now tradition.
“For most riders I spoke with, the Otter Pop Stop is their highlight for the entire trip,” says Nick Leoni, who was able to snap some great pics of this year’s rest stop, his first time witnessing it in person. “Seeing the riders come in and thanking them for their contribution went really far. The smiles and tears from a simple ‘thank you for riding’ was just so emotional and wonderful to witness. Cookies and Otter Pops were a’plenty, and so were smiles, hugs and kisses. It was a completely loving, life-changing experience for me, and I cannot wait to do it again next year!”
On the second day of the AIDS/LifeCycle ride, June 4, Leoni and the other Otter Pop Stop volunteers set up camp around 10 a.m. before having a group pow-wow. The rules, he says, are as follows: (1) Wear a tutu, (2) Cover your junk, (3) Leave no trace, (4) Strike a pose, (5) Support the ALC Staff, (6) It’s all about the riders, and (7) Dance!
The first rider came into the Otter Pop Stop around 11:30 a.m., and by 2 p.m. the rest stop had become a full-on dance party, with hundreds of cyclists letting loose 85 miles into their second day of the ride. Leoni describes the Otter Pop Stop as a sexy, fun, Burning Man-type event “with half naked bears as far as the eye could see.”