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Against All Odds, They're in for the Ride of a Lifetime


Like many of the 2,500 cyclists in California AIDS Ride 3, Nancy Locke and Bobbe Vagell were strangers brought together by events that shattered their lives.

Locke, 38, a freelance French translator living in Silver Lake, lost her father to AIDS complications in 1986.

That same year, Vagell, 33, a floral designer living in West Hollywood, learned he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Early Sunday, they'll be among riders pushing off on a weeklong, 525-mile San Francisco-to-L.A. trek expected to raise $6 million to fight acquired immune deficiency syndrome, of which about $4 million will go to the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.

Locke and Vagell are part of a diverse group that includes a woman riding in memory of her high school prom date who died of AIDS complications and several hundred men and women who, like Vagell, are living with HIV.

Vagell, whose health "has been on a roller coaster, declining as the years go on," is riding only nine months after his first bout with HIV-related opportunistic infection--"My T-cells dropped down to 66. I was terrified. Emotionally, I hit rock-bottom."

A normal adult's count of infection-fighting lymphocytes is 800 to 1,000 cells per cubic milliliter of peripheral blood; a person with fewer than 200 is defined as having AIDS.

Vagell fought back on a regimen of weight training and homeopathic and mainstream medicine, and today looks tanned and fit. His T-cell count up to 236, he rides 135 to 200 miles a week.

Look, he says, "I'm going to see the year 2000. I made that decision that I had a lot of kick left in me." In his gear, he'll pack protein drinks and power bars, but no good luck charms. "Every day I wake up is my good luck charm."

As Locke rides, she'll be remembering her dad, Newton, a public defender in Connecticut--and avid cyclist--who was 58 when he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. As a straight man with the virus in 1980, she says, "He was kind of a science experiment." Handed a death sentence, he turned for support to a gay men's group. "They were really there for him," she recalls. She never forgot.

In December, two months after Locke began training for the ride, her boyfriend, Randy Hostetler, 32, contracted a virulent flu and died within 72 hours. Devastated, she quit training and dropped to "about 108 pounds in my cowboy boots."

Getting back on her bike, she says, "I really bonked," but other riders gently prodded her to hang tough. "It's like I've had someone up there saying, 'OK, you're assigned to Nancy. We're doing this as a group and you don't leave anybody behind.' "

The AIDS Ride is about fund-raising, but also about people of differing lifestyles and sexual orientation forming a community with a common cause. By the third day, says Lorri Jean, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Center, misgivings have melted and everyone is "engaged in one noble pursuit," sharing meals, tents, showers.

The ride, the model for other AIDS rides nationwide, started with 500 riders raising $1.8 million in 1994. That first year, as organizers agonized about whether a corporate sponsor would agree to identify with AIDS, Tanqueray came on board and remains the major sponsor.

"This ride has been a miracle. It has literally saved lives," Jean says.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation will get $2 million, but because each rider commits to raising at least $2,500 and most are from Southern California, the L.A. center gets the lion's share. This means, Jean says, that the center--with 14,000 client visits monthly and an annual budget of $19 million--can offer free or minimal cost help "from the instant someone tests positive to the most acute care." The center gets 57% of its funding from the federal government. The rest must be raised privately.

As riders roll south, they promise to be a colorful lot. One year, a man rode in a tutu. Others wear T-shirts with images of loved ones who have died of AIDS complications. Some sport Barbie dolls on their helmets.

Vagell will be one of about 100 HIV-positive riders with flags identifying them as "Positive Peddlers." He's riding, he says, to let others with HIV know, "We have a choice. The choice is life, not death."

Past rides have encountered hecklers, including skinheads who pelted riders with rocks. But there were also the strawberry pickers who stopped and collected $2.67 for the riders.

As Vagell pedals over the finish line to a closing ceremony at 4 p.m. June 8 at Melrose Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard, he'll be searching the crowd for his mother, Mary Ann Viola, who's coming from New York to cheer him.

Locke won't have anyone special in the crowd, but, she says, "I think Randy will be there."

Making Noise in the Void

Anxiously counting heads, a woman checks out the be-finned '59 black Caddy curbside and muses, "Maybe they'll think it's a car show and come in."

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