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AIDS Ride Is Smaller But Still Joyous

Volunteers: The annual fund-raiser ends with cheers in Santa Monica. The event also caps a painful chapter sparked by financial questions.


The California AIDS Ride concluded its seven-day, 575-mile trek Saturday in Santa Monica, ending a tumultuous year for an event that has become the granddaddy of cycling treks in support of AIDS research.

After a 12-month period that has seen the loss of a major corporate sponsor, the withdrawal of the two major beneficiaries and the launch of a competing ride, the ninth annual AIDS Ride was subdued in comparison with past events.

Last year, more than 2,000 cyclists attended closing ceremonies at the Los Angeles Coliseum. On Saturday, friends and families cheered 715 riders from the bleachers of Santa Monica City College's Corsair Field.

For those who rode, many for the first time, the buzz that came from pushing themselves to the limit for seven days straight was not easy to kill. Before the closing ceremonies, they added silk leis, Mardi Gras beads, feathered hats and even angel wings to their long-sleeved red shirts and bicycling shorts.

"Fifteen years ago, I never thought that I'd make it to age 41," said Scott Deshong of Los Angeles, who said he was riding in honor of 15 friends who had died of AIDS. "But here I am."

Jeff Gary, 43, of Danville, said the ride was an opportunity to meet new friends, many of whom signed his shirt in black ink. "I wanted to challenge myself," he said. "And I wanted to ride for the cause, to raise money for AIDS research."

Yet the question of how much of the money raised by riders--each of whom must contribute or solicit $2,700 in donations--actually goes to research and AIDS charities has been the source of ongoing controversy for Pallotta TeamWorks, the California AIDS Ride's producer. The for-profit organization, which describes itself as "sort of a fund-raising company, sort of an event productions company," organizes 24 events in the U.S., Canada, Africa and Europe, supporting such causes as breast cancer, suicide prevention and support for foster children.

In 1998, a group of Florida AIDS charities dropped Pallotta TeamWorks after only 11.83% of money raised went to charity. Sponsors of the Washington, D.C., AIDS Ride have said they will sever ties with Pallotta TeamWorks after this year's ride, which will begin June 13. And a class-action suit has been filed by participants in four AIDS Vaccine rides, who say that only $8 million of the $28 million raised during those events went to charity.

In California, such criticism has meant the splintering of the AIDS ride into two competing events. In October, the two charities that have benefited from the California AIDS Ride--the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation--broke ties with Pallotta TeamWorks, saying unexpected cost overruns had cut into proceeds from the ride.

Two months later, the groups announced that they would hold a competing ride in May 2002, two weeks before the California AIDS Ride.

Pallotta TeamWorks unsuccessfully sued to block the new AIDS/Life Cycle Ride, which drew 670 riders and raised $4.4 million. Last week, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Pallotta TeamWorks issued a joint statement that they had resolved "all of their outstanding differences pertaining to the California AIDS Ride. The Center and the Foundation wish to acknowledge Pallotta TeamWorks' pioneering efforts in helping to raise millions of dollars in the fight against AIDS/HIV."

Both the California AIDS Ride and AIDS/Life Cycle Ride will return next June. Organizers of the California AIDS Ride said 18 charities across the state, including AIDS Project Los Angeles, will share an estimated $2.7 million raised from this year's event.

On Saturday, rider Diane McClain, who has worked on and off for AIDS Project Los Angeles since 1989, tied congratulatory balloons, a gift from her partner, to her bicycle helmet before entering Corsair Field.

Asked how the ride had gone, she shook her head. "It was rough," said the 41-year-old. "I got sick and didn't do yesterday. But I got through it, bad knees and all."

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