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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Pedal Pusher: This year will be Marilyn Doyle's third AIDS ride. The San Jose program manager for Novell remembers being moved to tears one day on the road by schoolchildren waving to the riders and giving them flowers as they passed by.

Spin Cycles

The toll of AIDS has taken 33 million lives worldwide, but the AIDS riders still pedal their hearts out hoping for a cure

By John Yewell

THE BATTLE CRY in the AIDS war used to be Silence=Death, but a lack of information is no longer the problem. We are overwhelmed by it. Hundreds of websites are devoted to it, and a search turns up dozens of daily newspaper stories a week. With nearly half a million Americans dead and no cure in sight, hardly a person or an extended family has been left untouched.

But after 19 years, information overload is paradoxically contributing to a drop in public interest. The vaunted combination therapies of antiviral drugs, introduced four years ago, have brought a steep drop in the death rate, but this

good news has only contributed to a false sense of security. We are all, in a sense, living with AIDS now.

Amid this complacency, disturbing clouds have appeared on the horizon. The disease continues to ravage populations around the world, most especially in Africa. HIV infection rates in this country have not decreased, and are particularly pronounced among young people and minorities. And there is evidence that the new treatment options are becoming less effective.

Yet with people living longer, healthier lives, AIDS fundraisers say it is difficult to persuade people that the problem--especially due to the cost of the drugs--is greater than ever. And surveys indicate that the success of the treatment is making it harder to convince people at risk, especially the young, to continue to avoid risky sexual behavior. It is getting harder to remind people that AIDS is deadly. It is getting harder, in short, to keep people caring.

At least one event, the California AIDS Ride, has defied the trend. It is part fundraiser, part road show, part social experiment--and part pilgrimage.

Heroic Vignettes

ONE OF SIX AIDS rides in the country, the California AIDS Ride is the oldest. The ride began with 478 riders in 1994 and this year the number will be closer to 3,000 riders, who will depart from Fort Mason in San Francisco on June 4 and arrive 575 miles and six days later in L.A. on June 10. Each rider must raise at least $2,500, and the event is expected to bring in at least $9.5 million for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. Some 650 volunteers will move a mobile city every night with tents, showers, sinks, toilets and other gear, while providing three meals a day, medical services, bike mechanics and even evening entertainment.

The first stopover, the night of June 4 (also, coincidentally, Gay Pride Day in Santa Cruz), will be at Harvey West Park, home turf of Team Santa Cruz. Fifty-three team members have spent months taking part in weekend group practice rides, rain or shine, to prepare for the ride.

This year will be Cally Haber's second ride. When the young Live Oak woman discusses her previous ride, small, heroic vignettes bubble to mind. It is like a traveling circus with heart and soul, a Bay to Breakers for gear heads.

"One guy rode up and down the same hill over and over again, just to encourage people," she relates. "Another guy rode alongside a woman and helped push her bike up a hill, so she wouldn't have to get off and walk." Another guy, she says, rode pulling an empty child's trailer with stories inside, symbolizing a child that had died of AIDS. There is no end to the stories.

Each year, at the end of the ride up the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, a riderless bike symbolizes those lost to the disease.

For riders in trouble, help is never far away. Haber says once she stopped alongside the road and had to give a thumbs up to everyone who passed to keep from being overwhelmed with offers for help from people who thought she had a flat tire.

And then there are the lighter moments, like the time in Paso Robles when a local hairdresser offered free shampoos, or when one rider stopped at an ice cream store, gave the proprietor $60 and asked him to give out as much free ice cream as he could to passing cyclists.

"Suddenly you heard all these screeching breaks," laughs Haber. "People were holding up ice cream cones and shouting, 'It's free!' "

For Sunnyvale environmental consultant Paula Lewis, it was seeing the closing ceremonies two years ago that got her to ride.

"It was so emotional. I signed up right there. I knew it was something I had to do." She did it the following year and is back this year for more.


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Follow the Money

THE EVENT, or that is to say the beneficiaries, has not been without controversy. San Francisco AIDS Foundation head Pat Christen and her $175,000 salary have come in for criticism. And some local AIDS health-care workers and advocates lament that none of the money raised by local AIDS Ride participants returns to the community in which it was raised.

"The AIDS Ride is a wonderful thing, but people locally may not know that we don't get any of it," Santa Cruz County public health chief Betsy McCarty says. "It's a touchy issue, because we want as much money to stay local as we possibly can. I don't begrudge them per se, I just know what needs we have here."

But McCarty acknowledges that local people also benefit from the SF AIDS Foundation, which does not exclusively serve AIDS patients in San Francisco.

"The SF AIDS Foundation is one of the best in the business, and we do use their resources,"

For Team Santa Cruz member Rosemary Anderson, the importance of the AIDS ride goes beyond money.

"I can't think of another vehicle that has been as effective in mobilizing communities," she says. "It promotes the idea that AIDS is very much in the forefront and affects all of us."

Anderson will not take part in CAR 7, she says, opting instead to do a special Alaska ride in August devoted to raising funds for an AIDS vaccine. But when her friends pull into Harvey West Park on June 4, it will be special for her nonetheless.

Eleven years ago on June 4, Anderson lost her brother to AIDS. She took part in last year's ride as a memorial to the 10th anniversary of his death. "I thought it was a good way to honor him."

The Minorities' View

THE GOOD NEWS, after 19 years, is that there is good news. Since 1997, a year after powerful combination drug therapies became available, the diagnosis and death rates have fallen dramatically. Out of 408 cases reported in Santa Clara County in that time there have been only 38 deaths. In Santa Cruz County, out of 61 cases reported since June 1997 there has been only one death reported by the county health service.

But the numbers are a bit of an illusion. Early, aggressive treatment of HIV-positive people delays the onset of the infections that define AIDS, artificially depressing the number of cases. Since HIV status is not reportable (to encourage anonymous testing), success in treating the syndrome as a chronic condition prior to a diagnosis of AIDS has rendered the HIV/AIDS statistics virtually meaningless.

Nationally, a different picture emerges, and for young people, women and minorities, the news is considerably grimmer.

The Centers for Disease Control announced in January that for the first time the percentage of minority gay men with AIDS exceeded that of whites, 52 to 48 percent. And although the minority population is only 28 percent of the population, 69 percent of all AIDS cases are minorities.

Women now account for 24 percent of all AIDS cases, up from 14 percent in 1992 at the peak of the pandemic. Seventy-five percent of women get it from heterosexual sex. The overall heterosexual transmission rate is now hovering near 15 percent--up from less than two percent in 1985.

And 25 percent of all new cases in the U.S. this year will be teenagers.

Statistics in Santa Clara County reflect national trends. From 1998 to 1999, the percentage of white AIDS cases fell from 52 to 41 percent. While cases among blacks and Asians dropped slightly, the percentage of AIDS cases among the county's Latino population jumped from 30 to 41 percent of all cases, pulling even with whites even though they make up a much smaller percentage of the population.

A Continental Collapse

A RECENT UNITED NATIONS AIDS study paints a bleak picture of AIDS around the world, where access to medical care is more expensive and cultural stigma even more pronounced than in the West.

Some 50 million people worldwide are infected with one of the two strains--HIV-1, the dominant strain in Africa, or HIV-2, which predominates in the U.S. and Western Europe. Each has a dozen genetic subtypes. Almost 34 million people are now living with AIDS, of whom 1.2 million are children under 15 and 14.8 million are women. Over 16 million have died, and there are an estimated 5.6 million new infections each year--one every 5 1/2 seconds.

While AIDS is spreading everywhere, from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, it is in Africa, which has 10 percent of the world's population but 70 percent of its AIDS case, that the real catastrophe is playing itself out. In April, the Clinton administration became so alarmed at the numbers that it declared AIDS in Africa a threat to the national security of the U.S.

One Life at a Time

THIS YEAR will be Marilyn Doyle's third AIDS ride. The San Jose program manager for Novell remembers being so moved one day on the road by school children waving to the riders and giving them flowers as they passed that she cried.

This year, she says, she wants to take the pace a little slower.

"One little girl asked, 'Do you all have AIDS?' " she recalls. "I want to stop and talk more."

Team Santa Cruz member Brian Kenerson, a Capitola mortgage broker, recalls a woman in her late 30s or early 40s he has seen each of the last three years. She sits in a beach chair with an umbrella, a little black dog by her side, alone in the middle of nowhere, near Hunter Liggett military reserve north of Paso Robles.

The first year, in 1997, he says she looked OK, although she was crying. The next year she was there again, but she didn't look too good and seemed very weak.

Then last year, Kenerson saw her again, only this time she looked much better. So he stopped and talked. She was getting the antiviral drugs--with the help of money raised on the ride.

Team Santa Cruz member Tiffany Frandsen also remembers seeing the woman last year, and how it brought home for her the individual lives touched by the ride.

"I was riding along, in a desolate area, and there was this woman sitting with a rainbow flag in the middle of nowhere, tears streaming down her face," Tiffany says. "And she just said, 'Thanks for riding for me.' "

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From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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