California's AIDS Ride hits a wall
"I'mpossible"© reverted to "impossible" in October when the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) and the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center (LGC), beneficiaries of the U.S.'s oldest and most successful AIDS Ride, severed their relationship with the ride's for-profit organizer, Pallotta TeamWorks. The two major AIDS services providers netted a million dollars from the first California AIDS ride in 1994, a 575-mile, 7-day trek which birthed both a hypercommitted subculture of AIDS cyclists and TeamWorks' future as a money-minting hydra.
It was the relentless cross-promotion of other "inspirational" non-AIDS TeamWorks events at the June 2001 ride -- along with overspending to the tune of "several hundred thousand dollars," according to LGC director Gwenn Baldwin -- that led the two organizations to form their own 2002 ride, the AIDS/LifeCycle. Their returns from TeamWorks rides had hovered between 63 and 73 percent of proceeds (the National Charities Information Bureau sets 60 as an acceptable minimum). But the 2001 overruns brought the share down to 50 percent, which SFAF spokesperson Gustavo Suarez calls "wholly unacceptable." TeamWorks president Stephen Bennett cites low rider turnout, but Suarez notes that the riders nevertheless raised more funds than in 2000. (TeamWorks has faced other complaints about low return on donations: three Texas rides returned less than 20 percent to AIDS, while an investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general into a Philadelphia-DC ride resulted in a $93,000 fine).
Both AIDS groups were besieged by complaints about the tenor of the 2001 ride -- from the near invisibility of AIDS to obvious excesses like the glossy coffee-table book of a brochure given to each rider. For three-time cycler Cathy Johnson, the nadir was Dan Pallotta himself, at the ride's most somber moment -- when a riderless bicycle is wheeled out as a memorial to those lost to AIDS -- "running out from the wings wearing a wireless mike like a Tony Robbins evangelist." Johnson's training group, the Gutter-Bunnies, drafted a letter to SFAF signed by 100 riders and crew, protesting "all the commercialism, over-marketing and hype." TeamWorks senior veep Norm Bowling says he, too, received rider complaints about the lack of attention paid to AIDS, "and we heard them loud and clear."
Come spring, riders will face a choice: Bowling says TeamWorks will go forward with its AIDS ride, too -- this time with new beneficiaries yet to be announced, and "a very different program."