Taken for a Ride

State records reveal that as little as 31 percent of proceeds of the Twin Cities AIDSRide directly benefit people with AIDS. Most riders didn't know that when they signed up.

While both the MS 150 and Habitat 500 find local sponsors to cover as much of their rides' expenses as possible, the AIDSRide contracts with a private company to cater hot meals and showers. Ride organizers also sport for massages for weary riders, and sometimes even facials. The caterer, OK Cascade, frequently works for the federal government, accommodating the needs of forest fire fighters and earthquake relief workers.

AIDSRide spokesman Baker says local sponsors can't usually offer services that meet Pallotta's safety standards. He says AIDSRide contacted more than 200 corporations to step up to the plate, pick up some part of the ride's cost, and help eliminate the AIDS epidemic "within five years," but only Tanqueray responded. A handful of other sponsors have since come forward.

Former employee Lucie Bellanger suggests that "if more smaller, local sponsors were pursued, I believe costs would be lowered. But that hasn't been a focus at all. It has been my experience [that] AIDSRide employees here and nationwide [may have] local sponsors all lined up, but those in authority simply don't make it a priority to sign."

According to Bellanger, employees are instead subjected to superhuman pressure to sign more and more riders, with many leaving on bad terms when they don't meet their quotas. "When producing rides themselves, the staff scarcely sleeps," says Bellanger. "On the Boston-to-New York AIDSRide which I worked, I was up working something like 72 hours and then later drove a 24-foot truck around Manhattan. I think that's when I lost my AIDSRide spirit--when I kind of woke up and said, 'Hey this is dangerous, this is insane.'" Baker, meanwhile, describes the rides' office environment as very "goal- and objectives-oriented" and says staffers often get disillusioned when they learn that they'll spend nine months of the year recruiting riders and pledges. "They work very long hours," he says, "and productivity is very important."

Complaints about the Twin Cities event don't yet seem to have affected participation. Despite criticism in everything from U.S. News and World Report to the local gay-community press, 1997 ridership is up from 1,400 to more than 1,700. But most riders turned over their checking and credit-card account numbers and guaranteed a contribution of $2,300 when they signed the registration papers. Indeed, while the debate over whether to ride has clogged letters columns at local gay papers, the Charities Review Council has logged a paltry eight calls questioning who really benefits from ride donations.

In the meantime the number of riders signing up for the smaller, older AIDS Trek 150 has doubled, with nearly all proceeds going to the local AIDS Emergency Fund. Last year the fund's "Every Penny Counts" drive reaped almost $76,000 from the alternative ride, of which it spent just 3 percent on overhead. Unlike the AIDSRide--which does its highly visible organizing out of a purple storefront at Lake and Lyndale--the AIDS Trek is put together largely by one person (who draws no salary) and has no big-marquee sponsor.

Still, the bulk of those who planned to set out next week from the Minneapolis Convention Center are still packing their saddlebags and stumping for pledges. Questioned about their willingness to go ahead with the ride, many note that local agencies depend on the riders, whether the funding is as much as it could be.

Bellanger, for one, supports the riders and the charities they hope to fund. The problem, she concludes, is Pallotta and Associates, and its secret weapon: that its fundraising efforts are dedicated to such a good cause. "To attack the AIDSRide," she says, "to most anyone involved is like killing the Easter Bunny with his basket of $100,000 eggs."

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