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2,275 People, 540 Miles and Single Emotional Cause

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saturday, Day Zero, San Francisco

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After months of pedaling away weekends on training rides and begging friends and colleagues for donations, we are finally here.

Tomorrow morning I will join a crowd of 2,275 other people, men and women, young and old, HIV-positive and not, for California AIDS Ride 3. We will hop on a motley fleet of bikes and mash our pedals toward the earth. And we will roll out of Fort Mason in the Marina district on a 540-mile, weeklong trek down California’s gilded coast toward Los Angeles to raise a projected $7.9 million for AIDS care and outreach in both cities.

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Today we thronged to Fort Mason to register and orient ourselves to the huge reality of the next seven days.

Organizers say we will bike down the coast, ducking inland beyond Santa Cruz to avoid the hairpin cliff-side switchbacks of Big Sur. Then, down through the Salinas Valley and the rolling hills of Paso Robles before returning to the coast at Gaviota, northwest of Santa Barbara, for the final push into West Hollywood next Saturday.

We will ride in the thick of city traffic, past cracker-box subdivisions and along tree-lined back country roads. Rain or shine we will ride, camping on the way in a mobile city of 1,200 tents supported by a volunteer army of cooks, bike mechanics, luggage handlers, medics, massage therapists and drivers.

And in pushing ourselves an average of 80 miles or more per day, we will try to avoid the dangers that lie in between split seconds of flagging attention--road rash, broken bones and possibly even death.

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That is no hollow threat. Riders in training pepper their chatter with tales of car doors flung open in their path, of asphalt scrapes and a broken nose.

One rider--forced off Mulholland Highway a few weeks back by a driver who then fled--lies in a hospital paralyzed from the neck down. I try not to think about that.

After three hours of check-in in the cavernous din of Fort Mason’s festival pavilion, I walk outside and gaze across the bay toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

I have never joined any cause quite so large, nor undertaken so intense and personal a journey. I joined AIDS Ride to strike some tiny blow against this disease that has polluted our notions of love, that has turned people against one another and killed one of my best friends. But I also came to see some of California’s lushest landscape without the filter of a speeding car’s windshield. And to push myself, to see if I could do it.

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Riders around me have their own reasons. They want to memorialize lovers and kin who have died too young. Barbara Quattrocchi is one, a 67-year-old Los Angeles woman who lost her 33-year-old son to AIDS. This is her second California AIDS Ride.

HIV-positive riders are risking their health, pushing already-compromised bodies to the limit to prove to themselves and anyone watching that they can still live full, vivid lives.

Daniel Moeshing is one, an earnest, soft-spoken former Swiss banker who has almost proudly taken up the role of unofficial poster man for the AIDS Rides.

At 36, Moeshing reckons he has been HIV-positive for 12 to 14 years. He was one of 478 riders in the first ride two years ago, and one of 1,874 last year.

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Two weeks ago, he cycled 280 miles from Orlando to Miami for Florida AIDS Ride 1. And he plans to do this year’s three other rides--Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., Boston to New York and Minneapolis/St. Paul to Chicago.

Today, he is psyched. “One of the great things is that you don’t have time for negative thoughts,” he tells me. “You don’t think about, ‘Am I going to have enough money for my medication? Am I going to get sick this week? Am I going to die?’ You have to be so focused. It’s just . . . ,” he trails off. “It’s just incredible.”

Sunday, Day One,

93 miles to Santa Cruz

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We are a boisterous bunch at Fort Mason this morning, in stretch nylon pants and cleated cycling shoes--and a handful in drag, like the pair of glitter-painted nuns.

Some have glued mascots to their helmets--a rubber shark, a plush Road Runner doll, a pair of glittery ruby slippers. A pair of women have labeled their helmets with Styrofoam birthday-cake letters that say ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter.’

Riders munch on bagels, cereal and fruit, guzzling coffee and listening to speeches by the ride organizers. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown bounds onto the stage amid raucous cheers, expressing hope that one day we will ride bikes just for fun, secure in the knowledge that we have conquered AIDS.

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As he intones the California AIDS Ride slogan--"Will of Iron, Legs of Steel, Heart of Gold"--I tune him out because Barbara Quattrocchi is talking to me.

“I’m more nervous this time than the last time,” she says. “Last year, I was naive and didn’t know what I was getting into. But this year, I know exactly what it’s about.”

How was it last year? She gives a rueful little laugh. “It was very hard, very hard.” But she never gave much thought to her age when she first heard of the ride and signed up.

She had been riding a bike for about 10 years, a few miles a day, maybe 25 a week, and then signed up because her son, Ted--though he had been dead three years--"told me to do it.”

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Along the ride, in weak moments or at the base of big hills, she talked to him. “A couple of times, I’d say, ‘You got me into this, I need a little help here.’ ”

Before we take off, someone on the stage a hundred yards away asks the riders to fall silent, grab the hands of those next to them, and to remember the ones who are not with us today because of AIDS.

The adrenal buzz in the room evaporates. Four riders wheel a riderless bike down the center aisle, parting the crowd in this vast room, and nearly everyone grows teary-eyed. Some weep. I think of my best friend Steve and colleague Gary who were lost to the disease, and I choke up, too. It is uncontrollable.

Moments later, though, we are off, astride our bikes, all 2,275 of us massed in packs. Someone drops the yellow tape holding us back. We pedal out into the streets through a gantlet of cheering friends.

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Through the manicured military landscape of the Presidio, through the redwoods and sequoias of Golden Gate Park, and out through the eastern suburbs of Daly City, Hillsborough and Burlingame, we roll. Rough, car-beaten asphalt gives way to the smooth, tree-lined lanes of El Camino Real and the noise of the crowd of cheering boosters. People have turned out all along the road, in twos and threes, clapping for each clutch of us that rolls past. Some hold placards with the names of dead friends, others shout, “Good luck!” and others just wave and cheer. And no matter how far we move beyond San Francisco, every mile or two holds a little cheering squad.

A mother has packed her three kids onto the tailgate of her pickup, and they scream, “Yay!”, waving a handmade sign reading, “Thank you, you’re doing it for our children.” An entire church congregation in their Sunday best surround a table with a neatly lettered sign promising fresh fruit. They clap politely and smile.

Past San Andreas Lake, we buzz along, climbing up through the coastal mountains with little more noise than the ratchet and clink of changing gears, and the rush of passing cars. The heat grabs us. It must be well over 90 degrees and we still climb, downshifting to easier granny gears and pumping legs swiftly to go easy on our knees.

I motor past an older man who is cycling gamely up the grade in cow-print cycling shorts, a helmet spiked with plastic dinosaur spines, and a paper sunflower trailing from beneath his seat. “Hey, can you lend me a few low gears?” he groans, sweating miserably.

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“Yeah,” I say, “Who left the furnace on, anyway?” Then we are down onto the Pacific Coast Highway, whipping through Half Moon Bay with a cool 10-mph tail wind and on across coastal meadows. Red-wing blackbirds swoop across the grass, and more luckless fauna appear in the form of road kill. Nothing weakens the knees like passing a flattened skunk. I see three in the space of 15 miles.

We stop at San Gregorio State Beach for lunch--turkey, cheese and bean sprout sandwiches handed out en masse by AIDS Ride volunteers. Then we climb back onto our bicycles and are back on the road.

A few hours later, we roll into Santa Cruz, marveling at how easy the first leg seemed. And then it hits me, like the wave of oven heat that washes over us as we roll into camp. We have to make it all the way to Los Angeles in the next six days.

NEXT: Day 2 of California AIDS Ride 3 is a 90-mile leg from Santa Cruz, winding through the Salinas Valley and ending tonight in the small agricultural town of Greenfield.

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