Thursday, May 24, 2007

Bikers dedicate rides to Tech victims

"I'm like everybody else, and I thought, 'What can I do to help?' " one organizer said.

Howard Clark never went to Virginia Tech. In fact, outside of being a taxpayer in the commonwealth of Virginia, he has no affiliation with the institution at all.

And yet -- in just over a week's time -- Clark hopes to roll into Blacksburg and present the university with a check for several thousand dollars.

Clark and his organization, the American Road Motorcycle Riding Club, are sponsoring a ride to benefit the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and hope to see throngs of orange and maroon-clad Harley-Davidsons invade Blacksburg on June 2.

"I'm like everybody else, and I thought, 'What can I do to help?' " Clark said.

With each rider donating at least $20, Clark hopes to raise awareness and raise money to aid in the building of a monument for the victims.

"It took Columbine 12 years to get a memorial erected," Clark said of the tragedy at the Colorado high school. "Virginia Tech shouldn't have to wait that long."

In his hometown of Rappahannock, where the ride will begin, Clark has already secured three large parking lots for staging the event.

"We could fit 100,000 bikes in those. I'd like to see them all full."

The 47-year-old hopes to fill the lots by promoting the event at Rolling Thunder XX, which will take place this weekend in Washington, D.C. Clark has printed fliers about the ride and will pass them out to the droves of motorcyclists who will descend on the Vietnam War Memorial. More than a half-million riders attended Rolling Thunder last year, and with only 2,000 fliers at his disposal Clark hopes his message will spread by word of mouth.

Clark may receive support from a group of fellow Virginians there. The United Auto Workers Veterans Committee based in Dublin is sponsoring its 16th annual Ride for Freedom, and this time not only does it plan to honor prisoners of the Vietnam War, but it will also ride in remembrance of the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings.

"I live in Christiansburg, and we feel like we're part of the Virginia Tech community," chairman Mark Peterson said.

He said the group will host a memorial ceremony Saturday morning in Dublin to commemorate both fallen soldiers and Tech students, especially Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets member Matthew La Porte, whom Peterson believes may help bridge the gap between veterans and victims.

Bill Stringer, deputy commandant of the Corps of Cadets, will give the keynote address at the ceremony.

Peterson said the group hopes to attract more than 200 bikers for the ride.

As the UAW organized its event this week, Clark took the trip down Interstate 81 to scope out the route with his girlfriend. On the way he stopped off in Raphine, where several gas station owners agreed to shut down pumps until the motorcade arrived, ensuring enough fuel to complete the 180-mile journey. In Blacksburg, Clark secured a donation from a downtown restaurant. The Cellar has promised to give some of its June 2 proceeds to the memorial fund, owner Kevin Long said.

"We've been getting unbelievable support from communities everywhere," Clark said.

Almost equally impressive has been the response from the motorcycle community, Clark said. Riders from across the region have expressed interest and support for the ride.

"Motorcyclists are the biggest group of people I know," Clark said. "They are pretty good at getting together for charitable events like this."

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