Cycling for Dollars


Picture 160 people bicycling together up First Ave. in New York toward the United Nations building, their final destination after a 3600-mile cross-country trip to raise money to fight world hunger. Picture the homeless people on the street, cheering for the cyclists and their efforts to reduce human suffering even a little.

That was how the participants in the 1987 Bike-Aid ride ended their nine-week trip. Although many of the 287 people who participated in the rides over the last three summers were not serious cyclists, they rode 80 miles a day as they crossed the country to raise money for grassroots projects to prevent hunger in the United States and abroad.

Sponsored by the Overseas Development Network (ODN), Bike-Aid has the dual purpose of raising funds for ODN self-help development projects and spreading awareness about the problems of world hunger, says Benjamin R. Kahrl '89, who biked a 3600-mile route from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., last summer. About 85 percent of the money raised goes directly to the people in developing countries for self-help projects, and 15 percent goes to the same type of grassroots projects, such as survival centers and irrigation systems, in the United States.

Two brothers from Bangladesh--then students at Harvard and Stanford respectively--founded ODN on the two campuses in 1983, and there are currently 63 chapters on college campuses nationwide. Bike-Aid, which started in 1986 and absorbed Harvard Cyclists Fighting Hunger in 1987, is one of four major ODN programs which raise awareness about and help combat the problem of global poverty and injustice.

The money that is raised from the Bike-Aid trip each year goes immediately to fund grassroots, self-help projects in the United States and abroad, says Yeewoo Guo, regional coordinator for Asian programs at the ODN regional office in Cambridge. Bike-Aid has raised $390,000 over the past three years.

ODN raises its overhead separately, mostly through corporate donations, so that "every penny raised [through the four programs] goes to the projects, most of which are small grants of grassroots money such as $500 for a well in Bolivia which will service a community of 500 for generations," says William C. Parsons '89, a leader on the 1987 San Francisco trip.

Between signing up for the ride--recruiting has already started for next summer's trips--and arriving at the starting point, each rider is responsible for raising as much money as possible from sponsors, says Matthew A. Collins '89, who was on the San Francisco trip last summer. "The goal amount is a dollar a mile, or $3600, but any amount is accepted. Because the main idea of the trip is charity, most people were really excited to raise a lot of money," he says.

In addition to raising money for ODN, the bikers must pay their own living expenses during the trip and transportation to the start and/or home from the finish.

Kahrl says that the western routes, which begin from Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are 3600-mile, nine-week trips with 11 rest days. There is also a shorter southern route which begins from Austin, Tex., almost a month after the other routes. All trips end in Washington, D.C., in the middle of August. In 1987, after the trips met in Washington, all the riders continued to New York together, but that practice was discontinued.

Last year, ODN decided to limit the size of each trip--there were four last year--to 20 or fewer riders for logistical purposes. The general age range on the trips is 15-28 years old, although there are 60-year olds who participate, Collins says. Also there are usually more female than male riders, says Guo, one of the leaders on the San Francisco trip last summer.

Each group has both a female and a male leader, but the choice has nothing to do with biking experience, Collins says. "The leaders are chosen based on knowledge of the program. It isn't a leader-oriented trip--it is more like a community."

For example, Guo says that prior to the trip, he had absolutely no experience riding a bicycle. "I had only ridden a three-speed bike in Singapore when I was young, and I had to learn from scratch," he says. Guo became involved with Bike-Aid when he was asked to develop an ODN package to educate the riders about the issues. "After writing the package and thinking so much about what it meant, I decided I had to go on the ride to see how the knowledge was actually used," he says.

Each trip has a three-day orientation session in the starting city, and the group's leaders explain the developmental issues and exactly what the fundraising is for, explains Lisa M. Faber '90, who rode the Seattle route last summer. The leaders also set up in advance a rotating schedule for chores along the way. "There are work groups of four people, and they rotate chores such as cooking, and cleaning and packing the vans," Faber says. She adds that once the trip gets underway, everyone is equal.

Parsons agrees that the leaders are "in name only," but he explains that "someone has to be held responsible for keeping people healthy and happy and getting them from one place to another."

Although Parsons says that there are rarely discipline problems on the trips, he says that "there are certain decisions that can't be made democratically." If someone was repeatedly involved with drug use or behaved in a way that reflected poorly on the group, the leaders would ask the biker to leave the trip, he says.

There is no pressure on the daily rides, Faber explains, as there is no time limit set for everyone to reach the day's destination. "People would start riding at 3:30 a.m. before it got really hot, and the last people wouldn't leave until 6:00 a.m.," she says.

Leaving early can sometimes backfire, Kahrl says. "The Salt Flats of Utah are 40 miles of flat ground with no shade, and we were scared that the sun would fry us, so we got up at 4:30 a.m. and started to ride," he says. "There were headwinds and it was freezing cold, and instead of worrying about sunburn, we were worrying about frostbite."

Although there is usually no water along the route, as the towns can be 60 miles apart, each trip has two Support and Gear (SAG) vehicles, which drive back and forth among the riders and carry gear, food supplies, water and fruit for during the ride, Faber says.

Kahrl says that the SAG vehicles patrol the riders from front to back, and each rider usually sees a SAG vehicle every hour. "You can get in the SAG if you are hurt or tired," he says.

On different days, riders may choose to cycle alone or in groups, depending on mood and on the day. "Everyone always got where we were going," Kahrl says, "although getting lost became a regular thing."

Accommodations along the route vary from night to night, Faber says. "We stayed in churches, YMCA's and high schools, and we camped out in tents if there were no other options," she says. "The people in the towns we went through knew it was a fundraising trip for hunger, and churches would give us huge potluck dinners."

"Even though there was a big drought and we only had two days of rain all summer, the people in the farm towns were still very generous and prepared big meals for us," Faber says. "In Minnesota, there was a farm family, and even though their farm was about to be foreclosed they let all 20 of us stay and cooked for us. They even brought us to a farm crisis meeting."

The routes have been used before, so the group can call established contacts three days before its arrival to make sure there is no problem. "If there were problems, we contacted the main office at Stanford, [one of two regional ODN offices] and they helped us work things out," Faber says.

Throughout the trip, the bikers found people friendly. "In a small town in Kansas, a man at a potluck dinner asked us about our next day's route. When it turned out he lived along the way, 17 miles out of town, he offered to cook us a big breakfast the next morning," Collins says.

In each of the towns they pass through, the riders share information about their cause. "We tried to get audiences and we would either do a skit to demonstrate the problems of world hunger or just share facts and experiences about our trip," Kahrl says.

The skits took time to develop, Faber says, but once they were planned out, they were more effective than videos and plain discussions. "After the skit, everyone usually had questions," she says. Faber's group used a skit showing peasants in India who need a system to save water. The peasants hear that the United States government is giving aid, but then the riders act out a sequence showing that when money is given through governments, it is used along the way and never actually gets to the peasants. The peasants are told to apply to ODN, and then they get the money for a well directly, Faber explains.

`Dollar Bill Campaign'

The riders also hold a "dollar bill campaign" across the country, collecting small donations to give to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., where all the groups meet at the end of the trips. "People signed their dollar bills, and we gave them to the shelter where we all stayed at the end," Collins says.

Each member of the group contributed to a food fund, and the bikers bought food together, Faber says. However, most of the trips' food was donated along the way.

"We would beg for food at restaurants and grocery stores," Kahrl says. "We told them what we were doing and said `Can you give us food?' It was something none of us had ever done before. They would give us food that was stale-dated, and one place in Utah gave us 70 pounds of vegetables and fruit."

On Faber's trip, the riders stopped at a pizza place and asked for and received 8 pizzas. "Almost every time we asked for food, they would say `sure,'" she says.

The rides are also educational in other ways. Some cyclists on last year's San Francisco ride rode 250 miles out of their way to visit a survival center funded by the 1987 trip. The $5000 donation helped found the center, which provides food, clothing and shelter to people in Harlan County, Ken.

"We stayed for a weekend and did community service there. I worked 10-hour days actually doing some of the carpentry on the shelter," Collins says.

"It was an eye-opening experience to see how our money was actually being used," Collins says. "It is hard to understand when everything is abstract, but we got to see an actual project."

Kahrl, who will bike the Seattle route next summer as a leader, says that no particular physical training is required for the trips, and on his trip, "only one person out of 16 was a cyclist."

"The main emphasis is on mental preparation," Collins agrees. "One girl's physical training consisted of quitting smoking."

Faber says that before her trip, she didn't have any conception of what 80 miles was, and that at times, during 11-mile climbs in the Rockies, she didn't think she would make it. "People did walk at times, and some people would ride in the SAG, but with 18 gears, you can really make it, even if you have to go very slowly," she says.

And on the other side of every hill is a downhill slope. "When you do get to the top, it is beautiful," Collins says. "The sign that says `Trucks Check Brakes' is heaven for a biker."