PALO ALTO — Is America, fresh from a frenzy of coast-to-coast hand-holding, ready for another Olympian fund-raiser for the poor? Organizers of Stanford University-based Bike-Aid '86 hope so. They want hundreds of cyclists to pedal off to Washington to touch the conscience of middle America and raise money for self-help projects at home and in the Third World.
Bike-Aid (subtitled Pedaling for Progress) is to originate June 16 from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, with cyclists converging later with groups leaving Houston and Tampa on July 12, all heading for a ceremonial finale at the United Nations in New York on Aug. 11.
The bikeathon is a project of the Overseas Development Network, a student organization based at Stanford and, on the East Coast, at Cambridge, Mass. The focus of the network's 35 campus chapters (in California, also at Pomona College and UC Berkeley) is to fund small, long-term self-help projects in developing countries and impoverished areas of America.
Nazir Ahmad, a Bangladesh native who is co-founder of the network, acknowledges that, what with last year's Live-Aid and this year's Hands Across America and the determined if scaled-down Great Peace March, people may be "a little numb" to causes. But, he said, Bike-Aid organizers have learned from the other ventures and trimmed things down to workable size.
They quickly abandoned thoughts of 10,000 bicyclists. As of Wednesday, 100 had signed to make the entire 3,000-mile journey. If each of these raises the hoped-for $1 a mile in sponsorship, that would add up to $300,000. But just as important, organizers say, Bike-Aid '86 is a people-to-people project that they hope will be the catalyst for dialogues with Americans who have never given a day's thought to problems of the Third World.
Shaun Skelton, the national coordinator, said organizers recognize that poverty at home is of greater concern to middle Americans, many of whom have been hit hard by the farm crisis. Bikers will emphasize that 10% of proceeds will go to domestic projects, including one in Appalachia.
In each of the 225 cities and towns along the six routes, cyclists will distribute UNICEF materials on health, hunger and nutrition and, wherever invited, will present a slide show focusing on network projects and those of other small helping organizations.
"America's a very isolated country," Ahmad said, with in general a poor grasp of Third World realities. When Americans are asked to help, he added, it is "in reaction to crisis after crisis, famine after famine," not in response to the underlying problems.
Focus on Poverty, Hunger
Bike-Aid's goal, he said, is to get people to look at inter-relationships between poverty and hunger, to see how poverty denies people political voice and control over their environment and start thinking about long-term solutions.
Skelton, 26, is a Stanford Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and public policy with a particular interest in Third World technology. He and Ahmad conceived the idea of Bike-Aid last August and Skelton took this year off from his studies to work for it full time.
Stints with Cadillac in the summers of 1980 and 1981 cemented his commitment: "So much engineering money was spent on things that were icing on the cake. People at Cadillac would spend a year working on a digital readout that looked a little better. But that does not increase the quality of life at all."
In developing countries, Skelton said, "a group of farmers having a tractor or not having a tractor makes a tremendous difference."
Skelton, who considers himself "a serious touring biker," is the only one of the organizers planning to ride all the way to Washington. He views it as more than a good cause. "It's a great way to see America," he said. (Los Angeles riders will go through such "Route 66" cities as Flagstaff, Ariz., Gallup, N. M., Amarillo, Tex. Oklahoma City and Joplin, Mo.)
Brian Bauer, 21, a Stanford senior in mechanical engineering and a dedicated bike racer on the Stanford Bike Team, is route coordinator. His interest in the role of engineering in international development dates from when he was 14 and living in Liberia, where his father served with a U.N. food and agricultural organization.
He first understood hunger, he said, when he offered a nickel to a Liberian child for a souvenir coaster the child had acquired. He recalled, "He ran off and bought a big piece of bread. He had the happiest face I'd ever seen."
Joel Treisman, 24, Bike-Aid's fund-raising coordinator, is a 1983 Stanford political science graduate who has his own software marketing consulting firm. His interest is an outgrowth of his involvement in student political organizations and of having worked and traveled in Europe and East Africa.