Cycling for a Cause
By Evonne Lyn Lee with additional reporting by Julian Abraham Chua
Unfamiliar territory. Rough surroundings and strange smells. Riding hundreds of kilometres along dirt tracks on rented bicycles in sweltering heat. Not exactly how most people would choose to explore a new destination, yet in the past two years many cyclists — veterans and newbies, hard-core and casual — are taking to biking expeditions. Many of these intrepid cyclists are doing it for the first time, according to four social enterprises organising such trips: Bike-Aid (Singapore), Gone Adventurin’, The Tour of Hope Foundation and The Chain Reaction Project.
All four organisations, founded on different initiatives and targeting different beneficiaries, have a single focus — to build empathy while doing good for needy communities in Singapore and beyond. Since 1992, the four organisations have raised over S$2.4 million benefitting charities in Singapore, Cambodia, Timor Leste, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and Africa. Aid handed out came either as direct financial assistance to build schools, libraries, playgrounds and sponsor children’s education, or in kind like donations of used or new bicycles and books.
These biking expeditions appear to be gaining momentum here. From 2011 to 2013, there has been at least a 15% increase in participation. According to Bike-Aid (www.bikeaid.org.sg), which organises such trips once a year saw a 22% jump from 2012 to 2013 — 78 people registered last year, and this year’s trip has 100 people confirmed, excluding those on a wait list.
While many on these trips are athletic types, there is a growing number of enthusiasts like housewives, executives and families with children as young as 10. While most are Singaporeans, such trippers have also included expatriates and tourists. And more do-gooders are getting involved in charity cycling as a personal bid for social advocacy.
Bike-Aid first pioneered the concept of charity cycling in 1992, attracting volunteer cyclists who rode to raise funds for underprivileged Singaporeans and Malaysians. Apart from the feel-good factor that usually comes with such missions, there are other reasons driving this growing community of riders to bike for a cause.
Bike-Aid’s organisers believe the reason more people are getting into ‘fund-cycling’ “can be seen within the bigger landscape of increased participation of citizens in social causes”. When Bike-Aid was formed over 20 years ago, volunteer cyclists rode 270km from Singapore to Mersing, Malaysia raising funds for several beneficiaries including Working in Aid of Leukaemic Kids. Since then, volunteers have fund-raised for beneficiaries including Down Syndrome Association and in the past two years, their ‘Rides for Rations’ programme supported needy families registered with Sunlove Home charity.
Meanwhile, a mountain bike race morphed into a social enterprise called The Chain Reaction Project (TCRP) (thechainreactionproject.com). With a network of over 1,000 volunteers, TCRP believes that doing good can mean fun cycling. Set up in 2009 by four social entrepreneurs — Zhang Tingjun, Alexandra Toh, Jasmine Wong and Anina Boshoff — the rides help the impoverished in some of the world’s least developed nations. Three successful trips have supported some 20,000 people in Timor Leste, the Philippines and Tanzania. Says Tingjun, “I see a biking adventure or challenge as a way to draw attention to a chosen cause or charity.”
A Cycling Renaissance
I started to feel again for people and their needs.
Gone Adventurin’ was founded in 2010 to help corporations build brand equity with a social cause (www.goneadventurin.com). They have organised trips to Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste and Vietnam. Co-founder Ashwin Subramaniam reckons that charity cycling is catching on largely through word of mouth. “Those who have had such experiences usually keep talking about the adventure and social good resulting from it. This, coupled with viral messaging through social media, has catalysed a renewed interest in the sport itself,” he says. “The trips create and offer some of the most authentic and life-changing human experiences…and these stories transform individuals and corporates into powerful social advocates”.
Reiner Ebenhoch of The Tour Of Hope Foundation (TTOH) agrees. TTOH (www.thetourofhope.com) started annual fund-raising cycling tours to Thailand in 2006. According to Ebenhoch, cycling’s popularity as one of the world’s fastest growing sports naturally means “more charity cycling events will emerge, and with that, hopefully, more acceptance, tolerance and better recognition for cyclists in Singapore, even if some Singaporean drivers don’t seem to like us”.
The recent Lance Armstrong saga notwithstanding, the past decade has seen a renaissance in cycling worldwide as traffic conditions worsen. Think how much faster it would be to get through the morning jams in Singapore’s Central Business District on two wheels. Amidst climate change, rising fuel prices, increasingly crowded cities, and a quest for fitness, health cycling is becoming an appealing option, and one that helps organisations use cycling as a way to generate awareness of various social issues.
Credit, however, goes to the real heroes — ordinary people who sometimes devote more than 100 hours over four months on training rides and networking to raise funds. Virginia Tang, an osteopath and a long-term Singaporean resident was first approached in 2003 to provide medical services for Bike-Aid’s participants, as it is not uncommon for cyclists to sustain minor injuries. She closed her clinic for a week to join the 240km road trip to Malacca and found herself running back and forth treating bikers for road scrapes from falling off their bicycles.
Tang confesses that her initial motive was to ride, eat and clock miles, but the Malacca trip wound up changing her outlook on life. Growing up in Australia, she realised she had become desensitised to poverty and crime. After the trip, “I started to feel again for people and their needs, she says. “I spend such long hours at work yet I felt I could do something more meaningful by going out there to help someone.”
Ten years on, the fire in Tang’s belly remains strong. She’s still actively involved in the ‘Rides for Rations’ programme. Her immediate mission is to persuade a 70-year-old friend and her flatmate’s 10-year-old daughter to join her on forthcoming trips. And why not? “It‘s doable!” insists Tang.
For participant Aziz El Bakush, an adventure race in Davao, Philippines, to support victims of human trafficking involved mountain biking along a 25km trail followed by scaling the 2954m Mount Apo. It was a reality check for him — El Bakush broke a rib when he hit a tree while zipping downhill and flipped through the air. Looking back, he said,
“I learned to complain less and be less petty! It was personally rewarding and humbling.”
An expatriate working here the past four years, El Bakush says, “Living in Singapore is so easy. I can hail a taxi during peak hour, eat what I want. But I was moved and saddened meeting the victims of human trafficking and seeing their daily challenges.” The fund-raising cycling expedition, which raised S$100,000, provides them shelter and education.
That aside, El Bakush says, “I learned to complain less and be less petty! It was personally rewarding and humbling.” Still impassioned by vivid memories, El Bakush will be returning to the Philippines in May, this time to instal a children’s playground.
For 26-year-old Kimble Ngo, two biking trips to Cambodia and Sri Lanka with Gone Adventurin’ to support children’s schooling and co-produce a documentary for the not-for profit Carpets for Communities opened his eyes to the harsh reality of living conditions for the poor in these countries. In Sri Lanka, Ngo says, “We rode from a humid tropical setting with high levels of development to areas that are extremely dry and dusty with heavy construction, destroyed buildings and bullet holes!” The experience led Ngo to abandon his cushy investment banking job when he returned to Singapore to set up his own social enterprise, Soaps Reinvented, with a group of like-minded friends.
Soaps Reinvented started with several what ifs: What if something as simple as soap could save millions of lives? What if one bar of soap could reduce child morbidity by 70%? What if we approach hotels to donate the thousands of underused bars of soap thrown away daily? Soaps Reinvented sanitises recycled soaps and distributes them to 2.5 million children that the United Nations reports might never make it to their fifth birthday because poor hygiene puts them at risk of diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia.
Wheels of Change
Many who have joined these cycling causes, like El Bakush, have always wanted to do something good but didn’t know where to start. Those like Ngo got involved by way of casual invitation, and people like Tang were called in for their skills to help with the cycling tours. No matter which route they took into cycling for a cause, all have come away with life transforming experiences. Who would have thought that the simple act of cycling could stir so much inspiration and empower such social change?
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