THEY remember the little-known towns along America's rural highways: De Quincy, La., or Hamlet, N.C., or St. Charles, Minn. They talk about riding their bicycles 70 miles a day, about sleeping in YMCAs, high-school gymnasiums, or local homes, about pitching in to help community groups paint fences or feed the homeless. And mostly they recall their wonderful conversations with Americans of every stripe. They are the alumni of a phenomenon called Bike-Aid, a cross-country bicycle trip gearing up for its fifth summer.
``There are some really beautiful people out there,'' says Judi Fox, a recent graduate in economics from the University of California at San Diego. ``I felt much more American at the end of this trip - and I also felt that I really loved the American people.''
For Ms. Fox, ``this trip'' was last summer's five-week, 2,000-mile ride from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C., with 12 other bicyclists. The goal: to raise money for locally initiated development projects in third-world countries funded by the Overseas Development Network (ODN), Bike-Aid's parent organization.
Since 1986 nearly 400 cyclists, ranging from teenagers to a 61-year-old grandmother from Miami, have ridden up mountains and across windy plains - and raised over $500,000.
The 100 bikers who will participate this summer, riding five different cross-country routes to the nation's capital (from Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and Austin, Texas), are each asked to solicit $2,000 in pledges from friends and neighbors.
Like other large-scale events - the 1985 Live-Aid concert to aid victims of Ethiopian famine, and the 1986 Hands Across America effort, which contributed funds to the homeless and needy - Bike-Aid seeks to raise local and national awareness about overseas problems and contribute funds for grass-roots development projects. The ride is not a race, say the organizers, but a chance to learn about community challenges and successes here and abroad.
``It's a pretty intense experience,'' says Cathy McGovern, one of two coordinators for this year's Bike-Aid, which begins June 17 (July 16 from Austin) and ends Aug. 21 at the Lincoln Memorial. The bikers take pride in their contributions to third-world development. They also take a few layover days along the way to work on projects in host communities: Ms. McGovern remembers the Sunday they agreed to ``paint a porch in south Chicago,'' only to discover that the ``porch'' was a three-tiered structure on a refurbished tenement that took a squad of bicyclists more than a day to complete. Wherever they go, says Benay Lazo, the other Bike-Aid coordinator at the group's San Francisco office, the bikers make a lasting impression. ``They touch and inspire people in the host communities,'' she says, recalling her own experiences with after-dinner community meetings and noontime conversations with passers-by at country stores. She says the funds raised and sent overseas can have a significant effect. But the real benefit, she insists, lies in ``what happens to the cyclist.''
Ben Kahrl, a recent Harvard University graduate who rode in both 1988 and 1989 and now coaches track in Bath, Maine, agrees. ``I would say I learned to care,'' he says when asked how the experience changed him. ``I saw a lot of people helping others - people who had very little to start with, dedicating their lives to bettering the lot of others rather than going to Wall Street and earning a lot of money.''
For Andy Yates, a third-year graduate student in engineering-economic systems at Stanford University, the experience provided ``a foundation and a personal belief about major problems and what would be a good approach to solving them.''
What most impressed him, he says, was the fact that ``the middle part of the country seems to be disappearing quickly. A lot of the small towns, particularly the farming communities, are closing up: They used to have two or three grocery stores, now they don't have any, and you have to ride maybe 40 miles to the next big town.''
He worries that ``if you were to do this ride in 20 years, it might be extremely difficult to find small towns along the back roads. You're going to be confined to riding along interstates and eating at McDonald's and staying in Motel 6's.''
The idea of linking bicycling and third-world development came from Nazir Ahmad, who with his younger brother, Kamal, founded ODN in 1982. He seized on cycling in part because of the powerful metaphors it presented.
``Cycling, other than walking, is the most common form of transportation in the world,'' he says. He credits the idea of a cross-country student ride to a summer trek called Harvard Rides for Life, which followed a single route. ODN added multiple routes - in part, he says, because there is ``a tendency to think of development as all going the same way, and yet here were those different routes going to the same end.''
He also notes that most of the nation's decisions about development issues are made in East- or West-coast power centers, and that ``middle America,'' where the cyclists of necessity spend most of their time, often gets ``left behind or ignored.''
Finally, he says that students needed to learn how to raise funds for causes they support. ``I have always thought of Bike-Aid's fundraising as an investment in learning,'' he says. ``It's a very empowering process to know that you can raise resources to do the things you want to do.''
As he raises funds for this third summer's ride, Mr. Kahrl agrees. ``It's not only that we can make a difference but that we have to,'' he says. ``People need to care, they need to make a difference.''