Local Heroes: Pedal the Pacific

By Ashley Berry, Brewbike HQ, 03/03/2022

Ashley Berry: So let’s set the stage Savannah, when did the idea for Pedal the Pacific come about?

Savannah Lovelace: It was in 2016, I was a senior in college and I was sitting in a coffee shop back in Dallas (where I’m from) with my friend Sara. We were applying for jobs on our computers and trying to figure out what we wanted to do when we graduated.

She was at The University of Arkansas and I was at The University of Texas at Austin. At school we had both started learning about sex trafficking at around the same time. We had been talking about it together, and we thought what if we did something to raise awareness about sex trafficking. As we were learning and talking to our families and friends about it, everyone kind of turned a blind eye to it and either felt like: 1. they should know more about the subject (so they didn’t ask questions) or 2. they just didn’t know anything about it but didn’t want to get into the details because it’s such a dark subject. So we started recognizing that and just thought what if we did something crazy. Like something crazy enough that would make people turn their heads! So that at least our friends and family would ask “Why are they doing that?”.

At that time we had heard about a guy that had rode his bike from Oregon to Patagonia. There was a video about him, he was in a fedora and jeans on a bike. He made it look so easy, so we began to think what if we rode our bikes from Canada to Mexico and went all the way to Patagonia. We started dreaming about and planning for it as a kind of a joke at first. Our excitement for the trip was building until we realized that it would take 2 years to complete. We just couldn’t do that.

Afterwards, we were like okay, we need to stop this. Let’s get back to applying for jobs. So I went back to my computer, but instead of looking up jobs, I immediately typed in “Can I ride my bike down the Pacific Coast?”. I just wanted information on if the ride would even be possible.

20 minutes later, Sara looked over at me from her computer and asked “Are you still thinking about this?” and I turned my computer screen to her with a window open to a blog that said “Yes, you can ride your bike down the Pacific Coast!”

So yeah, that was the moment that we decided that we really wanted to do this.

A: Pedal the Pacific caught my attention because at the time I knew so many people who were doing the Texas 4000 (biking from Texas to Alaska). And I was like, wow that seems amazing but I’m not in shape to meet those cut off times and do that level of intense training you have to do everyday. It seemed cool, but for me it was out of reach. I remember seeing your tag line of “Hilariously un-athletic girls biking down the Pacific Coast” and I was like that’s interesting to me! If they can do that, anybody can.

S: That was a huge thing because none of us were athletic! I mean Sara had done dance growing up, but I had never done any sports. Now I feel I have to say I’m athletic because I did ride my bike from Seattle to San Diego. But before that, I didn’t do any sports. I grew up playing piano, and I have arthritis.

One of the main reasons I wanted to do something that crazy was because we knew all of our friends and family would be like “What, you guys?!”. A lot of cyclists do these trips, but it’s like oh yeah you’re a cyclist so that’s just expected. We aren’t professional cyclists at all. But we knew that by doing this ride, that would make our families question it and give us the platform to talk about sex trafficking.

A: I just want to say that this aspect of the trip is what drew my attention. I didn’t know a lot about sex trafficking. The exposure that you typically get of the topic is by watching the movie Taken. That’s really dark and scary. There are people out here doing this and nobody really knows who these people are and you just have to be careful. I didn’t have a lot of context or information about it. So it was great watching you all ride down the coast and put out tidbits of information to bring awareness to those situations that are super uncomfortable to talk about as a country/society generally. This is something that’s happening all of the time and right under our noses. For something like this, where it’s not common dinner table talk, how did you all get exposed to the subject and get fired up enough to be able to do something about it?

S: The three of us that started it have different stories about how we learned about sex trafficking. My exposure was through school. I studied International Relations and my minor was in African Studies and French. I learned about labor trafficking, particularly in East Africa. I had never heard about labor trafficking, so I started deep diving into the topic and learning about how people exploit others to force them to work. I couldn’t believe that things like that were happening over there across the ocean.

I then started reading about sex trafficking and how it happens not just over there, but here in the United States too. It happens everywhere, all over the world. As I started learning more about the topic, I was shocked. In America, we tend to think that the bad things are happening outside of our country not within it. This is obviously an ignorant way to look at the world, but that’s what I truly thought at the time.

To respond to your comment about the movie Taken, trafficking isn’t actually like that. Yes, those cases do happen where a complete stranger takes you off the street and forces you into trafficking, but it’s less than 1 percent of cases.

I learned about it in the sense that it often involves a family member or the emotional trauma of someone who maybe doesn’t have a lot of love in their life. Maybe they came from an abusive home, navigated the foster care system, or faced parental neglect and they are looking for an outlet to be loved. That could take the form of posting on social media and trying to talk to random people or going out into the streets and sparking conversations with strangers. If there is anyone who shows interest, then it’s like oh this person likes me, and now this person says they love me and they will do anything for me; and I have never experienced this before. When the trafficker starts to make a victim think that they love and will do anything for them, that type of relationship building is called grooming.

A lot of people who are trafficked never even identify with being trafficked because they are like “that’s my boyfriend and I help him out with rent by having sex with his friends.” I was just shocked that there are people who seek out others who haven’t experienced love and exploit it. So the manipulation is what made me fired up and want to raise awareness about it.

A: I want to cycle back (no pun intended) to that first year. You’re setting out to have this platform to raise awareness among friends and family. What I remember when chronicling your journey, was that along the way you start generating media buzz. I start seeing people offering you all help like giving you places to stay, donating money, and spotlighting your journey in the news. Could you talk a little bit about that journey? You started out just wanting your inner circle to be aware, but it ended up growing into so much more!

S: We really thought it was just going to be a one time thing where we raised awareness among our friends and families. At first our goal was to raise $10,000. We started a fundraiser and invited our friends and families to donate. We told them what we were doing and why and gave them information about sex trafficking. All of the money was going to a nonprofit here in Austin, Texas called the Refuge. It wasn’t built yet, but it was about to be. It was going to be the largest restoration ranch in the United States for sex trafficking survivors.

Before we even left for Seattle, we had raised over $40,000. We were completely shocked by that! Honestly, before we went so many of our friends and family were like “are you all really going to do this?”. I think that once we were in Seattle, it finally sunk in for people that we were actually going. This caused some to worry about us because we had never cycled, but there were many more that were just like wow, I can’t believe they are actually doing this and that began to generate buzz.

I will never forget the first time we ran into someone who recognized us from a media clip. We were down in California and they stopped us to ask “Are you the girls riding to raise awareness for sex trafficking?” and we were like “Yeah!” and they were so excited because they had seen us on the news! People started recognizing what we were doing and they were drawn to the fact that we were hilariously un-athletic girls.

Awareness about sex trafficking has come a long way. Back then we encountered so many people who didn’t believe it was happening here in the United States. They believed that it was something that happened with people across the border or among those who were smuggling people into different countries. But most of the cases in the U.S. are from within the country (not taking people from other countries).

A: We focused on the deep impact that the Pedal the Pacific movement sparked by just cycling down the California coast. But now I want to talk about the challenges that came along with it. This was your first time engaging in something like this as a student and not knowing what this would become or how big it was going to be. I remember one of the blog posts mentioned that one of you had pitched a tent over a rattle snake nest or something like that! So tell me about the challenges.

S: We all bought our bikes in March or April, and we left for the ride in June. So that left us with three months to train, which is not a lot now that I look back on it. We carried all of our stuff on our bikes. It was like 40 pounds of gear on the bike (tents, sleeping bags, all our stuff for the 6 weeks) and we camped along the way.

Cycling itself is a huge challenge especially with the hills and cliffs by the ocean. The exhaustion came not only from cycling everyday with 40 pounds of gear on the bike, but also from raising awareness for this cause by telling as many people as we could. We had to frequently engage on social media and write blog posts. Over time that became very, very exhausting. Especially because a lot of the time we didn’t even know where we were going to sleep the next day. That was one of the hardest things about the journey. Just the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion of it. We had to be 100% there and ready to engage with media for interviews and we just didn’t anticipate that, so that was a huge challenge.

We came across so many different roads that were torn down from mudslides, so we had to pick up our bikes and carry them across. There were a lot of re-routes and things like that.

A: After having that level of challenge with this experience, how did you engage in self care? I think it’s so important for anyone who is engaged in activism to also take the steps needed to ensure their own wellbeing. In media we are so used to seeing activists that are just giving the causes they care about their all without taking care of themselves. No one talks about the toll that this can take on an activist’s mental, emotional, and physical health. So how did you take care of yourself then when you did the first ride and how do you tell your teams to take care of themselves now?

S: I think the biggest thing that we did for ourselves was have separate tents. Whenever we got to the campsite, we all needed our alone time. We needed to chill, decompress from the day, journal, get cleaned up, and do whatever we needed to do before we cooked dinner. It was huge to have that alone time and space. That was the main source of self care during the trip.

Our trip was very flexible because it was on our own schedule. So if we felt overwhelmed, we would stay somewhere an extra day and we also had rest days built into the ride (not many, but we were as flexible with it as we could be).

Now we have teams of 11 to 15 girls and they can share a tent or bring their own. The coastline is much more developed now and there are many more host homes and people who want to take care of them and sponsor dinners along the way!

We even have a car called the SAG (Support and Gear vehicle) for our current team. Two girls go in there and they are responsible to get donated meals for the day. We tell the team all the time that if they need time to themselves or time off of their bike, then work as a team and switch who is riding in the car for the day. I emphasize that this is something that needs to be communicated and that it’s important to tell people what your boundaries are. Because if you don’t, it will build up and the team will blow up.

A: I want to talk about the scale up of Pedal the Pacific, especially in light of our upcoming Future Fund contest. How did you go from being a student who thought this would be a one time thing only to transforming Pedal the Pacific into a nonprofit that sends out a cycling team each year?

S: It took time to officially become a nonprofit. We didn’t even know that we wanted to do that for sure, until we were halfway down the coast and someone emailed us saying “Is there going to be a ride next year? I want to do it!”

We had never thought about that before, but we decided that we wanted to lead another team. This year is year 6 of Pedal the Pacific, and we didn’t become a nonprofit officially until 2019. So, we operated for 3 years under the nonprofit that we were giving to and still give to, The Refuge. But we wanted to grow in different ways.

That’s when we decided that we wanted to have our own nonprofit in order to have the freedom and flexibility to donate to the organizations that we wanted to; and build a resource library and different tools to increase awareness.

But once we made that decision, we had to get a lawyer and fill out a lot of paperwork. We knew what the mission was and what we wanted to do and the best way to achieve it was to become a nonprofit. Deeply knowing our mission made the process a lot easier! We knew what we were doing and we knew that it worked. So now we could officially make it happen as a nonprofit. It took time and a lot of vision planning, but it was definitely the right decision for us.

A: I work in the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion space. So something that caught my eye recently about Pedal the Pacific is that it started offering a BIPOC and low-income scholarship for applicants. I think that’s so cool from an accessibility standpoint and breaking down barriers to entry. What was the process of developing the two scholarship opportunities?

S: After our first year, we had a team of 11 and we noticed that all of our teams were all white women. We wanted to expand that, so we started asking questions and that’s when we realized we had the money to be able to purchase our bikes and buy all of our gear and the support of our parents. The next team also had that.

At the time, we thought that’s just how you had to do it. You had to buy all of your gear and then you had to fundraise. So, that’s when we started recognizing that as a barrier to entry and had a conversation about what if people didn’t have to pay $6,000 out of pocket. What would that look like? That’s when we came up with the equal opportunity scholarship and a gear library.

We got a grant, so we now have gear that all team members need for camping. So every year they get a huge pack of most of the gear that they need for the trip. On top of that, the equal opportunity scholarships helps girls pay for their bikes. One for an applicant that demonstrates need and one for a BIPOC applicant regardless of their need.

It has truly made a difference in the applicants that come to us. We often hear that they applied because they saw that an equal opportunity scholarship was offered. We are still working towards making this better year after year.

A: I want to switch gears now and talk about partnerships. I saw a post recently where you all had a training over at Cycle East for the team. Could you talk about how these partnerships (especially with other Austin based organizations and shops) came to be?

S: I think the biggest thing is talking about what you’re doing and being passionate about it. And going to places where others will be interested in that. With Cycle East, I just ran into it while I was in college. I was actually going to the coffee shop that’s connected to Cycle East.

I went in and saw all of these bike things, and so I followed them on Instagram and saw that they were doing a bike camping trip. So I was like, we should do this since we were going to leave soon for the first Pedal the Pacific ride! We needed to know how to pack our bikes.

We went and told everyone what we were doing. The owner of the bike shop happened to be there and was like “In one month, you guys are going on your first biking trip?” He basically took us under his wing and that’s why we call him our Pedal the Pacific Angel.

One day, the shop closed and he invited us there and he showed us everything that we needed to know about bikes. We were there for two hours!

This type of partnership happens by just talking about and sharing what you’re doing. Because people who are interested in it will try to get involved and ask you more questions. Exploring all those opportunities is what leads to partnerships. Like what could we do together? How can it be beneficial? We want to help! How can you help? Building partnership from mutual interest, I feel like, is really important.