Team Zoe

Team Zoe poses for a photo with their bikes 

Brad Ortenzi knows it will hurt when he and seven other Lancaster County riders bike 3,000 miles across the United States, supported by a crew led by his wife, Lori.

The Race Across America begins Saturday in Oceanside, Calif., and it lays claim to the ominous title of “world’s toughest bike race,” perhaps because slow and steady simply will not win this time.

Instead, bikers go must all out for 15-minute bursts, alternating through four team members during a 12-hour shift. Upon that shift’s completion, another group of four riders takes over, and the others do their best to find a suitable place to rest.

The grueling cycle will continue as many times as it needs to before the cyclists arrive in Annapolis, Md.

“As fast as you can go for 15 minutes stings,” Brad said. “It’s sprinting, but it’s also endurance, because you’re doing it for 12 hours. It’ll take us six days to get across the country. So, we’re braced.”

Brad and Lori both love to bike, but they aren’t embarking on such a strenuous undertaking without a reason.

As of Friday afternoon, Brad and Lori, of Lititz, had raised $109,319.27 for Zoe International, a nonprofit organization that helps children affected by human trafficking. Last year, they raised nearly $300,000 for Zoe in a ride from Virginia to California that involved 46 riders.

A former detective in the Ephrata police department, Brad left with Lori for Thailand in 2014 to work for Zoe. Lori, who has a masters degree in counseling and leadership, performed a variety of administrative tasks for Zoe, while Brad worked primarily as an overseer of investigations.

Now, they’ve turned to biking, a passion of theirs, to help support another — helping children.

“The cycling community is really supportive,” Lori said. “They want to help in any way they can to end human trafficking...Just the freedom of the kids really fuels us to do this. And I think biking is a great way to do it. You know, lots of people are passionate about it.”

The fundraising efforts come at a crucial time for Zoe, which is expanding across the globe. The organization is establishing a presence on the east coast of the United States and just broke ground on a girls home in Los Angeles. Brad said a Los Angeles-based Child Services official told Zoe the home would be filled immediately if it opened its doors today.

The money raised by The Race Across America will go toward Zoe’s general fund, which also helps pay employee salaries and provide food and clothing for children, Brad said.

And the Lancaster community has opened up more than just its wallet to help the effort.

Sam Lapp, Matt Lapp, Allen Fischer, Elmer Fisher, Allan Fisher, Jonathan Fisher and Kyle Sensenig — all from Lancaster County — round out Team Zoe’s group or riders.

The charitable cause has been at the forefront of everyone’s mind since the beginning, but Lori said the cyclists have brought a determination to win the race that she and her husband weren’t totally expecting.

“It didn’t start out being competitive, but we have a very competitive team, all Type-A individuals,” Lori, who went to California with an advance team to set up, said by phone. “...Now it’s become about, ‘how do we win?”

Brad was a high school athlete whose natural abilities were toned further by his time in the Marine Corps, but said he’s never cycled competitively before.

“Now it’s the real thing,” he said. “What really helped me is the rest of the team. These guys are studs. These guys are triathletes. I’m the dad of the group.”

Team Zoe plans to livestream the event on its website, gozoe.org, whenever the internet connection allows. Those interested in making a donation can do so at the same address. The team’s progress can also be tracked on trueco.com.

Brad said he’s feeling mostly prepared, though he admitted he doesn’t think he could ever feel completely ready for an event this grueling.

When it gets difficult, though, Team Zoe can fall back on its cause for some conviction.

“I’ve always been sort of the guy that stood up for those that were victimized and those that were less fortunate than myself,” Brad said. “And I hate bullies. In essence, child trafficking is bullying.”