Thirty people from six different countries around the world converged on Columbia recently to set off on a more than 400-mile ride through Northern California.

Cyclists for Cultural Exchange (CCE), a nonprofit group based in Santa Cruz, arranged the ride that beganThursdaymorning, bringing along 17 international cyclists who flew in from China, Japan, Taiwan, Poland and Italy to participate in the organization's spring exchange program fromMay 18 to June 1.

"We want to promote peace, understanding and friendship through a common interest in cycling," said CCE Board of Directors President Marilyn Marzell during an interviewTuesdayat Marble Quarry RV Park on Yankee Hill Road, where the group stayed for a couple of nights before taking off on their ride.

The group will first travel from Columbia to Lake Pardee before making there way to a Sacramento hostel, where they will stay a night and visit the 40th annual Sacramento Music Festival taking place this weekend. The route continues to Brannan Island State Park and then Fort Mason for a two-night stay at a hostel before ending in Santa Cruz onMay 29.

Marzell said the group normally doesn't ride through the foothills during its annual spring program, but some members of the group's route committee recently participated in a ride sponsored by a San Jose cycling club that went through Columbia and enjoyed the area.

Participants in the exchange program must go through an application process and must meet various medical and physical requirements. They also must be willing to fully immerse themselves in the experience, which involves cooking, cleaning and having group discussions throughout the trip.

"It's much more than just the cycling," Marzell said of the experience. "Some people come into the program with views of America that are shattered when they get here."

CCE provides a vehicle to carry equipment, camping and cooking equipment, bicycles, all meals and medical and accident insurance for its guests. Airfare, visas and passports, clothing and personal items and spending money must be provided by the exchange program applicant.

Aside from the exchange programs, CCE has also supported numerous charitable projects throughout the years including hosting workshops in Uganda teaching women how to build and repair bicycles, providing bicycles to Cambodian children so they can get to school and donating 30 clip-on rearview mirrors for a fleet of police bicycles in Izmir, Turkey.

Each year, CCE organizes the annual Strawberry Fields Forever Century Ride in Santa Cruz in May that draws about 1,200 riders and serves as the group's major fundraiser for its exchange programs and other projects promoting cycling around the world.

Santa Cruz resident Frank Pritchard first came up with the idea for an exchange program after he joined a cycling group in 1989 and one of its members visited Russia, then the Soviet Union.

While overseas, that cyclist met a Russian man who came over in 1990 to join the group on one of their rides. Pritchard later visited Russia himself in 1991 and said the experience helped expand his worldview, so he established the CCE in 2004 with the idea of replicating it for others.

"There are things we find that kind of create bonds between us," Pritchard said. "For us, it's cycling and a little bit of adventurousness."

Interest in the CCE's exchange programs has been growing over the years thanks mostly to word of mouth throughout the international cycling community - and sometimes just through random encounters.

For example, Cindy Wu, who came with husband Gene Wang from Kaohsung, Taiwan, were in their native country when they met a CCE volunteer who convinced them to give the program a shot.

"My last camping experience was 40 years ago but I've been looking forward to it," Wu said of the trip, which is her fifth time visiting the United States.

Dizhong Wang, an acupuncturist from Xi'an City, China, said he joined the trip at the urging of Pritchard, whom Wang met in 2011 while visiting Chicago.

"I decided to come because I like new experiences," Wang said in Mandarin while Wu, a Mandarin teacher, translated.

Luisa Trigila, of Venice, Italy, participated in her first CCE-sponsored ride in 2010 and later organized one of her own upon returning to her country. She said participants not only share a love of cycling, "but also a love of cultures and happiness."

"It's very, very important to immerse yourself in situations with people from other countries," Trigila said. "You think you know what different cultures are about, but you usually find out that you really don't."