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It is about the bike

Tom LeCarner - June 23, 2008

Velo News

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As cyclists, we love to celebrate the creativity, ingenuity and artistry of cycling’s innovators. In fact, we love to own and ride those innovations. But much like at Christmas, however, we tend to get so caught up in  the stuff that we forget the spirit. Yes, indeed, let’s celebrate the $6,000 wheels and the $10,000 mountain bikes, but let’s not forget the very essence of the bicycle itself — the ultimate potential that it has, and what it brings to literally tens of millions of people around the globe. In many countries the bicycle is the key to mobility. It is the key to freedom itself.

June 23, 2008-  In Africa, for example, the bicycle is a lifeline; it is medicine, it is transportation, it is the difference between life and death in many cases. Bicycles for Humanity, a non-profit organization originally based in Canada, developed a project called BEC — the Bicycle Empowerment Centre. BEC is essentially a bike shop in a box and can be delivered anywhere in the world. A BEC shop typically includes several hundred bicycles, tools, spare parts and comes with a comprehensive training program to teach would-be mechanics the basics of wrenching. The BEN Namibia project, started in 2006, has provided transportation to Home-Based Care (HBC) volunteers, as well as orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), which improves their access to education. The HBC bikes enable volunteers to visit more families affected by HIV/AIDS; they are able to spend more time (35 percent more) with each family due to the drastically reduced transportation times (46 percent less) between visits.

BEN Namibia has also developed and distributed more than 50 “bicycle ambulances” to bring emergency medical attention wherever it might be needed. Kona bikes, through its “BikeTown Africa” project has donated more

than 500 bikes to communities in African nations and has set a goal of giving another 1,000 bikes this year. These bikes serve the vital function of bringing HIV/AIDS medications to medical facilities throughout the continent. Bicycles also function to assist families in gathering food and water more efficiently, in allowing families to bring their goods to market more rapidly, in bringing children to school more efficiently without them having to walk long distances, which results in exhaustion and hence difficulty in studying and learning; they also provide employment opportunities for bike repair and maintenance jobs which would otherwise not exist. Kona has announced plans to introduce the BikeTown project in Afghanistan as well. There are projects like this all over the globe, from Namibia and Uganda, to Cambridge and Vancouver.

The bicycle, despite the mind-boggling technologies employed on the pages of VeloNews, is a relatively simple machine that can be maintained anywhere in the world with relatively few tools or parts and with very little training. The bicycle allows otherwise sedentary peoples to move about more freely, to exercise not only physically, but also psychologically.

In addition to these life-changing benefits of the bi- cycle, we cannot forget the importance of the bicycle to the health of the planet. While the production process of bicycles and the parts we use to repair them does in fact contribute to global pollution, that contribution ends with the final product. There are many companies, however, that strive to make their businesses ever-greener. In fact, the cycling industry publication Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN) recently introduced its annual BRAINy award for the greenest cycling companies and this year’s awards went to Specialized, Thule, and Pedro’s. Pedro’s was lauded for introducing an entire line of biodegradable lubricants as well as recycled seat bags and other eco-friendly products.

The importance of the bicycle in developed countries like the United States is often taken for granted, or worse, forgotten entirely. In the most wasteful and gluttonous country on the planet, we purchase between 15 and 20 million bikes every year; we discard nearly half of those in landfills and countless others sit unused in garages from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine. Fewer than 100,000 aIl year ever make it to developing countries. If that doesn’t make you want to dust off the old Univega and take it out this weekend, well, fine, donate it, sit back on the couch, and at least feel that the old steed has been put to good use by someone, somewhere in the world.

So, cheers to the engineers, designers and manufacturers of the world’s most technologically advanced bikes and components — the 13-pound carbon featherweight, the sweet ceramic bearings, and the luscious deep-dish wheels. But let’s not forget the 35-pound steel 3-speed in Nairobi with baskets that just saved someone’s life — for the third time this month.

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