Shifting gears

World Bicycle Relief athletes give bikes a bigger meaning

photos courtesy of World Bicycle Relief

What got Rebecca Much into cycling has a similar thread to what she does now that she’s retired from a competitive cycling career that included National Cyclocross Championship and National Time Trial Championship wins. It’s about what bikes can do that has nothing to do with how fast you pedal them.

Much started riding at around age 12 when she got a bike to compete in a triathlon. But it wasn’t long before she looked at the bike and saw its options outside the competitive sphere.

“I grew up in downtown Chicago, so the school I went to was probably eight miles away and I had to take a couple different forms of public transportation to get there,” she says. “With traffic in a big city, you would see bikes riding by you all the time and I was just like, I’m not going to sit on the bus anymore.”

The kids she visits when she goes to Africa to see the organization she works for now, World Bicycle Relief, in action, don’t have buses as an option, or much traffic to worry about. They’re walking for hours each day to get to school, often arriving late and probably already exhausted. By the time they walk the hours home, finish a string of chores like the one they started the day with, they’ll have little energy or light left for studying or homework.

World Bicycle Relief works to get bikes to those kids and other members of their rural communities to ease access to schools, markets, clean water and healthcare. They’ve put 107,931 bikes into the field since being founded in 2005, initially to serve Sri Lanka and other areas affected by the tsunami in December 2004.

A baseline study of 602 households in rural areas of Zambia targeted for their Bicycled for Educational Empowerment Program showed 37 percent of students regularly missed school and 100 percent of students living over one hour from school  arrived 30 to 60 minutes late for school two the five days a week.

“I’d been telling the story of World Bicycle Relief for several years before I was able to go visit our programs and it was really cool to just walk into exactly the picture you had drawn for yourself,” Much says. “I thought that was super encouraging that what we had described with how the program had worked had all been exactly what we explained.”

What seeing it all really made clear, though, was just how rough the paths these kids were walking to school are, she says.

“You can see kids having to walk five miles to school one way and why that would be a burden, because your school is not five miles down one road, you take several twisty paths to get there,” she says. “It’s a really rough five miles away, and just the fact that kids are really walking that distance to school, you could see why there’s tremendous dropout rates. You could see why a family’s going to think, ‘Oh it makes more sense for them to just stay home.’ We have so many other children here who need to be taken care of, we have so many other needs. Education could be kind of dropped down in priority, but then education is the most empowering thing you can receive, and it’s particularly powerful in the case of girl students because they’re the first to get pulled out of school.”

World Bicycle Relief is about a third of the way through its Bicycles for Educational Empowerment program, started in 2009 with a goal of distributing 50,000 bikes to students in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and aiming to make 70 percent of the recipients girls, who have a higher dropout rate. They delivered 7,000 bikes in just the first year.

Give a kid a bike, and attendance improves by 22 percent for both boys and girls. A three-hour walk becomes 45 minutes of pedaling down dirt roads.

“We’re really focused on areas where walking’s the real option for transportation. There’s no public transportation system, a car’s not really in the picture, and then the roads haven’t been set up that well, so pretty poor transportation infrastructure overall, so walking’s the best way to get around,” she says.

In the health care branch of the World Bicycle Relief program, they partnered with RAPIDS (Reaching HIV/AIDS Affected People with Integrated Development and Support) and their volunteer caregivers. The program was suffering a high dropout rate among individuals trained as caregivers for people living with AIDS/HIV that was largely attributed to the travel distances required in visiting patients.

“Sometimes patients are 15, 20k (nine to 12 miles) away, so that’s a whole day trip just to visit one patient,” Much says. With a bike, those caregivers can do their morning chores, visit a patient, and come home and see still more patients.

“You’re getting places about four times faster, saving about three hours of your day in that same commute,” Much says. “Then also carrying capacity is increased about five times when you have a bike, so farmers, entrepreneurs who are taking goods into market, can take much more when you’re on a bike.”

There are other organizations that ship bikes to Africa, or build bikes in Africa — and some of them cost less than half of what a WBR bike costs. But WBR bikes were made with Africa in mind.

They focus distribution on rural areas, Much says, “places where really walking is the only option, and then the bikes — there’s not going to be a lot of replacement parts available, not a lot of tools to make sure the bikes are up and running all the time. So the bikes have been really designed with all of that in mind. They’re really robust, low maintenance, really high carrying capacity for taking goods to market.”

The bikes are tested to haul up to 220 pounds of “milk, maize, charcoal, goats — anything,” Much says.

Even a sibling can easily be carried on the back rack on the bike.

It’s $134 for a bike, which covers $70 in parts plus transportation. All the bikes are assembled at centers in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa — employing 85 people. And each bike is given in a two-year study-to-own or work-to-own agreement.

And, just in case, for every 50 bikes sent into the field, a mechanic is trained to keep the bikes up.

Much started working with World Bicycle Relief five years ago, and came on board as an athlete and volunteer fundraiser.

“Just wanted to kind of give back a little bit through racing,” she says. “It’s great, in the long run, you feel like it’s a selfish thing, there’s not anything you’re really doing sometimes, so I think racers have great opportunities to give back through sport.”

The attraction to World Bicycle Relief was immediate once she became familiar with the layout of the organization, she says, and she enjoyed it enough that she started working at World Bicycle Relief full time two years ago.

To support their ongoing efforts, World Bicycle Relief will be hosting its second annual benefit night, the Bash for Bikes, on Aug. 3. The event invites other cycling athletes to participate in a Q&A. This year’s lineup includes triathletes Craig Alexander, Mirinda Carfrae and Tim O’Donnell as well as cyclist Tom Danielson.

“It was time for me to try and use what I have, my name and whatever I have, to put my weight behind some sort of cause,” says Carfrae, who has won multiple 70.3 ironmans, or half ironmans, and who attended last year’s Bash for Bikes as well. “There’s so many out there to choose from, and this one really struck a chord with me.”

The focus on educating girls in Africa was the central part of that attraction, she says.

“I just really appreciated that they’re giving these bikes to young people and enabling them to go to school and get an education and make something of their lives,” Carfrae says. “It felt like a basic human right to go to school and follow whatever path. The sad reality is it’s not a reality. It’s not a basic human right in so many places in the world.”

Bash for Bikes
7 p.m. Aug. 3
Colorado Multisport
280 Canyon Blvd. #M-2,