Confessions of a World Bicycle Relief Cynic
Words by Joe Parkin, photos courtesy of World Bicycle Relief
The year was 1986 and I was back from my maiden voyage to Belgium, where I had been attempting to become a professional road bike racer. I’d spent a spring and summer ingesting pig shit sprayed from the tires of riders in front of me and listening to absolutely horrid Euro music. I won’t even call it Euro disco; it was worse. My leg muscles perpetually operated on their own in crazy painful involuntary spasms caused by going too hard too often.
I was back in the States recovering from a broken wing (right clavicle and scapula) and making a little bit of money by shuttling cars, in tandem with a speed freak, between dealerships throughout Northern California. As it turns out, shifting a manual-transmission car with just one arm (the left, at that) is not really all that awesome, by the way.
My bridge to Belgium had been Bob Roll. If you have to ask “Who is Bob Roll?” I would suggest turning on your TV during the month of July, or asking the local bar to turn on the TV during the month of July, and watching him explain the Tour de France in a way that pretty much everyone can appreciate.
I was, in some ways, his bridge to familiarity and sanity during a few lonely off-seasons. The year 1986 was one of many to follow.
There were very few of us back then — very few Americans who’d gone in search of European bike racing. Please understand that I would never assume to compare our band of intrepid knuckleheads with the likes of the early American astronauts, but imagine how hard it was for those guys to truly explain what they had experienced in space. Like I said, it’s not the same, but what we experienced could be completely understood back then only by an extremely small group of Americans. So when you had one of those people just 10 or so miles away, you had a support group.
Bob called me one day, talking about this movie we absolutely had to go see: “Blue Velvet.” Dennis Hopper was in it. I had a car. Bob didn’t. I picked him up and we hit the matinee in Concord, California.
If you’ve seen the film, you might imagine that a midweek matinee screening of David Lynch’s batshit-crazy masterpiece wasn’t exactly a standing-room-only affair. And you’d be right. Bob and I might not have been the only two people in the theater, but it was close.
Also, if you’ve seen the film, you know the one iconic line from Dennis Hopper’s character that is still repeated at parties wherever beer is served: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
The credits rolled; Bob and I drove back to his girlfriend’s house blaring a Metallica cassette at volume 11. Memories of “Blue Velvet” still cause me to twitch slightly at the sight of a Heineken logo.
Fast-forward a quarter century. Neither of us is special anymore, because the language of pro cycling has become English and there are tons of American bike racers who’ve gone to Europe. Bob is, of course, a household name to Americans who watch the Tour de France and other major races. I was serving as the editor of Bike magazine when I first heard of World Bicycle Relief.
I don’t want to make excuses for myself, but I do think it might serve the reader to know that I am an old bike racer who used to look at the damn dog begrudgingly when he got table scraps, because I was always still hungry. I was that kid in the bike shop working for tires and spokes, and building chains out of scraps. I was that kid who was pissed when the middle-aged fat guy rolled in with a custom-painted bike and then called his wife to come pick him up because he was too tired to ride the 5 miles home. I am also the former editor of a bicycle magazine, which means that both my digital and analog inboxes were constantly being stuffed with requests to give editorial support to people planning to do something on a bike for a cause.
Don’t get me wrong: A person on a bike doing anything other than running from the committal of a homicide is a good thing. But a doctor, lawyer or business mogul coming at you 10 times daily looking for financial support for a 14-day bike ride on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to raise awareness for impotence starts to wear on a guy.
And so, I admit, I am also the kind of guy who first looked at World Bicycle Relief (WBR) and asked, aloud, “Why Africa? What about the people here in the United States?”
Then I heard this story about World Bicycle Relief founder F.K. Day claiming Heineken as his beer of choice. Some twitchiness and several flashbacks to Dennis Hopper followed.
Think for a minute about a guy who, along with starting World Bicycle Relief, was instrumental in founding SRAM—who is definitely not worried about having enough money in his checking account to cover his own personal lunch—drinking Heineken beer as a first choice. Not that there’s anything wrong with the number-one most exported beer in the world, but there are so many other beer choices out there. Why Heineken?
Well, according to the legend, Day chooses Heineken above all others because it is readily available everywhere. In other words, a bottle of Heineken is going to pour and taste the same pretty much everywhere on Earth. Which is a totally pragmatic approach. Right then might’ve been when I actually gave WBR a chance.
I learned about the Buffalo Bike, World Bicycle Relief’s totally intelligent and practical solution to the demands of its mission to bring bicycles to remote regions of Africa and elsewhere in the world by building one that can withstand the needs of the environment and terrain—and by establishing local infrastructure to keep these bikes running. I heard about the first-ever UCI world downhill mountain bike champion, Greg Herbold, and some industry friends riding the Buffalo on some of Moab’s rougher trails to prove its robust, ready-for-anything character. I even got to ride one once.
It’s funny how the purest, simplest things can make you the happiest. Some of my friends are professional race-car drivers who get to pilot multimillion-dollar machines almost each weekend, and all they want to talk about is bikes. I often get to ride the newest, latest and greatest. But the thought of riding the not-at-all-lightweight Buffalo Bike, with its idealistic purpose, makes me smile more than all the carbon fiber and cutting-edge suspension technology the industry is able to churn out.
I think back to the shitty, rusting bike frame that changed my life forever. It was a beat-up old Benotto upon which I hung a cheap 10-speed drivetrain (as in 2×5). Thanks to that bike, I really had no wants or cares in the world. Bike riding and racing became my version of freedom. It opened doors to better bikes, lots and lots of better bikes, but more importantly, it opened the door that would eventually lead to Europe, and other languages, and different worldviews, and incredible experiences, and most of the important people in my life.
So a story about Heineken beer and a story from Greg Herbold and a chance ride on a Buffalo Bike made me look into World Bicycle Relief a little deeper. We’re not talking graduate-level research here, but enough to make me change my ambivalent viewpoint to one of fandom.
I was born white, male and middle class in America, and I understand the advantages those things offer. But I also had as little control over choosing my parents as a girl in a small village in Africa who’s just received a Buffalo Bike. When I look at the pictures of that girl, I see and feel the same emotion I felt when I got that rusty old frame decades ago. Yeah, I know we’re not the same. And her bike is more utilitarian than mine was. But the experience of freedom and opportunity that my Benotto offered, and that her Buffalo will offer, maybe makes us more alike than different. That notion, to me, makes the world a better place.
World Bicycle Relief stats:
To date, more than 338,000 Buffalo Bikes have been delivered in developing countries.
More than 1,200 mechanics have been trained to service Buffalo Bikes.