Friday, October 1, 2010

The Man & His Bicycles

Nicholas D. Kristof had a very interesting column in the September 15, 2010 New York Times. It was about a Chicago business executive from the SRAM Corporation who formed World Bicycle Relief in 2005. This was also a human-interest piece about students in Zimbabwe who received 200 bicycles from WBR for their commute to school. These are not high-end racing bikes; rather 55-pound one-speed bikes "that need little pampering." The organization has given out 70,000 bicycles to date.

The article reminded me of Bob Rodale, deceased chairman of Rodale, who would have loved the piece. Mr. Rodale had a great interest in cycling of all kinds but especially cycling as utility. He was a champion skeet shooter and at one of his competitions he saw a bicycle racing track, a velodrome. He decided to build an Olympic class facility in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. When watching the heavily-muscled track racers, Mr. Rodale thought this considerable leg power could be used for such activities as cutting wood, generating electricity, and even pumping water. To that end he established a small engineering team at his company, with imput from bicycle racers, to find practical uses of pedal power. At his request I edited a book titled Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation largely written by engineering professors from MIT and Oxford University.  I believe it was translated into a dozen languages.

Mr. Rodale later purchased Bicycling Magazine and relaunched it with an emphasis on using the bike for health, fitness and well-being. He was an avid cyclist and a bicycle commuter.  He loved all the shiny new toys that the bike racers brought to the Trexlertown velodrome, but he never lost the sense that the bicycle was first and foremost for transportation and utility.

Twenty-five years later Mr. Rodale would applaud Kristof for the article, and executives at SRAM for organizing such a useful effort, and  the Trek Bicycle Corp for their support. Kristof is no romantic; he knows all about donor fatigue and weariness with African corruption and repeated aid failures. But he also knows this is very practical and useful form of aid.

Mr. Rodale, a fan of Small Is Beautiful, was a firm believer in appropriate technology or technology appropriate to the task. That orphans in Zimbabwe are some of the recipients of these bicycles would only warm his heart more.

Chuck McCullagh


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