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By Zack Vestal
The strongest, most durable bike at the ShoAir Pro XCT mountain bike race in Colorado Springs this past weekend wasn’t a full-suspension, cross-country racing rig, or even an all-mountain trail bike. It was a 45-pound, coaster-braked singlespeed, equipped with riser bars, a rear rack, fenders and is capable of carrying a 100-kilogram cargo load. But it’s not a bike you’ll ever see in your local bike shop.
Generally the equipment used by professional riders is available to cyclists of all levels. Pro Tour replica bikes are available from Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Giant, and more, to name just a few.
But for several reasons, the Project Zambia, created by World Bicycle Relief, is off-limits to you and me. For starters, it’s working for a cause much more critical than your average coffee shop cruiser.
The mission statement of World Bicycle Relief says it best: “Providing access to independence and livelihood though the power of bicycles.”
World Bicycle Relief: poverty relief through sustainable mobility
Founded in 2005 by SRAM Corporation and Trek Bicycles, and in partnership with World Vision Sri Lanka, World Bicycle Relief attempted to mitigate the effects of the December 2004 tsunami that swept the Indian Ocean. The project provided more than 24,000 bicycles to people in the region, and helped them recover more rapidly from the disaster. By providing a simple, sustainable, and cost-effective method of transportation, the bikes increased the effectiveness of recovery efforts and helped reestablish local economies.
In fact, an independent study confirmed the efficacy of the project. Two years after the project, World Bicycle Relief point to the facts:
- • 88 percent of recipients of bicycles now depend on them for their livelihood;
- • 30 percent of household annual income for transportation costs can be saved by using the bike;
- • The bicycles enabled households to resume education and service activities by providing critical, appropriate transportation
Through donations, industry partnerships and sponsorship from SRAM and Trek, the program has grown to take on new challenges.
Based on the original success in Southeast Asia, the program partnered with USAID and World Vision to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zambia. The $2.9 million program will ultimately provide 23,000 bicycles to community home-based care volunteers, disease prevention educators, and vulnerable households.
At first blush, it’s hard to understand how bicycles, the very same tools of transportation that we in the United States mostly use for recreation, could make such a difference in the lives of the poorest residents of third world nations. But consider the actual “power” of bicycles, as quoted by World Bicycle Relief:
- • Over an equal amount of time, a bicycle rider can cover four times the distance as can be traveled on foot;
- • Cargo capacity on a bicycle is increased by five times, over what can be carried on foot;
- • If a person needs to cover a distance of 10 miles, the bicycle saves 3 hours compared to time spent walking;
- • Riding a bicycle requires less effort overall, allowing longer travel distances compared to walking.
The net result of improved mobility is impressive. Healthcare can be delivered to patients. Educators can reach more people in the field. Local economies benefit from the delivery of goods and services, and from the ability of workers to commute to jobs.
Action and accountability
Taken in isolation, simply seeding a region with free bicycles could result in a short-lived boom, followed by collapse as the bicycles fail from lack of maintenance. With Project Zambia, World Bicycle Relief has incorporated a critical component — the training and equipping of more than 400 field mechanics to assemble and maintain the bikes. Not only is the project bringing mobility, it is bringing jobs and creating a local economy based around sustainable transportation.
“Part of our commitment is to train one local mechanic in bicycle maintenance and business skills for every 50 bicycles we put in the field,” said Chris Strout, communications manager for World Bicycle Relief.
Furthermore, the bikes are not free. The bikes are provided to healthcare and education volunteers on a two-year, work to own basis. The incentives are multi-faceted and cyclical — volunteers are motivated to stick with their service and maintain their bicycles, while local mechanics gain the tools and knowledge to adopt a new profession.
The accountability extends back to the organization itself.
“We evaluate failures and use our industry knowledge to make constant improvements to design and component spec, while still being appropriate and compatible with the existing supply chain,” said Strout. “And to ensure our programs are having an impact, we engage third-party evaluators such as Boston University’s School of Public Health to measure our work and report on the impact bicycles have in these communities.”
About the Project Zambia bike
The bike that World Bicycle Relief chose for Project Zambia is exceptionally rugged and durable. The utilitarian, black steel bicycle is a staple mode of transportation in Africa, but cheaply built bikes fall apart quickly and create more problems than they solve. The Project Zambia bike is not only durable, but also culturally and technologically appropriate for the region, the conditions, and the end users.
“The bicycles must be appropriate to the regions we serve — and we are constantly evaluating what is appropriate and applying our knowledge of and history in the bike industry to ensuring the bikes are rugged and durable enough but still compatible with the existing infrastructure of spare parts,” said Strout. “It doesn’t do to put a derailleur bike into a region without a bike shop that can service it for 400 km! That said, we are not beholden to one design of bicycle — the bikes we use in Southern Africa may not be appropriate for Central America, for instance.”
Every aspect of the improved Project Zambia bike is oriented toward durability and serviceability. The frame and fork of the bike itself are built from oversized, 16 gauge steel. The rear rack is tubular steel, tested to a load of 100 kg. Automotive grade rubber is used in the tires, a single-speed drivetrain is built with heavier-duty components, and rugged, 40-spoke wheels are built to withstand heavy use.
As a matter of fact, when I visited the Zipp factory in Speedway, Indiana several months ago, a Project Zambia bike wheel was being tested on the DIN bump drum test right alongside a Zipp 808 carbon tubular.
So why is it not available in the USA? The biggest reason is that the materials are delivered to Africa for assembly, because job creation in the community is part of the overall goal. Furthermore, the components on the bike are readily available in the areas served by World Bicycle Relief. Importing an Project Zambia bike back to the USA simply wouldn’t make economic sense.
For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.worldbicyclerelief.org