Over 2,000 bicyclists will arrive in Leadville on Saturday, August 13, to race in one of the most grueling yet beautiful mountain-bike races in the world, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB. Thirteen of the riders, including Tour de France veteran Ted King and former Olympic cyclist and Coloradan Timmy Duggan, will be racing for World Bicycle Relief, an aid organization that sends bicycles to developing communities around the world.
“It's such an iconic race, it's so well known, and it's always been on my radar,” King says. “As a result of racing professionally on the road, there's never been an opportunity. So when the chance came up through retirement and then especially with the support of World Bicycle Relief, I jumped on board.”
World Bicycle Relief started as a response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that devastated Indonesia and neighboring countries in 2004. The organization's founder, F. K. Day, traveled to Sri Lanka following the disaster and found that bicycles could expedite recovery for displaced survivors. Drawing on his experience as an executive at SRAM, one of the world's largest bicycle component manufacturers, he teamed up with World Vision, a humanitarian organization, to distribute 24,500 bicycles in the area. As a result, health-care workers were able to reach more patients, farmers were able to sell vegetables door-to-door, and students were able to ride to school with their siblings on the back. The success of the program led Day to form World Bicycle Relief, and through his relationship with World Vision, he was able to connect with AIDS caregivers in Zambia in need of assistance.
Day set out to create a bike that would suit the needs of those in sub-Saharan Africa. It needed to be durable, able to handle rural dirt roads and carry plenty of cargo. He designed a bike that cost $147 to produce and named it the Buffalo, after the African buffalo. The bike features a rear rack to transport goods, coaster brakes and a sturdy steel frame. While it might have been possible to create a less expensive bike, it wouldn't be worth it, says King: “It's really easy to create a cheap bike, but then the bike falls apart, a piece breaks, and then you're completely up a creek and you can't fix it. When you're in rural Africa and you don't have a bike shop nearby, you're screwed. So these bikes are incredibly durable. That is of the utmost importance.”
A majority of the bike recipients are female schoolchildren in rural Africa, identified by World Bicycle Relief as those who need the bikes the most. An extensive 2012 report on the Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program found that 73 percent of caretakers in Zambia would rather send a boy to school than a girl; asked why, many said they believed a girl would get pregnant before completing school. In cultures where girls are still vying for equal footing with their male counterparts, having a bike can mean the difference between failure and success at school.
Katie Bolling, development director for World Bicycle Relief, who will also be racing Saturday, visited Zambia and witnessed firsthand the difference a bike can make for a young girl. “I think the reality is that boys are more valued in some of these societies," she says. "But there's a cultural revolution happening. It's not us going in there and saying we want to give bikes to girls, it's the Ministry of Education in these communities understanding that there is value to girls and that the bicycle is a significant tool to help them stay in school.”
Bolling made the long, hot walk to school with a young student one day and came away impressed. “It was a very arduous journey," she says. "It's super-hot, very desolate; they do this walk day in and day out to stay in school, and I think it's just amazing. That's just one example of someone's journey. There's millions of people around the world who don't have access to education because of distance.”
Another issue for young schoolchildren in rural Africa is lodging. To avoid making a long journey to school every day, many young children stay in dorms, where conditions are meager at best. With a bike, the journey becomes manageable and these children can return to their homes every night. “Our knowledge of a dorm is a fun accommodation with your friends, really comfortable,” Bolling says. “Where they are, it's dark, there's no light, they're on their own without their parents, and they're quite young. It's very difficult.”
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Each Buffalo bike is sent in parts to its destination, where it is assembled by local bike mechanics trained by World Bicycle Relief. Mechanics receive business training as well, giving them an opportunity to grow their business. Some prefer to set up a shop, while others stay mobile; when something does break on a Buffalo, these mechanics have the know-how to get the bike back on the road. Currently, there are over 1,000 mechanics keeping more than 285,000 Buffalo bikes rolling in South America, Africa and Asia.
For the Leadville 100 race, the World Bicycle Relief team has raised $70,349 — enough money to send 478 bikes across the globe. (Donations can be made until August 13.) “They have outreach in so many different countries and communities.... It's definitely very wide-reaching, and to help them raise money for even a little part of that has been pretty cool,” Duggan says.
King has used his notoriety in the cycling world to help garner support for the organization. “I've used my social media, my reach, my audience to get the message out,” he says. “You see the liberation, you see what it provides to a lot of very worthy folks in need. It's a tremendous organization that I'm very proud to be a part of.”
Find out more about the Leadville Trail 100 MBT here.