Disaster Relief Trials bring cargo-bike heroism back to Portland

Disaster Relief Trials bring cargo-bike heroism back to Portland

Photo by Al Hongo.

Portland’s 30-mile catastrophe-themed urban bike competition returned for a second year Saturday with a splash and a lot of grunts.

“Bikes in general solve more problems than they create, and that holds true even when we’re at our most desperate.”
— Austin Horse, DRT open Class winner

In all, 48 cargo bikers set out from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry past a series of checkpoints at which they picked up three eggs (representing vials of a precious vaccine during a hypothetical outbreak) from a local health station, a bucket of “food” from Sauvie Island and two buckets of fresh water hand-scooped from the Columbia River.

Total cargo weight by the end of the event: 88 to 132 pounds depending on class, according to steering committee member Michael Cobb. Cobb conceived the “spirited scavenger hunt” in 2010 as a fun showcase for the potential of cargo bikes to play a key role in disaster response after an earthquake, tsunami or other devastating event removes easy access to gasoline or electricity — something experts warn is likely in Portland.

“It stokes the Pacific Northwesteners’ either public or private deep-seated belief that we’re headed toward some sort of war, famine, zombies, aliens, disease, economic collapse, whatever,” said Al Hongo of Eugene, a volunteer at Saturday’s event. “It’s so rad.”

The route wrapped back and forth across the Willamette River several times, leading participants on an overland trek:

Photo by Al Hongo.

After crossing the Hawthorne Bridge back to OMSI, participants hoisted their cargo and vehicles over a jersey barrier:

and pedaled in to cheers at the finish line.

Organizers used walkie-talkies to track participants in each of three classes: “open,” “citizen,” and “e-assist”:

The first-place finisher in the “open” class was Austin Horse, 31, of New York City, a retired bike messenger who’d flown to Portland to take part.

Horse said he’d fueled up the night before with “a bowl of something” from the Sweet Hereafter pub and packed four bananas in his pannier for the day:

In the “citizen” class, an only slightly less intense trek, the first to finish was Ken Wetherell of Portland Pedal Power. Cory Poole of the NW Skate Coalition even participated on his cargo-equipped skateboard:

Photo by Al Hongo.

Mark Ginsberg of Berkshire Ginsberg LLC, who finished fourth, said his secret was to go “slow and steady.” He’d taken a 10-minute break mid-race to get a drink at New Seasons, he said.

Turbo-charged by DRT steering committee member and chief evangelist Ethan Jewett, the event drew sponsorships from OMSI, several cargo bike makers and the emergency preparedness departments for the City of Portland and Multnomah County. The organizers lined up other partnerships, too.

“It’s really great to see the fed authorities included — FEMA was at some checkpoints,” said Ryan Hashagen of Portland Pedicabs, who finished the course for the second consecutive year. “I feel like Portland is leading cargo bike innovation for the rest of the country.”

In all, Jewett said, about 41 men and seven women had taken part in the competition, which is (like so many volunteer-driven Portland street culture events) a nonprofit project performed under the wing of fiscal agent Umbrella. Riders paid $50 to participate.

Horse, the New York City visitor who won the open class, said he was motivated by the chance to visit Portland and by his conviction that cargo bikes are a way for ordinary people to solve problems for themselves — fed in part by his own experience helping with relief efforts last summer after Hurricane Sandy.

“Bikes in general solve more problems than they create,” Horse said. “And that holds true even when we’re at our most desperate.”

Several of the photos above, and the first two below, are the terrific work of Al Hongo, reposted with permission. You can find more of his photography from the event on Instagram under the handle mybagisbigger. If you know of other good photos from the day, link to them in the comments below!

– Read more about bikes and disasters in our archives.

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