In much of the third world bicycles are capital equipment. Spectacularly overloaded bicycles transport goods from remote subsistence farms to distant markets. Life saving medications are delivered down dirt roads untracked by car tires.
Pasadena in the sixties was pretty far from the third world, but bicycles were used as capital equipment there, too. When we moved to Pasadena from Seattle in 1961, I was shocked to see newspapers being delivered by bicycle. Paperboys rode sturdy, single-speed bikes with "ape hangar" handlebars over which they hung their canvas bags full of folded editions of the Star News. They weaved down sidewalks, streets and driveways and threw the papers in the general direction of the front porch. Most of them ended up on the lawn or driveway.
As a former Seattle paperboy, I saw this as a breech of the unwritten paperboy code. In Seattle, you walked your route in the rain with about two hundred pounds of papers slung over your sagging shoulders and tossed every paper onto the porch and under the eaves. A soggy paper was grounds for the supervisor to call you at home and have you deliver a dry one.
Pasadena paperboys, it seemed, were cheating. They were getting away with something, which of course is one of the great appeals of the bicycle. Whether used for work or play, the bicycle transforms its rider from a slow, awkward biped to a graceful, gliding traveler. It's an exhilarating rush that many of us never get over.
Nobody is graceful on a bike all of the time. My late friend, Nick, over-loaded his handlebar bags in an attempt to do his entire route without reloading. I happened to be riding alongside on my Schwinn Continental when the stem bolt on Nick's cruiser gave up and sent him and two hundred copies of the Star News over the front wheel. Undiscouraged, Nick eventually went on to own and run the B & L bike shop on the Big Island, which became the unofficial cycling headquarters of the Ironman triathlon.
Hans "No Way" Rey is not easily discouraged either. He's a human YouTube video, a world champion trials and mountain bike rider, who's been defying the laws of physics and gravity for years. Sometimes gravity wins, with painful consequences.
The laws of economics can be cruel, too, as Hans has discovered in his adventure travels through over 70 countries around the world. Villagers in Tanzania might be separated from schools and vital medical services by ten miles or more. A bicycle, even the most basic bicycle, could turn an all-day tramp under the equatorial sun into a one-hour breeze.
Personal mobility is the most basic human freedom. Hans and Carmen Rey founded Wheels4Life in 2005 to bring mobility to people in need of it in the most remote and forgotten corners of the world. So far, Wheels4Life has distributed more than 3,300 bicycles to people in Mexico, Uganda, Tanzania and many other countries. They're sturdy, basic bikes built to fill basic needs at a cost of less than $150. As the Wheels4Life website says, you can change a life for $150.
Think you could improve someone's life more for a mere c-note and a half? No way.