Bruyneel on African adventure
We caught up with team RadioShack directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel, and he told us all about the importance of the World Bicycle Relief campaign.
Eurosport: We've heard about your recent trip to Africa. That's certainly not how many directeur sportifs spend their off-season.
Johan Bruyneel: Well, that's probably true! I was supposed to go to Zambia with World Bicycle Relief last year, but had a bad case of the flu, so my wife, Eva, and I were really excited to go this year and see the great work being done. We even took our six year-old daughter, Victoria, along with us. We took her out of school for about 10 days, but the pure experience of the trip far outweighs anything she could have learned in the classroom.
ES: A lot of our readers may not know much about World Bicycle Relief. Can you quickly explain it and how you became involved?
JB: A little over two years ago I didn't know much about World Bicycle Relief either. After I signed SRAM components in 2008 for the team, I had a meeting with FK Day, who is the executive vice president of SRAM and also the president of World Bicycle Relief. I went into the meeting thinking FK wanted to talk about professional cycling, bikes, etc. - the normal talk of the bike industry. Turns out that all he wanted to talk about was the organisation he founded after the devastating Sri Lanka tsunami. That organisation was of course World Bicycle Relief, which serves to increase independence and livelihood by providing bicycles to underprivileged and disaster stricken regions. World Bicycle Relief has been focusing a lot of their efforts in Zambia, a country affected by poverty and disease. That same day I agreed to be actively part of the organisation. I owe everything in life thanks to the bike, so it was a very natural fit. And after coming back from Zambia, I couldn't feel more proud to be affiliated with World Bicycle Relief. It was simply amazing to witness the impact first-hand.
ES: Share some of the things you witnessed.
JB: I feel I can write an entire book on the journey. We went to visit caregivers. Many of them look after HIV/AIDS patients and their families. The bike has completely transformed the way they provide care. They are now able to see more patients, visit patients more frequently, carry medicines and even transport sick patients to far-away clinics. The caregivers are also educating about safe-sex practices to hopefully decrease the rate of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. And then the other one was the Bicycle Education Empowerment Program, known as BEEP. This really impacted us because we have children and to imagine my own daughter walking 20 km (12.4 miles) roundtrip to/from school is just scary. Can you imagine? But many children have to walk these distances just to get an education. It's not hard to see why attendance rates decline and children don't graduate. But when you give a child a bike, they can now get to school safer, faster and more efficiently. There have been studies that show that when children receive a bike, there are increased rates of graduating and getting a job. Schoolgirls with a bike also have a greater chance to secure employment, get married later, have fewer kids and are less likely to contract HIV/AIDS. Think about that. You give bikes to all the school children and we can see changes in education, economy and healthcare on a national level. As they say, 'the power of the bicycle'!
ES: You posted on your Facebook page a picture of you riding a bike with 125 kg of coal. How was that?
JB: Hard. Very hard! And I didn't even have to ride far! Some of these workers ride their WBR bike with coal 50 km (31 miles) to sell it. I can't imagine, but they do it - thanks to the WBR bikes. I don't think I have to tell you that workers wouldn't be able to carry that amount of coal for that distance if it weren't for the WBR bike. Selling coal is the way they make their money to live and care for their families. So the bike completely changed how they conducted business and even more so, live their lives.
ES: A lot of people reading this must be wondering what's so special about a World Bicycle Relief bike. Why not just any bike?
JB: That's a good question that gets asked a lot because many people want to donate their unwanted bikes to people in Africa. It's certainly a kind gesture, but we learned and saw that 'normal' bikes weren't created for the conditions in Zambia and become useless fairly quickly. So FK and his team created a special and inexpensive WBR bike that can withstand all the conditions. It's also somewhat easy to make simple repairs because as you can imagine, there is not always a bike mechanic close by. Sometimes the bikes can even be fixed with a rock. We had the opportunity to build a WBR bike and then ride it to our various visits. I like to call it the tank of bicycles because it's so durable!
ES: There are so many charitable organisations out there, what do you tell people when they ask "Why should I support World Bicycle Relief?"
JB: Picking a charity or charities to support is not such an easy decision. There are a lot of charities out there supporting great causes, so I think the most important thing is that people are finding ways to give back. Going to Zambia and being part of World Bicycle Relief, really reminded me how fortunate we truly are. We get so consumed in our little worlds, that we sometimes forget that people are just struggling to survive in other regions of the world. So I hope to keep the experiences of World Bicycle Relief in my mind because it really puts life in perspective. I mentioned to you about how World Bicycle Relief is helping people and dramatically changing people's lives, their families and communities, but I think an important point is that WBR is an organization that is enabling people. And what I mean by that … A WBR bike costs $134. If you gave a Zambian, $134 in cash, they certainly would be very, very happy. But eventually that money would run out and they would be dependent on another generous person giving money. Now if you give that same Zambian a WBR bike, they are then able to transport 125 kg of coal, or get an education and later get a job, or visit sick patients. In the end, the bike gives them independence, freedom and allows them to earn money and take care of themselves and their families. I think that is one of the best things about World Bicycle Relief. It gives capable people a bicycle that can change their lives forever.
ES: So how can people support World Bicycle Relief?
JB: Well I think the easiest thing is for people to go to http://WorldBicycleRelief.org - they can learn about the great work being done and different ways to get involved.
ES: It's almost December and the start of the cycling season is coming up. How's the planning going for 2011?
JB: Yes, it's amazing how quickly the time goes! We race 10 months out of the year, so there's not a very long break. And for someone like me, there's always some planning to being done. Training camps, schedules, meetings, etc. We have our first training camp in early December, then the holiday season and then before you know it, we'll be on a plane to Australia! I'm looking forward to this season. We'll have some young guys coming in and it's always a nice challenge to work with them.