Cargo bikes to the rescue at the Disaster Relief Trials

Photos by Howard Draper

This is it. The Big One. The Cascadia Subduction Zone has shifted, resulting in a massive earthquake and tsunami that has devastated the Pacific Northwest. In Portland bridges are unsafe to cross, gasoline is being rationed and electricity is spotty. Luckily the city is filled with cyclists who can transport water, food, medicine and other relief supplies quickly and easily.


Ok, so the massive earthquake that threatens Oregon hasn’t happened yet, but if or when it does the local cycling community will be well prepared thanks to events like the Disaster Relief Trials (DRT). A checkpoint-based bike race with a cargo-hauling twist, it’s designed to promote resilience in the face of the inescapable. In a handful of cities on the West Coast, the event simulates a three-day supply run on cargo bikes (or whatever bike can handle the load).

I joined dozens of other first responders, cargo bike fanatics and curious participants over the weekend for the Portland edition of DRT, which fanned out 30 miles across the city. From a central hub we raced to checkpoints where we picked up supplies including a case of food, a big bucket of water, a wooden pallet and a fragile egg. Along the way we had our manifest checked off and our cargo inspected. Different categories separated payload weights along with e-bikes or team efforts.


Cooperation was key in many respects, often for route finding but also to lift the bikes over a four-foot wall and push them through a difficult uphill dirt section. All the participants were eager to help each other and the volunteers manning the checkpoints were helpful and friendly.


The variety in bicycles represented was astounding. I’ve certainly never seen such a collection of longtails, bakfiets, trailers and trikes. Most were Yubas, Bullets and Surlys but there were also quite a few handmade bikes. I borrowed a beautiful, Portland-made Metrofiets for the event and, despite my limited experience piloting such a craft, it turned out to be a great platform for the day. Even with a massive front end, the bike handled well and shrugged off my 100 pound payload. All I had to do was pedal—and remember that the Shimano Alfine 8 shifter is backward…


Of course, racing full speed around the city with a giant pallet strapped to your bike doesn’t really simulate the hazards and challenges of an actual disaster situation, but it does help the visibility of the cycling community as a resource that should be considered in disaster planning. On hand were emergency personnel and first responders from several local agencies practicing their aspects of communication and operations while a disaster relief information fair was being held next door.

At the end of the day I was exhausted, sore and satisfied. I certainly hope I never have to put any of the experience I gained into use in an actual emergency but, in the meantime, I had a lot of fun.


Click on the magnifying glass to see full-size photos.


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