An Honored Trailblazer On The Global State Of The Bicycle


On July 11, 2016, World Bicycle Relief presented the Trailblazer Award to Dr. Leszek Sibilski, former Olympic cyclist, global development thought leader and advocate for bicycles. The annual Trailblazer Award honors an individual who has challenged conventional thinking around the complex issues of poverty, social justice and access while illuminating a new path forward with innovative and bold ideas that have the power to transform millions of lives. Dr. Sibilski has done just that with his tireless work promoting the bicycle as a tool of great change for people around the world. After receiving the award at WBR headquarters in Chicago, Dr. Sibilski shared some inspiring remarks about how bicycles can change the world. Read on for a transcript:

It is my great honor to be here with you tonight, and I am very grateful for this invitation to the Windy City to speak about the current state of the bicycle.

I am especially very humbled by this opportunity knowing that World Bicycle Relief is one of those very few organizations in the world, that is utilizing the bicycle to tackle the barriers of distance so many of the world’s most vulnerable families and children, especially girls, face to reach their full potential through access to education, healthcare and economic sustainability. This is a powerful and tangible solution that can help drive humanity from poverty and distress into prosperity and peace.

And to be the recipient of World Bicycle Relief’s Trailblazer Award makes me even more thrilled and proud.

Many of us underestimate the uniqueness, longevity, and versatility of the bicycle. This simple two-wheeled device has been reliably serving humanity for two centuries, and it is a simple, reliable and clean green player in transportation, environmental stewardship, and health. There is also something very unique about bikes. The synergy between the bike and the user fosters creativity, social engagement, and gives the rider an immediate awareness of the local environment. As a tool for development, a simple bicycle can mean not just transportation but employment even access to education and healthcare.

Despite its old age of 200 years, it is still reliably moving humanity forward, but unsatisfied humans are constantly manipulating its standing within our lives. According to Bill Nye the Science Guy: There’s no machine known that is more efficient than a human on a bicycle. Bowl of oatmeal, 30 miles, you can’t come close to that. After the era of big cars and fast cars, now we want to have greener cars, including hybrids. We build wider highways and multiple level autobahns. We even came up with an e-bike or pedelec. Nowadays, we even have the opportunity to have virtual bicycle rides thanks to new technologies. The concept of smart cities is gaining momentum since we are rapidly moving towards urban settings, but the bicycle is still far behind on the wish list of city planners.

But we keep forgetting we don’t have highways or opportunities to charge electric cars in all places of the Earth. Also, not everyone can thrive in a mega city in an affluent country with all the amenities constantly at their disposal.

This is the moment where the bicycle enters as the reliable mode of transportation. And this is where World Bicycle Relief is delivering its unique program to some of the most vulnerable families and children to literally move their lives forward.

The humble bicycle has played second fiddle to the car for far too long. Research shows that not only could cycling cut a tenth of transport emissions of carbon dioxide, but more people cycling would save cities across the world $25 trillion from 2015 to 2050 by reducing the need for expensive roads and public transport.

Apple’s late Steve Jobs loved to compare the computer to the bicycle: “I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. ‰Û_ But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for man on a bicycle. And, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds”.

Have you ever wondered what happened to once commonplace items such as the abacus, the slide rule, the hourglass, or the quill; not to mention, VHS recorders, CD cassette players, and more recently, address and telephone books? They all met the same fate: they were replaced by modern technological innovations such as calculators, electronic watches, ballpoint pens, and computers. And what happened to the bicycle? It has been with us for over 200 years, and by some estimates, there are more than two billion bikes in use around the world today. By 2050 this number could reach five billion. Over fifty percent of the human population can ride a bike. The bicycle is a veteran and mainstay of human mobility. Even competitive riders pay respect to the utility of bicycles outside grand tours. One of them, Ted King predicted: Bicycles have the potential to save the world. There’s so much that a bicycle can do, from an environmental standpoint, from a health standpoint, and their social impact.

In November 2015, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), in collaboration with the World Cycling Alliance (WCA), announced their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who called for voluntary commitments from civil society to tackle climate change. In Cycling Delivers on the Global Goals the direct impact of cycling can be demonstrated on at least 11 of the 17 Global Goals.

The bicycle is unique and deserves to be given a focus by the global community that it surprisingly has not yet received. This is especially true of politicians who often underestimate the power of voters who take their freedom to pedal very seriously. Cyclists – as citizens – tend to be a very organized and active group with bulk voting power that could be unleashed at any time to advocate for global policy change.

If the stationary bike is taken into consideration, there are bicycles in Antarctica, in Outer Space on board the International Space Station, and even on board airplanes of global leaders. Stationary bicycles are a top choice for many navy sailors, too, while on overseas missions. Water bikes are another option and top choice for water hiking at many resorts. One would think that the bicycle is doing great. But when you dig deeper into the issue you can easily realize that the bicycle has no recognition or any insurance for its future.

When I think of the bicycle, I see many similarities with another favorite topic of my research and writings: family. The family and the bicycle both move us forward, take care of us, work as a support system, develop strength, shape personality, and fulfill needs. We can rely on bicycles, and for many people in this world, it may be all that we need to thrive.

Last year, I decided to investigate the status of family and the bicycle within the United Nations. The results of my inquiries were stunning in both cases. With regards to family, I decided to check what the contemporary decalogues had to say about family. First, I analyzed the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a delivery date of 2015. I also looked at the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the targeted date of 2030.

When I looked at both documents, I could not believe my eyes. In neither of these two guidelines for humankind was I able to find a specific goal focusing on the struggles of the modern family and its present rapid drift toward collapse. You will find calls to protect and/or support girls, boys, adults, children, people, populations, men, women, children, newborn, persons with disabilities, young people, older persons and the poor, but no mention is made and no mercy given for the protection and promotion of family.

Also, I discovered something mind-blowing: there is no UN sanctioned holiday celebrating the bicycle. Following this, I started to work tirelessly to promote the idea of proposing a bicycle holiday to the United Nations. This day would assure us that the past, presence, and the future of the bicycle would be well preserved for generations to come. Several months ago, I proposed the name for such a day: THE WORLD BICYCLE DAY, and since then I keep campaigning for this cause all over the world. Fortunately, I was able to meet passionate cycling enthusiasts from the World Cycling Alliance and the European Cycling Federation who took this notion from an advocacy level to a formal process. I truly hope that World Bicycle Relief will join forces to support the World Bicycle Day as well. The bicycle deserves a day when we can all appreciate and celebrate its simple, clean and durable form of mobility.

My crusade for the World Bicycle Day would not have been possible without the support of many lovers of cycling. First of all, I would like to thank: Mike Veitenhans and Ruth-Anne Renaud from WBR for their seamless collaboration and friendship. In addition, I can’t forget two supportive colleagues on the World Bank Group side: Sina Odugbemi and Roxanne Bauer who have constantly been providing me with access to the Public Sphere platform to campaign for the bicycle and cycling for all. They have been instrumental in allowing me to promote awareness about the World Bicycle Day. They support the cause as being an important contribution to sustainable development. Chris Peck from the UCI was my “24/7 quality control” always ready to share his infinite cycling knowledge. Dr. Bernhard Ensink, the Secretary General from World Cycling Alliance, without even blinking immediately understood the significance of this opportunity for those who love cycling.

Let’s hope that next year at this time, we will have reason to celebrate our bicycles.

Thank you for your attention! Once again, thank you for the invitation to be with you tonight!

Dr. Sibilski’s commitment to promoting bicycles as a distance-reducing tool resonates with all of us at WBR. Our current campaign, Wheels in the Field: Malawi, is raising funds to give 2,000 bicycles to rural students who currently walk for hours just to get to school each day. You have an opportunity to be a trailblazer like Dr. Sibilski and make a world of difference in these students’ lives. Will you join us and bring the Power of Bicycles to Malawi?

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