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‘Disaster Relief Trials’ demonstrate biking’s potential after The Big One

Posted by on October 17th, 2015 at 11:38 pm

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Competitor Adam Newman leads a group of riders on North Rosa Parks Way en route to the Oregon Food Bank checkpoint where they had to pick up a box of food before returning to the University of Portland.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

With interest in earthquake preparedness at an all-time high, the timing could not have been better for the fourth annual Disaster Relief Trials. The event, which was based at University of Portland, aims to demonstrate that cargo bikes can be an effective way to administer aid and help rebuild our communities after a large quake or other natural disaster.


Mike Cobb.

45 competitors showed up today to test their mettle and equipment. They faced 10 challenging checkpoints scattered throughout the city. They had to lift their bikes up and over a five-foot wall, ride through deep water, carry heavy and awkward loads, traverse steep dirt trails, and more. Depending on category, the riders had to pedal, push, and lift their loads between 15 and 30 miles.

Portlander Mike Cobb came up with the concept five years ago and now DRT events are held in Seattle, Eugene and San Francisco. Bend will join the list next year. Cobb was inspired by the tragic events that unfolded after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010. “I was embarrassed as a human to watch what happened in Haiti,” he shared with me at the event today, “And the biggest tragedy wasn’t the quake itself but the secondary impacts. We have such amazing innovations when we’re motivated… like going to the moon or something; but all those people in Haiti had to suffer just because we’re not focused on it.

“Decision-makers need proof that bikes are not just toys.”
— Mike Cobb, event organizer

So I thought, what can I do?”

Cobb, a former messenger known for amazing feats of bicycling like doing the 375-mile off-road Oregon Outback on a fixed gear, turned to what he knows and loves: bikes. “I wanted to do something decentralized and human-powered.”

The DRT is a way to showcase what cargo bikes can do. If we as a society are to ever embrace them as serious disaster-relief tools, people in power must shift their perceptions. “Decision-makers need proof that bikes are not just toys,” Cobb says.

Today’s event definitely got the point across. In fact, the City of Portland’s Planning and Preparedness Manager Jonna Papaefthimiou participated in the Family category (see photos of her in action below).

Here’s a breakdown of the different rider categories:

Family Category Rider (~15 miles, ~20lbs cargo + your kids)
The Family class are families that are ready. With kids in tow, their cargo will take care of their needs; going the distance to make sure their family is safe! In the notes, please tell us how many kids will be on your bike and you’ll get a time bonus per kid!

Citizen Category Rider (~30 miles, ~50lbs cargo)
The Citizen class are everyday people who are prepared for disaster. They might not have the heaviest cargo, but they have what they need to make sure they are ready.

Resilient Category Rider (~30 miles, ~75lbs cargo)
The Resilient class are everyday people who are ready to help. Their cargo will to take care of their needs, but don’t worry, they have a little bit extra to help their community. They are ready to go that extra distance to help others in their community! Riders in this class should anticipate large and awkward cargo.

Responder Category Rider (~30 miles, ~100lbs cargo)
The Responder class will carry the heaviest cargo, they are the people who will be going the longest distance because in a real disaster, the responders will be taking care of themselves and others. Riders in this class should anticipate large and awkward cargo.

E-Assist Category Rider (~30 miles, ~125lbs cargo)
The E-Assist class will cover more ground and haul more cargo (125 lbs) since they come with a built in booster. Riders who can prove (with a picture) that they have an off-grid charging option will get a time bonus. Bike path legal e-assist bikes only please.

For more of today’s action, check out the photos and captions below…

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Responder category team entrant Lindsay Kennedy.
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Resilient category rider Tom Keller.
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Citizen category riders.
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Shawn Postera riding for Multnomah County Animal Services.
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Citizen category rider Piet Fretz
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Citizen category rider Wibke Fretz.
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Back at the Hub, spectators checked out a map of the checkpoints.
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Responder category rider Joel Newman pumps his tire at checkpoint #2.
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Responder category rider Joel Newman checks his map before leaving the Hub for checkpoint #3 on the Tilikum Bridge.
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Responder category rider Josh Volk.
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The riders kept the map within close reach. They had get it signed-off by a course marshall at each checkpoint.
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Joel Newman’s homemade machine featured a nifty drivetrain and cool outrigger cargo bins.
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Close-up of the drivetrain on Joel Newman’s bike.
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Joel Newman made these versatile cargo bays.
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There was a very wide variety of bike set-ups, including Aaron Rogosin’s Cannondale road bike with an Xtracycle Freeradical kit.
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Bill Stites of Stites Design volunteered to be the first responder with his Truck Trike. It also came in handy when these 18 pallets needed to be hauled from University of Portland to St. Johns Park.
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The second checkpoint required participants to deflate a tire (to mimic a blowout) and then pump it up. Many were given a five-minute penalty for not carrying their own pump.
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Responder category rider Mark Ginsberg refilled his water at checkpoint #2.
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Responder category rider Tess Velo riding away toward checkpoint #3.


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Resilient category rider Seth Burke.
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Tomas deAlmeida upon hearing his friend and fellow rider Ryan Hashagen suffered a real tire blowout on the way to the first checkpoint.
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Resilient category rider William Douglas all loaded up.
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E-assist category rider Nick Slanchick
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Responder category rider Nate Young.
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Up-close look at DIY bakfiets belonging to Seth Burke.
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Tire-pumping teamwork of Piet and Wibke Fretz.
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Patrick Vinograd and son were one of several participants in the Family category.
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“Here dad, I’ll hold this for you while you pump.”
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Responder category rider Ryan Hashagen was more tired than anyone else at the first checkpoint. One of his tires blew out while riding his cargo trike on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Instead of dropping out, he pushed the trike a mile home, got another cargo bike out of his garage and re-entered the competition.
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Joe Ohama and his son Luke Ohama dropping into the deep water challenge at checkpoint #4.
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He might need a fender in his emergency kit!
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Jonna Papaefthimiou, planning and preparedness manager at the City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, participated in the Family category.
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When the Big One does strike, Portland’s deeply rooted cargo biking culture, our respect for human-powered mobility, and the type of community building and skills on display at events like this will benefit us all. Thanks to all the participants, organizers, volunteers and sponsors!

Read more on this topic in our “bikes and disasters” archives.

— Jonathan Maus
(503) 706-8804

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Mike Quiglery
Mike Quiglery

Okay. Color me cynical. But with bridges down, fires raging everywhere, the west hills in downtown Portland, and downtown Portland sunk into the alluvium, all capped off by desperate survivors with kill or be killed mindsets, it’s gonna be bicyclists to the rescue? C’mon. The Big One won’t be another Columbus Day storm.


Great photos!
and always fun to see trailers in amongst the cargo bikes.

Adam Newman

Hey that’s me!
What a great event. Really well organized and run. I had a great time. I think it leans more on the “fun” side than “realistic” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. In fact, I hope we never have to do the realistic part.


That’s actually the point Mike, these folks will already be prepared for the task at hand and will deal with the massive intangeables , chaos and challenges while many others wring their hands, panic and become paralyzed by inaction.


He’s got a point though; try getting a loaded cargo bike across the Banfield when all the local bridges are down…you might just be better off with a Brompton.



The difference is they will try and accomplish great things while many of us standby and say it cant be done.

Josh G

Eugene had an optional very challenging water crossing!
courtesy of ROTC


The only thing that amuses me about some of the DRT rigs are the thinner tires – but of course, you equip for the CURRENT conditions and with the smoother roads we commute on they’re perfectly acceptable.

I was having the “big one” conversation with a few clients of mine a couple weeks ago and we had the “you can pilfer and loot” or the “you can work together to rebuild, prepare by getting involved with neighborhood emergency relief groups, have emergency food, water & basic essentials storage etc” – my clients, most of which have recently been released from prison after serving 10+ years, some military veterans, some having been involved in gangs or violent activity in their past – all agreed that it was [insert expletive here] to just go out and loot as it was more productive to work together as a team to rebuild the community.

Everyone should invest in some treaded 2″ tires and at least a midtail or work truck so they can do some off-road hauling when the road goes to crap. Keep family home storage (even if you’re a family of one! Don’t forget your pets and basic meds like aspirin have more uses than just pain relief)

And look into your neighborhood emergency relief group and getting certified for cpr/1st aid. You can choose to be selfish and go it alone or help your neighbor and work together to keep safe and pool resources.

Mike Cobb

Thank-you for the excellent coverage, Jonathan. I want to mention that DRT PDX 2015 would not have been executed with such professionalism (or at all?) were it not for the powerful leadership of Emma Stocker, a professional emergency manager and DRT Eugene co-founder, who now lives in Portland (lucky us!). Emma was the chairperson of our DRT Steering Committee. Alex Page, Rithy Khut, and Kelley Stangl provided vital work on the Committee as well. Jeff Rook, Environmental Safety Officer at University of Portland, was our University of Portlad liaison. Jeff is also steeped in the CERT world (Community Emergency Response Team). In Jeff, DRT PDX found the perfect partner for connecting our event to all the resources we needed: human and physical. We also had help from at least a dozen other people who really get the DRT concept. So grateful.

gracie west
gracie west

Can anyone tell me what kind of cargo bike
Jonna Papaefthimiou is riding in the photos? Thanks.

Joe Ohama
Joe Ohama

This was a great event, thanks to all of the organizers. This was our first DRT, but I’m involved with CERT, ARES/RACES and the Red Cross, and now after doing this event, I can see bikes are another tool in the preparedness tool box. My son and I had a fun time, took some learning and plan to do the DRT again next year.

Aixe Djelal

What a great event! I had a great time spectating. Thanks for the article, Jonathan. It’s good to know the history and a bit more about the categories – and nice photos! I was impressed by the diversity of bicycles and the creativity with which they were rigged to haul cargo.

Todd Boulanger
Todd Boulanger

I am always impressed each year with the development of this event. Way to go!

Perhaps for next year the “e-bike” category should have a “recharge” stop using solar power (X% recharge) – to simulate what would likely be needed to be done.

Mike Cobb

Good point. The Rough Terrain Checkpoint was *a really rough* 400 meters and the one meter barrier was set-up to be encountered with a load: double portage. This is to say: the DRT Essential Elements (11 of ’em) are designed to simulate total transportation infrastructure failure. I-84 will *always* be cross able. Cargo bikes can weigh as little as 55 pounds. With a buddy especially, there is no freeway landscape that can’t be crossed.


The Eugene one happened the same day and kicked butt as usual. It’s a real shame that the PDX folks took Eugene’s date so riders couldn’t do both like they’ve done for the past two years. The bigger city wins, I guess?


This seems like something fun to do with your 95 pound bicycle on a nice Saturday. IMHO it’s pure pipe dream that this motley fleet will have any practical value in any kind of disaster. Remember when cargo bikes were going to be a BIG help to UPS during the holidays? Yeah, like that. Eugene or Portland, this is fantasy as I see it.


Right, cargo bike riders to save the world.

Let’s build Japan an Oregon Trail……absurd


Holy smokes all the negative mojo. Cargo bikes might be the only thing moving if larger machines cannot reload fueling stations. This reminds me of your typical suburbanite from somewhere not Portland saying, “Bikes are toys for kids or racing.” But now the commentary is slamming the amazingly utilitarian cargo bikes. My business delivers all of our coffee by cargo bike. We have made deliveries in the snow when cars are busy crashing or (wisely) staying home.

Nevermind a catastrophe… driving in this city at rush hour versus biking pretty much feels like armageddon to my soul anyway…it’s awful.