By Lisa Byers
It didn’t start out well. In fact, for the first hour of his trip, Meadville resident Ben Masters wasn’t sure he had made a wise decision.
“I started out and it was raining,” Masters said. “It just poured on me for the first hour in New York City. I thought, ‘Oh. I’ll test my mettle and make sure I’m ready to do this.’
“I got out of New York City, went over the George Washington Bridge and just as I got into New Jersey I had a flat tire. Right off, I was like, ‘New Jersey is going to suck.’ And it did.”
The first day of Masters’ trek by bicycle from New York City to Meadville may have been less than favorable. But by the end of the 500-mile journey, Masters not only cleared all doubts about whether or not he had made the right decision, he formed a new initiative: For a year, if he wants or needs to get someplace, it will be by bicycle.
“For one calendar year, I’m only going to ride a bicycle,” Masters said. “No riding in cars, trains, buses, airplanes. For one year, if I want to get somewhere, I’ve got to cycle.”
Masters began his initiative on May 29 as another way to promote bicycles as a viable form of transportation. In January, Masters started the organization N.W. Pa. Re-Cycle, also known as Meadville Area Bicycle Project, formed to provide summer bicycle education programs for children and teach them how to maintain their bikes themselves.
The organization also distributes donated bicycles through its “Earn-a-Bike” program.
“I’m stoked when people do it for recreation and I’m happy when people get out there and cycle every so often, but I really think it is a good form of transportation,” Masters said.
It also just so happens to be Masters’ only source of transportation through May 29, 2011.
Dreaming in the Big Apple
Getting from place to place solely by bicycle isn’t something new to Masters. After all, bicycles are pretty much the only means of transportation in Zambia, where Masters served with the Peace Corps from 2003 to 2006.
The problem is the bikes being used aren’t of good quality, Masters said. “They aren’t suited for their type of riding style which is putting a lot of weight on a bicycle,” he said.
“They remind you of a bike your grandmother would have ridden 50 years ago. They’re one speed. They’re steel. So they’re kind of strong, but they just weren’t built to be beat up on dirt roads and carry as much weight as they did.”
That situation, mirrored in several other impoverished countries, prompted an idea by Columbia University a few years back.
“The idea was you could engineer your own bamboo bike. And everyone grows bamboo, or at least several places do. And it’s easy to do. They could build a bike and that could carry a lot of weight,” Masters said.
Columbia tried just that; to devise an organization that would make and teach others to build bamboo bikes. “They built a bike, it broke and all of a sudden they weren’t interested anymore,” Masters said.
Masters said word about the project spread fast throughout the bicycling world and before long three guys in New York City latched on and founded Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn.
The studio offers two-day workshops, which allow people to come in and build their very own bamboo bicycles. They can build the frame and then add components independently for $632 or build the entire bike for $948. Masters said the Bamboo Bike Studio has built close to 300 bicycles.
Masters is proud to call himself an owner of one of them.
The big jump
Masters set out by bus for New York City to build his very own bamboo bicycle in May and wound up with an experience to last a lifetime –– an experience that actually led to his “no car” initiative.
On May 1 and 2, Masters worked with the founder of the shop to build his bike. Then on May 3, Masters packed up and began his journey back to Meadville –– by bicycle.
It was quite an adventure for the 29-year-old.
As earlier mentioned, the journey began in a down pour and a flat tire all within the first hour. But to make matters worse, Masters really had no set route on how he was going to get home.
Masters brought with him what he called a “pretty good” Pennsylvania map. But according to Masters, the map only showed half of New Jersey.
“Pennsylvania has all these connecting roads, so I thought, ‘You know, if it’s like Pennsylvania,’ he said. “I saw a road I thought looked good and thought, ‘I’ll just take that.’ No. New Jersey is not like that at all, especially for biking.”
So on Masters’ first day he not only got a flat tire, he also got lost.
“I stopped at a bike shop because I needed to get an extra tube since I had just punctured my tire,” he said. “I asked the guy, ‘How do I get to Pennsylvania?’ And the guy just blankly stared at me like, ‘I have no idea.’
“I thought, ‘Eh. Forget it. I’ll figure it out.’”
After a few rough nights trying to find a place to camp, eventually stopping to purchase a New Jersey map, having to cover his eye with spandex pants due to debris kicking up into his eye and four more flat tires, Masters finally made it back home to Meadville. And as strange as it may seem, he’ll be doing it again in August.
Masters will bike back to New York City for a month, albeit a different route, to work a pair of workshops at the Bamboo Bike Studio in preparation to lead similar workshops for the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh on Oct. 23 and 24.
“Again, it’s all about promoting cycling as a form of transportation,” Masters said. “That’s what I am passionate about.”
Masters said he and his wife, Katie, also have plans to take a bike trip across the southern United States.
“We’re going to try to make it across,” Masters said. “Katie is free to do whatever she wants, but if we make it to California and it is not yet May 29, I’ll cycle back.”
As of June 28, Ben Masters had trekked a total of 680 miles on his bike.
He said the only challenges he has encountered so far are dealing with weather conditions and trying to make it somewhere on time, and hauling equipment.
But so far, Masters hasn’t wavered from his goal of getting from place-to-place solely by bicycle for a year.
You can follow Masters on his quest by visiting his blog at www.yearbybicycle.blogspot.com.
Lisa Byers can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.