Kipchoge Spencer of Xtracycle and Worldbike answers questions
What work do you do?
What does your organization do?
Xtracycle invented and makes car-trip-replacing, life-enhancing, sport-utility bicycles, long bikes, and the FreeRadical Hitchless Trailer — for toting your kids to school, loading up with groceries, or making an off-road camping trip to the hills. Acts like a bike but works like a truck.
Photo: Ed Lucero.
We started the Worldbike nonprofit to reach the people who most need but can least afford a utilitarian bike. We’re currently working in Kenya, modifying existing bicycles with a locally produced version of our cargo extension. By documenting the increased earning power and improved quality of life of Kenyans with simple load-carrying bikes, we plan to make the case for major investment in this simple technology all around the developing world.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Mission accomplished is when mass pop culture realizes riding your bike to work is the coolest way to get there. The next step in this mission will be me giving Cameron Diaz a ride to the Oscars on the back of my bike and passing Leo in his Prius, stuck in traffic behind a fustercluck of limos.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Write songs, ride my bike, talk to distributors, and scheme new ways to introduce a new category of transportation to a populace that’s just on the cusp of realizing it needs it. Right now I’m working on a music video for our single “Dick Cheney” and fund-raising for our next expedition: My band has plans to tour through Mexico by bicycle, carrying our equipment on back and making a film about our attempts to organize a Latin American transportation summit.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In high school, I made funny speeches about not using so many napkins at lunch. “Just use your shirt sleeve,” I said.
In college, I knew I wanted to do something big for the world, but what? I wrote my thesis about Stanford University’s voracious energy appetite and its green, cost-saving cure.
I went to work for Rocky Mountain Institute, entranced by its hopeful, non-confrontational message of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too abundance. At first skeptical of their close workings with nasty corporations, I eventually realized that a for-profit company could be one of the most effective instruments for affecting the world.
I called up a college buddy to see how his work with bikes was going. He invited me to join him in marketing the new product he had designed in school, the Xtracycle, and I did.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Bike-shop owners who won’t step out of the narrow American mind-set of “bicycle as toy” to put energy toward championing the bicycle as a liberating, peerless transportation tool.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Eugene, Ore., I currently live in a teensy little town called North San Juan, in the Sierra foothills of Northern California.
Who is your environmental hero?
Whoever inspires optimism at any given moment. Past heroes of the day include: Amory and Hunter Lovins, for pointing out that environmentalism doesn’t have to be ideological (read: right-wingers can play, too); Dana Meadows, peerless environmental columnist; Paul Hawken, for inspiring businesspeople to rethink the purpose and potential of their work; and Hayduke and all the other fearless activists who are willing to sit, strike, chain-up, tie-down, throw pies, and otherwise disobey in defense of Mother Earth.
What’s your environmental vice?
How do you get around?
Being a whitewater kayaker, touring musician, agitated social entrepreneur, and traveling salesman — and living 20 steep miles from town — I have plenty of reasons to own and use an automobile. And yet, car ownership felt so inconsistent with my work and values that I wanted to try doing without.
Working on an MTV reality show about my attempts to lead a sustainable lifestyle this past summer, I finally got the courage to sell my car. The prospect of doing it in front of millions of impressionable kids put me over the edge.
Now I have three sport-utility bicycles. And for motorized cultural expeditions and band travels, we have a 1974 midsized sport-utility school bus named Millie the Millennium Van. We converted her to run on straight vegetable oil several years ago, and she also runs on biodiesel. I have come to think of SVO as actually meaning “sometimes vegetable oil,” since it so far hasn’t proved to be the most reliable fuel choice out there, despite all its other lovely attributes … meaning Millie also runs on petro-diesel.
What are you reading these days?
I try to read every Daily Grist, though I sheepishly admit to a mass purge of more than 50 in a recent inbox massacre.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Way down in the crack at Deer Creek in the Grand Canyon.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We’re too scared to throw out the bathwater and the baby — too eager to replace consumption with green consumption, as if Hummers are the problem and the Prius is the cure.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Then: Creedence, Jimmy Cliff, Beatles, Bob Marley. Now: Manu Chao, Spearhead, Be Good Tanyas. And, of course, the Ginger Ninjas.
What’s your favorite TV show?
I think current television is so integral a part of the Wheel of Destruction and breeding the culture of insatiable desire that this question should not be asked in this forum. It’s like asking: What’s your favorite exploitative big-box retailer? Your favorite SUV for short trips? And in so doing, inadvertently using environmental activists to legitimize the very behavior that we think might not be good for the world.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Read/listen to my spoken-word poem “How Much” and then order the CD, burn it, and send it to friends. For the time-challenged, skip the poem and just move close enough to your job so that you can ride your bike to work.