North Vancouver bike store owner aims to send 1,000 bikes to Uganda

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      A North Shore cyclist and bike-store owner says he is well over halfway to getting 1,000 donated bikes in 30 days from the local community to ship to northern Uganda.

      “We’re probably closing on 600,” Willie Cromack, owner of North Vancouver-based John Henry Bikes, told the Straight by phone. “We put 1,000 out there. We can only fit 450 in the damn container, but the principle is, tell people you need 1,000 and you’ll definitely fill a container.”

      Cromack said he and his crew have already filled an ageing, 40-foot shipping container sitting behind the store, as part of the Big Bike Give campaign, which ends May 14, when the container will begin the long journey to Karamoja, Uganda.

      “What we have is a second container which will be dropped off, most likely, in Squamish,” Cromack said of the overspill donations. “We’ve got a guy who’s lending us some space on an ongoing basis, and we’ll just keep raising money to buy the containers and the actual amount of money to get the containers there [Uganda], which is the biggest part.”

      Cromack said he buys “used or refurbished containers that are not quite cutting it for trains anymore”. They do their last haul with used bikes in them and then they become “used bike shops when they get there”, Cromack said.

      Video by Colin Hope/BCIT Magazine with camera operator Christina Day and video editors Gabriel Law and Sam Madrussen.

      Because Uganda is landlocked on the African continent, it will cost between $12,000 and $19,000 to send the bikes to Karamoja, according to Cromack. He said a container going to Guatemala, by comparison, would cost $3,500 to $4,000.

      As for the bikes themselves, Cromack and his crew are getting all sorts, including a lot of “balloon-tire specials from days gone by”.

      “That’s the kind of principle really,” he said. “Nobody’s looking for a McLaren when they get to Uganda; they’re looking to take 200 pounds of firewood back and forth.”

      The biggest surprise on the bike front came when someone donated some Raleigh bicycles in mint condition, bikes manufactured in the famous and long-gone Raleigh factory in Nottingham, England.

      “People are like, ”˜My mum and dad died, here are some bikes,’” Cromack said. “My dad was born in Wembley Park area and was like, ”˜I can’t believe these people just gave us these bikes to go to Uganda.’ They are in perfect shape too. The people came with them and the pedals were in plastic bags. So they are still cotter pin-cranked, they’re in mint condition, and we’ve left those till last to go in—a his and hers version of a mum and dad that have moved on to a better world and kids who don’t know the value of a Nottingham-built Raleigh.”

      This fall, Cromack said his two mechanics, Paul Graham and April Jones, will head over to Uganda to start training locals to fix the bikes, as well as establishing a set-up that will enable greater self-sufficiency.

      “I hope to go and do this, and after three or four months, I hope to leave and then leave something that they can carry on, like a lasting effect that they can just pick up and make as big as they want to make,” Graham, who is from London, England, said by phone. “From the research I’ve done it’s quite a remote region we’re going to, and if we can just get that ball rolling, then they can just take it from there.”

      Kenyan immigrant and Coquitlam resident James Kamau called the initiative a “great idea”.

      Kamau, executive director of Youth Initiative Canada, told the Straight he is familiar with northern Uganda and said the transportation infrastructure there is thin on the ground. He said children and teachers, for example, travel vast distances on foot, sometimes five kilometres each way, and sometimes they go home for lunch.

      “So having access to the bikes, that will give them time if they are going to school, shopping, or maybe going to get water,” Kamau said by phone. “And the more time they can reduce, especially like the women and the girls, the more time they have for the home and for the kids, they can spend more time.”

      Northern Uganda is a crisis-ridden area where child soldiers have been recruited, Kamau added.

      “Some places, the buses and the minivans that are used for transportation run once a day,” he said. “If you miss the bus, have fun walking wherever you’re going, which is not close. But that [Big Bike Give] is a great initiative. There is a similar group in Kenya doing a similar thing, but that one is more geared towards HIV/AIDS awareness. Most of the community workers they go from village to village and they walk the whole day.”

      Which gives Cromack a segue into his overarching philosophy: “Live to ride.”

      Anyone wanting to do a bit of spring cleaning can take spare or neglected bikes to Cromack's store.