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Monique Keiran: Bicycles could be valuable in disaster relief

With the 2014 Tour de France ending on Sunday, this year’s version delivered the usual combination of surprise and excitement to fans.

With the 2014 Tour de France ending on Sunday, this year’s version delivered the usual combination of surprise and excitement to fans.

The spectacular high-speed crashes and cringe-inducing injuries that regularly occur during the renowned cycling race brought sudden and unexpected ends to the participation of many contenders for this year’s title.

For the likes of former tour champions Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Andy Schleck and Mark Cavendish, who broke bones and left skin and blood on the roads of France and the U.K., the 2014 Tour de France could be considered something of a disaster.

Fortunately, today’s Tour de Disaster, in Victoria, contains little opportunity for that kind of excitement.

In fact, the timing and the use of bicycles might be the only common element between the two events.

The Tour de France is a race. Cyclists receive different prizes for different kinds of wins.

Victoria’s Tour de Disaster happens for an entirely different purpose and at an entirely different pace.

“It’s part community event, part bicycle rally, part emergency exercise,” says Rob Johns, emergency co-ordinator for the City of Victoria, who came up with the concept and piloted it last year. “We hope it will raise awareness about emergency preparedness, and how alternate forms of transportation can be used during a disaster.”

A major earthquake would likely disrupt communications systems in the region and damage roads. Routes that remain undamaged might become jammed with vehicles trying to leave and enter the region. Cyclists would be able to use roads, pathways and bridges that other vehicles couldn’t access, and could weave in and out of stopped traffic.

The flexibility and mobility that come with being on a bike would enable emergency-response cyclists and other volunteers to help move people, information and materials through a disaster-stricken area.

The cyclists could assess damage in neighborhoods, help conduct searches for missing people, carry supplies, first-aid materials and medicines, and courier information.

Those are the kinds of tasks participants in today’s Tour de Disaster will engage in — all while navigating a simulated damaged or congested transportation system.

In other words, don’t expect Tour de France-style breakneck speeds or stunning pileups during today’s event.

Tour de Disaster participants will receive points for assisting fellow participants at obstacles, for successfully completing each assigned task in the allotted time, for transporting fragile materials — eggs — without damaging them, for the total weight or bulk of cargo carried through the event, and for the order in which participants finish.

And don’t expect to see only high-performance athletes taking part — anyone over the age of 19 with decent riding skills and a road-safe bike can register. Last year, about 40 cyclists, including some from out of town and some over the age of 65, took part.

That event led to the City of Victoria’s new volunteer cyclist emergency-response team being formed. To date, about 30 cyclists are undergoing training and orientation. They’ll be taking part in today’s event.

To raise awareness and build momentum for the event, Johns joined forces with the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition. Other collaborators include Bike-to-Work Week and some local businesses and community organizations.

Johns hopes that today’s event will prompt more cyclists to volunteer with the cyclist response team or the city’s other emergency teams.

Other cities are also looking into tapping into their local cycling communities for emergency and disaster response. New Westminster held the Amazing Disaster Rally in May, and Portland, Ore., holds an annual rally called the Disaster Relief Trials.

After hurricane Sandy knocked out New York City’s subway and bus system, groups of cyclists delivered donations and supplies to hard-hit areas. Bicycles helped residents, emergency personnel and volunteers move around Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. And after the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, resident cyclists were able to travel where no vehicles could pass.

With Victoria due for a big earthquake, bicycles might be the answer to navigating our own disaster.