Strange but true

The story of the Ginger Ninjas and the two-wheeled bicycle conversion

Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2004

They call themselves "mountain music for a pleasant revolution," but it was actually a college friendship and a fortuitous pairing of ingenuity and marketing that helped bicycle revolutionaries and northern California three-piece Kipchoge and the Ginger Ninjas begin their strange, but earnest, musical odyssey.

The group, self-described as "mind shaking love groove folkfunk," plays the Alaskan Bar from 9 p.m. to closing on Thursday through Saturday, July 22-24.

This is the second-to-last stop of a month-long tour that's taken the band through Kenai, Homer, Anchorage, Girdwood, Kodiak, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and Healy. As they've done since forming in Nevada City, Calif., two years ago, the Ginger Ninjas attempt to combine music with their interests in bicycle advocacy, sustainable transportation and clean, active living. For more information, check out http://www.soundofthesun.net or www.sonicbids.com/kipchoge.

"The bicycle has been the perfect tool for us to spread that message and to live the lifestyles we want to live," singer/guitarist Kipchoge Spencer said. "The bike enables us to carry all of our stuff and all of our friends around. And that opens up an unusual new way of living."

Spencer, a longtime singer and songwriter, graduated from Stanford University in the mid-1990s and went to work for a think tank. While there, he decided he wanted to "contribute to creating a better world by starting a business and using the power of the market to do environmental and social good."

He got in touch with Stanford friend and inventor Ross Evans, who was developing a two-wheeled conversion that could attach to the wheelbase of any bicycle. The piece was light, cheap and durable enough to allow a cyclist to carry cargo on its rear racks.

Evans developed the 15-inch model after working at a bike fabrication shop in Nicaragua, where he taught war veterans to convert second-hand bicycles from the United States.

"The bikes had ladies' step-through frames, which are not useful for carrying cargo, because they have no top tube to pack sacks of grain or family members over," Spencer said. "He started working with them with the intention of making good trailers, but then he started to realize that trailers were impractical for a number of reasons. They didn't work well on a single-track rail, and they didn't work well in a fixed space in a city with potholes and maneuvering in between cars."

The Xtracycle, as it came to be called, seemed to be an efficient way to carry extra cargo. Spencer and Evans created a partnership in 1998 and began selling the bikes in late 2000.

"When I joined him, we wanted to create a product that would get Americans excited about riding bikes," Spencer said. "Already, the bicycle has a stigma in the developing world, and somewhat in this country, as something that you only ride if you're poor or if you're a recreationalist.

"We knew we were going to have to reinvigorate the idea of cycling being cool and fun, and since the U.S. exports such a sense of what's cool all over the world, we figured we had to have it happen here for it to happen in other parts of the world. That's what we've been setting about to do."

Spencer, now a road ambassador for Xtracycle, met drummer Isaac James through a mutual Xtracycle acquaintance. They later added bassist Hayes Burris.

The band has toured by bike. They use customized battery-powered amplification systems and, when necessary, a bus powered by vegetable oil.

"It's hard to imagine without actually doing it, but being able to carry your guitar makes for some spontaneous opportunities," Spencer said. "If you have the potential to pull out your guitar or pull out your drum and just play when the scene seems good, it makes a big impression and it's a fun way to live."

In Alaska, the band toured by van, but carried its bikes on top for easy access.

"We were able to go out on the town and do our errands, so we were getting the benefits of the bike," Spencer said. "Up there it's really remarkable how much bicycle infrastructure is being built.

"The majority of people would prefer to ride their bikes more often, but the No. 1 reason they chose not to is they don't feel safe. The reason they don't feel safe is this country, in the past 50 years or more, has devoted hardly any money to bicycle infrastructure. In 1990, that started to change and more money has been put into bicycle lanes and bike paths and bicycle parking facilities and legislation that encourages people to ride their bikes."

In the Interior, the band toured with Congo-born guitarist/singer Borrina Mapaka, who has lately enjoyed some success on the BBC and international world music charts. Mapaka will not join the band in Juneau. The band hopes he will help produce its next studio effort.

Last May, the band toured Puget Sound for eight days and 500 miles with a few other bands. The caravan was called the Utopian 500.

"We were purporting to carry all our stuff, but the drummer for one of the bands commuted back and forth in a car because he had a different job to do," Spencer said. "The purist in me was attracted to the idea of trying to do it without any auto support at all."

To that end, the Ginger Ninjas plan to ride from northern California to Belize this winter. They will carry all their equipment on bikes and record the expedition for a documentary film.

"I'm hoping to speak to some people high up in the Mexican government about bicycle advocacy and hoping to bring in a couple of mayors that have had successful bicycle transportation planning in Bogota and Brazil," Spencer said.

"Hardly any American bands tour in Mexico, and certainly no bands tour in Mexico riding their bikes, so we're hoping that part- way through we'll start to get big welcomes."



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