Every year, thousands of bikes are left scattered throughout the post-Burning Man Playa. This year, however, the number of abandoned bikes was more than double the usual numbers, with an estimated 4,000 left behind. Typically, the process of distributing these bikes to various nonprofit organizations is streamlined and organized. However, with the massive amount of bikes left on the Playa this year, event organizers entered crisis mode and photos of piles of abandoned bikes ended up on social media.
“More bikes were abandoned than our charitable contacts could absorb, so we put a call out to groups looking for bikes to refurbish,” Jim Graham, Burning Man spokesperson, said. “We received more than 80 inquiries over two days and all usable bikes were taken.”
Truckee resident Meg Kiihne saw the viral photos of an event that has “leave no trace” as one of its 10 principals. Thanks to a unique set of skills and an established community of friends in the Turks and Caicos, she knew that she could leverage her talents and the surpluses of abandoned bikes in Black Rock City for disaster rebuilding efforts on the small British territory. The Turks and Caicos were hit by Hurricane Irma, a Category 5, on Sept. 7 with gusts up to 150 miles per hour. Hurricane Maria is predicted to hit the Turks and Caicos this Thursday night or Friday morning as a Category 3.
A jack of many trades, Kiihne first starting working in the bike industry at age 16 in Minnesota as a mechanic and then as a sales woman. In 2009, she moved to the Turks and Caicos to work in sports marketing and opened the island’s first bike shop. Within two months of opening the bike shop, the island established a bicycle police force. Kiihne knows how much of a difference these bikes will make in helping with the long-term rebuilding efforts associated with a storm of this magnitude hitting such a small community that is lacking in resources.
“This isn’t a relief effort, this is a rebuilding effort,” Kiihne said. “I see what bikes can do on a small island and in circumstances where people won’t have power or homes for extended periods of time. I know a bike will not just help them get to work but it would help them get food and resources.”
Kiihne, who has never been to Burning Man, traveled to the Playa on Sept. 13 with an empty U-Haul that was rented thanks to an initial donation of $1,000 from a private donor. U-Haul graciously waived the cleaning fee it usually tacks on because of Playa dust. And thus her plan was put in motion.
When Kiihne arrived she learned that she was not the only one who had seen these photos on social media and that the bikes had already been picked through quite a bit. Thankfully, with the help of the Burning Man Bike Master, she was able to secure roughly 100 bikes to transport back to Truckee. And while 100 bikes doesn’t sound like a lot — especially considering that many of these bikes will be deemed trash after cleaning — it is important to take into consideration that the active population of Turks and Caicos is roughly 8,000 people, according to Kiihne, so these bikes will go a long way.
Removing the bikes from the Playa was just the first step in a long process of prepping them for shipment, because, if you have ever seen a bike that has been to the Burn, then you know that they are caked in dust and, in true Burning Man fashion, adorned with just about anything.
Two local boys have been helping with the cleaning process as part of the 20 hours of community service required at Lake Tahoe School in Incline Village. Trey Casini, 13, and his brother Luc, 12, said they couldn’t believe the amount of waste they took off these decorated Burning Man bikes.
“The boys uncovered a Trek bike that will go to boys their same age,” their mom Madonna Casini said.
These abandoned bikes require a three-part cleaning process of power washing, soap, and vinegar. Once cleaned, the bikes need to be repaired, then they will be ready for shipping, ideally by Oct. 15.
“Even if these bikes were at port right now they wouldn’t get priority,” Kiihne said. “Right now everything is going to relief efforts like food, water, and shelter.”
Kiihne estimates that shipping will be her biggest cost because she is looking for point-to-point shipping from Reno to the island nation, an expense of around $8,000 for a 20-foot by 20-foot shipping container.
Once the container arrives on the islands, Kiihne will distribute the bikes herself because she wants to be sure they go to lower income communities that really need them.
“People on the island have already been reaching out to ask me for one of these bikes,” Kiihne said.
A GoFundMe page has been created to pay the $10,500 in expenses needed for this project.