Racers in San Francisco's first Disaster Relief Trials take off on their bikes. Carrie Kirby

Organizers of San Francisco's first Disaster Relief Trials think cyclists can play a critical role in times of emergency.

"There was a 9.1 earthquake on Thursday. Today is Day Four responding," Mike Cobb yelled to 15 (mostly) helmet-wearing men and women standing on the Main Post Lawn in San Francisco's Presidio. "Do YOU have a cargo bike?"

The red tips of the Golden Gate Bridge peeped through the last of the morning fog, and Sunday strollers bought empanadas and pizza from trucks and plopped down on the grass to watch sailboats cruise the bay.

But the crowd gathered around Cobb had no time for lounging. They had imaginary neighbors to save in the Disaster Relief Trials, a 25-to-30-mile race that criss-crosses the city to demonstrate how bicycles—especially cargo bikes, designed to carry heavy and unwieldy loads—can fill critical needs after an urban catastrophe.

Contestant Mark P. Sullivan readies his bike. (Carrie Kirby)

San Francisco's first DRT was held October 19, the seventh of what organizers hope will be many such races nationwide. Cobb, along with friends Ethan Jewett and Travis Wittwer, organized the first one in 2012 in Portland, after watching with dismay the inadequate earthquake response in Haiti.

San Francisco, living as it does under a temblor specter as constant as the fog, was a natural venue. The race followed fast on the 25th anniversary of the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake, which knocked down the upper levels of a freeway and a bridge, killing 63 people. Two months ago, a 6.0 quake shattered wine bottles and injured more than 100 people in Napa. Then the U.S. Geological Survey piled on with a report warning that four Bay Area faults are primed to rupture at any time.

Alicia Johnson of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management watched the participants run to mount their bicycles. She said the city is serious about the post-disaster role of bikes.

"The biggest concern we have is the last mile: getting supplies from the distribution center to people in need," Johnson said. Many things could stop trucks from getting through. "It could be debris, lack of fuel. There are a lot of 'what-ifs.'"

Johnson is interested in connecting with cargo-biking volunteers who could mobilize on a dime. A few volunteer cyclists in New York did just that after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, delivering supplies past sand-covered streets to Far Rockaway in Queens.

"Wires are down. Big trucks can't drive on cracked roads. Think about where bikes can go that cars can't," Perkins said.

There is another way bikes could help: They can generate electricity. As a proof of that concept, a company called Rock the Bike exhibited a pedal-powered charger that can juice up 10 cell phones at once. Any bike can be turned into a power-generating stationary cycle by propping its rear wheel up on a stand, then connecting it to a device like this.

The racers' first challenge was to hoist their bicycles—some weighing as much as 80 pounds with their flip-down platforms, extended tail ends and built-in buckets—over a three-foot-high metal barricade.

Then they each picked up an orange five-gallon bucket, to be filled with water at a checkpoint miles away, and disappeared down the road into a eucalyptus grove, heading for a checkpoint near Golden Gate Park—where they would pick up a bike inner tube—then Ocean Beach, where they'd grab 35-pound sandbags representing sacks of rice.

Before they returned to the Presidio, they also collected three eggs (representing fragile medical supplies) and a wooden forklift pallet.

When the racers returned a couple of hours later, music was blasting from bike-powered speakers. Those who finished first ate pickles and sipped beer, watching the rest of the pack struggle to move their water, pallets, eggs, rice, bicycles, and themselves back over the barricade. Each contestant's payload weighed 110 pounds.

A competitor in Portland's second Disaster Relief Trials in July 2013 (beth h/Flickr)

"Bikes can carry a massive amount of stuff, more than people can conceive of," said Katie Styer, a San Francisco bike messenger whose team of three was among the first to return, eggs intact.

Along the route, the racers chatted about how today's challenge differed from a real emergency.

Another biker imagined it differently: "If this were real, there'd be more zombies."

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