The Oil in Our Food, Bicycling and Everything Else

Excerpted from
 “How America Can Bike and Grow Rich, the National Bicycle Greenway in Action”
As a cyclist, I have been Car-Free, done life without relying on an automobile, for well over two decades now. Trying to leave as light an oil footprint as possible, I had also thought I was doing a good job in this regard by using the Internet instead of relying on cars and planes to make event appearances and visit sponsor prospects to spread the National Bicycle Greenway message. However, as I am now finally able to realize, my cycling and my computing were, at times, possibly using as much fossil fuel as all those gasoline fueled trips I thought I was replacing.


It took several years and an attempted Penny Farthing bike ride across the USA in 2009  for me to arrive at this determination. You see, I began to look at things a lot differently after I rode the Eagle HiWheel from San Francisco for a thousand miles to Salt Lake City. It was then that instead of having a vehicle I could sit in to wait out the unseasonable thunderstorms along the way, I had to stay off the roads, under a roof, until the skies were promised clear for a whole day. And the only structures out there were in the towns, always a day’s ride apart from one another.


Because lightning tends to strike the highest object it can find, at eight feet above the desert floor, I would have been its prime target. The ten days I had to spend in a hotel room in Elko, Nevada, looking for a break in the weather destroyed my ride. The on-line and on-the-road financial support I had been collecting disappeared. Having to stay put like I did killed the momentum I had begun to build and drained the war chest I would need to continue beyond Salt Lake City.


After coming back home with my tail between my legs, Mike Saari, an engineer friend, educated at prestigious Cal Tech, whom I had always thought a little misdirected because he had expended a great deal of resources building a huge fleet of electric bikes, let me camp in his Palo Alto back yard as I regrouped. During this time, I learned a lot about the machines he created as they relate to food and oil.


Well before my failed ride, I would see Mike, dressed in street clothes, loaded down with miscellaneous gear, hardly pedaling, as he zipped by whole pacelines of race training cyclists. Instead of being impressed, I used to feel sorry for him thinking that those of us on bikes were much better for the planet than he was. Like other Car-Free cyclists, I wore the armor of thinking that my bike riding was performing a service for Mother Earth. In not having temperature controlled circumstance or relaxed seating like those in their cars, I used to take my comfort in thinking I took nothing from the environment as I cleared my body and my mind of the toxins our oil centric world had forced me to ingest.


While a physically fit me is indeed better for the environment on many levels, what Mike was helping me to finally start to see was that though I may not be using oil while in transit, I used lots of it before and after my rides. On a crusade for the planet of his own, unbeknownst to those of us on bikes, he had been busy trying to show how, on his electric recumbent, that he could go a lot farther, a lot faster, on less oil, than any of us. And by extension, all those automobiles with whom he shared the road.


Armed with a myriad of formulas as well as studies that had been done, he could show how many watts (a measure of electric power) a calorie of food produced. Since he knew how many feet his little motor could cover per watt, he would then take the example of a cheeseburger to show he could travel a much greater distance than any of us could ever hope to pedal if that was the only thing we ate before we headed off on the same roads.


If you are wondering what cheeseburgers and Michael’s translation of miles per watt into miles per a given measure of food have to do with oil, you are as confused as I used to be. If you think this is an apples and oranges comparison, electricity and food have something very much in common – OIL! Just as hiding behind the manufacture of electricity is oil, the food we eat also has a high reliance on oil before it gets into our mouths.


Mike had used the example of a cheeseburger to represent all the many oil dependent processes food requires on the farm and after it leaves it to be packaged, refrigerated and then merchandised. Nor, as he liked to point out, had his theory even begun to talk about the part oil plays in fueling our blenders, toasters, and cookers, etc., once it reaches our kitchens.


To be fair, I need to add that he hadn’t even factored the oil cost of keeping ourselves hydrated into any of his arguments. This was probably so because, at the subsistence level upon which his figures were based, where all we would need to drink is water, the oil expense of bringing it to our faucets would be negligible. But all those of us who cycle know that sports drinks and specially formulated waters that fortify our electrolyte balance have almost become a necessity, especially in hot conditions. As beverages, there is oil involved in their formulation, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration and ultimate shipment.


If you are still thinking that sports hydration is marketing overkill, it took my ride to Salt Lake City for me to think otherwise. On that ride when I strapped on a Camelbak and had a tube at my lips delivering ice-cold water that I drank from continuously, I hadn’t even made it out of California before I was urinating blood. Mortified, it wasn’t until I added an electrolyte solution to the fluids I was drinking that this condition changed.


Going back to oil and food, with his almost daily litany of charts and graphs, Mike was able to ultimately prove to me that by my pedaling to get places, that not only was I using more oil than he was, there were times, as i said in the opening paragraph. when I was probably using as much oil as the people in their cars all around me.


I say this because I can now see that  the farther I went, the more I would have to eat than the car or truck driver going the same distance. Needing to ingest much more food per mile than my four-wheel counterparts, it finally became clear to me that trips that involved the effort of hills, pushing through headwind or getting somewhere quickly added even more hunger to this equation.


When I tried to argue that cars are a lot bigger and require a lot more oil in their manufacture, he had an answer for that too. He pointed out all the resources needed from the planet to produce all the exotic materials many of our bikes use to make them light. This not to mention all the accessories, shoes, helmets, extra bikes and special clothing, etc, we need in order to be effective cyclists. All of which if put in a pile would easily be equal in volume to one car.


I had been open to Michael’s insight here as well because of what my ride to the Utah capital had just shown me. This was so because the 50 inch Eagle wheel i pedal acts as a giant gear upon which i cannot rest my legs by coasting. Add the fact that the bare bike weighs three times as much as most fixed gear bikes, and it should be easy to see that I was burning prodigious amounts of calories to go from one city to the next. So much so that I spent an average of 80 dollars a day on food and drink in the grocery markets along the way.


This amount of money and the huge packaging waste stream it produced could have been greatly reduced if I had had cooking facilities. It was for this reason that before I left, I had been looking for a camper van to support my ride. Since I had a schedule full of Mayors to meet and had not found an affordable vehicle in time, I determined that I would try to cross the U.S. purely on my own steam, “purely” free of oil. Because I would be doing so on a bike that was not built to carry much more than its rider, something did not feel so pure about what I was proposing to do.


Since even bringing a lightweight camp stove would have been impractical, by the time I did get on the road, I ended up eating a lot of fruit, peanut butter sandwiches and energy bars and drinks. In the absence of grains that required cooking, this was hardly the kind of sound nutrition that would have kept me at full throttle even if the weather had cooperated beyond Salt Lake City.


As it was, in addition to the 3-pound sleeping bag, the little bit of extra food and drink I carried over the small front wheel to help me get across the torturous, hundred mile Salt Lake Basin in a day, placed great strain on the Eagle. The constant pounding on I-80 in 100 degree heat with cars passing me at 90 mph overworked the steer tube that held the wheel assembly in place. So much so, in fact, that it was almost touching the tall rear wheel I sat on top of by the time I did reach the Mormon stronghold.


While my ability to eat what I needed to be eating on my ride had been compromised by my not traveling with an oil fueled support vehicle, Michael first aroused my curiosity when he suggested I look at how much petroleum I had used even though I had not relied on a support vehicle. When he initially moved beyond my aborted ride to propose that because I rode a bike I still used oil for the food I ate, I was indignant. “But we have to eat!” was my reply. In addressing my objection, he helped me to see that by my needing more and better calories from what I ate to replace car trips, my food requirements went far beyond subsistence.


It was only when I argued that, most people just love to eat, that Mike did not have an answer. He could not speak to the fact that most of us  will likely ingest far more than what is required whether we get places in a car or on a bike. In my own case, I am at least happy to say, like most cyclists, I can eat as much as I want with no weight gain or associated health problems as long as I pedal my miles.


Seeing the world through Mike’s eyes, however, in being honest with myself, I stopped feeling like I was all so pure, good for the planet just because I rode a bicycle. I could finally see that I was using oil like everyone else. And just because I didn’t pay for it at a gas pump, I still paid my fair share for it at the grocery store.


With Michael’s insight fresh in mind, a 40-foot transit bus with its seats replaced by hardwood floors became available to me for another attempt to cross the Nation on the Eagle. Reasoning that I could fuel it with waste oil from restaurants, I eagerly adopted it as my living quarters.

Picture 22


Thinking also that buses are accepted as a green form of transportation and that having such a vehicle could greatly expand the possibilities for our organization on many levels, in my haste, I had failed to take an honest look at its real cost to the environment. It was not long before I discovered that running it on recycled oil was going to require a lot of hardware and a lot of time, phone calls and truck trips to collect the several thousand gallons I would need to get it across the USA. It became apparent that ‘going green’ in such a way would have cost the planet a lot more oil than it saved. This not to mention the fact that it would have placed my focus not on training for the ride but on readying the very machine that was supposed to support it.


By the time I was able to determine that using waste oil in such a way was only good for the planet in theory I was just too committed to change my mind. Little did I know, however, that by trying to use as little oil as I could before my ride so I could justify all the gas we would burn going cross country, that there was much hardship ahead of me. The Deprivation Training I proudly thought I was tough enough for became Humility Training I had not at all expected.


Even though i was able to laugh at myself through most of it, the trials were endless. After many weeks of trying to keep my computers running with bike trips to publicly accessible electrical outlets, such as at libraries and coffee shops, for example, a supporter saw the hard time I was having. He bought me a generator to make energy. It was loud and ran on gas. However as my mission became more and more insignificant the less oil I used, I began using the electricity maker in an attempt to keep my much enfeebled ride alive.


Parked next to a freeway ten miles away from all my supporters and business networks, I ran the generator in the morning hours when the traffic was the loudest. In such a way I was able to charge the marine battery another well-wisher had bought for me without disrupting the neighbors in the apartments across the street. In addition, since I had no lighting on the bus, if I came back after sundown and had run the generator, there were a couple small bulbs I could switch on so I could at least see my way around. I could also run my computers and do so past the 9 PM library closing time. As for coffee shops, they had quickly become impractical because of the poor lighting, the disruptions and the fact that I could not spread my mobile office out even if I had managed to locate a plug.


As the winter started to kick in, my oil free foolishness continued to greatly limit my effectiveness. Without a heater, soon I could not feel my fingers when I tried to type after the sun went down. The colder than normal months that ensued, left me with only the afternoon hours to get any work for my ride done on the bus, and even then that assumed that I had braved the cold to go through the huge exercise of running the generator in the early morning hours. So many doors and compartments had to be unlocked and extension cords and power plugs and power strips had to be organized that there were a few times where instead, I just tried my best to stay warm with all my clothes on in the sleeping bag.


If I did sleep in, or on those mornings where I hadn’t filled my little gas can the night before, once the day warmed up, I tried to give myself the luxury of brown rice. In order to do so, I had to put my bike trailer to work. Into it I loaded my generator, marine battery, laptop and my electric rice cooker (filled with enough water and rice to feed me for three or four days).


Pedaling the ten miles between where I was in Mountain View to Palo Alto with my grains cooking and my iPhone, PowerBook, and battery charging I was all about noise. And yet what was quite comical to me was the fact that no one seemed to notice. We live in such a noisy world with leaf blowers, garbage trucks, motorcycles and a plethora of other loud machines, all fueled by oil, that I fit in perfectly, even at stop lights and in parking lots. If anything I just smelled like a lunch truck as I rolled by the occasional pedestrian along the way.


Satisfying all my electrical needs for a few days with one bike trip in such a way would not have been possible had I chosen to run a heater. This was because doing so would have left me without power for any of my other needs. In making the choice to be cold, there were countless other similar decisions that had to be made as I paid an inordinate amount of my attention to what was using energy and how much.


As I daily fumbled around with extension cords, switches and switch adapters, power strips and differing lengths and capacities of power cords, even gas fumes, etc, the non stop work arounds I had to go through reminded me of my head injury rehabilitation. Obstacles met me at every turn. More and more reduced to basic survival, I had begun to feel like a cripple all over again because I was trying to limit my use of oil.


Just as when every life skill such as tying shoes, brushing teeth or counting change was suddenly fraught with struggle, life without oil was becoming the same way. The inconveniences were so continuous that I had little energy left for my ride.


And as all this was taking place, the mapping API I had wanted to use my ride across America to call attention to so i could get the full version underwritten had also been obliterated. The interactive mapping system an out of work programmer had slaved for countless hours to build and get on line at vanished from sight. All the hundreds of names and routes I had collected disappeared.


Seems, without my knowing, by alerting a little used email address, my Internet Service Provider switched the hard drive on which our mapping data had been stored to one that did not have the latest version of the software we needed. Plodding along without the strong kind of internet connection I needed to stay on top of this, I lost not only the bike routing work of many dozens of bike activists who believed in me, but I lost my ability to track my 2010 ride across America. It was from the course I would have used these maps to chart that the National Bicycle Greenway would have had a base line to work from.


On a happy note, publicly available Google mapping has now, here in 2014, made it possible for us to consolidate the mapping input we have collected since 1998 from our NBG Scouts. And as such, our San Francisco to Washington, DC route is now on line! You can see it at


In reaching this important milestone, however, while still on the bus, there seemed to be no end to my woes as I tried to function off the grid. Wanting to promote the little businesses that had helped me over the years, I made one of them a main sponsor in exchange for an adult racing trike they sent me so i could auction it off at a price that would benefit both of us. However, when it elicited no interest, I sent it back. Or I thought I did. Don Armstrong, the owner of the garage where the bus was staying, thought I did too when UPS picked it up from him.


Instead UPS lost it and I found myself tangled in yet another mess. Wondering how much lower I could go, a car answered that question for me when it drove into the enormous wheel I sat on top of <link>. The bike was destroyed and so was my ride.


With the small settlement the guy’s insurance quickly paid me, I flew to Ireland. The woman I had fallen in love with had offered to let me regroup from her home there  Soon,  I also saw it was an opportunity to finish this book as well as rebuild  the NBG’s on-line presence. Feeling so far away from all my connections in Palo Alto, because I did not use enough oil, now, with ready access to computers, lighting, warmth and refrigeration once again, I am now bridging the 9000 mile gap just by using oil like everyone else does.


With the new objectivity I have acquired being here in Ireland, in also now keeping this e-book current, I am starting to see the world around me in a whole new way. I had to go as low as I did, to the level of an anonymous nobody living on the street, to see how blessed I have been to be calling for a National Bicycle Greenway. I finally now see that it has been the ways in which I use oil that have allowed me to think I could press for such a bikeway. Even the honor of being Car-Free was in how I put oil to work for me.


Oil is not only needed for the food we eat or trips we take, we would all be at survival were it not for oil. From the water it pumps into our homes from often far away reservoirs, and then heats or cools them, along with all the lighting and appliances we run, the toasters, irons, dryers and washers etc, etc, the high standard of living we have come to expect, all has its basis in oil.


From the plastics that house our appliances and our computers, to the electricity that runs them and that let’s us see them when there is no sun, oil has its footprint in most everything we do even when we ourselves are just relaxing no matter where we are. When I keep saying there is oil in electricity, roughly 62% of our power plants run on oil or gas while the 21% that run on coal were all built and are still maintained with the help of oil. All this before oil-fueled machines mined the coal that oil hungry trucks and trains then delivered to their furnaces. The wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power making options all also needed oil for their construction and though less, still rely on varying amounts of it to remain active.


Outside of our power plants, our cars and our homes, oil is ubiquitous. It builds and maintains the asphalt (of which oil is a core ingredient) roads we use to get places. It even finds its way into the clothes we wear to stay warm or protected from the sun. This is so even if we wear natural fabrics. Oil was still needed to grow the cotton or the wool they are made of. It was required to give them color as well as run the machines that sewed them. All of which took place long before they were trucked around so they could be merchandised to us and oil is what we use to run the machines that ultimately keep what we wear clean.


Here in Ireland where after almost an entire life of having been free of one, I am finding myself in front of another oil driven piece of technology, the television, a few hours every month now. Since year round, the weather is so poor here a lot of the time, making the roads or the outdoors unappealing, most of the Irish world occurs under a roof. Where a switched on TV set is a part of the culture. Toward that end, the Irish government does not seem to have a problem collecting the 150 Euros (almost 200 American dollars) it charges households here every year for what it calls a TV license.


Having been away from TV for so long, I am able to look at what is before me a lot more objectively. Now I am able to see how television takes the people who before we could not have picked out of a crowd and, with the help of oil, shines them up. Under intense oil fueled lighting it pours gobs of oil derived make up on the faces of both sexes it fills the screen with. The hair of the presenters and hosts is always beauty salon (an oil centric industry) perfect. And the teeth we see are always snow white, a look made possible by oil


Irish TV, a lot like American TV, is also making me look at beautiful women differently. The more the elegance, the more the oil I now know had to be involved. For all the make up, hair dryers, straighteners and/or curlers and hair care products and skin lotions and beautiful clothing that make a female stand out, I am only now starting to see the many thousands of barrels of oil pretty ladies use up every day in the name of glamour. This of course not to mention the cost to the environment for processing all the waste that results.


Just as Michael had made me wonder why no one had ever broken down any of the food we eat into how much oil was required to water it, fertilize it, harvest it, package it, ship it store it, advertise it etc, I wondered why the beauty we, as men, have come to expect of women has also never been broken down into its oil cost to bring about. For that matter, in the same way the food we eat is broken down into its protein, fat and carbohydrate content, as well as its vitamin and mineral make up, why can we not analyze  all the products we buy in terms of their oil cost to the planet?


In the same way food labeling was first required by the Food and Drug Administration in 1962 when we demanded to know what we were putting in our mouths, a time will soon come when we demand to know what is in our water, our air and what it is we are ingesting though our skin. Since science is readily capable of providing us with such data, a clean industry on a par with the FDA could offer an important new way of looking at our world.


Toward such an end, a rating system could be engineered that would look at all the elements that comprise all products. As a way of unlocking the mysteries found in our cabinets, closets and in our garages, the publication of such an analysis could allow for our purchasing decisions to be based on the true cost of any given product to the environment. Besides the non-renewability of oil, the scoring system that could be devised could also reflect the obvious air, water and landfill waste streams that will have occurred.


Nor would  our bicycles  be exempt from such an analysis as I implied earlier when I talked about all the bikes and gear needed to be an effective cyclist. What such a closer look  could tell us about the bikes we ride would be alarming. The amount of black crude used  in their actual manufacture would especially astound all those who think the bicycle  is the greenest of machines.


In being more specific, while it may be obvious that our tires and tubes all have their basis in oil, and we’ve been forewarned about all the plastic that makes them light, how about all the oil needed to make a basic bike? Oil fueled furnaces had to create the steel that oil fueled lathes and other oil fueled machines had to shape before oil driven welders got all the pieces connected so oil based paints could make them look pretty for the oil dependent heating, lighting and administration that bike shops need to sell what most see as the only oil ingredient in the bicycle mix, the trucks that deliver them.


While all the components that need to be added to the bicycle frame have an oil trail of their own, we still need to consider all the added oil needed to make the titanium and carbon fiber frames and accessories possible. The higher the tech, the more the oil that is needed to make them. Not to mention all the computer time needed for their design. Which if you’ve been following the reasoning here requires oil to run the lights, as well as the automation itself and even plays a part in heating or cooling the offices where such ideas are developed. Nor can we ignore the phone calls and email and snail mail all made possible by oil such work cant help but require.


The highest art form of our activity, the goodwill ambassador that elevates the perception of our favored mode of conveyance from that of a toy, to that of a machine that warrants respect, is bike racing. And yet in between the lines of the message we think we are sending to our youth and society in general is a virtual gusher of oil. The one race that has probably achieved the highest honor for cycling is the Tour de France. But what does the general population associate with all the bulging quadriceps and sweating faces and forearms on their TV screens?


They see dozens upon dozens of cars and motorcycles following what, from the TV helicopter’s view, look like little dots matched against the landscape they are working to conquer. This as the bike racers themselves make a spectacle for the virtual army of oil fueled vehicles that are following them on the road. If you scratch beneath the surface you will find that the test of strength, conditioning and fitness people are seeing, is a fairy tale in real life, a fantasy impossible without oil.


How would you close the roads without the oil of law enforcement? How would one get the race marshals strategically positioned without oil? How would the stage, loudspeakers, pylons, fencing and other bike race hardware get there without oil? I used to do work with a former racer turned bike race promoter who drove his big truck all over northern California setting up races so much that he no longer biked. Instead he spent all his free time negotiating for new gear and vehicles.


Unable to forget how enfeebled I had become the less oil I used, I couldn’t help but see that what made any person a top player in any game they played in life, was in how much oil they had working for them. I could finally see that the world’s top athletes are also some of its biggest oil users. Looking at all their high tech gear in a new way, I began to wonder how noteworthy would be their efforts without oil. They use it for travel so they can rise to the competition that helps them showcase their prowess. Besides their greatly increased food and drink uptake, their gear, their pools, ski slopes, fields and arenas, etc are all made and maintained by oil.


As I kept looking at the world around me, I saw the part oil played in pretty much all of the products we use as well as in each of our daily lives. As I turned up my inner listening I could hear the words of my university professors. In college during the first oil embargo, I remember the oft repeated refrain that oil is what made progress possible in our culture.


Just as my teachers had long ago foreseen the importance part oil played in advancing civilization, I was at war with the social structures of modern day man by thinking I could function without it. As I advance the notion that we can Bike and Grow Rich, I am at long last aware that any of the inner wealth or physical health we acquire by riding our bicycles, comes with the help of oil. Not without it.


In finally accepting the fact that petroleum products are an indispensable part of life, especially in those areas in which we want highest level performance, does not mean that I think we can continue to use them in the way that we do. If we are to continue as a species, we have reached a point where we have to offset the CO2 emissions the machines they fuel are bringing about. As polar ice caps continue to melt at an alarming rate, as our oceans grow more and more acid and as hotter skies fill up with more moisture to bring about the accelerated progression of cataclysmic storms that are striking with horrific frequency, we need to accept the fact that our relationship with oil is destroying the planet.


As growing numbers of us recognize that Global Warming is occurring on a scale that is hurtling out of control, we need to stop blaming oil companies for making a mess we do not think we have to help them clean. Fact is, just as we helped them foul our nest, we have to help them get rid of the effects of our dirty ways. Toward that end, instead of making Big Oil the bad guy enemy, all of us would do well to take a look at the ways we as individuals add to the carbon overload that is choking Mother Earth. And when we do, we will see that each and every one of us needs to offset our use of the oil we have become so dependent upon.


In terms of action in this regard, the best way we as a society can lessen the amount of carbon we are pouring into the atmosphere is to replace car trips with bike trips. And everyone wins when we do! Because we, as cyclists, know that riding a bike gets us in better touch with our bodies we look forward to the exciting health benefits that will accrue for all of us. Because cycling gets us in better touch with the world around us, there will be a far greater sense of community and well being on this, the Mother Ship that all of us share. The changed lifestyle choices that result will make a fully built National Bicycle Greenway the next logical step in our evolution as a people.


And as this happens a whole new economy will emerge. This is so because the way we exchange money with one another will be more and more epicentered around the bicycle and the trips we take on it. As the commerce of the land begins to shift the way it feeds, houses, recreates and services its travelers, more and more car drivers will feel called to join us as they help us make the network of bicycle highways we envision real!!