How a Chico man makes a bicycle work for him
“Ride your bike, ride your trike, pull a cart, you won’t have to work so hard,” Jim Brobeck sang as he plucked a slide guitar on an early Saturday afternoon at Café Flo. “Park your car, hang up the keys, lock it up, you won’t have to work so hard.”
If you’ve never seen Brobeck around town, you should probably spend more time outside. Brobeck, a local groundwater activist who has lived in Chico for more than 30 years, is quite a sight to see. The earthy environmentalist and musician rides his peculiar-looking European cargo bike almost everywhere he goes, and has received hundreds of questions and thousands of stares from the public.
“From thugs to babies who can’t even speak a word, people have looked in awe,” Brobeck said. “They usually think it’s pretty cool.”
But Brobeck isn’t sporting his unusual ride for attention. In fact, the attention is a problem, he says.
“Using anything other than a motor vehicle is considered eccentric. Biking should not be seen as an eccentric thing,” he said. “For it to be extraordinary is not to fit in.”
Brobeck has gone to great lengths to make biking a part of his daily routine.
He has been riding his bike since he was a boy in Rochester, N.Y., during a time when kids were allowed to ride farther from home on their bikes, he said.
“I never saw it as a sacrifice; I saw it as an indulgence,” he said. “The mere magic of balancing on two wheels just astounds me even to this day.”
He moved to California and continued riding his bike everywhere throughout high school, when many of his classmates got their driver’s licenses and decided to adopt car-dependent lifestyles.
“I think it’s still lame to be seen on a bicycle,” Brobeck said, comparing his high school years to the present day.
Brobeck didn’t get his driver’s license until he was 21 and didn’t buy his first car until age 31, when he had his first child. He bought the car out of necessity, and uses it only to drive to far-away meetings and his property up in Cohasset, where he conducts experimental forest management and other scientific research for extended periods of time.
But when he’s not in the hills, Brobeck is planted firmly on the wide streets of Chico. These days, he’s riding his snazzy European cargo bike around town, but before bikes of its kind were available, he had to get creative to make a bike work for him on a daily basis. He used different combinations of racks, Tupperware containers and bungees to transport loads around Chico for nearly 20 years, he said.
He’s also not afraid of the elements, and has come up with clever ways to stay cool in the heat and dry during rainy winter months. He described how, during the hottest summer months, he drenches his shirt with water before leaving the house.
“By the time I get to One-Mile, I’m completely dry,” he said.
He also added that biking is a great way to enjoy the rain—an element that most adults isolate themselves from.
“Being in the rain is something that usually only kids do,” he said with a smile.
Brobeck acknowledges that, despite Chico’s five-mile radius and flat streets, the community still has a long way to go before bikes become the default form of transportation. This difficult process of “normalization” is affected by multiple factors, he said, including the impractical design of most bikes, a lack of sufficient bike parking and potential dangers such as being hit by a car. That’s not to mention people’s concerns about sweating or smelling badly in social and professional situations.
“But it’s more than just body odor; there are lots of stigmas,” Brobeck offered.
He added that “being natural” is a “part of the richness of life.”
“It’s an indulgence to experience your body in that way,” he said.
And while not everyone may agree with Brobeck’s outlook, it’s easy to appreciate the efforts he takes to tread lightly on the earth. He describes Chico as one of the “most robust environments in the world,” and said he is more aware of trees and the natural environment when he is on his bike.
“I think I’m a lot more aware of that than a lot of people. I’m really aware of what a prize we have to live here.”