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How one cyclist made the most of the lockdown

Hope and kindness always win the day: how random acts of kindness are helping us win the fight against COVID-19

These days, when Ryan Azarcon pulls out of his high-rise condominium’s driveway on his bike at 5.15 a.m., he isn’t headed for Nuvali pre-COVID-19 he would meet up with friends and ride until it was time to stop for brunch. This time around, Azarcon is scoping the neighborhood where he lives for other bikers. Not recreational bikers like himself, but essential workers in need of a socially distant way to get around the city and resort to biking in the absence of mass transit.

Circling back twice around the shopping complex, Azarcon finally chances upon a man on a bike. The man's head is bare, and he's just dismounted. Riding up to him, he calls out to the man and asks if he has a cycling helmet. When told no, Azarcon reaches deep into a big canvas rucksack and pulls out a brand new cycling helmet. “Would you wear one if I gave it to you?”  The man, a grocery store clerk, hesitates slightly before timidly saying yes, and Azarcon hands him the helmet. He stays only long enough to ask if he could take photos so that he can post it on Facebook and show his growing list of donors whose generosity has paid back dividends. A short exchange reveals that the store clerk lives in Cainta—a good 35-minute ride from his place of work. Amid Luzon-wide stay-at-home orders, he started biking to work, but even now that buses are allowed again on the road, he would instead cycle to work. It's safer; he tells Azarcon, "I won't catch COVID," Azarcon wants to tell him that he would be safer with a helmet, but he doesn't. Instead, he waves goodbye, leaving a smiling but still slightly surprised store clerk behind him.

That same morning, Azarcon would have given away two more helmets.  One to a dog groomer who lives in Rosario, Pasig, and to a back-office call center agent who's just finished her shift and is headed home. Home, it turns out, is some nine kilometers away. For the call center agent, Azarcon has pulled out an attractive yellow-black helmet. It suits her short hair and her checkered face mask. She looks at him and says, “Are you sure this is for me?”

Many daily-paid workers like Roberto, a handyman, have had to resort to biking to work during the quarantine.

Roland, the dog groomer, was one of the Helmet project's first recipients. He lives in Rosario, Pasig and bikes each day to Eastwood.

“These people are the ones we depend on to keep our economy going during the pandemic. But the reality is that essential workers in the middle of the pandemic are merchandisers, or supermarket cashiers, or call center agents. They're often not highly paid, and they are the ones who are having a tough time of things.”

A cyclist for about ten years now, Azarcon competes in triathlons and road races. He loves racing and the feeling of freedom while on a bike. He's embraced the culture of recreational cyclists and, during the lockdown, celebrated (when he could), the city as he's never seen it before.  Streets with virtually zero traffic, and air that's cleaner than it has been at any point in years.

But one man’s hobby is another man’s means of transport and watching the news one morning, Azarcon saw a shot on the evening news of cyclists at a checkpoint. Very few, he noticed, were wearing helmets.  "I'm glad more people are cycling now, that's probably one bright spot from the economic fallout from the pandemic. People are riding more than before, and I'm hoping this will lead to permanent positive change in the way we commute and get around the city. But there are safer ways to pedal, and it's simply a matter of wearing a good helmet."

Yet from his sorties around the city looking for people to gift a helmet with, Azarcon knows not everyone can afford this simple life-saving gear.

"Some of the workers I've seen have new bikes, but more use old ones that have just been fixed up. I've seen bikes being used that are too small for their riders, so you sort of know that they're either borrowed or bought for cheap. You know that the reason the owners have bought them is to get from Point A to Point B.

Azarcon had initially wanted to donate bicycles but found that there were a number of groups who were doing the same thing. A basic bike costs around P5,000, and he wanted to reach a larger number of people.

 "When I started, I thought, 'OK, if I can give away 30 helmets, I’m happy. I’m done.' But I hit that mark within the first day.” The number Azarcon set out for himself was 87, which corresponds to the year he graduated from Philippine Science High School. Roped into cycling by his high school batchmates, together, they formed a triathlon team called Pisay ’87.

Seeing acts of kindness on the news, on social media inspired Azarcon to act, too. "I thought, what can I give? What can I do?" Facebook, which was already showing a spike in acts of kindness and hope, will find another inspiring story in Azarcon’s advocacy of safe cycling.

A nicely designed post (Azarcon is a branding and design consultant) and a catchy headline kicked off the “Bike-to-Work” campaign in early June. A friend and former client put him in touch with someone from the biking helmet brand Spyder Philippines. After several calls, Azarcon connected with the local distributor, who agreed to sell him the helmets at a discount. “I told them that I was going to buy 100 helmets—even if I only had enough money to buy 80 at that time. Now I've been able to give away over 300.” 

These days Azarcon’s apartment resembles a stockroom. To help in distributing the helmets, he’s enlisted some friends from Pisay, “I wanted to reach other parts of the city, not just my neighborhood.” Bikes for the Philippines has helped in the distribution, and doctor friends have taken care of distributing 70 helmets to health care front liners.

Now nearing halfway through his inventory, Azarcon hopes to raise funds for more. Spyder has run out of entry-level helmets but has offered support to make up for the price difference of the more expensive models.

For Azarcon, COVID-19 can’t take away the kindness and generosity of spirit that he’s seen up close: from his donors—some of whom he has never met—to the recipients themselves.

“There’s no shortage of reasons to be stressed and anxious nowadays, but there are moments worth savoring, too. I’d been sitting around our apartment feeling trapped and a bit afraid about going outside. Doing this project turned my quarantine around."

One of Azarcon's most recent recipients was a survivor of COVID-19. Peter Dayag, a janitor working at San Miguel Corporation spent two weeks in a quarantine center after contracting the coronavirus, was biking to Ortigas from Tungko, Fairview when Azarcon chanced upon him. "One-hour and a half," Dayag replied when he was asked how long it took him to get to the office. One of Azarcon's many clients is San Miguel and he was thrilled that among his recipients was someone who actually knew a number of his clients at the company. "Such a small world," he says. 

Azarcon has since seen the dog groomer on his way home from a walk, but without his bike and with a mask, he doubts he would be recognized. “I deliberately kept my encounters with them brief.  I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed or indebted. Yet, I enjoyed connecting with them and learning the barest details of their lives, and sharing some common ground—our bicycles.”

“I left them feeling very, very good. I hope they were happy because, under a mask, you can't really tell. But I have a feeling they were smiling. When you bike, they say it releases all those endorphins. But just doing what I did, handing out those helmets and riding off to look for the next person I could help, I felt the same rush, the same high. It was enough to last me to lunchtime."

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