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The Great Hemp Bicycle Hoax by Robert Drinkwater

at 8:24 pm posted by Molly


A few Saturdays ago at Bikeworks, Alex Hindle dropped by with the idea of modifying his bicycle so he could launch fireworks from it. If you do not know Alex, this may seem a little strange. But I have been on a midnight ride or two with the man, so I was hardly shocked that he wanted to combine his two favourite things, namely, two-wheeled environmentally-friendly transportation, and rockets.
He got to talking about making sure that the bicycle itself would not catch fire while the fireworks were launching from it. He didn’t mention the possibility of the rider himself catching fire, which you should probably take as a warning if you are about to go on your first midnight ride. But the thought of bikes that could be made from flammable materials reminded me of a tale a friend told me while I was home in Newfoundland this past summer. It was about a bike made out of hemp, so I proceeded to tell Alex about it.
My friend’s name is Phonse—short for Alphonsus. We teased him by calling him “Fonz” in school. Anyway, Phonse always loved bicycles and wanted to promote cycling by holding a Critical Mass in St. John’s. His problem was that St. John’s has very few commuter cyclists, so there were only three people for the first ride. One of those people—Phonse’s girlfriend Gina—didn’t even own a bike, and Phonse had to double her on his handlebars.
Phonse wasn’t about to give up, but he knew that for his next ride he would need a gimmick to get the Mass some media exposure. He thought of getting a crazy-looking bike that would look good on TV, but that only seemed like an imitation of those big bikes used by fundraisers. No, Phonse, thought, he needed a bike MADE of something unusual. His first thought was cheese, but hemp seemed more practical.
(At this point in my telling the story, Alex was holding a Bic lighter to some discarded handlebar tape to test its flammability. Handlebar tape catches fire quickly when it‘s hanging in the air, he discovered, but not so quickly when it‘s wrapped on a steel bar.)
“So did he really make a bike out of hemp,” Alex asked, dropping the burning tape to the floor and stomping on it.
“Well, there’s something else I need to tell you about Phonse,” I answered.
Phonse, I explained, had always been fascinated with people who invent phony news stories and convince the media to run them without confirming them first. His favourite example was a group of jokers in the 1980s who issued a press release claiming to represent people opposed to animal nudity. Their bogus campaign was to raise money to buy clothes for pets.
So, like Alex combining bikes with fire, Phonse decided to mix bikes with bogus news. He sat down at his computer and composed the following press release.
Hey St. John’s:
Do you remember when Cheech and Chong drove a van made of marijuana from Tijuana to Los Angeles in “Up in Smoke”? Did you ever wonder if it was possible to build such a machine?
Find out. Come out to the CRITICAL MASS at the Avalon Mall this Friday at 5:30 p.m. to see Newfoundland and Labrador’s first-ever all-hemp-frame bicycle!
This bike is a prototype from Tetrahedron Cycles (THC) on the mainland, which developed the bicycles for an Earth Day promotion last year. Now, for a special one-time-only deal, they have agreed to allow environmentalist Alphonsus W. Norman of St. John’s to borrow the bike to publicize bicycling during a mass ride through the streets of the historic city.
Just so you know, this bike won’t get you hoolied. The hemp contains no THC. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t strong. When mixed with the plant’s own natural resin, super-strong hemp fibres can be moulded to produce a frame that’s tougher than an overooked seal flipper. It also won’t rust.
This is your chance to see—and maybe ride for yourself—the greenest bike ever!
Well how could any overworked news editor overlook that? It ran on local TV and Radio Newfoundland the day before, with the TV station promising to do a live remote at the start of the ride. Phonse even managed to get his brother’s old mountain bike “professionally” painted dark green by a buddy in the Canadian Forces who had access to an oven that was usually used for painting helicopter parts.
You should have seen the turnout at the mall on Friday. Phonse arrived at least an hour early, but there were already 300 people waiting, many of them with bikes, skateboards and in-line skates. Others, clearly misunderstanding the purpose of Critical Mass, brought things like lawn mowers and wheelbarrows, thinking they would walk them down the road alongside the hemp bicycle.
By the time the TV truck rolled up, close to a thousand people were crowded around a roped off square with a shiny green bicycle in the middle of it. Local stoners, who showed up without Phonse’s prodding, added to the atmosphere by stealing quick puffs from concealed roaches whenever the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary weren‘t looking.
At newstime, the weathergirl from the TV station interviewed Phonse, who made up an incredible whopper about how Critical Mass was actually invented by Newfoundland inshore fishermen in boats in the early 19th Century. Then the weathergirl rode the bike in the parking lot through the throngs of people, bicycles and other wheeled garden implements. The director back at the station had planned to cut to weather maps while she stopped to read the forecasts, but he kept the camera on her because she never stopped riding. She just recited the whole forecast from memory, or possibly made it up. 
Finally, the ride left the mall, went down a hill, up a hill, and then down a really big hill before finishing up at the fish ‘n chips district downtown.
(Alex, by this point, had put down the Bic)
“I bet something like that could work here! I don’t think this story got any coverage on our end of the country,” he said.
I could tell that Alex was already planning a Critical Mass with a half-dozen hemp bikes, 3,000 people, and of course, explosions. He had a dreamy look on his face, and I felt a little sad setting the record straight.
“It all backfired. Phonse thought the story of exposing his own hoax the next day would just mean more publicity for Critical Mass. But it didn’t work out that way,” I said.
I explained that when Phonse faxed out his “gotcha” press releases the next day, Radio Newfoundland dispatched a reporter to the weathergirl’s house, where she tearfully screeched that she had never been so humiliated in her life. Several reporters then followed her as she tracked down Phonse at The Duke of Duckworth pub. The front page of the Telegram on Sunday morning had a photo of her right fist connecting with Phonse’s left eye.
The weathergirl had everyone’s sympathy. Newfoundlanders, while famous for their senses of humour, draw the line at making TV sweethearts cry. Phonse became the most hated man in the province.
“Worst of all,” I told Alex, “every other cyclist in St. John’s is being treated like they’re accomplices. I couldn’t believe how nasty drivers were to me when I was home. A cycling friend told me that for the first few weeks after the whole mess, riders lifted up their sunglasses at angry motorists as a way to say, “See? I’m not the guy with the black eye!”
I’m sure Phonse will be forgiven someday, I said, but he’ll have to go a long way to earn it.
Alex, however, appeared to be still trying to hash out a way to make the hoax work.
“Any publicity is good publicity, unless you’re Michael Jackson,” he said, heading out the door. His experiments were done for the day.
Maybe he’s right, but I don’t know. Personally, I’d be afraid of trying something like that in Edmonton—Josh Klasssen at CFRN might go crazy with a handgun and put a cap in my ass.

-Robert Drinkwater-

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