“I love riding bikes.”
So proclaimed one James Hart School sixth grader as he and his classmates headed out on a ride during physical education class on Oct. 19.
The task set by teacher Matt Somodi was to practice shifting, first to the highest gear, then to the lowest. Somodi and fellow teacher Carey Sullivan watched the students pass them by, checking the chain position of each bike and offering suggestions.
The ride was part of the school’s new biking program, made possible by a grant from Outride, a nonprofit organization created by the founder of the Specialized bike company. The organization’s mission, according to its website, is “to increase access to cycling for young people so that every kid can experience the freedom, joy and community that riding a bike can provide.”
Somodi identifies with that mission.
“I love biking,” he said, noting that he knew from experience how riding could improve well being, physically and emotionally. That’s what Outride’s research has found, too, he said.
He applied for the Outride grant after hearing about it from the coach of his daughter’s bike team. Somodi was invited by the company to travel to its headquarters for training before starting the program.
In addition to training and a curriculum to follow, the Outride grant provided James Hart with 30 bikes worth about $1,000 each and 30 helmets at about $100 each. The school’s contribution was a pledge to spend about $50 per bike per year for the three-year duration of the program.
Somodi said the curriculum was a great resource for introducing cycling to the students. He and Sullivan estimated as many as 15% of their students are novice cyclists. A small percentage have experience and knowledge about riding safely.
“I would say 50% are uneasy,” Sullivan said.
“This program is to get kids to be road ready,” Somodi said. “We want them to get out, enjoy biking and be safe on the road.”
To achieve that goal, they start with the basics, spending several class periods getting students matched with bikes and helmets that fit well, going over how bikes work, how to shift, how to brake and how to turn. Classes started in the H-F Sports Complex but have moved outdoors. On Oct. 19, the students ended the class with a trip around the building to practice shifting and turning.
During that class, the terrain was damp from drizzle earlier in the morning, so the teachers explained the importance of leaving more room between riders to account for longer stopping times. They advised students to communicate with each other verbally to help prevent collisions.
And he advised the experienced students to be kind to others who might struggle with the activity.
“We’re all learning at different paces,” he said to the students. “Some of us have a history of biking, some don’t.”
Somodi and Sullivan said they have received great support for the new program from the district administration and their colleagues at James Hart. Everyone pitched in to make things work, they said.
They also expressed gratitude to the staff at GoodSpeed Cycles in Homewood. The bike shop has provided support so far in the form of building the majority of the new bikes and has agreed to do maintenance at a rate the program can afford.
Steve Buchtel of GoodSpeed said there’s a business case for helping kids become future riders and customers, but the staff also shares the belief that cycling helps kids and helps the community.
“We’re energized by programs like Matt’s and the All Kids Bike program at Willow,” Buchtel said. “We all believe that more people riding bikes raises their quality of life, but also everyone else’s as well. Imagine the community where most people benefit from improved mood, lower stress levels, more focus and a greater sense of optimism because cycling is prevalent, convenient and safe.”
Somodi said he is seeing the results he’d hoped he’d see in the students. They seem excited about riding. Even with the dreary weather on Oct. 19, none of the students complained. They rode.
He told a story he found encouraging about encountering several students after school who were practicing their riding. Before they saw him, one of them said, “I can’t wait to show Somodi my wheelie.”
“I think (the program) has definitely sparked some interest,” he said.