Ethan Goffman, Mobility Lab reporter
Eight years ago, Pasqualina Azzarello attended the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., along with two interns from Recycle-a-Bicycle in New York City.
They quickly realized that the interns, Kimberly and Crystal, were among the few people under 35 and further stood out as African American in a crowd that was largely white, male, and over 45.
Yet, rather than being isolated, the two interns were sought after by attendees eager to explore a different model of bicycle enthusiasm and advocacy. Together, said Azzarello, “we realized we have something to give back.”
On the bus back to New York City, they scribbled out a plan on a scrap of paper for a Youth Bicycle Summit. It would have keynote speakers, breakout sessions, sponsors, and be affordable.
Azzarello told her story at the seventh annual Youth Bicycle Summit, held this year at the Crystal City Hyatt Regency in Arlington, VA. She spoke to the importance of “all people being in the room” when decisions are made that affect bicyclists. From the blueprint laid out on that bus has come a high-energy event bursting with the enthusiasm of the youngest, most diverse crowd of any major bicycle conference.
The 2017 event was organized this year by Phoenix Bicycles. The keynote speakers lacked such rock stars of the bicycling world as Greg LeMond, David Byrne (also a literal rock star), and Gabe Klein. Yet, Meg Rapelye, executive director of Phoenix Bikes, told me, “There are no headliners that most people know of, but they’re headliners to me.”
Inclusiveness – giving a voice to all – is a key principle at the summit, which bustled with youth of all complexions, many sporting piercings or tattoos, wearing a colorful array of t-shirts representing various bicycle shops and pronouncing pro-bike messages.
“No matter where you come from, no matter your background,” explained Katie Cristol of the Arlington County Board, “you have something to teach and have something to learn.”
Stories of how bicycling has provided a life path
Daiquan Medley was one keynote speaker who grew up in Southeast D.C. where he was not expected to someday do great things.
“I didn’t have a good childhood,” he told the crowd. He was always “getting suspended, getting kicked out of school.” Yet he did have a love of bicycles, which led him to Gearin’ Up Bicycles, where he met Executive Director Sterling Stone, who would become his mentor. Soon he was running the shop two days a week as a youth manager. Stone collaborated with Medley’s father, keeping the youth out of trouble as he used bicycling to control his anger, while developing tangible skills.
“Before I went to Gearin’ Up, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me,” Medley said. “I had no path and no goal.” Now he serves as senior youth bicycle mechanic at Gearin’ Up, with a clear eye on the future.
As a child in Panama, Erick Cedeño of Bicycle Nomad would walk a mile-and-a-half to McDonald’s every week. One day a bus driver spotted him way outside of town and asked what he was doing there. “I wanted to see what was beyond McDonald’s,” he exclaimed.
For Cedeño, this story serves as metaphor to his widening bike explorations – first of the wild areas near his home and more recently on a series of great odysseys. He got rid of his car – his biggest expense – to finance bike trips to the West Coast from Vancouver to the Mexican border, all down the East Coast, and along the path of the Underground Railroad, from New Orleans to Niagara Falls.
His friends laughed at him and asked, “How can you live without a car?” They warned him away from southern states on his Underground Railroad tour. “Imagine if I’d listened,” he exclaimed. “I would not have been in Bicycling magazine, would not have seen how beautiful this country is.” For Cedeño, it is all about “risking everything for a dream no one can see but you.”
From inspiration to action
Cedeño typifies the inspirational part of the Youth Bike Summit.
However, the breakout sessions were all about how to translate dreams into reality through the long, hard work of advocacy and policy. The multitudes of topics included bike entrepreneurship, women and bicycles, advocacy, community biking, law enforcement, bicycle repair, safe streets, health, financing, foldable bike helmets, yoga, and more.
One noteworthy session featured Daiquan Medley’s mentor, Sterling Stone, who brings advocacy to neglected neighborhoods through pop-up bike shops. The experiment started some four years ago, and Stone quickly discovered that the needs of bike riders in low-income neighborhoods are huge.
Stone pointed out that D.C. has 68 bike shops within 25 miles of the city, but zero in wards 7 and 8. Most of these shops can also be quite expensive, which flies in the face of a transportation mode that should be affordable to all.
James Howard of District Fix elaborated, remembering that when he “came to D.C, I didn’t like the bike-shop options,” so he started his own. He described Southeast D.C. at the time as “a bicycle desert,” in which people with broken bicycles feel they have literally no options.
The first pop-up shop had only “a pump, a couple of tubes, a couple patch kits,” said Stone, who expected to be done in a couple of hours. Yet, when word got out, people from the neighborhood quickly lined up with bikes that had been long neglected in garages.
Realizing an obvious need, Stone applied for grants from D.C.’s Department of General Services. As the program expanded, he garnered additional funds from the city’s Department of Transportation and formed partnerships with other bike shops, mechanics, volunteers, schools, and whoever else was available. This past year, the program serviced nearly 1,300 bikes at 42 pop-ups, including “the most massive pop-up anyone’s ever seen, at the Anacostia festival.”
The basic goal of these pop-ups is to provide a safe, affordable bike to everyone who brings one in, no matter the condition. This begins with the brakes.
“It’s hard to be safe on a bike if the brakes don’t work,” said Stone. Yet the mechanics make sure that all basic parts of a bicycle are sound for safe riding. The shops work on cultivating youth mechanics, but just about anyone can volunteer and, at the very least, pump tires along the path to greater responsibilities.
Fixing bikes at pop-up shops, however, goes beyond immediate mechanical needs. Stone laid out some of the basics: “repairs, safety, having a helmet, knowing where bike lanes are.” Education is a crucial part of the equation. Indeed, the pop-up shop movement has recently begun partnering with D.C. Public Schools to teach every second grader basic bike skills, “culminating in a community bike ride.”
With such buoyant energy evident at the Youth Bicycle Summit, bicycling’s future appears promising. The seventh annual summit is likely just a start.