by Rachel Walker
If there’s one thing bike fans occasionally forget, it’s that there was a time when they didn’t ride a bike. None of us come out of the womb ready to strap on a helmet and pedal away. Yet those of us who love riding bikes often cannot recall a time when bikes weren’t part of our routine. But we know if we’re going to build a movement and expand the numbers of bike riders in the country, we need to reach back to our pre-pedal days and recall the learning curve of bike riding. Then we need to apply that knowledge to interested potential cyclists. If we can demystify our entree into the sport, we’ll more successfully recruit others.
So that’s what Scott Cowan did. As the owner of several Century Cycles bike shops in northeastern Ohio, Scott has devoted the past seven years to encouraging, inspiring, and even bribing (in the best possible way: with cool prizes) kids to ride their bikes to and from school. To that end, he launched the three-week Century Cycles Bike to School Challenge, perhaps the largest of its kind in the country.
This year’s challenge took place from May 5-23 and encompasses elementary, middle and high schools in the Cleveland suburbs of Rocky River, Medina and Bay Village. How does it work? Students at participating Bike to School Challenge schools carry a “Ride Card” that is stamped each day they ride a bike to school. When they accumulate four bicycle rides to school, they secure free PeopleForBikes and Century Cycles swag. The more they ride, the more they can win; every Ride Card they fill earns an entry into the grand prize raffle. Safety is also rewarded: The kids earn twice as many entries if they wear a bicycle helmet. Easy.
And what do they stand to win? Brand new bikes from Raleigh, along with other prizes.
With goodies like that, it’s no surprise kids are throwing a leg over the saddle and pedaling to school in droves. Last year, more than 4,000 middle and high school students took part, an 11 percent increase over 2012 participation.
“I have never seen a bike-to-school program that generates the level of participation and excitement that this one does,” says Chris Speyer, Chief Executive Officer of Accell North America, parent company of Raleigh Bicycles.
Generating support, enthusiasm and involvement has long been the challenge’s goal, according to Scott. Encouraging kids to ride a bike instills healthful habits early on. More, it demonstrates the need for bike-friendly infrastructure like designated paths, signs that caution motorists to be aware of bike riders, bike racks and more.
Riding a bike can change a kid’s life. Research suggests that children who cycle to school have greater cardio respiratory fitness than those who travel to school by car, bus or foot. Additional studies show that children who begin biking or walking to school at an early age are more likely to stay a healthy weight during their early school years.
Bike riding also saves money and cuts down on carbon emissions from burning fuel. Challenge organizers estimate that the riders in the 2014 challenge rode more than 41,179 miles, burned 1,647,160 calories, saved $6,326 on gasoline and prevented 33,827 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
But, let’s face it, those statistics are more likely to impress parents, who will probably attempt to use employ them in “teachable moments” with their kids. The hope, according to Scott, is that kids who might have been initially persuaded to bike because of the prizes discover their own love for riding a bike. By embracing biking as a major form of transportation, they”ll likely ride bikes for the rest of their lives. And that’s something we can all get behind.