Monday, April 29, 2013

Getting Young People into Cycling

An article dedicated to the up and coming youth
interested in cycling

Wow. I guess I'm showing my age here just by writing that headline. I am still young and I feel even younger at heart. Marriage, parental duties and adult responsibilities have not changed this fact. The truth is, from youth I have always enjoyed being an active person. In my personal case it goes as far as to be a necessity for me to remain active, even though my life circumstances are no longer what they were when I was a teenager or in  my early 20's. I enjoy the company of like minded people who are either young or young at heart, and who don't use their age to excuse themselves for not living an active lifestyle. In my part of the world, I happen to notice that even though I'm in my late twenties, I'm still among the youngest people riding bikes that I know of. I have always wondered why there isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm among younger kids to get into cycling. I know in other places there are more young people who ride their bicycles, but as a whole I can't think of anywhere where there is a youth movement to ride. 

I suppose the answer to that question is the same to why I didn't get into cycling at a younger age. When I was younger, I was more interested in ball sports where groups of people would participate. I lived in a small city where the community recreation center was within reasonable walking distance from my house. It featured a basketball court, where I would spend most of my days after school and sometimes on the weekends. Ball sports like basketball and soccer where a cheaper alternative for recreation and there was no safety issues or equipment to worry about. The problem was when there was no one to play with. 

Most young people, around their late teens and early twenties, stop being active due to the fact that their friends marry off or get busy with their careers or studies. Most young people do not believe in individual sports, because many of them develop a strong feeling to be accepted among their peers, and fear doing anything that their friends are not doing that would isolate them from the group.When these young people turn into young adults, they carry that yearning of acceptance with them.

During my adolescence, I was more active than the majority of my peers and therefore looked for individual sports, such as skateboarding or cycling, when I was not playing a group sport. I was a die hard soccer fan until about 18 years old, then the people I played with no longer showed up for the games. It was around this time when I joined a gym and found a workout partner in a 35 year old Haitian body builder named Jean-Baptiste. As a way to get a double workout on some days, I would ride my bike from my house to the gym where I exercised at. It wasn't long before I made another friend, also in his mid thirties, who would invite me to go riding with him on the bike trails. In his native South Africa, Carl had been an amateur racer and had participated in some of the major races held over there. In his living room sat a Cervelo time trial bike in a shipping box that had yet to be assembled. I had never seen a bicycle like this, since my exposure to cycling until that point was through cheap mountain bikes. Nevertheless, Carl would invite me on rides where he would sometimes ride laps around me on his Trek hybrid. Looking back I now understand how Carl must have felt, not having anyone to ride fast with or that understood what cycling was about. Even still, Carl would invite me just about every week to ride, and I always looked forward to our next ride. From then onward a seed was planted, and I began to think about cycling as a form of exercise and an actual pursuit rather than something I just did growing up as a kid down my neighborhood block or on a mountain bike trail. It would be another five years before I would buy my first road bike, and then my real introduction to cycling would begin.

Out of all the sports I have participated in when I was younger, cycling continues to be the funnest and most effective form of exercise until this day. Soccer players retire at a very early age, most of them by the age of 25. Professional cyclists can sometimes ride into their late 30's, and there are even guys like Jans Voigt who are in their 40's and still cycling. The endurance muscle develops at a later age for cyclists and cyclists tend to peek later than other types of athletes when it comes to their performance. Since cycling is not an impact sport, riders can last longer on the bike than they would playing soccer, football, or any other type of impact sport.

Compared to our European and other international counterparts, young people here in the States get a late introduction to the sport of cycling. If that weren't the case, there would be more American champions to boast about. According to Bikes Belong, a non-profit organization, 67% of cycling's growth in popularity has occurred among males ages 25-64. However, 27% of American youth ages 5-17 ride a bike, that's over one in four young people. Promising statistics, but the problem is that there is no data for young adults ages 18-25. That's the age when as mentioned before, most young people stop being active as a result of having to rediscover their identity within society.

How do you market to this group? By understanding their needs. Cheaper bikes are something this age category are already familiar with. Craigslist has played a vital role in getting many college aged kids on decent, used bicycles at a price they can afford. Having unsanctioned events where there are no licenses or fees involved is another way to peek the interest of this group. No charity rides, no critical mass rides, just fun races and events where young people can compete but are not tied to a charity or a cause. Most young people this age do not have strong opinions about things, and generally stray away from taking sides on any issue. Along with the already required driver's ed, young people should also have the option of taking a vehicular cycling class, and the program should be offered along with driver's ed. Education at this level is probably the most important step. We need to teach young people that riding a bicycle is allowed on the roads, and that they have every right to be there as someone driving a car without having to fear for their safety. Lastly, it needs to be the cool thing to do. Athletes such as Lebron James and Kevin Durant have been open about using cycling as a means of cross training for their basketball games. I give Lebron major props for riding his bike to a lot of his home games.

Who is currently looking out for the 18-25 year olds and influencing their choice to ride a bike? Enter the hipster trend. Riding for fashion, rather than for sport, recreation or transportation. Most young people around this age group do not identify with the fashion trends and attitudes that are promoted by the hipster, yet many of them see no other group taking a lead for their interests. A few years from now many will associate cycling with an ironic looking character mounted on a fixed gear bicycle. And that's sad really, because cycling is about as normal an activity as it gets, that  is for normal people and not for a confused, spoiled, misguided and elitist fringe of society that cannot speak for youth in general.

When I was growing up I used to get together with friends to go play basketball and soccer games. It would be really cool to see kids and young adults getting together for bike rides. That's something I have not had the opportunity to see happen in my area. I cringe thinking about going to one of the local group rides that are offered near my area. I either have to ride at a 20mph pace or I'm stuck in a group of old frumpy people on hybrids. I'm yearning for the cycling scene to change. Please, if you are a young person reading this and think cycling might be the thing for you, don't hesitate to try it out and get your friends involved to.

1 comment:

  1. Good solid opinion Johnny. There are dozens of reasons young people don't ride bikes in America. I was fortunate to live in Minneapolis the past 20 years where there is no urban area like it for bicycling in the States. Of course there is no place like Portland Or. either. What makes these places virbrant is a sense of place. When every suburb from California to Virginia looks the same, and urban decay is the norm, most people have very poor concepts of the places they live. Oh, I also grew up in Indianapolis. In an era when neighborhoods were kinda rough and places to go were far and nothing in between. That did not stop me from bike riding at the tender age of 12-20. And then hardly anyone rode. It's the same story, just a different place.