Despite different interests and backgrounds, out on the bike with our people, words flow and things just work. Disparate ideas suddenly fit together, as if puzzle pieces that just needed to be turned and flipped and oriented correctly.
How lucky are we to have found this?
Now, imagine, you’re a kid or young teen. With no productive community that you can merely slide into, what are your options? You’ve been classified as “at risk,” but really you’re nervous or bullied or controlled by much bigger things that a kid can’t imagine fighting against, trapped in your head with nobody around. What if we could nudge these kids into the community of bikes? What if you could teach them about the satisfaction that comes from working on bikes? In fact, recent research has shown a relationship between cycling and improved outcomes for youth diagnosed with ADHD. But how do we immerse them into this thing in which we all so believe?
Meet Zack Bertges, founder of the Santa Barbara based Riviera Youth Bike Team (RYBT). Zack graduated from UCSB and started coaching triathletes, himself an ironman triathlete and cyclist.
Move to May 2014. Zack was happy with his coaching but a mysterious latent void crept into his life. On May 23, his fellow Gaucho & SB community was rocked when a shooter killed six people in Isla Vista, the little town near UCSB where much of the student body lives. Zack felt a sense of hopelessness and dread. After searching for answers, and hearing about the buildup to the events, Zack eventually discovered a potential to connect his skillset to something more important. He began examining mental health resources in effect.
This is how RYBT came to be. Zack wanted to extend what he saw in his athletes to troubled or at-risk kids. Working with local organizations such as Child Abuse Listening Mediation (CALM), the Center for Alcohol Drug Abuse (CADA), the Franklin Youth Center, and local Boys and Girls clubs, he takes at risk kids from 10 to 13 years old (who often don’t know how to ride a bike, at first) and trains & coaches them to ride one California’s best cycling event, the Santa Barbara 100. *
Along the way, they learn how to ride in a group, about the fundamentals of training & community cycling, and how to work on their bikes.
* After this interview was conducted, Zack was invited and accepted to the board of the Santa Barbara 100, in recognition for his commitment to youth cycling and collaborations amongst the Santa Barbara community.
Stinner: So, how does this all work?
We’re currently offering three types of programs, and in-process of structuring to operate year-round. We have a “SB100 August program” that trains new riders to complete the 34 mile route at the SB100 in October, a “May Gibraltar Team” program that trains graduates of the SB100 team to climb Gibraltar, and we have a “March Fitness Prep” Program, that allows for kids to be automatically accepted into the August program, by attending various workouts in Santa Barbara from March-May.
How do kids find you?
We start with CALM, which is a center for kids that are experiencing difficulties in life, or facing challenging family situations, and/or abused. They’re one of our major forwarder for kids, but we also have relationships with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (CADA), Franklin Youth Center, Big Brother Big Sisters, and Boys & Girls Clubs.
What RYBT is, is the next level of community building from awesome youth/non-profit centers to cycling. We have plenty of organizations that focus on kids & their mental well-being. On the cycling front we have such a strong community, from the local bicycle shops to groups like Echelon Santa Barbara who sponsors the team, and the Santa Barbara bike coalition, which is our fiscal sponsor.
And why the cycling community?
First, our cycling advantages in SB is awesome. We get to ride bikes year-round? From the beach to the mountains in 6 miles?? It’s amazing! Second, in the last three to four years, there has been a large amount of research produced on the benefits of cycling for kids, especially troubled or challenged kids. We’ve really been trying to take this research to the next level, and not just embrace it, but help move the ideas and potentials forward for everyone. The Specialized Foundation is doing the same, which has put a lot of money into researching kids with ADHD, and they’re helping to discover and produce the quantifiable advantages of kids riding bikes. Socially, the country is coming on-board, too- the NFL just donated 200 bikes to the local Denver area at the Superbowl, which is great, and we have organizations like Plus 3 Network that are moving dollars from corporations to charities for common fitness activities. The NFL has the capacity to do more, but it’s going to take groups like RYBT, Specialized, and local programs and coalitions to keep the momentum going. And getting more corporations involved is part of that process.
Obviously, it’s a good cause, but what were some of the moments that led to finally just putting everything into this?
We all experience grief and hardship at different points in our lives, and I think I reached a new level of awareness a couple years ago. Events and frustration kept adding up. For instance, from when I was 4 until 9 years old, we lived in Newtown, Connecticut, near where the Sandy Hook shootings occurred in 2012. When Sandy Hook happened, in addition to the horrifying thoughts of what occurred, it rattled my family, and I because we remember, we’ve experience Newtown in it’s innocence, a place and time where my sister and I used to run-around freely. Then here in Santa Barbara we had the Isla Vista shooting in 2014, another place where I used to run-around, just a couple decades older. And in-between, I started realizing more about the fragility of life, coming to an age where I hear more about or witness friends or colleagues mishandling stress, hurting themselves, hurting others. And, I started wondering about how to address these mental health questions from a perspective that I might be able to help someone, sometime, with what I know. After enough events, enough heartache, my thoughts changed to action, planning, and some trial & error. I had to figure out what starts with kids mentally, at the youngest age that some random 29 year-old athlete, could access them, and try to inspire enough for assist them on their positive journey of life. I wanted to teach them to manage life stresses, how to engage with athletes who may appear to be intimidating, and I wanted them to feel comfortable getting support in cycling or triathlons.
When Isla Vista happened I had a thought and decided to pair the adult triathlon team I started with Boys & Girls Clubs. We hosted monthly activities where our athletes helped the kids do something triathlon, or swim/bike/run related, while meeting some bad-ass & inspirational adults who were training for Ironman triathlons. It was an awesome experience. While I was doing this, I met Christine Bourgeois of the Santa Barbara Bike Coalition. And then, last March Christine got a call from a local family foundation in town that has supported a similar bike program in Arizona for the past nine years, and we got connected.
So, that’s where it started.
Yeah, it was amazing timing. I had raced in three different countries for three different Ironman races, but I was my own coach, my own boss, and I wanted to be training for more reasons. I was just thinking, “man, I need to find something for a good cause, something that I can share my life with.” Being a young or old athlete can be pretty inspirational for younger audiences.
So, Christine called me one-day to introduce the potential of collaborating & building off of the Arizona program, and invited me to meet and hear more at Bici Centro (the local coalition bike shop) at an education committee meeting. When I heard more about the potential to work with bullied and/or challenged kids, and that this program needed someone to run with it…it struck a chord. I was bullied as a kid, too, got into a lot of fights when I was in that age range, and it was like, “holy shit, I can do this”, and I know what the kids are feeling. It was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.
What’s the first day like for the kids?
There’s a lot to it, but we tackle the program in a couple ways- a Tuesday gym class, Thursday spin class indoors, and then we do Saturday rides together. The gym and spin classes gets the kids moving, teaches them the pedaling motion. Then on Saturdays, for the first couple weeks, we start in parking lots where we do drills and skills with three additional coaches and myself; we are all certified instructors from the American League of Bicyclists. We use an ALB curriculum to teach the kids to behave on their bikes, to turn, brake and signal. With the community support, sponsorships, and fundraising efforts, we buy all the kids brand new bikes and helmets and the jerseys. They pay $50 to be part of the program, but we have scholarships for all the kids if they can’t afford it. We don’t let financial backgrounds stop kids from participating. Throughout the program, we fit helmets, bikes, jerseys, and shorts to the kids, and we teach them how to ride on various routes in the community.
The kids get this team feeling via the coaches, community and team sponsors, andan education & camaraderie for the first three months, then they ride with other cyclists on their final day of the program, either at the Santa Barbara 100 in October, or the RYBT Gibraltar Challenge in May. One of the best parts is that they see the whole community, on a large-scale, many for the first time. They also get the post event atmosphere, watch hundreds of bikes ride together… it really is a pretty hard core immersion into cycling culture, and a ton of fun.
The whole program and the final day is half about self-confidence and self-esteem building- they accomplish something they never thought they could do. The other half is about giving them the education and tools to be a responsible rider for their age. After the event they get five more Saturdays to ride and hear from guest speakers, everything from bike mechanics to Santa Barbara Police Department.
So they’re exposed to different elements of cycling in these Saturday sessions.
Yeah, for instance, at Hazard’s (a local bike shop), they build a bike out of the box with the staff, which come in early just for us. A separate time, the Santa Barbara Police Department bike cops came out and taught the kids what to do if their bike is stolen, and how to lock your bike with locks we bought for them…That was a really cool session, and a big success. I had no clue how that was going to work with the police department, but we gave the kids some real life advice and essential skills that resonated. And then, they went and rode for 2 hours.
Do you see kids come back to riding?
I get pictures from parents riding with their kids now. Even the parents are encouraged to show up on rides with the coaches. I’ll get pictures of parents with kids riding months afterwards and it’s awesome. We also use the parents to measure success of the program in real-time, and after. We also talk to the social workers of the kids (if they have one) to make sure there’s progress.
Are any of the kids taking cycling further?
Yeah, that was a big realization after our last program that we need to have the “next step” of a cycling program ready for the kids. That’s where our March program and Echelon Santa Barbara Cycling Club comes-in; I’ve been working with their board members for the past couple of months to create sort of this seamless route of cycling advancements, without pushing the kids too much into a straight racing culture. We do want them to know about the opportunities that are evolving, and they’re evolving fast, but the goal is to allow for resources conducive to a healthy bicycle culture.
And you’ve given up everything to do this, so to speak?
Hah, I don’t consider I’ve given up anything…it is true that the coaches and I are operating as volunteers until we satisfy the annual organizational needs, and we do put a lot of time and energy into the program. But the reward and the service, and the awesome Santa Barbara support carries us. It’s tricky, though, too- it takes a fair amount of money and time to give the kids the experience that they get. But when you’re with the kids it’s all worth it. At the SB 100, when the kids crossed the finish line, people were crying, and I had cyclists approach me saying it was the highlight of their day. That was amazing to me! “Highlight of their day”, it was a selfless appreciation of seeing kids accomplish their goals, on bikes, from someone who just rode all of Santa Barbara…unbelievable. These are kids who are 10 years old who just rode 34 miles, and we were all so proud…we’ve gained memories for ourselves that mean more than the personal financial gain.
The Ultimate Goal?
We want to create access to this cycling culture, build their self-esteem, their feelings of self-worth, and give them an education that will create a lifetime of cycling memories and empowerment. You know, something else in these kids’ lives is so controlling, we want to create access to a culture to go further. We want to help create stories for kids who are happier who lose weight, or have more friends, or have something that makes the outdoors more enjoyable, and gratifying.
But we also have small goals to impact the individual in whatever way we can. For instance, we had a kid from CALM in our last program, who was one of our most unique & challenging riders, as well as highly impatient. At my first meeting with CALM about this program, nine workers and child psychologists suggested that I take him into the program, and that he’d be a good, albeit challenging, fit to the program, and I said, “Game on”.
Week-to-week, there would be conflict, and throughout the program coaches and I would work with him to instill some trust, conversational values, and try to be a positive role model…He ended up being a great participant to the team, successfully rode the 34 mile route at the SB100, and we were all very proud of him.
I went back to CALM a couple months later to talk about our next program, and the Director had decided to call the rider to get a testimonial that she would read out-loud, at this meeting. And the short & sweet testimonial she read was,
“I had a lot of fun in the program and I learned how to raise my hand.”
That’s all he said! But all the counselors were like “WHAT?! He’s raising his hand?!” They were so shocked he was showing more signs of patience and social concerns, and it was awesome…I cracked up. And the staff was asking, “Zack, what did you do??” And I said, “Well, we gave him a bike and taught him how to ride”.
And that was as much a measure of success as it was of him completing the Santa Barbara 100 34 mile ride. We care about bikes and the ride, but we also care about what bikes and a community can do for emotional health & happiness. Hopefully the bikes can further assist to grades, behavior, and politeness for all of our riders down the road. But we work with kids who are going through so much…if raising your hand is a big step in the eyes of parents or child advocates, then I know we’re on the right track as a program for the Santa Barbara community.
Epilogue: That’s a lot of words but not nearly enough to describe what Zack is doing. These are issues of autonomy and social norms, of freedom and empowerment. To learn more or donate, head to www.RivieraYouthBikeTeam.com. Cycling can be more powerful than we imagine. If this isn’t a piece to fit under the Freedom Project…I don’t know what is. Communities are empowering.