How Bike Maintenance Empowers International Students

Photo credit: Media Platforms Design Team
Photo credit: Media Platforms Design Team

BICYCLING: What's your cycling history?
Klein: It wasn't until I moved to New York in 2009 that I fell in love with cycling. To me, being underground in a subway is excruciating, and being able to get around on your own time and at your own pace is essential. Riding is fast and exciting, and there's so much variation. You can be cruising in a bike lane or weaving around traffic in Midtown or riding by a beach.

Tell me about the school you work in.
It's part of a network of public high schools that serve English-language learners new to America. Kids come from all over the world—we're at close to 50 countries now, with 30-plus languages spoken.

What is arriving there like for the kids?
It's an overwhelming experience. Many have moved around a lot or gone to school in spurts. Some come from villages, some from cities, but all of a sudden they're in New York. Imagine having to navigate subways when you don't speak the language.

When did you realize the students needed bikes?
It really started with one student, Khadim Lo. He moved here in 2011 from Senegal. He came to me as a 10th grader, after seeing me bike commuting, and asked, "Can you teach me to ride?" I didn't know about any bike programs at the time, but my colleagues and I started figuring it out. We found Bike New York, which has a program that teaches students how to ride. It took one call and they were at our service, helping us set up an after-school program.

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How does that work?
With Bike New York, safety is locked down. They have closed courses where kids learn to ride. First-timers learn balance with the pedals off. All of the kids have an opportunity to own a bike through an organization called Recycle-A-Bicycle. Once students have done a certain amount of maintenance training, they earn a bike. At the very least, our kids learn how to change a tube. If they don't show up after day one, they still know that super-important skill.

What is the learning process like?
It's so varied. Some kids rode bikes in their home countries; some have never touched a bike. It's a problem-solving process. They start working on their bikes and notice something else that needs to be done. The freedom and empowerment of riding also affects them tremendously. One of my girls wrote about this in a college essay. Her conclusion was that you're going to want to do things in life, and it's about deciding what you want to do and making it happen. Another had such a positive experience, she wanted to know how other people—her uncle, in particular—could earn a bike.

How many kids have become bike commuters?
I think we have four kids commuting because of the program. One said to me, "Miss! No more MetroCards." He sat down at the computer and used Google Maps to learn how to get to soccer practice. Awesome.

Riding integrates you into a community—or helps you get away from one.

How far did Khadim, who started it all, take cycling?
So far! He just graduated, and last spring he came with me to the Youth Bike Summit in Seattle. He rides all the time, and he's been a mentor for other students. He's fallen in love with Seattle and wants to move there and work at Bike Works, a community bike shop and youth empowerment organization.

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What's one of the coolest things to come out of this?
This spring, four kids and I got to be ambassadors in the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, a 40-mile ride organized by Bike New York. We had to train for it, starting with 10-mile rides. We wore matching Bike New York helmets, badges, and T-shirts, and rode in a line—another thing we'd never done—and in a sea of 30,000 people. It was so cool, all of us riding single file and signaling to each other. It was a long day, but at the end, when you shoot down the Verrazano Bridge, it's a giant party.

What else do the students get out of the program?
Riding teaches you to problem-solve; it integrates you into a community—or helps you get away from one. Cycling does something for people. It's liberating. And for these kids, it helps them find some sense of themselves, no matter where they've come from.

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