A FIFTH-GRADE GIRL straddles my front bike tire.
"Make sure this doesn't wiggle," she instructs me solemnly. This is the last step of my bike check before I can join the line of mounted Vernon school students waiting to ride to Alberta Park.
"Is David ready to ride?" instructor Ashley Mitchell asks the group.
"Nooooo! He has to roll his pant leg up!" shouts a child.
"Nice socks," a girl snickers.
I am not cool enough for bike club.
Mitchell heads up this free after-school bike club at the Community Cycling Center (CCC), one of the six-week-long clubs the nonprofit offers for nine- to 12-year-olds at six elementary schools around Portland. By the end of their adorable lessons in bike anatomy, road laws, and basic bike repair, the kids will each earn their own refurbished bike, complete with helmet and toolkit.
In addition to co-teaching the classes with fellow CCC member Collin Roughton, the 27-year-old Oregon native also co-founded a women's long-distance riding group ("2 Hot 4 Handlebars"), raised $2,000 for local bikey causes last fall by cycling all the way from Portland to Fort Lauderdale, and netted a nomination for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's 2010 Alice Award.
Not bad for a girl who only started riding a bike in 2006 and whose nickname is "Smash."
Mitchell is an unfailingly cheerful, patient teacher with the kids. She gets her enviably positive attitude from a lifetime of struggling herself. Until recently, Mitchell suffered from intense seizures. The medicine that "cured" the seizures left her unable to function.
"I was on so many drugs I couldn't hold a job, go to school, maintain anything," says Mitchell.
Four years ago she gave up on Western medicine and began a strict diet and workout regiment.
"It'd been 10 years since I'd had a clear head and since then I've just been using exercise. Biking has made a huge impact," says Mitchell.
"I believe in our ability to help each other. For a long time, I was really sick and I relied on a lot of people to take care of me and help me survive, and now I have the skills and strengths to give back to the community and pay that back."
What "paying back" means today is stealing children's bikes. Before we depart en masse to Alberta Park, Mitchell instructs her gaggle of students to secure their bikes with brand-new locks and practice some map reading and trip planning. While the kids are distracted, Roughton carries out a lesson in bike theft, gleefully disconnecting brake cables and front wheels from improperly locked bikes.
When the students return, pandemonium reigns.
"You stole them, you robber!" a boy shouts at Roughton.
"You demon! How could you?" Others eye me, believing the real reason for my visit to bike club has been revealed.
A little chaos is okay, Mitchell tells me. The kids learn quickly, most of them, and the bikes they receive help them get to school, the store, or friends' houses without a car. With this kind of training, the CCC is hoping to grow a local generation of safe and confident bike riders. Those are just the kind of people Portland will need if it's going to actually meet the goal of having 25 percent of trips made by bike by 2030, as spelled out in the 2030 Bike Plan city council approved this year.
As class ends, an older bike club alumnus drops by to pick up the Eclipse I've been riding for the day. He's worn through his refurbished bike thanks to daily rides, and the Eclipse is a long-awaited replacement. The alum mumbles a thank you before taking off across the parking lot.
Mitchell and Roughton take a few seconds from their hectic schedules to stand and watch him go. It's a small, sweet, and perfect moment.
"That's what it's all about," one grins to the other.More Bike Issue articles here!