Youth Off Road Riders offers cycling to those who wouldn’t otherwise — and life lessons to columnists
SIGOURNEY, Ia. — Talk to the people around you.
That was the last piece of advice Wayne Fett gave the team of teen cyclists he mentors before they pushed off and joined the crush of riders leaving Amish country for Iowa City.
For me, an observer to their little group, it was the perfect encapsulation of what I hope we all take away from RAGBRAI.
But first, these kids: They are the teens of The Youth Off Road Riders and they are “Gearing Up for Success!” — as the backs of their orange, red and blue cycling gear announces.
Offered through the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, a human services agency started in 1973 in the Pheasant Ridge area of Iowa City, Youth Off Road Riders seeks to impart all the life lessons that kids don’t want to be lectured on by instead handing them a bike and giving them opportunities to participate in the competitive cycling world.
It’s your classic show, don’t tell. And it’s working.
“Cycling, it keeps you in check,” said Anas Eltuhami, 23. “It teaches you respect and responsibility because you can’t do this on your own, you have to look out for others.”
“People think this is an individual sport,” he continued, “but you really can’t do this without a team.”
Eltuhami was a member of the inaugural class of riders when the program started seven years ago. The first low-key, under-the-radar life lesson he learned was how to set a goal.
For this lesson, there was no whiteboard full of tips or prepared lecture. Simply, if he wanted to win, he had to do this amount of riding, that amount of weight training and learn this amount bike mechanics.
Later, he would figure out his second low-key, under-the-radar life lesson: That all the goal setting was just time management in disguise.
As a University of Iowa student studying human-computer interaction, Eltuhami uses those same skills to organize his schedule — and to fit 30 minutes of biking in when he can.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Youth Off Road Riders was helping him find balance in life while he was also finding it on a bike.
Like many of the kids in the Neighborhood Centers’ coverage area, Eltuhami immigrated to American when he was about 5 years old. Here, he found a welcoming net to make sure he didn’t fall, but still struggled with the language barrier.
He was in high school by the time he joined the cycling team, so language wasn’t an issue any longer. But still, the connections he made with different types of people from all over the country in the cycling world helped prepare him for the melting pot of college.
Tony Branch, the Neighborhood Centers’ gregarious youth program director and founder of Youth Off Road Riders, is a cyclist himself, so he was well-aware of all the positives biking brings out in kids.
But as an African-American, he also knew the financial and societal barriers to competitive biking would be too great for most of the low-wage working population that the Neighborhood Centers serves to overcome.
“Cycling can be homogeneous,” he said. “You don’t often see the world diversified in race, but especially not in socio-economic classes.”
If he could take away the cost barriers and create a space where all types of people rode, those hurdles would fade, clearing the way for new voices to join competitive cycling teams.
Today the riders look professionally outfitted — a result, I’m told, of a lot of hard work, many giving people and the endless help of Geoff’s Bike & Ski — but the team came from much humbler beginnings.
“Early on it was just the bare minimum,” Eltuhami said with a laugh. “We got our bikes from the Iowa City bike library and we showed up wearing just our P.E. clothes.”
Since then, they’ve fundraised, but also opened the program up to anyone, not just the people they support in the Neighborhood Centers. The response has been overwhelming, Branch said, because this is basically the only program focused on youth competitive cycling in Johnson County.
In welcoming kids from middle- and upper-class families, the program became inclusive in ways he hadn’t originally planned for, Branch said.
“By not limiting it, we are providing an opportunity for the kids to interact with people other than those in the neighborhood and that makes it more like school sports and more like real life,” Branch said.
“This is really about instilling the value that we are all on the same team,” he said, “and when other cyclists see that, I would like to think their minds open to that value a little bit, too.”
There’s that model of showing and not telling again. The Youth Off Road Riders are declaring loudly that cyclists don’t look one way — and they haven’t even said a word.
The truth is that the simple existence of teens of all types cycling next to each other can be radical. And on RAGBRAI, that radicalness radiates out to everyone around them.
But the large majority of RAGBRAI riders are already having some personal bubble burst along the route.
For these kids, it’s the “Iowa City” bubble, as Eltuhami termed it. They are getting out into the rural parts or Iowa for maybe the first time. (This day’s trip was going through Kalona, where some of the cultural experiences included buggy rides and comic foregrounds featuring Amish children.)
That rural life still exists is probably the biggest bubble being popped for a lot of the riders, but there are countless other mountains each biker is climbing. Maybe it’s this week of balance, in life and on a bike, that helps them reach the summit. But maybe it just gets them a little further up the face.
On RAGBRAI, everybody’s daily existence takes a pause and this other world opens up. You’re disconnected by virtue of spotty cell service, but that forces you to find entertainment and value in the people around you. And it gives you a lot of time to think about where you’re going.
This the first big event where I haven’t had a single person turn me down for an interview. I don’t point this out to talk about the fourth estate, but to talk about dialogue.
Given that the more than 10,000 riders on RAGBRAI were participating in a so-called individual sport, I expected a lot of headphones.
There were almost none.
It was like people decided to put aside whatever divided them for the love of cycling (and pork chops and beer). They were open to conversations with folks they’d normally walk by. They were listening to stories about why people ride without feeling like they had to open their checkbook.
And, for at least this one week, they were connecting.
In this traveling circus of humanity everyone just knew that love actually is all around — all they had to do was be open to receiving it.
Here on RAGBRAI, life is exactly as it should be.
I wish I could bottle it up and share it with the rest of the non-Lycra wearing world.
But I can leave you with a piece of advice I once heard from a cyclist: Talk to the people around you.
COURTNEY CROWDER travels the state’s 99 counties as the Register’s Iowa Columnist. She’s never ridden RAGBRAI, but she’s making an early promise: You’ll see her out there next year. You can contact her at (847) 226-1684 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
More from Courtney Crowder on RAGBRAI:
- Grace Harken was killed by a distracted driver while bicycling. Now, her siblings ride RAGBRAI in her memory.
- What we can all learn from the life and writings of Donald Kaul
- A freak accident killed his 10-year-old son Garrett. But his organs and tissues live on in 132 people.
- Steve Van Deest, a quadriplegic RAGBRAI rider, hand-cycled thousands of miles. But don’t call him an inspiration.
- ‘Like coming home’: Iowa State Patrol trooper celebrates one more RAGBRAI before retirement