Learning to earn

Teaching kids how to be mechanically sufficient

Learning bicycle mechanics at an early age can do wonders for a child's manual dexterity, providing the tools for a lifelong enjoyment of cycling. And as is the growing trend, my friends and I organized an after school Earn-A-Bike program in East Palo Alto, California in mid April.

The kids, all in middle school, have learned the basics of proper bicycle mechanics, but it appears the basics are hard to come by in our current school curriculum, which focuses on reading, writing and arithmetic before waving the driver's eduction carrot before their eyes when they're 15 years old. An Earn-A-Bike program not only teaches hands-on skills, it teaches discipline, comaraderie, and a reliance on self. There are too many in the San Francisco Bay Area that hire others to do things most people would and should do themselves, bicycle maintenance included.

My contention with bicycling is simple:  if you own a bike, you should take true ownership, including knowing every little detail about the bike, what size frame it is, what air pressure should go into the tyres and how often the chain should be cleaned and oiled. As I've told our delightful group, a quiet bike is a happy bike.

Oddly enough, there are several adults I know who, when asked if they have a repair kit for their bike, whip out their mobile phone and say "why yes I do!" And as I've seen over the years, just like it's never to late to learn to play a musical instrument, it's never too late to learn how to keep one's bicycle operating smoothly. Most people just haven't been shown the simple procedures necessary for keeping their bike in tip-top shape, nor have they been shown the tools needed.

Our tight-knit group of 10 dedicated middle school bicycle mechanics have learned basic bike handling skills, safety issues, and by May 22, will know how to assemble a new Schwinn Frontier GS mountain bike straight out of the box. On May 29, we're taking the kids out for a trail ride, and afterwards they'll get to keep their new bike, helmet, lock and multi-tool. This, I believe, is one very effective way of igniting a bicycle-loving fire that (hopefully) lasts a lifetime for these kids. A few girls have already started fixing bikes for others, while one has finally learned how to ride a bike for the first time.

Most hard-core bicyclists take these skills for granted, but for kids living in rough-and-tumble East Palo Alto, these skills can transcend into other areas of their lives. Isn't this what we should be imparting to all young people? See if there's an Earn-A-Bike program in your neighbourhood. If not, consider starting something and watch how quickly a legion of happy bicyclists take to the streets (and trails).

Many thanks to friends Chris, Matty, Justin and Chris for giving their time and talents, and for Amy, Esperanza. Sam and Lauren's assistance.

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