Bike to Leadership program teaches skills in safety, life

Bike Clark County program offers training in everything from bike maintenance to résumé building

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Bike Clark County seeks aid, participants

Clark County is always hungry for donations, according to vice president Peter Van Tilburg. The grass-roots nonprofit group was housed for years in the former Hough Pool -- bikes were stored and workshops held literally at the bottom of the empty swimming pool -- but then it moved to donated warehouse space at 1604 Main St. that's owned by Burgerville.

The group is thrilled with that gift, Van Tilburg said, but aware that it could disappear any time. Meanwhile it continues to purchase and give away thousands of helmets every year, as well as many used bikes. And, it continues to apply for grants from ongoing supporters like Kaiser Permanente and Clark County Public Health.

The space at 1604 Main St. is called The Community Hub -- a full-service retail shop that specializes in refurbished bicycles and both new and used gear. It's even got workbenches and tools for do-it-yourselfers. Hours this winter are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

For more information about Bike Clark County and its Bike to Leadership program, call 360-450-7145 or visit bikeclarkcounty.org. --Scott Hewitt

There are many motivations for not just earning but actually building, with your own hands, your very own bicycle.

There’s pride in building useful skills, and even greater pride when you’re zooming along on the human-powered machine you made. There’s the joy of independence and the sense of inclusion in a society of cyclists. There’s the mental map that grows as you explore. There’s access to familiar destinations and new opportunities — parks and playgrounds, schools and stores, jobs and income.

And then there’s sunset sightseeing along Vancouver’s beautiful waterfront while clowning around on bikes — as safely as possible — with your buddies.

That was the reward on a recent Tuesday for a group of dedicated high-schoolers enrolled in the Bike to Leadership program at nonprofit Bike Clark County: After reviewing tire replacement, hand signals and risky traffic situations (like what to do when four vehicles simultaneously approach a four-way stop), all embarked on a guided ride from The Community Hub workshop on Main Street through the historic reserve, over the land bridge and along the Waterfront Renaissance Trail.

“Wow!” one of the kids shouted as the Columbia River spread out before them on one of the last clear, sunny evenings of the year.

Preston Antisdel puts all that together and calls it “empowerment.” The eight-week Bike to Leadership program he manages for Bike Clark County is open to all high-schoolers, but it mostly looks to recruit students at low-income schools who could use a little extra attention and inclusion. Some are English language learners, and anything more than basic conversation with them can be challenging, Antisdel said — but the sixth-grade math teacher, who’s used to leading diverse groups, does his best to reach out with trademark smiles and positive energy.

“We want this to be a well-rounded program,” Antisdel said. “We don’t want to just support kids on bikes. We want to get them ready for the real world.” So, Bike to Leadership goes beyond the technical and safety matters covered by Antisdel and co-manager Aaron Gibson; there are also sessions on first aid and CPR, taught by nurses from Clark County Public Health, and even résumé-building and job-interview skills, taught by volunteers from Partners in Careers.

“I was kind of surprised, but I was really grateful” to absorb those lessons, said Zane Castillo, 15, a student at Hudson’s Bay High School. After the résumé-building lesson, Castillo said, he went on his own to the Partners in Careers office for additional help. “I am trying to get a job,” he said.

Castillo’s friend Sean Dahlke, 16, already works at the Jantzen Beach Target. During the first few weeks of Bike to Leadership, Antisdel said, the whole group learned to ride to Jantzen Beach and back on the Interstate 5 Bridge bike path, to discover just how safe and easy that commute can be.

Fatal flats?

It’s a too-common tragedy: A simple flat tire is fatal to one’s cycling career — maybe just for childhood, but maybe for a whole lifetime. That’s because fixing a “simple flat” is actually pretty complex. You’ve got to remove the wheel from the bike, the tire from the wheel, the tube from the tire. You’ve got to locate what’s likely a tiny puncture, cover it with glue and a careful patch; then you’ve got to reassemble it and reinstall it on your bike. After which a brake adjustment is probably a good idea, too.

Most parents haven’t mastered all that, Bike Clark County vice president Peter Van Tilburg said, so they can’t pass the lessons along to their kids; the result is a whole lot of perfectly good bikes rusting in garages and backyards all over the world. But, after eight weeks of Bike to Leadership, these students should be able to teach their parents how to get those bikes back on the road.

First, they teach each other. On that recent Tuesday, Hudson’s Bay High School students Brianna Arnold and Jose Flores teamed up to demonstrate a tire change for the group; after that, everybody paired up and fanned out across the workshop to practice the same tougher-than-it-looks task.

Friends and family

Arnold is the only girl currently enrolled in the program. She’s used to that, she said.

“It’s important for females to be represented in male-dominated fields,” said the determined 17-year-old, who’s eyeballing a degree in geology and a career in volcanology. “I love hands-on work, I love learning to work with tools. I’ve never seen gender as a problem.”

In fact, Arnold — a recent newcomer from Kansas — said she’s developed great friendships in the program. “It’s like having a whole bunch of brothers,” she said. “You become family.”

Flores, 18, said he wants to take his real family biking in spectacular local spots like the approach to Mount St. Helens. That’s a pretty steep landscape, but it doesn’t faze Flores, who can’t forget how difficult it was, and how fun, when his mother taught him to ride around his California schoolyard when he was 6 years old.

“It was something I never knew I could do,” he said. “It was the best day of my life.”

“The feeling of riding a bike is different than riding in a car,” said Castillo. “You feel the wind on your face. You can see how fast you can go. You can see who’s the fastest person on their bike. It’s one of the most fun things you can do.”

But bicycle racing on city streets is not what Bike Clark County has in mind. The nonprofit was launched years ago by Vancouver firefighter-paramedic Eric Giacchino, a lifelong cyclist who’s been called to way too many emergency scenes that involved a young person on a bike.

“In my line of work, I’m the guy who sometimes picks kids up off the street,” Giacchino told The Columbian a few years ago. “Kids don’t know how to tangle with traffic. I can’t live with that. I’ve seen the most horrible things.”

So, after the tire-changing and hand-signal reviews, Antisdel and Gibson led the group of one dozen Bike to Leadership students on that spin from downtown to the waterfront and back. (Gibson was pulling his two young daughters in a trailer, and earned extra Dad Points for tackling steep hills with gusto. His girls wore helmets, of course.) They kept their eyes on their students and called out safety pointers throughout; even so, some of the kids couldn’t resist trying fancy little tricks like banking up onto the dirt beside the street. But nobody hit the dirt, nor anything else.

Flores collected compliments on the supercool “low-rider” bike he’s assembled out of parts, including high-rise handlebars and a banana seat that lets him sit back and admire the view. “It’s awesome. It looks so comfy,” Antisdel said.

A little boy on the sidewalk with his mom saw the parade go by and summed it all up: “Cool! Bikes!”