How the NICA team in Richmond, California is changing lives, one bike at a time
Harrison Rivera moved to Richmond, California, for a better life.
At age 12 Rivera left El Salvador for the Bay Area to pursue an education and find a job, so he could one day send money back home to his mother. “You know, the American dream and that stuff,” Rivera says. Now 16 and a high-school sophomore, Rivera shares a small apartment with his cousin and older brother just down the street from the supermarket where he stocks shelves. Before this past spring, Rivera’s days were full, if somewhat predictable: school, work, study, then bed.
And then, one day, Rivera rode a mountain bike.
“I felt like it was impossible to ride up the big hill,” Rivera says. “Everyone was telling me I could do it and I had to walk to the top, and I felt like a star.”
Sergio Rodriguez was the target of bullies, both at school and on his social media pages. Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Rodriguez often spent his afternoons alone in his room with the door locked. One day Rodriguez saw his English teacher ride by on a mountain bike. A few days later Rodriguez straddled a bike and took his first pedal strokes up a hill in a local park.
“My legs were burning, and I got tired and I fell because I couldn’t feel them,” Rodriguez says. “It was so fun.”
Both Rodriguez and Rivera discovered mountain biking through the Richmond Composite high school mountain biking team, perhaps the most improbable program to ever join the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Richmond is located a 15-minute drive from NICA’s birthplace, Berkeley High School. Yet the community sits at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum; Richmond boasts a sizable immigrant community and the city’s rate of poverty is 25 percentage points higher than the national average.
Throughout its 20-year history, NICA has steadily grown from Berkeley to schools across the country. Today, NICA boasts staggering participation statistics: 18,500 riders and 9,000 coaches at 900 schools in 26 states. In many communities, NICA’s success has been driven by coaches and teachers who are dedicated to teaching the fundamentals of riding.
In Richmond, the team’s founders faced a series of other challenges that were specific to inner-city communities. After two years of work, the efforts helped change the lives of Rodriguez, Rivera, and others.
“I ride almost every day now because I want to see places I’ve never been before,” Rodriguez says. “I want to do it over and over again.”
Finding the right volunteer
For decades Richmond’s factories and inexpensive housing lured laborers from across the globe; today the city’s average income-per-capita is one of the lowest in the Bay Area. Like many urban communities, Richmond has had its high and low moments; in 2005 the city declared a state of emergency after a summer of homicides.
Staffers from the Northern California high school league tried for nearly a decade to launch a team in Richmond. The league’s head of outreach, Robert “Coco” Ramirez, contacted teachers, the local Parks and Recreation department, and even the Richmond Police Athletic League searching for someone to spearhead the project.
“Every time we had somebody on board, there would be a transition, they were gone,” Ramirez says. “Nobody was willing to take up the slack.”
NICA’s success in suburban schools often relies on local volunteers who donate their time to teach mountain biking basics, oversee competitions, and various other tasks. Kids must show up, commit to some fundraising, and then simply ride and race.
That process is much different in low-income communities, Ramirez says. Volunteers must raise tens of thousands of dollars, and supply bicycles. They must also convince kids to participate; urban communities often lack a cycling tradition. And then, these volunteers must take on a role far greater than simply a coach.
“You have to find someone who is an absolute angel,” Ramirez says. “They are going to have to be a mentor, parent, therapist to these kids. You need them to take these kids under their wing and get them to participate. That’s what it takes in the inner city.”
In 2017 Ramirez found his angel. Doug Streblow, an environmental specialist for the city of San Francisco, contacted Ramirez asking to start a team in Richmond. A recent Richmond transplant, Streblow was drawn to NICA after watching the documentary film “Singletrack High.” He also had experience working with inner-city youth at his day job.
“It’s a big deal to be part of the place you live and do something good there,” Streblow says. “These were two avenues that I was passionate about and it’s like, let’s bring this thing together.”
Streblow volunteered with a team in Oakland for a year before taking on the Richmond project. In the middle of 2017, Streblow began collecting donated bicycles and cycling clothing from local adult clubs; he built a website and placed flyers at parks and schools in the city. In the fall of 2017, Streblow was ready for his grand launch. On a Saturday in October, he held a fun ride to promote the mountain bike team.
“One kid showed up and we had to wrestle a second kid out of bed,” Streblow says. “It was like, ‘Okay, this is where the challenge starts.’”
Streblow faced economic challenges, too. The approximate cost for participation is $2,500, which includes team kits, registration fees, and the cost of bikes. Streblow knew that the amount was more than most kids could pay. In early 2018 he staged an online fundraiser, which brought in more than $20,000. He also secured sponsorships for clothing, nutrition, and other goods from Clif Bar, Pactimo, and other brands.
“Eighty percent of our kids need everything in order to participate,” Streblow says.
While suburban NICA teams often attract participants through word-of-mouth or simple curiosity, Streblow had to work harder to find participants. Streblow took on the role of mountain biking evangelist in the community, making the mountain biking pitch face-to-face whenever he met teenagers and even adults in the community.
“It’s this kind of aggressive friendliness,” Streblow says. “I go on rides around town, and if I see anyone who is high-school age I am stopping them and talking to them about the team. I’m stopping people if they look like they might have high-school-aged kids. You have to convince them this is something they would want to do.”
Streblow then reached out to parents and community leaders to find kids for his team. Success often required constant follow-up, to build trust on an individual level.
“You might get five kids and only three show up,” Streblow says. “They have to work or pay rent or do other things that most high school kids don’t have to do.”
Planning for long-term growth
Harrison Rivera struggled during his first practice rides. He fell often and lacked the leg strength to pedal up the longest climbs. The team’s Lycra racing kit presented another hurdle; Rivera says he was initially embarrassed to wear the tight jersey and shorts. Yet Rivera continued with the team because coaches and other riders offered regular praise.
“There are people supporting me and believing that I can do it,” Rivera saiys. “At the beginning I crashed every hundred yards. You just get back on.”
Rivera’s work schedule prevented him from riding every day, and he was only able to participate in two races. Yet by the season’s end, Rivera says he had adopted mountain biking as a semi-regular activity. He hopes to complete more races in 2019.
Sergio Rodriguez thrived on the hills even though he also crashed often. The adventure of riding in Richmond’s hilly parkland drew Rodriguez to ride almost every day—during a typical ride he saw places he had never traveled to and pushed his body in a new way.
Rodriguez also blossomed on the racecourse. He finished third from last in his first race; by the season’s midpoint Rodriguez regularly finished in the middle of the pack. In his penultimate race Rodriguez finished 10th out of 40 racers; the result qualified him for the state championships.
“Other teams cheer for you even when you are dead last,” he says. “That’s when I really started to enjoy it.”
Streblow says 19 riders have signed up to compete in the upcoming spring season, eight of them high school girls. Streblow plans to continue his aggressive outreach and fundraising. After all, mountain biking changed the lives of Harrison Rivera and Sergio Rodriguez—it has a good chance of changing the lives of more kids in Richmond.