A text message popped up on Matt Kühn’s phone from a kid in public housing: “I need to go ride.” Kühn, who directs the Richmond Cycling Corps, has grown accustomed to receiving messages like this. It didn’t start out that way.
Richmond Cycling Corps serves kids in the east end of Richmond, Virginia, all of whom live in public housing. Mountain biking is entirely foreign to many of the kids when they join the team. Some of them have never been to the mountains before, nevermind ridden bikes there. Many of them were reluctant to try riding at all. It felt foreign and strange.
“A couple of the guys when they first came on, they hated it, and we’d have to force them to ride,” Kühn says. “It’s cool to see these guys open up around bikes. It kind of turns into something that means a lot to them.”
Though it began as an after-school cycling group, Richmond Cycling Corps is now a wide-ranging mentorship program. A typical day for Kühn, who started as a volunteer and now works full time for the team, might include making sure one student wakes up in time for school, shuttling another to a dentist appointment, and helping still another navigate the court system.
“No kid is going to sign up for some white dude to yell at him for not going to school,” says Kühn. “I’ve climbed up balconies and pounded on windows to wake kids up. You do whatever you need to do. The bike is the hook.”
In 2014 the Richmond Cycling Corps joined Virginia’s NICA League. Training for races added a structure and discipline missing from other aspects of the Richmond kids’ lives. “They all play basketball and football, but in those sports, you can kind of hide behind your team,” says Kühn. At first, the Richmond kids were slow to connect with the students from other teams, but slowly that’s changed, and these days they mingle at races and connect on social media.
Kühn is careful not to overstate the influence his program has. “I don’t think of myself as changing lives,” says Kühn. “I’m just some idiot with patience that gets paid to help kids.” But it’s clear that the program is doing some pretty amazing things. Next year, for example, Richmond Cycling Corps will send their first student to college on a full scholarship.
Recently, a Richmond rider lost a friend to a drive-by shooting. He messaged Kühn: “Hey, I need to come ride. I need to get my mind off of this.”
Richmond Cycling Corps can’t erase the realities of inner-city life. But the Richmond kids know the bike is there for them. They’ve seen that there’s a world beyond the walls of their apartment buildings and the streets of their neighborhood and that outside, there’s freedom. They know the bike can take them there.
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