The Making of a Bike Ecosystem

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In Arizona’s Verde Valley, PeopleForBikes and other partners are coming together to create a community hub for mountain biking.

Roughly 100 miles north of Phoenix, in the geographic center of Arizona, the Verde River flows from north to south, carving through a stretch of land defined by red rocks, scenic mountain vistas and dense Ponderosa Pine forests. Known as the Verde Valley, this 714-square-mile area encompasses the towns of Cottonwood, Clarkdale, Camp Verde, Jerome and, most well known, Sedona. It’s here that a 2021 PeopleForBikes grant recipient, Verde Valley Wheel Fun, is building a mountain bike skills park. 

Although Sedona is generally known as a wealthy retiree community with a New Age vibe, the rest of the Verde Valley isn’t all art galleries and five-star spas. As is often the case with centers of wealth, many local residents work in the service industry or trades, raising kids on low-wage jobs. In fact, roughly half of the children attending school in the Verde Valley are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal plan that provides low-cost or free lunches to students. Where the bike skills park is being built, at the Oak Creek Elementary School in the unincorporated town of Cornville, the landscape is more rural and tourists are a rarer sight.

Sedona and the surrounding area is famous for mountain and road biking, a year-round destination for people drawn to two-wheel fun on red dirt and long stretches of pavement flanked by incredible views. Most of the area’s trails are the result of Forest Service and community efforts including the Verde Valley Cyclists Coalition, an organization comprised of both road and mountain bikers that’s worked to improve the region’s bicycling environment since 1992. In 2017, the nonprofit began to focus on giving back to the local community beyond trail building and maintenance, launching a series of after-school mountain bike clubs. By 2019, it became its own entity, Verde Valley Wheel Fun (FUN).

“We just started growing faster than we could imagine,” said Kevin Adams, co-founder and treasurer at FUN. “This fall, we’ll start our thirteenth after-school club at 13 different schools here. We keep adding schools based on how fast we can raise money and get bikes.”

With the current programming in place, there will be some 130 kids participating in after-school mountain bike clubs throughout the Verde Valley, coached by 33 trained volunteers. As Adams sees it, one of the benefits of the clubs is that they get young people off their electronic devices and active outside. Since participating in the after-school clubs is a privilege, not a right, youth are also motivated to keep their grades up. Reports from the schools indicate that kids in the yearlong program either maintain or improve their reading levels and math scores. The bike clubs aren’t just for boys, either, with about 40% of participants identifying as female (as well as half of the coaches).

Alongside the $7,500 in funding received from PeopleForBikes, the Trek Foundation committed $60,000 to fund the Oak Creek School Mountain Bike Skills Park. Additional donations from the Catena Foundation, the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona, Arizona Community Foundation of Yavapai County, Arizona Community Foundation of Sedona and private individuals led to a total of more than $140,000 in funding. The bike park will break ground on January 3, 2022 — the best time to build in the desert — and will take six weeks to complete. A youth-led project to build a fitness course will be located adjacent to the park and is set to be completed this September.

Last year, FUN secured a $15,000 grant from the Outride Fund — the matching community grant program offered by the youth bicycling organization Outride — to build a mountain bike skills park at Mountain View Preparatory, a public K-8 school in Cottonwood. That bike park, which opened in April 2021, serves as a proof of concept for the new project and is part of what’s making the region a true bicycling ecosystem. Outride, a PeopleForBikes partner, believes investing in bicycling communities not only creates a more equitable, accessible and diverse bike industry but also leads to improved health outcomes among youth. 

“So often, bike trails are inaccessible to kids whose parents aren’t cyclists,” said Andy Cunningham, who manages the Outride Fund. “One of the things that’s great about Verde Valley Wheel Fun is that they’re building bike parks adjacent to schools, where kids are actually living. That way, kids don’t need a parent to ride and can go there with their friends.”

Complementing FUN’s after-school programs is Outride’s Riding for Focus program, a middle school bike curriculum designed to be implemented as part of a typical physical education class. Once FUN completed its first skills park, it reached out to the principal of another nearby middle school in the district, the Cottonwood Community School, to see if they’d be interested in applying for a Riding for Focus grant. Cottonwood Community is located downtown in a part of the city that has 85% participation in the National School Lunch Program and a student population that’s about 58% Hispanic. For the school, applying for the program was a no-brainer.

“The outcome of that is going to be a fleet of bikes in the middle school plus a trained P.E. teacher, so those kids are going to learn how to ride safely,” said Cunningham. “Once they have that basic level of confidence, they can actually walk over and ride on the new bike park that’s down the road. It's pretty awesome.”

Outride’s own research has shown that beyond the many physical benefits of riding, biking is a great way for kids to build social connections and community. Youths who regularly engage in physical activity report less depression and anxiety symptoms, have higher self-esteem and also perform better academically than kids who are inactive. Through the Riding for Focus program, kids become excited about P.E. and many gain access to a bike for the first time.

Long term, Outride wants access to bikes and bike programs to be as ubiquitous as our public libraries, ever-present even in America’s smallest towns. That means helping to grow bicycling communities through Riding for Focus and new bike parks, as well as educational initiatives, earn-a-bike programs and even bicycle cooperatives. In the nearby Four Corners region, which encompasses parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and the Diné (Navajo) nation, Outride is working with community partners like Silver Stallion Bicycle & Coffee, a mobile bike shop, and Project Bike Tech to build a bicycling ecosystem. There, like in the Verde Valley and other rural communities, bikes play a crucial role when it comes to connecting people and improving both mental and physical health outcomes for children. 

“In a lot of these small, rural, isolated towns, there’s often not a lot kids can do — especially in the last year, when indoor spaces were shut down,” said Cunningham. “For these kids that can safely ride in a bike park? There must be such a sense of joy and freedom. That’s a pretty cool gift we can bring that hopefully doesn't benefit just children, but families and the whole community too.”

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