Improving Equity in High School Cycling

As promised in yesterday’s blog post, today I want to explain more about how I was inspired to advocate for greater equity after watching the Milwaukee Public Schools Recreation Department High School Mountain Bike Team practice behind Riverside University High School a few weeks ago.

Hodan Mohamud practicing with new clipless pedals on the grass hill behind Riverside University High School.

I had heard that the only female on the MPS Rec Dept. team, Hodan Mohamud, might make for a good story, so I headed over to an after-school practice to take some photographs and meet her. Coincidentally, the practice I attended was the team introduction to riding with clipless pedals. Tristan Klein one of the owners of Coast In Bikes and an avid local mountain biker himself, installed some new iSSi pedals on the bikes for the kids.

Volunteer Coach Elizabeth Bart had a good plan for the day and started the kids just clipping and unclipping while standing still. After that the kids road the flat paved trail and a little bit of grass around the back of the track behind Riverside High School to get used to the feel of being clipped in and try clipping and unclipping while riding. Then Coach Bart had the kids start at the bottom of a big grassy hill, ride partway up, stop, unclip with one foot, clip back in and get started on an incline.

Volunteer coach Elizabeth Bart talks to kids about twisting their ankles to release the clipless pedals they are about to use.

I watched as the kids went through the same learning curve I did when I first tried going clipless. There was lots of trouble clipping in initially and of course a few low-speed tip overs as kids had trouble unclipping before a stop. Tristan and Eli both rode alongside the kids and gave them individual instruction, and within half an hour or so, all the kids were pretty good at it, and had even mastered the uphill start.

After practice, the team huddled up to discuss the new pedals and see who would use them at the race that weekend at Cascade. The kids all talked with each other about how the pedals improved their efficiency, which would help them compete against other kids who were racing clipless. They also talked about how it was easier to hop the bikes over obstacles when clipped in, but even with those clear advantages, almost every kid balked at racing with the new technology that weekend.

The reason was they had not had a chance to try riding clipless on actual mountain bike trails. It was one thing to ride on a big open grass field, even a grass hill, and another to race on single track. When I heard that it really made me sad, because there are plenty of single track trails along the Milwaukee River directly next to Riverside High School, but the school teams can’t practice there because they are not officially designated bike trails. The Wisconsin High School Cycling League’s insurance, which covers team practices, prohibits kids from riding on trails that are not officially designated OK for bicycling.

Tristan Klein from Coast In Bikes shadowed kids as they practiced with the new iSSi pedals he brought over.

Yes, people mountain bike on the Milwaukee River trails every day and have been for decades, but those are individuals. Very different rules apply to organized high school sports and civil disobediance, justified or not, is not covered under their policy. Many other school mtb teams around the state hold some of their practices at mountain bike trails in their community, but transportation is a bigger issue for Milwaukee kids than it is in other communities.

I felt so bad that our Milwaukee kids continue to face inequities in this wonderful new high school sport, that I vowed on the spot to work to improve their access to mountain bike trails. After I went back to the Bike Fed office and sent a few emails, I learned that the Shorewood Greyhounds high school mtb team faces the same issue. The nearest officially designated mountain bike trails to ride are in Hoyt Park in Wauwatosa ¬†or the Alpha trail in Franklin. Getting kids to those trails after school is really not possible given practices run when most parents are still working and there isn’t time or money to bus the kids.

Besides, it just seems silly and wasteful to have to transport kids across town to ride mountain bike trails when there are suitable trails right next to the schools. So while bicycling is not officially allowed on those trails, I thought we might be able to work with Metro Mountain Bikers, local experts in sustainable trail design, construction and maintenance, to find some short segments of trail south of Locust Street that could be developed into an mtb skills line and seek permits with the Milwaukee County Parks Department to allow the kids to practice there after school during the season. The same could be done somewhere along the river corridor in Shorewood.

Tristan Klein (center) and Coach Bart talk to the kids after practice about why they would benefit from using the pedals in the upcoming race at Cascade Mountain that weekend.

I know there will be some opposition to this idea, there always is opposition to equity initiatives. Often the argument starts with the suggestion that nothing is stopping the kids from riding somewhere it is legal, like they do around the rest of the state. If they care about it, parents can drive the kids or pay for busing like all the rest of the teams do around Wisconsin.

At the Bike Fed we disagree with argument that equity initiatives are unfair and that nobody deserves special treatment. We have learned that it sometimes takes some extra effort to get some groups riding more. For instance in some neighborhoods all it takes to get kids biking to school is to install bike racks, teach a Safe Routes to School course and announce a bike to school day. In other neighborhoods, parents are more concerned about crime and traffic safety issues, so we organize biking school buses in which parents or older kids stop on their way to pick up others and lead the kids to school as a group.

The Wisconsin Bike Fed has redoubled our efforts to improve equity within cycling for youth, females, people of color and those in lower income levels.

Beyond that, why wouldn’t we want to try to figure out a way to leverage a natural resource we have next to our schools that will help the students be successful? Good schools try to do that with every other aspect of learning, from seeking mentors from nearby businesses to utilizing nature as an environmental classroom.

We are not talking about opening up the entire river corridor to mountain biking here, just permitting a couple short sections of trail for the kids to use to improve their mountain biking skills next season and also add a place for them to learn something about sustainable trail development and maintenance. That seems like a win for the kids on the teams in Milwaukee and Shorewood, help them attract more kids to the wonderful new program and add another asset for the schools to promote to parents considering sending their children to Shorewood and Riverside.

This is a new idea and the Bike Fed is working with the teachers, coaches, Metro Mountain Bikers, Shorewood and Milwaukee County Parks Department to explore our options, and I feel confident that this is an initiative most people can support. In the course of our discussions over the winter, we may find some alternative I have not considered at this point. The Bike Fed remains open to any and all ideas that help our kids succeed and enjoy the benefits that this wonderful new high school sport and healthy activity can provide.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

3 thoughts on “Improving Equity in High School Cycling

  1. I really appreciate your sensitivity to the access issue. I’ve been pushing for “one design” racing (full-rigid single speed) for high school MTB. I live up North and many of our volunteers cannot shell out hundreds of dollars (transport, fees, hotel) to become “certified” coaches. Hayward was instrumental in finally getting a coaches certification course up North last summer- kudos to them. More importantly, many of our kids can not afford the latest bling for bikes, or any bike for that matter. Not to be a curmudgeon, but technology does make a difference and kids racing on top-end 9ers with light wheels and tubeless have and advantage. We don’t want MTB to be just another elitist sport for rich kids (cycling’s history is deeply rooted in blue collar work ethic). One design eliminates that and allows kids to focus on skills development. Again, I appreciate your concern re access. It will make or break high school cycling. Aloha- Dennis

  2. WBF is amazing. Obama should recognize your outstanding work. Re the River Trails proposal: I would regularly emphasize to the riders the importance of good manners, consideration and thoughtfulness. Always be attentive to non-riders. My personal hierarchy: #1 Pedestrians first. 2. Cyclists 3. Buses 4 Commercial vehicles 5 cars. Every rider is an ambassador for biking.

    Love your blog,


    • Thanks W H Owen, we couldn’t agree more about the importance of manners on trails and your hierarchy of users!

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