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By Karen Kefauver, Spin City

Bike Santa Cruz County – ContributedLearning how to turn corners, being aware of cars and giving signals are part of what kids learn during a skills clinic organized by Green Ways to School, a program of Bike Santa Cruz County.

I can only imagine what a mountain bike rock star I might be now if I had started trail riding when I was in seventh grade. I was lucky to have a bike and sometimes rode to school. But back then, as a 12-year-old, I thought less about bikes and more about what I was going to have for my afternoon snack and how many notes I passed back and forth with friends during class. (Remember good, old-fashioned pen-and-paper notes instead of text messaging?)

Fortunately for kids growing up in Santa Cruz County, a number of programs are in place to guide them into cycling at a young age. To name a few, there’s Ecology Action’s Bike Smart and Bike to Work/School programs, a local chapter of Trips for Kids and the Bicycle Trip’s Project Bike Tech. Some of these groups offer free recreational bike rides coupled with safety and skills trainings and are affiliated with local schools, ranging from elementary to high school.

But not every kid has access to a bike.

To answer that call, Bike Santa Cruz County is rolling out an expanded version of its Earn-A-Bike program this month. Started in Watsonville three years ago, the program will soon also include Live Oak. A grant from the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County and a partnership with the Live Oak Boys and Girls Club will give more kids access to bikes.

“Earn-A-Bike is about building lifelong cyclists,” said Green Ways to School Director Tawn Kennedy, the program founder who works at Bike Santa Cruz County.

“I’ve encountered way too many youth who do not have a working bicycle,” Kennedy added. “We collect donated bicycles and bike parts from families and community groups.”

But there’s more to it than kids just earning a bike. The middle school students partner with high school kids. They form mentor relationships and together they work on bikes, go on rides and explore local bike infrastructure. Students “earn” their bikes by engaging in community service and fixing up bikes for younger local kids.

Participants leave Earn-A-Bike with a donated bike they’ve helped refurbish, a helmet, front and rear bike lights, a lock and a portable tool kit.

“We are not just giving kids a bike,” Kennedy said. “We are training them in basic bike mechanics, like how to fix a flat, teaching them the rules of the road, practicing safe cycling, and providing them with safety gear and tools to fix their bikes.”

Kennedy often sees a difference in kids at the beginning and the end of both Earn-A-Bike and Middle School Bike Club, 10-week program at Mission Hill and Branciforte middle schools that combines safety and skills riding with rides to local parks and beaches.

Logan Lockwood, 13, participated in the Middle School Bike Club in sixth and seventh grade at Mission Hill. He credits Kennedy with making the club fun.“Tawn’s a really great guy. He got us into mountain biking,” Lockwood said. “I made friends with kids who I didn’t really know before.”

To kids who may be on the fence about biking in a group, Lockwood said don’t be intimidated.

“Go for it,” he said. “A lot of kids are afraid they aren’t skilled enough, but it’s all skill levels. Some people barely ride a bike and others have been doing it all their lives. It’s a ton of fun.”

To donate bikes, volunteer and learn about the Bike Santa Cruz County programs visit bikesantacruzcounty.org.

Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly.

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