Before going on a bike ride with Trips for Kids, many of trip leader Michael Rogers' young riders had never been to the ocean.
These are teens and tweens from Oakland, Calif., a city located directly on the Pacific Ocean, mind you. Some of them have views of the San Francisco Bay right from their bedroom windows. But they'd never seen it in person: dazzling sand, vivid blue water, waves foaming and breaking in a way that that's far more immense and awe-inspiring than it looks on TV or a movie screen.
"Talk about something that can transform you," says Michael, a perpetually smiling man with a head of springy blond curls. "No one ever thought to take them there. They never thought to walk there or take the bus. But once we take them on a bike, they know there's something amazing practically in their own backyards that they can go to any time."
Biking for change
Trips for Kids is an international nonprofit with more than 80 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Israel and Sierra Leone that leads mountain biking trips for at-risk kids. The most active chapter is the Marin/Bay Area location, where Marilyn Price kicked the program off in 1988. Marilyn estimates the Marin chapter takes 1,600 kids ages 9 to 17 a year on rides. They are referred to the organization by schools and social service agencies who are trying to keep these young people on the right track.
Michael, an intrepid bicyclist who leads trips five days a week, says something magic happens when he coaches a group of teens through hair-raising trails. "When I'm working with older kids, I want them to explore the boundaries of physical exhaustion and where it meets with euphoria," says Michael. "When you push yourself to do something dangerous you've never done before, it makes you feel things you haven't felt before."
Nature is nurturing
Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and forthcoming book Go Wild, tends to agree.
He says that exercise in any form increases the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, activates endorphins, and encourages the production of BDNF, an important protein that John calls "Miracle-Gro for the brain." BDNF is also intimately bound up with depression: The less your brain has to work with, the more likely you are to be depressed.
"And then when you're cycling, particularly mountain biking, you're using your sense of balance, and alertness, you're varying your speed, you're watching what's ahead, what's on your side," says Dr. Ratey. "It all leads to a very active brain. And when the brain is active, it releases all those chemicals that make you smile."
The group that rides together, confides together
Yes, there is that, Michael agrees. But there's something else, too. The riders are facing the (mild) danger of their rides together, screaming out encouragement, high-fiving when they all make it to the bottom of the hill together.
"If a kid falls they might laugh, but if someone's having trouble getting up a hill, everyone claps and says 'Go, go, go! You can do it!' And they always do! Having that kind of support, being with a group of people, working hard on something, and then making it happen -- I can't think of a better metaphor for life: You put in the hard work of getting to the top, and then there's the long, amazing ride down."
The teens and tweens talk about things on the rides, too, says Michael. Personal things. Things they may not be able to tell the kids they know at school, or their parents. They connect, and learn that many of them share the same problems.
"It's all very natural; the kids don't even realize they're getting fed information about making better choices," says Michael.
Open your psyche
Parents who have noticed they have great conversations with the kids while driving would agree: There's something special about talking with other people while you're not staring each other in the eye. When you're both engaged in something taking part of your concentration, the pressure's off to fill awkward silence. Interesting things emerge." And so the Trips for Kids riders befriend each other in this easy, simple way, while at the same time connecting with nature as well as their own psyches.
And these bike riding bonding experiences can be monumental and even life-changing events for adult as well as kids. As Barb Chamberlain, the executive director of Spokane bike advocacy organization Washington Bikes, wrote in a recent series about how cycling every day changed her life: "Adults don’t have many playgrounds: Places in which to hang out with a stranger side by side, testing the same new experience or challenge, and starting to talk with each other or help each other out, thus easing into a new relationship. In grade school that swing set or tetherball encounter might launch a lifelong friendship simply through the shared activity that gives you time to talk and get to know each other."
"When you're on a bike, you're free. Not just free, but unbound," says Michael, a faraway look in his eye. "There's nothing between you and the wind and the air. It's exhilarating. It's like nothing else."
Interested in volunteering or learning more about biking for fitness, friendship or philanthropy? Trips for Kids has chapters all over the country. And many metropolitan areas have community-based cycling organizations, such as Atlanta's Beltline Bike Shop or Seattle's Bike Works.
Joyce Slaton is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco. She blogs regularly for Babycenter.com.