Cyclist Training : Why Are We Yanks So ‘Thick’?

Background Reading


Wearing a bike helmet may help keep you safer in case of a crash or a tumble.

Wearing a bike helmet may help keep you safer in case of a crash or a tumble.

When it comes to Cycling Advocacy we Yanks have veered off into uncharted territory where our bicycle infrastructure has had laid upon its shoulders the entire burden of preparing and sustaining cyclists maturation and development. And frankly this makes no sense. It is as if we have decided that enough green paint and PVC bollards will satisfy the needs of mortal men and women by allowing them to safely ride their bikes for both recreation and transportation on a daily basis year-round.

I suspect the groups like League of American Bicyclists have “gone with the flow” in deciding that training is no longer a necessary ingredient in the maturation process of a cyclists life. Nothing could be further from the truth. We still need training and despite the cries to the contrary any organization that is not providing training is doing a disservice to the cycling community, especially if they are collecting membership fees for the supposed Cycling Advocacy activity.

We Seem To Have Lost Our Way

A scant decade or more ago the “cool thing” to do was take training from one of the thousands of League Certified Instructors available for teaching adults how to ride their bikes and to negotiate with confidence the streets in their neighborhoods. But not only has adult certification become passé but we are turning our children loose without any formal classroom and practical training in the Elementary Grades which is where they are most likely to benefit from that training.

Bicycle Infrastructure is only part of the solution. To round out the necessary experience for cyclists you need more than a poorly installed bicycle lane that runs through your community and seldom has any riders. And all of the “happy talk” about BikeShare is not going to create any momentum among people of color (especially the women of color) who live in neighborhoods where bicycles are seldom if ever used beyond the age of childhood. And yet we keep throwing technology at a problem as if that alone could solve anything.

BikeShare is a flat out non-starter in poor neighborhoods. Why? Because you need a credit card. And yet folks at StreetsBlog and GridChicago write about BikeShare with great longing and are somehow convinced that having at least a few stations on the South Side is going to make a real difference. It won’t. People in the Hyde Park neighborhood with credit cards may bite. But everywhere else “cash is king“. In Lawndale the place to be on a Friday night is the currency exchange. So no, BikeShare by whatever name you give it will not make inroads into the lives of the people who really need it the most.

Maybe Telling The Liberals That The Dutch ‘Get It’ Will Help

I have had a running discussion with a friend from the Recumbent Bicycle Community. He thinks that Vehicular Cycling is the “pits“. I believe he is wrong and as proof I present the fact that the Dutch have undertaken to fill the gap in training for cycling that is missed when immigrant women arrive in their country.

So let’s go at this from the point-of-view that we are not only trying to increase the likelihood that bicycles will be taken seriously as modes of transportation but we are also striving to “empower women“. Now that should get the Liberals in the audience to sit up and take notice. They can adjust their nose rings and straighten their tattoos and re-engage in a meaningful way with the proud tradition of the League of American Bicyclists who have made it their life’s work to train the citizenry of this great country on how to negotiate the streets of their neighborhoods.

Look at it this way. When you are trying to increase the ranks of cyclists you can go for the current “Bike To Work Week” approach which will bring in any number of folks during the warmer months to pedal their way to work. But when the going gets colder and icier that is when the level of participation falls off. And then we struggle with sharing lessons learned in riding year-round on sites like Bike Winter.

But what is really needed is for there to be something that is embedded in our DNA (much as with the Dutch) early on in our development. If you are talking about the Black Community then churches are where you could begin. Offer training classes to women and children and young adults. Maybe have special church services where everyone rides out on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon for an in-water baptism service. It does not really matter what the occasion but let it be something that everyone is comfortable with doing (in cars) only change it up for many of them to try it on bikes.

Immigrant Women Provide A Chance For The Dutch

Dutch nationals of foreign origin cycle less than Dutch nationals who were born here. Despite a lack of good recent statistics, however, immigrant women seem to be catching up. They are doing so by attending cycle proficiency classes, which are being offered in more and more municipalities. Two good examples are the projects in Amsterdam and Tilburg.

Twenty or fifty years old, newcomer or long-time resident in the Netherlands, of Turkish, Moroccan, Surinam or other origin, the participants in the Amsterdam project Cycle Proficiency Classes for immigrant women are as diverse as the multicultural society itself. Woman from other European countries are also enrolling. Refugee organisations and centres for asylum seekers also provide candidates. “We clearly fulfil a need”, according to Roxanne Stienstra, bicycle project coordinator at the Sport & Recreation department of the Welfare Services Amsterdam.

Meeting place
The reasons for the increasing popularity of the bicycle among immigrant women are the same as for any other person: taking the children to school, shopping and outings: cycling is cheap and fast, increases their self-confidence and independence and also gets them active. But there’s more to it than that, Stienstra has noticed: “The classes also function as a meeting place, where they can chat, exchange information, have a cup of tea, while many go on to other activities like swimming, aerobics or fitness training.” The cycle proficiency classes in Amsterdam have been going for over ten years. Each of the fourteen urban districts has at least one project. Publicised through advertisements in the local newspaper, for example, the women can enrol at the community centre. Some urban districts have a permanent community sports worker. Others hire someone. The classes are given in the nearest gym. “We provide the bicycles, the teachers and help with the start-up”, says Roxanne Stienstra. She personally trains the teachers, paid employees with a sports academy diploma and a First Aid certificate. They tend to be women, which is particularly important for Turkish and Moroccan participants. “But in the south-east which has a big African population, it doesn’t matter whether the teacher is male or female. Here, a complete men’s group was recently formed. And in the River district, a mixed group recently started. There are also immigrant women giving cycling lessons.”

No prying eyes
The course involves twenty weekly sessions lasting one hour: ten for beginners and ten for advanced cyclists. The first series, in which ten to twelve participants learn the theory and practice of cycling, is given indoors. “Very important, because the women don’t want to attract prying eyes. The long skirt is swapped for trousers, the headscarf comes off: they have to feel uninhibited.” In the second half of the course, they learn the Highway Code and participate in traffic.
“First they practise in a quiet park, before moving on to the public road, eventually in all weathers, because cycling with slippery tyres makes braking difficult and that’s something they have to learn too. Outside there is always an assistant teacher in attendance, so that someone can cycle behind the group.” The course ends with an exam. Successful candidates receive a certificate. The urban districts operate autonomously, but Sport & Recreation coordinates the cycle proficiency classes. Stienstra strives to achieve unity, such as a uniform price. The price now varies in each urban district from thirty to sixty guilders for ten classes. Two videos supported by a reader were presented to former Sports councillor Roel Walraven in January and are intended to promote uniformity in the classes. An introductory 25 minute video tells the teachers about the organisation and structure of the classes, and how they can reach the target group. The second film lasts 2.5 hours and instructs the teachers about preparing the classes, the contents and the best way to teach. “This can be used in two ways: the teacher can prepare her lesson and show the participants what the class will be like. This helps overcome any language barrier.”

Knowledge distribution
The municipality of Amsterdam subsidises some of the cycle proficiency classes from its sport promotion budget. The Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation department granted the subsidy to make the videos, among others. Roxanne Stienstra regrets that there is no information exchange with other big towns about the cycle proficiency classes. “This kind of exchange is long overdue”. The Centre for Foreign Women (CBV) in Tilburg has been promoting cycle proficiency classes for immigrant women for years, both inside and outside its own municipality. Angela van der Kloof, coordinator of the Steunpunt Fiets (Bicycle Support Centre) run by the CBV, has developed the course Stap op de Fiets (Get on the Bicycle); over 400 have already been sold all over the country since 1996. Besides developing and distributing teaching material, Van der Kloof also gives cycling and traffic classes to immigrant women and girls, trains teachers in various towns, advises institutions like community centres and organisations for asylum seekers about launching cycle proficiency classes and brings the subject to the attention of policy makers.

As long as the CBV has existed, almost a quarter of a century, cycle proficiency classes have been given to immigrant women. Angela van der Kloof became involved when she volunteered to support the only teacher at the time in 1991. In 1992, the teacher retired and Van der Kloof took over the cycling activities. “When she left, her experience was lost too. A real shame. I wanted to structure and professionalise the classes. Because there was no teaching material anywhere in the Netherlands, we developed our own course material.” This includes a teaching manual, an instruction booklet for participants, photo cards showing the right and wrong way to follow the Highway Code and certificates. Teachers can decide for themselves what they want to use. “Through this package, we came into contact with other municipalities, I started to organise workshops and an annual study day”, Van der Kloof continues. In Tilburg, three teachers assisted by volunteers teach four groups: two at the CBV and two in district centres. Nine participants learn cycling proficiency on one morning or afternoon a week. Just like in Amsterdam, their background is very diverse, from highly qualified to uneducated, from refugees from Somalia and Afghanistan to immigrant women from Italy and Portugal. So no lack of candidates. “There is still a waiting list. And that’s just thanks to word-of-mouth advertising.”

Tailored classes
The classes are divided into cycling, having a cup of coffee and theory. “All three are equally important. The women must be able to talk about it”, says Van der Kloof. “We tailor the classes as far as possible: if someone needs more time and attention, we give it. If someone learns fast, they finish sooner.” The CBV provides the bicycles, but strives to ensure that every participant has her own bicycle. “We take the whole group to a bicycle shop.” Sometimes there are difficult situations. “Some women may have been given a bicycle as a wedding present, but it’s the wrong size. Then you have to tactfully advise the woman and her husband that she would be better buying a more suitable bicycle.” According to the coordinator, like most municipalities, Tilburg does not have a traffic policy for immigrants, let alone immigrant women. For the classes themselves, the CBV gets a subsidy in the framework of traffic safety. In 2001, for the first time the municipal council allocated more money which facilitated two classes in the district. For developing teaching material, the centre was granted a financial contribution by the provincial Fiets AdviesTeam (Cycling Advisory Team).

Low threshold
On 15 March, a new instruction video was presented in Tilburg during a national study day of the CBV. In the fourteen minute film, (future) teachers are instructed how to teach someone to ride a bicycle and organise this in classes. “We tried to make the video as low threshold as possible. Cycling classes are usually given in a community centre by volunteers, who have to think up the teaching material themselves. This is not always successful. Some people think that it’s better to hold someone, for example, but the best thing is to let them do it themselves. With the video, we try to move them towards another approach.” She knows how important it is for the teachers and participants to have a video like this that can be used again and again. Despite the many immigrant women who want to learn how to ride a bicycle, the available budget is very small. Here is an opportunity for many municipalities, Angela van der Kloof is convinced. “The women are very motivated, but classes are too marginalised at the moment. In some places, cycling lessons only involve a tour of the square. There is often no money for a good quality course. Yet with a municipal contribution of just 5,000 Euros, you can achieve a great deal. That’s nothing compared with the cost of constructing a cycle path costing a couple of hundred thousand Euros. If you want to approach cycling proficiency classes for immigrant women seriously, you need a budget and people. It’s time that policy-makers responded to this need.”

More information:
Amsterdam: DWA,
Roxanne Stienstra, tel. 020 5522027
Tilburg: CBV,
Angela van Kloof, tel. 013 5359043

Dammit This Is What We Need Too

When I plunk down money each year for the Active Transportation Alliance I expect some return on my investment. Open Streets are OK. But they are to some degree “artificial“. I have attended for a couple of years now and always find the experience “a bit strained“. Block Parties are not a foreign idea to Chicagoans. They have been around for as long as I can remember. We had them on the South Side when I was a child. Open Streets are really a stilted re-working of that idea with very little life in it.

We already have schools and children to thrive in them. We need to get the mothers who work from home to assist their children in riding to and from school on the very streets that have been painted green for their benefit. But how do we get mothers engaged enough to want to try this, T-R-A-I-N-I-N-G. Take a look at the marvelously produced PDF on the efforts being undertaken among the Dutch. There is nothing stilted about this approach.

It provides a segment of the population which yearns to assimilate with the following:

  • An environment where they can meet and greet other women of color who are also unaware of how to ride a bike on streets
  • It gives them a chance to do their training and their street practice in the company of other women to who might have ‘cultural difficulties‘ being on a bike
  • They get to listen to others who have tried riding and mastered it to some degree and share what they have learned
  • Many of these women speak a different language in their homes, why not hear from a person who can translate terms that are foreign to them?
  • These classes can be tailored to the needs of a specific group of women
  • The expectations can be aimed at their comfort level

If you empower the women in the Black Community here in the United States you will have gone a very long way to making bicycle infrastructure seem like a necessity in their community rather than an intrusion. If you train professional women on how to ride a bike and offer a noon-time class in the Loop you will have made it possible for them to envision what it might be like to ride a bike to and from work.

Start with the women and that will filter down into the minds of their spouses and significant others in ways that will transform this city. Bicycle infrastructure is a lot like building a baseball field in a poor community. Now that the field is built where are the teachers and coaches to help the kids learn the game and compete in a league?