Resilience in motion: Clemson initiative builds confidence and community among youth through cycling
Just two years ago, cycling was far from a priority for Daniel Cubides. In his native Bogota, Columbia, he certainly could have used a bicycle, but not as a means of recreation. He likely would have seen it as a quicker way to get from point “A” to point “B” safely, a means of avoiding the wrong people and putting distance between himself and the most recent murder or robbery.
Safety was never guaranteed in Bogota, and neither was a quality education. These are the reasons Daniel left the city and his home country with his mother to live with relatives in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s safe there. His family doesn’t have to exploit a connection or pay astronomical fees for a quality education.
Daniel is grateful for what he has, and he doesn’t pass up any opportunity to better himself or give back to others. He knows what it’s like to live in a place where opportunities to do both are in short supply. When he learned he could do all of the above while riding a bicycle with Momentum Bike Clubs, he was intrigued. The only catches were that he didn’t exercise regularly, and he didn’t know how to operate bicycle gears on a road bike.
“I was helping kids with their homework in another nonprofit when I met people from MBC,” Daniel says. “Cycling isn’t something you would see every day where I come from, but they said it would be good for me to build relationships with people and be in nature. They even made an exception for me to try it out just to see if I was interested, so I figured I would try it out.”
Momentum Bike Clubs, a community initiative of the Clemson University Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, normally caters to students ages 11-18. MBC uses vigorous exercise as a doorway to healthy peer and mentor relationships, and younger students who stay with the program can “graduate” to Momentum’s Challenge Team.
The “exception” for Daniel was that he had been invited to skip those initial years and go straight to the challenge team. According to David Taylor, director of Momentum Bike Clubs, Daniel made such a strong impression that he thought Daniel could learn from MBC and the club could learn from him.
“MBC is there to help students build resilience and determination, and the best candidates are students who are focused and determined to chase their goals,” David says. “Daniel was a student who wanted to grow and identify his gifts and talents, so he was an ideal candidate for the challenge team.”
Daniel found himself quickly moving from shorter rides learning how to operate a road bike appropriately to completing bike touring excursions that required him to carry 40 pounds of gear. He said they found a good balance between pushing him to improve and making sure he was ready for more challenging rides.
His longest trek so far was 100 miles over two days with gear, but the most challenging was cycling from northern Greenville County to Skyuka Mountain in Columbus, North Carolina. This 60-mile journey is made all the more challenging by 6,000 feet of elevation and an average incline of 8 percent. Daniel said he had serious doubts about whether he could complete the ride.
“If it weren’t for the rest of the team, I would have given up for sure,” Daniel says. “No one can do anything great alone, and everyone needs help and a push. Everyone on the team is there to show each other we can all do great things.”
David says it’s no accident that the students can accomplish incredible feats when they are together. MBC’s high school challenge team represents 15 different schools, so it provides a racially and ethnically diverse social network of participants all working together and encouraging one another.
David views isolation as a major public health challenge in today’s society that leads to depression, anxiety and—too often—suicide. Members of the challenge team know that they belong to something that pushes and challenges them to be their best selves, but they are also respected and cared for as human beings. That is most often on display when rides are at their most challenging.
“The challenge team recently climbed Paris Mountain and many students were doing it for the first time,” David says. “A climb like this is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. There is a brutal ascent at the end of it, and it was really inspiring to see students at the top who had completed it and were encouraging others to make their final push. Daniel was one of those students encouraging the younger cyclists. There is a real power in that; those young cyclists won’t soon forget it.”
David doesn’t want to gauge the power of these experiences anecdotally; he has actively engaged other members of the Clemson community to examine how MBC affects youth and the mentors involved. David has worked with Charles Chancellor and Harrison Pinckney, associate professor and assistant professor, respectively, in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, to investigate the benefits and challenges of MBC from the perspective of mentors and participants.
Charles, who is also director of Clemson’s bicycle research team, said his research with MBC is currently in its third phase, which will gauge the effect MBC has had on participants from their parents’ perspective. David has used this research in restructuring and strategic planning for MBC. Charles is proud to be involved with an initiative that positively affects youth, but also contributes to the larger body of research on youth development.
“[MBC] has been an excellent research partner with our department’s faculty and students, and findings indicate that many participants believe they are healthier and more connected to their communities because of biking with MBC,” Charles said. “Bicycling as a medium for mentoring is unique; every ride is a demonstration of a healthy activity that can be practiced over the span of a person’s entire life.”
Daniel says he’s spending a lot less time in front of a video game console and more time on a bike, but he’s still enamored with technology. He enjoys building things and is intrigued by the integration of technology with the human body, whether it’s through virtual reality or medical aids for people with cancer. He hopes to continue exploring these concepts in college, and Clemson is at the top of his list for schools to continue his education.
He says he’s not afraid to apply to schools because fear of failure doesn’t guide any part of his decision making anymore. MBC has helped him weed out negative thought processes like this because it has helped him build confidence, but more importantly he says it has helped him become more resilient.
“Whether it’s a physical goal on a bike or an academic goal, failure doesn’t mean you don’t keep going, learn and do better the next time around,” Daniel says. “I’ve learned to take on big challenges, go for the best and don’t think about being less.”
Founded in 2010, Momentum Bike Clubs now operates 19 bike clubs with over 60 mentors serving over 240 students. The program has received state and national recognition and has expanded well beyond its original intent. Now working with students beginning in middle school, MBC develops students through high school and college enrollment by providing internships, youth development seminars and workforce development training.