Cycling to Confidence: Marquette Organization Builds Kids Up with Bikes

Navigating tough trails by mountain bike requires intense focus and determination.

Bike repair and maintenance skills are learned by Start the Cycle participants.
Bike repair and maintenance skills are learned by Start the Cycle participants.

For kids and teens who take part in Start the Cycle, a Marquette-based organization that pairs them with mountain bikes and mentors, the sport of cycling is providing a chance to belong and a path to confidence.

“These kids all have a story,” said Laura MacDonald, current Start the Cycle board president. “You’re riding along and the stories start.”

The organization is celebrating five years and recently became an independent non-profit. Volunteer mentors provide one-on-one instruction for kids ages 10 to 19, with the ultimate goal of completing the 906 Polar Roll Fat Tire Bike Race and the Ore 2 Shore Epic Mountain Bike Race.

Besides the physical challenge of completing the races, mentors also aim to help participants improve grades, establish goals, expand social skills and build trust. They meet weekly to ride and engage in team building activities.

AJ Savela leading a class.
AJ Savela leading a class.

AJ Savela leads group training sessions for Start the Cycle at the local YMCA. The 19-year-old mentor was a program participant when he was 15. Back then, he missed a lot of school due to bullying and was in the court system for truancy. He said his home life also wasn’t ideal.

He found his tribe and confidence when he got on a bike.

“At school I felt like I didn’t fit in and it helped with that because you’re part of a team,” Savela said.

AJ Savela with a Start the Cycle mentor.
AJ Savela with a Start the Cycle mentor.

He hopes to eventually be a firefighter or EMT and completed basic training last summer for an ongoing stint with the National Guard. Savela said his teammates and the mentors he found through the program helped him see past his circumstances at the time.

“They give you perspective with different life stories,” he said.

Savela’s story is one of MacDonald’s favorites.

“It just really gave him confidence,” she said. “He had every reason to not continue, yet he wanted to ride that bike.”

Once you’re part of Start the Cycle, you’re in for life, MacDonald said, even if there are setbacks along the way. Participants who don’t complete the program are always welcomed back, she said. For those who stick with it and finish races, positive life changes are often part of the journey.

“I’ve heard from kids that the only time I feel good is when I’m on my bike,” MacDonald said.

The program provides an outlet for kids without extracurricular activities to participate in and sets them up with a positive role model, sometimes for the first time in their life.

“A lot of these kids just have trust issues,” she said. “A lot of them have been through awful things.”

The Marquette community has been extremely supportive, MacDonald said, providing snacks, dinners, financial support and services to the organization.

“It’s just amazing to me how this community over the last five years keeps on stepping up,” she said. “People just really believe in what we’re doing with these kids.”

Want to support Start the Cycle? Attend their 5th annual Rock & Roll Dance Party on Friday, May 5, 2017 from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Marquette Elks Lodge 405. 

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Photos courtesy of Start the Cycle

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