Originally published Aug. 5 in the Tri-City Herald.
By Cameron Probert
There is a saying Mike Watkins cribbed from Ed Ewing with the Cascade Cycling Club.
“It’s not about the bike. It’s about where the bike can take you,” Watkins repeats.
A soft-spoken man with a hint of a southern accent, the physicist turned cycling teacher wants to instill that lesson to students across the Tri-Cities, starting with a group of about 30 middle school students at Stevens Middle School.
The vision for the program started six years ago when Watkins went on his first Seattle to Portland ride with the Cascade Cycling Club. As he was making the trek, he saw a group of youth wearing the same jerseys participating.
When he asked about it, he learned about the club’s youth cycling program. The club’s Let’s Go program provides physical education teachers with resources to teach a bicycle and pedestrian safety program.
As part of the program, the club loans trailers with 30 bicycles to schools so children can ride them.
Watkins wanted to start a similar program in the Tri-Cities. A cycling enthusiast, he believes teaching children how to cycle not only gives them freedom, but a sense of purpose.
“Cycling is really something that can empower kids. They learn self-sufficiency. It adds a social dimension to their lives,” he said. “A huge part of this is having youth to start to have a vision … and get youth to start experiencing successes.”
While Watkins wanted to start the program, he didn’t have a place to start, but that didn’t stop him from sharing his vision.
One day Carol Moser, the executive director at Benton-Franklin Community Health Alliance, invited him to present his ideas about cycling and youth to the Healthy Lifestyles Committee.
He also shared the idea with several other community groups. The Columbia Center Rotary awarded $11,000 to get started.
At the same time, Watkins was introduced to Tim Sullivan, the Pasco School District’s director of student life.
And from there began the beginning of a plan. Buy a collection of sturdy, easy-to-fix bicycles that a group of middle school students can use, and train volunteers to teach students how to ride them.
The classes start in mid-to-late September. The students will start with bicycle safety instruction — first on a closed course, then on trails, and finally how to interact with vehicles on the road.
Along with developing competency, Watkins see this as a chance for students to start to develop a sense of self-reliance.
“It gives you a lot of freedom to know, that I can ride my bike from Kennewick to Pasco, or Pasco to Kennewick or to Richland,” he said. “And I can do it safely and I can then explore and expand my horizons.”
This sense of setting goals can translate into the rest of their life, he said. Students can see themselves going to college, getting a career and becoming successful.
Watkins is hoping to use donated bikes to both expand the program to other schools, and to provide students a chance to earn a bicycle through learning how to care for one.
He wants to make sure the program at Stevens is self-sufficient. He said previous efforts have brought cycling programs to Pasco schools, but they haven’t stayed.
His vision for himself is to teach the teachers, and then move to the next school.
“In five years, you want to have graduates come back and instruct the current batch of students,” he said.
Watkins has several ideas about where he would like the program to end up, including having students participate in the Inland Empire Century Bike Ride.
“I’ve sort of immersed myself in cycling,” he said. “I want to provide an opportunity to experience that, to see that you can cycle. It’s a lifelong sport that you can be involved in.”