December 13, 2016
John Nguyen, an Adventure Cycling 2014 Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship recipient, shares how he gave back to his community of Houston by inspiring and empowering people to travel by bicycle. The deadline for the 2017 Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship is December 31, 2016. Two scholarships are available for 18- to 30-year-olds who are either new to bike travel or looking to build their outdoor leadership skills.
When I applied for the Young Adult Bike Travel Scholarship in 2014, I was asked to propose a service project for the Adventure Cycling Association as a condition for receiving a free bicycle tour in Oregon. I channeled their mission of inspiring and empowering people to travel by bicycle by proposing to change the cycling culture in my hometown of Houston, TX. In Houston, the car is king and the freeways its red carpet. When I asked my friends how they felt about cycling in town, the most common response was that it’s too dangerous to bike on the road. The statistics supported their fears: enough cyclists have died in car collisions that people have built Ghost Bike monuments along the road where a fatal collision occurred. If my friends didn’t feel comfortable taking their bike outside of their house, I had less chance persuading them to try bicycle touring, especially in a car-centric city like Houston. I took this complaint as a challenge to show my family and friends another perspective: that the city can be both safe and enjoyable to ride.
In response to this challenge, I created my own cycling group in Houston, called the Rocket City Cyclers, with the vision of fostering a sense of community through a shared passion in cycling. The goal was to provide a safe and supportive way to explore Houston through my organized rides, showing members new places and trails that are safe to ride. Although I set a completion date on my project for December 2014, Rocket City Cyclers stayed active for much longer, and I continued organizing rides all the way through the summer of 2016.
During the two years that I led Rocket City Cyclers, I organized a total of 24 bike rides, including two volunteer events restoring local parks. In addition, I created a Meetup webpage opening my group to the public, and over 390 members added themselves into my group. Our most popular ride, which I named the “Tour de Campus,” brought 15 members through a cycling tour of the five major universities inside the Houston city limits. Bicycle touring to many of my members essentially meant exploring a neighborhood or trail that they have never been to before. Each ride, I presented Houston, not as a car-centric place, but as a bicycle-friendly environment. Houston is as large of a metropolitan area as it gets in the U.S., so there’s always something new to discover in each of my organized rides.
Closer to my community, I planned bike rides with members from non-profit group that I volunteer with, the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association. VCSA has been a very supportive organization in my efforts to start a cycling club, and several of their staff joined my bike rides. In February 2015, I gave a testimony of my experience about leading Rocket City Cyclers at their fundraising gala. I spoke about how I channeled my leadership skills to engage with my community through the cycling group. Many guests turned heads when I mentioned that I created my own club and was actively making Houston a safer place to cycle. They saw that I had potential to make an impact on my community by sharing my passion for cycling.
Of course, leading my cycling group came with its own share of road bumps. The safety of my members is my top priority. Therefore, I made sure to introduce every ride with a safety meeting, showing, for example, how to signal on the road and communicate hazards. I learned the hard way when I tried scheduling ride dates that worked for everyone, which rarely happened. I am always grateful for the members that did show up to multiple rides, as some of them became my close friends.
In addition, individual cycling skills among the members varied from veteran rider to total beginner. To accommodate the broad range in skill levels, I promised no-drop rides with slow paces, which I nicknamed “Slow Rolls.” Some members complained that I rode too slowly, so in response I created a separate organized ride called “Rocket Rides” with a faster pace and more challenging routes. Also, members who expressed the greatest interest in riding actually didn’t own a bicycle. Fortunately, I had the Surly Disc Trucker that the Adventure Cycling Association provided me for my scholarship, so I was able to bring at least one new person to each ride.
Reflecting on my project, I felt that I accomplished a great deal in promoting the sport of bicycle touring in my community. I firmly believe that small steps can make a big difference. My cycling group, however small, helped my members change their mind about cycling on the road. This cultural change about cycling has a domino effect of introducing their friends and family back into cycling. Parallel efforts in Houston are happening as well, such as Bike Houston, the Houston Bike Plan, Critical Mass, and Sunday Streets HTX, all helping to make travel by bicycle safer and more reliable in my city. Although I could have had more success marketing the sport to more experienced cyclists, I found it rewarding sharing my passion for bicycle touring with new riders. In the future, I hope to complete a full-length bicycle tour with friends from my cycling group and share the fun stories that inevitably come from an epic ride.
Photos courtesy of John Nguyen.