Triangle Bikeworks Uses Cycling To Move North Carolina Youth Toward Positive Futures
Like Harry Potter, Itza Salazar knows what it’s like to get a fancy and life-changing envelope. Hers just happened to invite her to join Triangle Bikeworks’ pilot program instead of Hogwarts.
It was 2010 and Itza was starting the 10th grade at East Chapel Hill High School when a teacher delivered a red envelope to her desk inviting her to a meeting that promised to teach students about physical and mental health through long-distance cycling adventures.
Up until that point, Itza’s experience with riding bicycles was limited to neighborhood jaunts with her siblings. But not one to turn down what she calls a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” she signed up.
Triangle Bikeworks was founded by Kevin Hicks and his then wife with the intention of helping students of color obtain personal achievement and learn environmental stewardship through bicycle education tours and volunteer service trips. Kevin was (and still is) a full-time Network Traffic Analyst at IBM but after moving his family from Atlanta to Chapel Hill, he began to notice something unsettling. After only a week in their new schools, every one of his bi-racial kids asked the same thing: “why do our teachers think we’re stupid?”
That was not an environment that Kevin felt his kids deserved to learn in. After an initial effort to create systemic change within the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District to better support Black and Brown students — and being subsequently told that “the school district doesn’t turn on a dime” — they switched their efforts to supporting students directly instead.
Kevin says they chose cycling as the medium to approaching the kids because he believes “bikes are your first introduction to freedom.”
Itza says it was so much more: “[At that time,] the predominant demographic for cycling was 60-year-old white men. They wanted to break the barrier and change the face of cycling by bringing in young people of color.”
That dream created the fancy red envelope that Itza received in high school and that first introductory meeting led to her first weekend cycling trip totaling 60 miles.
“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done but I did it. I couldn’t sit on my bike after I was done because it was so painful,” she said. “But that trip inspired me and my fellow teammates to know we could do that and more.”
The rag tag team then set their sights on a much bigger trip: an 1,800 mile, 30-day trip from Alabama to Niagara Falls, NY following the path of the underground railroad.
These bike trips were more to Itza than an opportunity to learn. They were her ticket to a freedom she’d never before experienced — exactly as Kevin had predicted.
Under Itza’s guidance, Triangle Bikeworks has also gotten intentional about building mental health and mindfulness practices into the curriculum. That includes checking in with the students during their pre-ride huddles with a question like “have you been keeping up with the news and how are you feeling about everything?” as well as independent breathing exercises that give students a time to stop and focus on what they’re hearing externally and experiencing internally.
Triangle Bikeworks’ programs are inherently social, with up to 30 students participating in each group. The onset of COVID-19 has forced Kevin and Itza to revisit their plans but it’s also given them the chance to pick up projects that will both socialize students, including a virtual book club and one-on-one instruction, and make their lives easier after the pandemic is over, like fixing up a fleet of bikes so they’re road ready before the next tour.
“What we do is amazing,” she explains. “Triangle Bikeworks gave me the ability to say I’m ok with failure or not being afraid of it.”