The Kids of B.I.K.E.
Portland, 2002
Complete photo gallery


"You have like, NOW, to leave."

I've got my nose stuck in damp grass, fingers splayed mid-push up in an impromptu salute to the sun. Around me are 'da kids':  black, rangy bodies lacquered in lycra, saluting, sniffling, popping gum. Somehow, we've managed to get them into a yoga circle on a grassy patch of this exclusive, private college. So exclusive, we're being thrown out.

"Let's face it, these kids don't LOOK like they belong here..."

I look up slowly to see the generic specter of security, recognizable the world over: black leather shoes, dark blue trousers, light blue shirt, cloth badge and regulation paunch - and an otherwise kindly black face marred by a smirk.

Luciano, one of the volunteers, steps forward to stand eye to eye with the guard. Luciano is black too.

"With your attitude brother, these kids will never belong here"

A female guard with a stony face saunters up as Kate, the volunteer with the pedigree, is busy describing to us in minute detail the layout of the college.

"I am an alumni of this college, and these are my guests," she says, attempting to diffuse the situation. She's thin and white, just like the group of students sunning themselves in the courtyard nearby, ambivalent to the interlopers from another socio-economic planet.

The guard's features visibly pinch at the circle of kids.

"This is a private property, y'all trespassing," she drawls through a mouthful of cafeteria carrot cake.

I am starting to see why John Benenate, coach and mentor for these young, black, wannabe-racers, thumbs his nose at the establishment and brings them to the grassy environs of $10,000-per-academic-year Reed College, Portland.

Many of his adopted kids are disadvantaged in some way; bad homes, drugs and records, but all have one thing in common: they are black and they want to put their past behind them. They want to race in the spirit of their hero, Major 'Marshall' Taylor, the first internally known black athlete who raced bicycles at the turn of the century.

If they never get to set foot on the verdant verges of Reed College - how are they ever going to figure it in their futures?

I chanced upon John and his project, B.I.K.E.: Bicycles and Ideas for Kids' Empowerment, through Peter Marsh, a customer of Bike Friday, the Oregon folding bicycle company I work for. I agreed to treat the kids to my Cuba slide show, which follows my three-month solo bike tour across the island at the turn of the millennium. John and I figured that the show would give the kids a chance see how other young whippersnappers live, even if it was merely through my eyelids. In addition, I'd also show them the quirky folding Bike Friday, the bike that had been my Porsche, Cadillac and U-Haul while traveling the world for the past 5 years.

The B.I.K.E. headquarters and clubhouse is a funky space on a leafy corner in Portland Oregon. On the walls are posters and pictures of John and the Kids hanging loose with many of the who's who of the cycling world, including Lance Armstrong. On a computer there is footage of Oprah handing a John a check for $100,000 and proclaiming him as one of her Angels, for anyone who cares to question why John devotes most of his life to his cause. In the back garden is a garage festooned with donated bikes hanging like bats from the roof, Cannondale, TREK, Bianchi....

The kids are fitted as best as possible to the donated bikes, but what will really make them get fast, claims John, is the feeling of being 'in the clothes, the mindset, the vibe of the greatest bike racers in the world.'

As if reading the psyche of these poor yet perennially image-conscious teenagers, he commissioned a stunning racing outfit for his potential champions. The $150 outfit, which each member must work towards owning piece by piece, consists of a matching windjacket, windvest, jersey, skinsuit, and probably jocks if one was to peek further. The only person sporting the full getup is Luciano, who looks like a tribal chief in the striking black, white and mustard color scheme, his African drum planted between the aerobars of his Bianchi road bike.

"You see, as I strip off the clothes piece by piece I am still looking the team player!" he says proudly.

The day starts as every Saturday does at B.I.K.E.: a carbo loaded breakfast of french toast, eggs, juice and fruit served by volunteers at nine o'clock sharpish. Then at tennish the kids haul out their bikes for the garage, argue over who's bike is better, and start the first of several pacelines around the block.

John eggs them on at every turn from his custom recumbent bicycle. A few years back he fell from a jacuzzi on a balcony and has since been confined to a wheelchair - that is, when he's not chasing the Kids around the block in his recumbent bicycle, correcting their form and quelling spats. Although he not walked in years, his vision has legs that pedal furiously to a glorious finish line for every one of his charges.

"Major Taylor, he's our guiding light." he says, pointing to the brooding image of the first internationally known black athlete at the turn of the century. John is a a white Italo-American, but listen to him speak and you hear the voice of a man who lives for the emancipation of the underdog, the black athlete.

"Look at the Tour, it's as white as the driven snow. The black athlete has always been sidelined in racing, and I believe it is due to the same racial undertone that comes from the days of slavery. I want it to change," says John.

Being Chinese-Australian myself, I comment that I hadn't seen any slanty-eyed 'Rance Armstrongs' taking the yellow jersey either. I do note, however that my brethren have since made inroads in tennis and golf and of course, table tennis - what is it with Asians and hitting stuff with small bats?

"Ha, so you get my drift, right?" winks John, tuning on his wheels to field yet another phone call, someone wanting to donate.

Outside, the wheels are spinning faster and faster. The paceline is scraggly, but the focus is intense - more or less. One racer clips the corner and skids on the slick created by a roadkill of autumn leaves. He and his Cannondale go down hard. He pulls back his team lycra shorts to reveal a tender patch of steadily pinkening, subcutaneous flesh. Stephanie, a naturopath, rummages in her handlebarbag for a tube of arnica cream.

"It's OK, it's OK he says, "I got a stabbed here and here which was much worse at the time." I got his drift but I tried not to look where he was pointing.

I rally the handful of female riders together and lead a girls-only pace line. A seasoned tourer rather than racer, I only just learned today what a pace line is. At the end we go for an uphill sprint, and the girls take off on me, their young legs pumping the pedals with deadly ambition.

After several bouts on the impromptu neighborhood velodrome we move to another the suburb and repeat the exercise.

"Pablo, will you join in the paceline, please?" yells John to a plump white kid who had earlier suggested we quit all this circular stuff and go for pizza.

After each handful of circuits he gathers his flock together for some verbal coaching.

"Raymond, how about some eye contact?"

 Raymond, a lanky sixteen-year old looking every bit the potential champion in white and green lycra, averts his eyes and shuffles his Shimano-shod feet. He continues to look the other way but John does not let him get away with it. When Raymond finally makes eye contact, John continues.

"You have to stick together on that corner, tuck right in, speed up so you don't float out, stick with your buddy, match his pace, focus, that's how you can be great."

 The kids are listening, they somehow know how much their curmudgeon of a teacher gives of himself to unscraggle their pacelines and put fire in their slipstream. They also know there is fried chicken back at the clubhouse.

Back at the Reed College, I notice that one of the privileged students, a blond girl, gets up from her chair and approaches the guards who are still haggling with yoga circle for trespassing.

"Don't you think you should be bringing the community closer to us here, rather than pushing them away"' she says, with a hand-on-heart gesture. There is a pause, but the haggling continues.

I get the distinct feeling that B.I.K.E. is not so much about black kids winning bike races, but about the eternal fight for a place on life's white - and privileged - inside lane.

Copyright 2002 All rights reserved