When co-founder Ryan Oelkers first had the idea to start Cadence Cycling Foundation, he was sure he could find the next Olympic cyclist in Philadelphia. However, the goal of the nonprofit has taken a turn for the greater good.
“Once we started working with the kids, we realized that we could do much greater things,” Oelkers said. “We could help these kids graduate high school. We could help these kids get into college. It’d be great if we could find the next Olympian, but we could do so much more.”
Cadence Cycling Foundation, founded in 2007, is a nonprofit youth development program that uses cycling as a tool to reach Philadelphia area kids ages nine to 18 in underserved communities. The foundation provides all the bikes, clothing, coaching and access to the races at no cost to the participating youth.
Oelkers, a former professional cyclist, realized the need for a program like CCF when a former teammate, City Olympics gold medalist Jay Snider, spoke to students at the Northeast Philadelphia school where his wife teaches. After passing around Snider’s gold medal and a short presentation on cycling, little hands eagerly shot up with an array of questions.
“Some of the questions these kids were asking were, ‘Where do we go to do cycling? I want to go to the Olympics. I want to become the world champion. I want to race professionally,’” Oelkers said.
Seeing the kids’ enthusiasm got Oelker’s wheels turning.
“The day I left the school, I sort of had in my mind that, ‘I bet if we start this program and we actually made the sport accessible to kids, brought it into North Philly or West Philly, I guarantee that we could find the next Lance Armstrong or the next Olympian, but they don’t know that the sport exists,’” Oelkers said. “So if we make it accessible, then we can find them.”
The goal of CCF has evolved thanks to a more structured practice system and the emphasis on the benefits of cycling, Oelkers said. He said he hopes students will apply the goal-oriented nature of cycling to their academic lives.
“You know, cycling is a great tool to teach life skills in a program — goal setting, commitment, teamwork, discipline,” Oelkers said. “At practice we’ll go over goals that day a lesson for that day, and somehow we’ll work it into the actual training session. Really, it’s not about cycling. We use cycling — competitive cycling — as a tool to reach these kids.”
Some young people who participated in the program got more than just a cycling education or goal-setting skills — they gained their health back.
“We’ve had two kids in our program lose over 100 pounds,” Oelkers said.
The weight loss success of some of CCF’s participants is reflective of the foundation’s belief that anyone, regardless of physical ability or size, can begin cycling.
“The great thing about cycling — and this is something that we really stress to our kids — is that anyone can join the cycling program, join the team, and it’s a lifetime sport,” Oelkers said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re big, you’re small, you’re tall, you’re short — anyone can join the team. Cycling is a very low impact sport.”
CCF’s upcoming event, The Philly Poker Bike Tour on Dec. 8, is structured to support this idea. The event is not a race, but more of a challenge to reach each designated bike shop in the Philadelphia area and collect a poker card from each stop. At the end of the tour, the cyclist with the best poker hand wins. The cost to register online at cadencefoundation.org is $25.
Despite the course being 25 miles, Oelkers urges those interested in registering for the event to not be overwhelmed by the number. The route is a mostly flat ride despite a small hill at the start, Oelkers said.
“Riders shouldn’t be intimidated, regardless of their ability,” Oelkers said.
Oelkers also said that getting bike shops involved was an easy process. Lee Rogers, owner of participating shop Bicycle Therapy on South Street, saw the answer to CCF’s offer to participate as an easy one.
“They reached out and asked if we’d be willing to host [a stop],” Rogers said. “Simple enough.”
Oelkers appreciated the ease in finding shops to participate, he said.
“Fortunately, they’ve been fantastic and really supportive in promoting the ride,” Oelkers said.
The number of bike shops participating in the tour give light to the demand for the business in a cycling-heavy city — an aspect of Philadelphia that Oelkers is quick to praise.
“My father-in-law — every time he comes down through Philly and we go for a ride he is always amazed at how many riders are around here and how big the cycling scene is,” Oelkers said. “You see all types of riders — whether it’s messengers, whether it’s tourists, whether it’s races, mountain bikers — it really is a great cycling city.”
For Oelkers, Philly’s cycling scene makes the area a perfect place for a group like CCF.
“We are very fortunate that this program is in Philadelphia,” Oelkers said.
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.