Michelle Davis believes in the power of biking. As CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, she’s seen it first hand. One boy in the club became such a skilled rider that he started going to competitions around the state. When he struggled with virtual schooling during the pandemic, his father made biking an incentive to get him to buckle down on his schoolwork. Now he’s getting As and Bs.
Studies have shown the physical and cognitive benefits that two wheels can bring: increased cardiovascular fitness, stronger bones and muscles, better focus and greater self-confidence.
But lack of access, both to safe paths and to bikes themselves, often prevents kids from reaping those benefits. Groups in the region such as Blue Ridge Off-Road Cyclists and the Roanoke Outside Foundation (ROF) are working to change that. They started in 2018 with a successful crowdfunding campaign to build a beginner loop trail in Morningside Park, next door to the Boys & Girls Club. The 1.25-mile trail fills a gap in Roanoke’s biking opportunities, says Pete Eshelman, ROF’s director. “Eighty-five percent of Roanoke’s mountain biking trails are intermediate to advanced. Our goal as a community is to get more people biking, but they need a space to learn.”
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation is helping with a recent $25,000 Get Outdoors grant to ROF for Phase 2 of the Morningside project, which includes the design and construction of additional trails with more challenging elements, where new riders can grow their skills.
Morningside Phase 2 is a gamechanger for the Boys & Girls Club, Davis says. “Pre-COVID, we had a handful of kids riding with a coach a few times a week on the single track. The Get Outdoors grant gives us more trails, as well as the opportunity to leverage that funding as we apply for other grants to relaunch and grow our program.”
Davis has applied to a family foundation for a $25,000 grant to buy more bikes. “We just had a site visit from the grantor’s representative to see if we are eligible to apply,” she says. “He was so excited by that resource being right there that I think we have a very, very good shot at getting that grant.” New trails and new bikes, she says, would add up to “a perfect storm for our kids.”
If awarded, the additional grant would pay for 20–30 mountain bikes for kids ages 6–18, plus a place to store them. That would enable the program to get 40–60 individuals participating every year. Participants who develop higher skills can win scholarships to join Roanoke’s Star City Cycling Club, a youth cycling organization founded by Chris Berry, who got the ball rolling by picking and advocating for the Morningside site.
“The initial idea was to create an area where kids and adults could learn to ride in a fun and safe setting,” Berry says. “Star City Cycling Club has a longstanding relationship with the Boys & Girls Club, so the coolest thing about it is that the kids can access the trail anytime they’re there.”
Now, the Morningside model is helping more Roanoke kids plug in to pedal power. Roanoke Parks and Recreation has started an after-school youth mountain biking program at three of its recreational centers and is working to safely connect more neighborhoods to trails, says Michael Clark, director. “We’re still pretty new in terms of generating widescale interest in biking among young people, but part of building that interest is providing access,” he says. “As Roanoke continues to reinvent itself as an outdoor recreation destination, we want to make sure that everyone feels included.”
For more information and updates on Morningside trail construction, go to ROF’s blog.