Bicycle groups ride for advocacy


“There is so much pain in the world that if someone can make a difference for one person, that’s enough of a drop of rain to make a ripple and foster change,” Cassandra King said Monday.

The resident of the 2400 block of South Camac Street has crafted a distinguished racing career, but personal glory has not occupied her mind or that of her 20-year friend and fellow accomplished rider Janine Verstraeten on their recent excursions. The two have united with the Bryn Mawr-based Cadence Cycling Foundation and the Mount Airy-headquartered Gearing Up to have their pedals help to prove the mettle of underserved children and women in transition.

Aside from seeing cycling as a means to sate competitive drives, King and Verstraeten, of the 1100 block of Watkins Street, have realized each journey possesses the power to help bikers to combat fear and achieve autonomy. Knowing her athletic vocation’s depth caused King to make a communal leap three years ago through her Tri-State Velo team’s relationship with Cadence.

“Through their involvement, these boys and girls learn accountability, which spills over into other areas of their lives,” the Lower Moyamensing inhabitant said of the participants, ages 9 to 18, whom the five-year-old foundation helps to develop life skills through spring and summer training and racing.

Former competitor Ryan Oelkers established Cadence after determining youngsters had a dearth of cycling opportunities. Beginning in Philly before branching out to New Jersey and Delaware, he devised the initiative to assist them in likening the discipline one needs to be a consistent cyclist to the tenacity one must call upon to be a productive member of society.

“We strive to get kids hooked on cycling and to foster a healthy lifestyle,” Oelkers, whose brainchild includes a four-year relationship with the Mastery Charter School Thomas Campus, 927 Johnston St., said.

King, the 2009 Pennsylvania State Criterium and the Pennsylvania State Race championships gold medalist, has become so invested in their future that many Cadence figures join her squad for weekend treks. Receiving treatment as sponsored riders, they engage in as many as five races, some as many as 65 miles long.

Oelkers said the youths offer a glimpse of cultural and socioeconomic diversity yet have a defining similarity — their will to achieve.

“The most rewarding aspect is seeing them reaching their goals, including the chance to attend college,” he said.

Verstraeten, a former Liberty Classic white jersey winner for the best young rider, recalled the thrill of competing as a junior to inspire her to join Cadence in May. The East Passyunk Crossing dweller, having sought out Gearing Up founder Kristin Gavin in December, added another aspect to her cycling resumé by agreeing to help members of the Girard College Cadence unit Mondays. Wanting to make her new affiliation especially fruitful, she courted King to join her for June 3’s Bicycle Magazine Open Gran Fondo along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Competing as The Liberty Belles, the friends completed the three-lap fundraising gathering to benefit Cadence and Gearing Up, a three-year-old organization that helps females to overcome the horrors of abuse, addiction and incarceration.

“Through our efforts, we raised $5,300 for them, making us the most successful participants,” Verstraeten said.

The two held hands as they crossed the finish line in third place, acknowledging their deepened interaction’s possibilities.

“It is so easy to become overwhelmed,” Verstraeten said of circumstances that reinforce feelings of helplessness among their assisted populations. “It is important to find proper assistance, and we’ve enjoyed being a resource for people as they discover themselves.”

Verstraeten aligned herself with Gearing Up after experiencing a period of pain. Having escaped a less-than-loving relationship, she sought a volunteer opportunity and combined her yearning to become emotionally stronger with her cycling prowess through Gavin, a Mount Airy resident who felt women in transition needed an engrossing path to fulfillment.

“The challenges they face are complex, so I wanted them to retrieve, or acquire for the first time, a sense of dignity,” Gavin said.

An obvious physical boon, bicycling also doubles as a psychological balm, Gavin, who at any given time helps 70 women at Northeast Philly’s Riverside Correctional Facility, Germantown’s New Directions for Women Inc., Mount Airy’s Interim House Inc. and Center City’s CHANCES, where Verstraeten offers support on Fridays, said. Gavin and Verstraeten see their charges through an open enrollment period and two phases through which participants track their miles, earn incentives, enroll in an earn-a-bike program, graduate and return as mentors and volunteers.

“We also host a riding event one Saturday a month from April through September,” Gavin said.

Verstraeten journeys as many as eight miles with her ladies and derives as much strength from them as she attempts to impart to them.

“That they are able to accept that self-confidence can come through movement and that the more they push themselves the higher the potential rewards make our interactions mutually healthy opportunities,” she said.

“The bikes help them to reframe themselves,” Gavin added, noting that the tools engender occasions to establish social connectedness and seek employment.

The four bicycle enthusiasts preach responsibility and resolve to their road companions, with emphasis on self-respect and camaraderie guiding interactions.

“When we go out, we engage in what we call ‘clearing,’ which involves stating what we are leaving behind and what we are gaining,” Gavin said. “That helps us to see that what we experience individually is often a group dynamic.”

“When we establish programs, we look for them to be sustainable, which, aside from money matters, means having kids who want to believe, who want to see cycling as a precursor to much more,” Oelkers added.

As for the local cycling disciples, King and Verstraeten feel blessed to notice growth among their pupils. With well-established places in their sport’s annals, they decree that figurative victories matter more than ones that scoreboards and stopwatches display.

“I think the Cadence kids don’t always realize the value of what they’re doing,” King said.

“They will, though,” Verstraeten added. “The kids and the women are true champions.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.