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Cycling to change the world

By MARIO BARTEL
January 10, 2012 · Updated 4:28 PM
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Ryan Petersen, store manager at Cap's Cycles in Sapperton, with some of the bikes being collected in a steel container for shipment to Africa. / MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

For some, riding a bike is transportation, a healthy, environmentally friendly way to get from A to B. For others it's recreation, an activity to test their own physical capabilities, stay in shape. For some local cyclists, the bike has become a vehicle that can change lives, maybe even make the world a better place.

Cycling helped Kelyn Akuna see the world. Now he's hoping it will help aboriginal youth see their way in the world.

Akuna, 28, is a former member of the United States track cycling team. Since he started riding at age 16, he raced at events in France, Australia, New Zealand and Trinidad. He came to Burnaby to train on the indoor track at the Harry Jerome sports centre, fell in love with a woman who would become his wife and decided to stay.

Originally from Hawaii, Akuna has a keen interest in aboriginal culture. As he settled into his new country, he began looking for ways to combine his two passions. He approached his training colleagues at the Burnaby Velodrome Club about getting access to the track for aboriginal youth. They loved the idea.

Then he took his fixed gear track bike and a stationary trainer to a jujitsu class at the Urban Native Youth Association in East Vancouver; that was the most popular program so he knew he'd have a big audience for his demonstration.

"Oh my gosh," says Amy Johnson of her reaction to Akuna's pitch. The manager of sport and recreation at UNYA had no concept of what track cycling looked like. But when she saw the kids' eyes light up, she knew they had to be a part of it.

"Youth drive our program and they were excited about it," says Johnson. "It's cool there's opportunities like this for them to try. We're thrilled."

Since starting the Aboriginal Youth Cycling program in April, Akuna's managed to get about 36 young people to make the trek to the track from their homes in East Van, North Vancouver and other parts of Burnaby. About a half dozen are now regulars at the Friday afternoon sessions.

"When the kids first come to the track they're intimidated," says Akuna of the 200 meter high-banked wooden oval. "But by the time they leave they've got a huge grin."

Tom Littlewood knows that grin. It's on his own face every time he swings a leg over the top bar of his mountain bike. That bike saved his life. And if it could get him back on the road to health, he knew it could help others too.

A youth counsellor who worked with local police departments, Littlewood spent most of his days chained to his desk sorting the problems of troubled young people, and most of his evening pasted to his couch. Eventually his sedentary ways caught up to him; his weight ballooning, his heart struggling, his doctor advised him he could go on pills for the rest of his life or he could get on a bike and ride his way back to health.

LIttlewood chose the latter and never looked back. But he also looked forward, to the way his own transformation through cycling could be extended to his clients.

The light bulb went off when he stumbled into the mechanics' training workshops in the basement at Cap's cycle shop in Sapperton. That's where trainees, some of them tattooed and pierced like many of the street kids he dealt with, learned the intricacies of tuning derailleurs, lacing spokes and adjusting brakes.

"This is exactly what I was looking for," says Littlewood. "The worm on the hook was bike mechanics, but what these kids really needed was life skills, they needed to know how to deal with frustration and anger, how to defuse situations through conflict mediation, they needed to know how to cook, how to budget, how to shop, how to present themselves."

Littlewood created Sanctuary Foundation to do just that; giving the kids a tangible trade channeled their energy in a positive way, gave them an outlet that could earn them money and with it, independence and responsibility.

"The kids wanted skills that were green, portable. They wanted a trade that would let them travel, that was karma-free," says Littlewood of the 16-week program he devised. "Bike mechanics fed the need for them to reengage in society."

Sanctuary Foundation thrived for 12 years, first out of the Cliff Block in New Westminster, then a warehouse on Royal Oak in Burnaby. Eventually it broadened to refurbishing computers and skis. And it even reached overseas; the bikes his kids learned to repair were shipped to Cuba where Littlewood set up a parallel program for Cuban youth who put the bikes back together, distributed them into their communities and then maintained them.

"These kids were part of the cycling world now," says Littlewood, who still runs into some of his charges nine years after the program ended when funding ceased. Most have jobs, many have families, responsibilities.

Even as the Sanctuary Foundation foundered, Littlewood carried on two-wheeled evangelism; he took in aboriginal youth for skills training while running a bike touring company at Colony Farm in Coquitlam and he's cultivating school groups for a similar venture he now runs at the River Market in New Westminster. He also keeps a blog extolling his own physical and mental transformation through cycling.

Though he'd been around the bike business his whole life, Gord Hobbis didn't appreciate the kind of impact bikes could have on people's lives until he saw a photo from a project in Jamaica in the late 1980s to which Cap's cycle shop had donated 1,000 pairs of aluminum bike fenders. How would anyone use so many fenders, he'd wondered. They'd all been hammered flat to build roofs for houses.

"I guess everything is useful to someone," says Hobbis, who's hoping a steel container of donated beater bikes will have a similar impact somewhere in southern Africa. The collection was initiated by one of his employees, Brek Boughton, who's currently riding a specially equipped cargo bike through wintery conditions to Tuktoyaktuk to raise money and awareness for The Bicycle Empowerment Network.

When the container is shipped to Africa it will be converted to a shop where locals will be trained to refurbish them. Some of the bikes will be donated to the community, others will be sold.

"A bike can have two or three lifespans," says Hobbis, who already has more than 200 bikes awaiting shipment to Africa. "It can help someone get a job, it can help them get to a clinic, it can turn an all-day journey to get water into a two-hour excursion."

Hobbis says the emotional connection cyclists forge with their bikes make them an ideal vehicle for social change.

"A bike is often your first freedom," says Hobbis. "Your first best memory of a bike is often finding one under the Christmas tree. Now you can go anywhere and that creates a bond."

Kelyn Akuna hopes the link he's creating between bikes and aboriginal youth will give them the tools to tackle the bigger challenges they'll face in life.

"Everything they learn here they can apply to real life," says Akuna. "Taking them out of their usual environment also resets their perceptions of what they can achieve, takes them out of their comfort zone; if you can grab on to this, then you can continue to grab on to other opportunities."

For more information about the Aboriginal Youth Cycling program go to www.aboriginalyouthcycling.com

For more information about Tom Littlewood's cycling journey, go to www.cycle-therapy.ca

For more information about the Bicycling Empowerment Network, go to www.benbikes.org.za

To follow Brek Boughton's journey to the far north, go to www.cyclingintothedark.com