Before every bike club outing, there’s a safety check.
On a day in mid May, Gastineau Elementary Physical Education Teacher Dirk Miller moved from kid to kid, checking bike after bike. He was looking for faulty brakes, or bikes that didn’t quite fit right — whether too big or too small.
It’s a scene that was repeated from 2:30-3:30 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday, as Miller, with the help of fellow teacher Patrick Murphy, worked with all the second, third, fourth and fifth grade classes at Gastineau, throughout the course of the spring, to bike on campus and the roads around the elementary school.
“That’s about 180 kids,” Miller said.
And for many, he said the club was their only biking opportunity this spring. Miller estimates they taught about 10 kids how to ride, who had never tried before.
They also worked with students at the Juneau Community Charter School, and took them biking on the downtown docks. Older students went biking out to Project Playground and back.
“In all,” he said, “nearly 300 kids went biking with me as part of the school P.E. class.”
Squeals echoed through the covered area, just off the elementary school gym, as the growing group of club cyclers began to ride in circles beneath the shelter, like a scene from the ice rink at Rockefeller Center.
But this was Southeast Alaska, and as with many communities here, some of the best trails aren’t too far off. On this day, the bike clubbers were headed to Sandy Beach.
The bike club, as it’s unofficially called, was the idea of Miller, who has also started a host of other clubs — including fishing, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing — at the Douglas Island public community school.
His goal with bike club, as with all the others, is to get kids excited and active in outdoor activities and to give them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
This past school year, the club got off to a late start, and didn’t officially get up and running until the spring. But with the help of a grant from the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, Miller was able to obtain a grant to purchase 16 bikes from Cycle Alaska. He also purchased loaner helmets for the kids to use.
With bikes checked out, helmets clipped on, laces tied tight and pant legs pegged, the gang rolled out through the neighborhoods of Douglas.
Miller said he broke the Gastineau club into two groups — primary and intermediate — with the more advanced kids riding on Wednesday and the others each Friday.
“Each club had about 24 members and about half of them borrowed the school’s bikes to participate,” he said.
It was Friday, so the pace was easy, with an adult acting as the caboose, to ensure no one was left behind. Club members followed all the rules of the road — they stopped at stop signs, dismounted to cross main roads and rode in little packs, chatting as they went.
For 8-year-old Abigail Laurent, the best part of bike club, besides hitting all the puddles, was the fresh air.
“My favorite thing about bike club is that you get a little time to get some exercise and cool down,” she said.
And she admits the whoop-de-dos are pretty fun.
Harris Monsef, age 7, said his favorite part of bike club is “just biking.”
Camden Landdik, also 7, said he enjoys doing jumps and even though he’s only been riding three times with the club, he’s definitely signing up next year.
Other favorite parts of bike club were “going fast down the hills” and getting muddy through the puddles. There was also a particular notoriety associated with the amount of dirty spray peppering the back of some of the youngsters.
Of course there was the occasional wipeout. One rider took a turn too sharply, but Miller was quick to offer a kind word and a bit of encouragement.
“Let’s just take it slow and easy,” Miller said.
Before long, the student was off again, wiping his tears on his sleeves and pedaling to catch up with his friends.
Even after the club concluded, the bikes have continued to get used and the biking community at the elementary school seems to be growing.
“On Bike to School day, we had 80 bikes parked out front of the school,” Miller said. “Our new bike racks were overwhelmed by bicycles and I loaned out at least seven of the Gastineau bikes for the event. But more important, for the rest of the school year, the number of bikes parked daily at the school were more than the bike racks could handle. So it wasn’t a one-time event.”
This summer, Miller said the bikes are being used by the RALLY program, an after-school care program for students, and they may be borrowed by the high schools’ CARES program at Marie Drake.
The club will kick off again next year, and it’s likely the pegged pant legs, packs of cyclists and wide grins will be a common sight around Gastineau Elementary School.
• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.