“Biking was one of the first things that made me feel empowered….when I was riding, I felt free.”
Cyclist of the month: Roberto Ascalon
Wheels: Trek 520 with fenders, racks and a radio.
Occupation: Teaching artist/youth worker. Major Taylor facilitator and Bike Club leader at Chief Sealth High School.
New York City in the early 1990s with its subway and taxi culture and lack of bicycle infrastructure might seem like an odd place to fall in love with bicycling, but to a then high school-age Roberto Ascalon, none of that mattered. What mattered is that he could get away from his crowded home and go wherever he wanted to go.
“I really fell in love with biking when I was 15 and took a [bike] trip from New York City to Montreal with a group of friends. It was one of the best experiences of my life. But I rode all the time when I was in high school. It gave me independence and freedom and took me to places in New York City that I wouldn’t have gone had I not had a bike,” Ascalon said. “Biking was one of the first things that made me feel empowered. We often had eight people in a three-bedroom place. Biking allowed me to get away and ride to Central Park. When I was riding my bike, I felt free.”
Now, years later, Ascalon is trying to introduce that sense of empowerment, freedom and adventure to the youth he works with at Chief Sealth High School. As a Major Taylor facilitator and Bike Club leader, Ascalon is part of a year-round youth development program, produced by the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation, that introduces youth from diverse communities to the recreation and health benefits of cycling while teaching them about the importance of working toward individual goals.
“I found that having a bike makes everything accessible,” Ascalon said. “It keeps me in touch with the essentials of feeling good physically, stopping, and making time for adventures every day. That sense of sensibility is especially accessible by bike. That is something I want to bring to youth, and youth of color in particular.”
Ascalon is a man who wears many hats. He’s a poet, a cook, a teaching-artist, a youth worker. He’s involved with the King County Food and Fitness Initiative, Food Education Empowerment and Sustainability Team (FEEST), the Major Taylor Program and the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. If you’re a Delridge or White Center resident, chances are you or your child has heard of him.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher, but took a roundabout way to do it,” said Ascalon, who’s passionate about youth leadership development. “I love cooking, bicycling, and poetry. And those are great vehicles for dialogue with youth.”
The bicycle is one of his favorite tools of education, and he dreams of one day opening up a “full-fledged, fully-accredited high school on bicycles”. He envisions a school that’s centered around the bicycle with time set aside for daily bike rides and each module of the curriculum would culminate in a long-distance ride like the Lewis and Clark Trail or a ride that follows the local salmon migration.
“The bike for me represents adventure and freedom,” Ascalon stated. “But it’s also about fun and style for me. I love the human ingenuity that went into creating such an amazing machine.”
Ascalon’s bike is a Trek 520 touring bike complete with a little radio. “It makes running around town and going to the grocery store more fun. And on the STP I bring a full-on boombox that you can hear half-a-mile away,” he said.
“The bike culture should be an open culture but in Seattle, I find it to be a closed culture – you’ve got the hardcore road bikers and the hipsters on fixies. Neither of them are open,” he said.
The test to see if a culture is open and welcoming is simple, Ascalon said. “When you ride, do you smile, nod or wave at your fellow riders? And do they smile or nod back?”
Ascalon said the biggest obstacles faced by the youth he works with is inaccessibility and closed cultures and communities.
“The cost of bicycles alone is inaccessible and then there is this cultural understanding of needing all this fancy bike gear. A lot of the immigrant youth I work with come from cultures where they see the bicycle differently than we do. It’s their main form of transportation,” said Ascalon.
One of the goals of the Major Taylor Program is to empower youth by giving them the means to explore their neighborhoods and the neighborhoods beyond. MTP promotes bicycling as a form of exercise, recreation, and transportation.
“Major Taylor is about opening up possibilities and show these kids that they can be any kind of rider they want to be,” Ascalon said. “We’re not afraid of putting our kids in spandex even though we know there’s a culture clash for a black kid to hang out in spandex in the Rainier Valley. Major Taylor is very much about creating a community – a supportive, empowering, and safe community. That is the very thing I try to do in all my youth work.”
If Ascalon were to run into one of his Major Taylor students ten years from now, he’d like to see them “physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.”
“I want them to have reached the goals they’ve set with us [in the MTP], I want them to be biking in some kind of way, but as long as they feel empowered, I don’t care what they’re doing,” he said.
Know a cyclist who deserves some special recognition? Nominate them for cyclist of the month! Send your ideas to Anne-Marije Rook at [email protected].