Anchorage GRIT: Girls Riding Into Tomorrow

Traveling by bike is inspiring and stimulating. From the saddle, you have time to think and dream. It’s dynamic. Pushing the pedals pumps blood. You breathe more air. you are enveloped in nature. There is so much to experience and interpret. If you’re riding with friends, you share ideas and maybe you build dreams together– layers of big ideas, feelings, details, reality, time, reflection and how you can really pull it all off. A great idea is very different from execution. You don’t have to be the best or the most organized to do something good. And you don’t have to know every possible outcome from the start. Adventure is stepping into the unknown. It’s scary and exciting and always requires more work than you really want to put in, but you follow through anyway because you have guts and you care.

In the spring of 2017, while riding the Baja Divide, Cait Rodriguez and I hatched the idea for Anchorage GRIT.


Considerations for starting a youth adventure bike program

Here are some considerations for starting a GRIT program. I’ve included some of our choices and what’s worked well for us and a bit of our story as well. Every community will have different challenges and preferences.

What group do you want to work with? Age? Background?

We work with 7th and 8th grade girls (12-13 years old). This is an age where a lot is changing. Kids are getting more freedom and are ready to take on personal challenges. It’s also an age when many kids might stop being active or spending time outside, unless encouraged to do so. Middle school is a time when building confidence and good self-esteem are very important.

Cait and I both wish we had a program like Anchorage GRIT when we were in middle school. Neither of us grew up riding bikes or camping. When we were young, we’d never heard of adventure riding and could imagine how fun that would’ve been at that age. We feel that a program like Anchorage GRIT could benefit any kid (boy or girl) that felt motivated to participate.

We work with girls and all of the adult mentors and teachers are women because we are a minority in the sport of cycling and adventure riding. This creates a special environment where girls and women can feel safe in a vulnerable setting– taking on new challenges and riding to the wilderness.

For the first two years, we had girls from both a low income school (Begich) and an alternative school (Steller) to facilitate an exchange between girls from different backgrounds. For year three, we worked with only Begich girls, deciding we wanted to focus on low income students whose opportunities and resources may be more limited. However, having interactions between girls from different sides of town was really powerful and the girls loved making new friends.

For the next season, we’ll include 12 girls from Begich, 2 girls from Steller and one exchange student (14 year old Aliona from Kyrgyzstan, provided that her visa is approved). Shimano reached out to offer to fund travel expenses for the exchange and we’re really excited to add this element to the program.

How will you recruit or access these students?

Initially, I wrote principals from four middle schools in Anchorage (three low income and one optional) to see if they were interested in having a GRIT program at their school. Two replied that they’d love to help set this up. I asked them to send out an email to their staff to see if any female teachers or counselors were interested in helping to nominate girls for the program and host an interest meeting. We requested that they nominate girls that are motivated, ready to take on a challenge, kind to others and might not get this kind opportunity otherwise.

A couple months before GRIT season, Cait went to the schools to meet the prospective girls and explain the program. Those interested filled out permission slips and committed to the six week program. It is a huge help to have a female mentor work at the school. They know the students, the system and the schedule. They can help provide access storage and a key to get in.

For the first year, I asked a teacher-friend at Begich, Danielle Shockley, if she’d nominate girls– she stepped in immediately and offered to be a mentor. For the past two years a science teacher from Begich named Becky Zerby has volunteered as a mentor. She has been an enormous resource in both nominating girls and always being present and reliable, kind and helpful. She doesn’t have a background in cycling or bikepacking, but it doesn’t matter at all. We’re so thankful she’s there. Ashley Van Hemert, a Spanish teacher at Steller and someone I know from childhood, has helped nominate girls and get access to Steller. She’s raising two little kids and I really hope she can ride with us more in the coming years. This spring she also gave me great advice in responsibly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic– we are postponing the mentorship until next spring when we can meet safely as a full group.

Ultimately, it’s up to the girls. You can offer opportunities and challenges. Adventure, by nature, isn’t easy but it’s definitely not boring. They have to be motivated, work hard and we really hope they enjoy it.

Begin with the adventure– where do you want to ride? Cabins? Camping? Is it the right level of challenge?

Back on the Baja Divide, when Cait and I came up with the mentorship idea and before we’d settled on a name, we thought about the end goal and what we should build up to. The previous summer, my parents had sent me photos of the Serenity Falls Forest Service cabin at the end of Eklutna Lake. It was their first experience bikepacking and one of the few times I’ve ever known them to go mountain biking. My best friend from college (living at their house for the summer.)

lent them Revelate Designs bags and gave them a few tips about packing. I wasn’t in Anchorage and I didn’t even know they were going on the trip. From iPhone photos, the cabin and the setting looked fantastic and they looked like they were having an absolute blast. Those images imprinted in my mind– backed up to a glacier, along a river, the cabin has ten wooden bunks, huge windows and no electricity, running water or cell service. Let’s ride there!

I started looking up mileages and route options from Begich. Could we get there safely by bike? Would it be a good ride? Fortunately, there’s a bike path from East Anchorage past Eagle River to Chugiak. From there, we could get on the low traffic Eklutna Lake Road to Eklutna Lake. From the trailhead, it’s 12 miles of single and double-track along the lake to Serenity Falls. What I didn’t pay attention to initially was how steep the climb is up Eklutna Lake Road. It’s about six miles and 1,400’ of climbing– a total ass-kicker for new cyclists. In the end, this just became part of the challenge. We talk about in the first weeks of the program as something to build up to. Student mentors, GRIT alumni girls that come back to help the younger ones, give them advice on how they can conquer this mountain. It’s an age where kids want to take on huge challenges and prove themselves. It’s hard, but they spring back quickly. Half an hour after we arrive at the Serenity Falls cabin, they’re out running around.

In total, the final campout is 65 miles with 3,000’ of climbing. Here’s the Komoot collection of the three day ride with more photos and details. My numbers are a little off because I went back and forth to check in on different girls a few times.

Our girls carry their own sleeping bags, sleeping pads, clothing, personal items and snacks. The first cabin has electricity and we use the stoves to cook a spaghetti dinner or something similar. For the second night, mentors carry stoves and girls carry camp dinner and breakfast– last year it was instant mashed potatoes and oatmeal or bagels. We could do better, but this is good enough. I have a friend in Tucson named Colin Holmes that organizes El Grupo Bikepacking. Those kids carry all of their own camping gear, stoves, food and water. On my first weekend ride with them, we rode the Arizona Trail single-track from Sahuarita to Kentucky Camp. It was hard as hell and they didn’t complain. They also cooked Tasty-Bites while I was spooning peanut butter from a jar. The point is, there are so many ways you could approach this and the worst you could do is nothing at all.

Cait has a mini school bus and we’ve used this to shuttle gear and host a pizza party either at the base of the Eklutna Road climb or the top– definitely better at the top! The first year, we let some girls get a shuttle ride part of the way up the climb. This was a mistake. The girls that got in the bus were disappointed. The second and third year, every girl rode or pushed the climb. At the ice cream stand at the top they were exhausted but proud.

A GRIT program craves adventure and goals. Different places and communities will lend themselves to different capstone rides. This could take so many different directions and have so many positive and adventurous outcomes.

What do you need to do to prepare for the final adventure?

We start small. Our first ride is 8 miles, definitely the farthest any of them have ever ridden. We meet twice after school every week and every other Saturday for long rides. We progressively increase the mileage and work on different skills along the way– safe riding, first aid, bicycle maintenance and basic mechanics, route-finding and packing for trips. Each session is a ride to an hour long lesson and then back to school. The general idea is to get them comfortable on the bikes, get to know the local cycling network and build their confidence and fitness. Two weeks into GRIT, Our first long ride is 25 miles from the school to Pizza Man in Eagle River and back. We ride the same bike path during our final campout four weeks later. It’s cool to see the girls reflect on their progress and see how much they’ve improved.

How can you access bikes and equipment?

I’m really fortunate to be working with Specialized since 2015. They’ve donated 44 bikes to Anchorage GRIT because they love the idea of getting more girls on bikes. The GRIT bikes are Specialized Pitches, an entry level 27.5” hardtail. They retail at $520 per bike.

We partner with The Bicycle Shop, the oldest bike shop in Alaska and a Specialized dealer. I’ve worked part time at the shop in previous years. The owner is in his 70s and grew up with my uncle. Specialized sends the GRIT bikes to the shop where the mechanics help us build them. We host a parent-student-mentor meeting in early April for everyone to get together for the first time. We write the girls’ names on the bikes before they get there. Upon arrival, they find their new bike and a helmet that fits and we help them adjust their saddle height and give them basic instruction about shifting and braking. The first two years, women from Bike Anchorage helped us host a safe riding lesson with drills on signaling and general bike awareness. Last year, we realized it was a lot of pressure to put the girls on the spot at the meeting in front of their peers and all of the parents. We’ve moved the safe riding lesson to the following session, our first official day riding together.

At the end of the six week program in May, the girls earn their bikes. Three days later, school lets out and the girls are free to ride into the summer, with new friends, a familiarity of the greenway system around Anchorage and the confidence to ride all over town. They are also welcome to come back for following years as student mentors. Our hope is that they continue riding for fun and transportation.

For the fourth season of GRIT, Specialized didn’t have the budget to donate the bikes. Instead, they offered the bikes at a discount ($210 per bike, for 15 bikes that’s $3,150). While guiding with The Cyclist’s Menu, Rue was talking with one of the clients, Travis Mills, about GRIT. He asked how we get bikes for the girls and she explained that we needed to raise money for season 4. The following morning, while I was washing dishes after breakfast, Travis came up and offered to pay for the GRIT bikes for season 4. In addition, this year Wheels Manufacturing offered to donate racks, locks and multi-tools for each of the girls. In the past, we’ve purchased this equipment from The Bicycle Shop at cost. We are so grateful for the support!

There are definitely different ways to source bikes. A friend of mine named Ana Jager has started her own girls cycling mentorship in Bellingham, Washington called POWER. I’m pretty sure those girls actually build their own bikes at the local bike co-op. The El Grupo kids in Tucson borrow bikes and equipment during the program, trading in smaller gear as they grow. Equipment is definitely costly and doesn’t have to be sponsored or free. I recognize that we are really fortunate to have great support, but am also willing to fundraise and find different solutions.

Halfway through the first year of the program, half of the bikes were stolen from one of the schools. That day we had planned a yoga class that was three miles from the girls’ school. Without bikes, they went on foot. Rue was along documenting the program for a video for Anchorage Daily News. She helped put together a story for the newspaper about the stolen bikes. My phone number was at the bottom of the article, asking for help. Within an hour of publishing the story online, my phone was ringing off the hook. The local community was outraged. I remember an older woman offering to donate her “perfectly good mountain bike from the ‘80s”. I remember the cop saying, “this really stinks!” when I filed a police report. I remember people calling and offering to come down to The Bicycle Shop to buy a new bike for one of the girls. And then to replace all five stolen bikes. The local community donated $10,000, enough to replace the bikes and supplement our program with snacks, cabin rentals and equipment for the following years. I went to The Bicycle Shop to see if they had enough inventory to replace the five stolen bikes. We put them together, added racks and water bottle cages and wrote the girls’ names on the top tubes. We didn’t miss a session. Everything was replaced in 48 hours and our next lesson was working on mountain biking skills. The girls were riding down hills and over logs and we kept going. That summer, on separate occasions the policemen with whom I filed the report found three of the stolen bikes and brought them back to The Bicycle Shop. Mechanics at The Bicycle Shop helped us fix the bikes and we gave them to girls in later seasons.

What is the best season to run the program? What duration?

We host Anchorage GRIT for six weeks from early April to mid May, right before school lets out. For us, it’s important to wait for spring so teachers and counselors get to know the students and can nominate girls for the program. There’s also a surge of energy during spring in Alaska as the days quickly get warmer and longer. For most of the school year in Alaska, there’s snow on the ground. We often ride and push through a bit of snow for the first couple of weeks. We feel like six weeks is enough time to build up miles and work on skills to prepare for the final campout. GRIT could definitely be an all year program, but we have a limited amount of time to commit to the program.

Bike storage?

During the GRIT season, we share a storage unit with the track & field team. If girls want to ride to and from school, they can get permission to keep their bikes at home. We encourage to store their bikes indoors. If this isn’t possible, outside with a good lock. During the second year, one of the girl’s bikes was stolen from home. It happens. We raised money to replace it. At the end of the six week program, they earn their bikes and can bring them home for good.

Safety, insurance and finances?

The first year, Cait and I didn’t even think about insurance until Lindsay Hajduk from Bike Anchorage said it’s something we really needed to consider. What if the girls crash and get hurt? Fortunately, Lindsay got Bike Anchorage, a non-profit bicycle advocacy group, on board. They adopted Anchorage GRIT as an educational program, also giving us non-profit status for donations. Later, after Lindsay stepped down as president of Bike Anchorage, she joined GRIT as a mentor. It’s great to have her ride with us!

There’s always a risk of crashing. We host a safe riding lesson that includes shifting, braking, road awareness and signalling on our first day. We host a basic first aid class on our second day and the girls carry first aid kits. We stick to bike paths when possible. Later in the program, once the snow melts and the trails are dry, we work on mountain bike skills. We do our best to feel safe and confident on the bikes. You can’t predict everything that will happen, but you can do your best to be prepared.

Recruiting mentors?

It’s really important to find mentors that can commit to being at every session (or as close as possible). They form deep relationships with the girls, they learn the routes and we’re all on the same page. It’s important to have a solid backbone of adult mentors that you can rely on for safety and an overall better experience. At the minimum, we strive for a 2-1 student to mentor ratio. A 1-1 ratio is even better. If other women from the community want to participate in GRIT or see what we’re all about, but can’t make the time commitment to be a mentor, they’re welcome to ride with us. It’s great to get different women and girls together on bikes. From the saddle, you really get to know someone. There are few distractions and you have a unique experience together.

The first year of GRIT, we wrote a lot of emails looking for mentors and local expert women to teach lessons. We got so much positive feedback and encouragement. If women were excited about the program, but not available, we’d ask for referrals. We got so much help!

In later years, more women in the community heard about GRIT and got directly in touch with us to offer to be mentors and teach lessons. Our mentor group for season 3 was solid and caring women from different walks of life that served as awesome role models. There are no requirements to being a GRIT mentor beyond being kind, encouraging and reliable. If you’re a skilled bike mechanic, great! If you make delicious cookies, great! If you tell cheesy jokes, great! If you’re quiet and sensitive and notice if someone’s feeling left out and go spend time with them, we couldn’t ask for better help. Spending time together on bikes is the most important aspect of Anchorage GRIT.

What lessons and skills do you want to work on? Who can teach these lessons?

Some skills, like fixing a flat and basic first aid, are fairly essential. We have a great enthusiastic mechanic, Katie Spaulding, that has taught basic mechanics and maintenance to the girls. We’re really fortunate to have her volunteer, but if you don’t have access to a professional mechanic, someone else can fill that role– we cover lubing chains, fixing flats and pumping up tires. The first year we had the girls install their own racks and this was a bigger project than anticipated. In later years, the mentors installed the racks instead.

A positive, encouraging role-model is the most important quality for our teachers. Sarah Juetten, a local nurse, teaches first aid. She’s also helped with maintenance lessons, bike fit and fitness in the past. Sarah is spunky and sincere.

Other skills can be seen as exposure or team building– like yoga and bag making. Every year, we ride to Revelate Designs headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska. For the first two years, the girls traced, cut out and screen printed the panels for their panniers and saw experts at Revelate Designs sew them together. We also use this opportunity to go over packing strategies. Amy Breen, a local scientist that has ridden the Iditarod multiple times, shares advice– she talks about layering systems and packing light. We pass out a packing list, but we’re not too strict. The girls can bring what they want as long as they don’t complain and can make it to the finish. We use old cut up tubes to secure bags to racks. They usually find a way to carry stuff for s’mores. Last year, one girl pulled out a beach towel to go swimming in a lake. She also had a neck pillow with built in speakers. Where did she fit that?

Think about the experts in your community or skills and ideas you wish you’d been exposed to as a kid. There is a lot of room for creativity when coming up with classes and activities. Community service and volunteering are also great options, like cleaning up parks or volunteering at the local bicycle co-op.