Bicycle breakthrough: Nine13 Sports inspires active kids 

click to enlarge ROBERT ANNIS

The eight riders' feet perch on their pedals, anxiously awaiting the start of the bicycle race. Muscles tensed, they steal glances at one another, wondering who will sprint to victory in just a few moments.

As the countdown to the start ends, a flurry of motion begins: 16 legs churn chaotically as each rider jockeys for position on the large flat screen monitor in front of them. Some of the icons on the screen begin to fall back as their real-life counterparts' pistons slow and upper bodies sway from the unfamiliar exertion. As he crosses the digital finish line, the winning rider's arms rocket skyward; despite never having seen a bike race in his life, he instinctively repeats the same victory gesture made by the thousands of amateur and professional bike racers who came before him.

The celebration is short lived as he and his other classmates cheer on the remaining riders trying to finish the one-third mile Computrainer race. As the final rider labors to a stop, a thin smile betrays her thoughts: I'll get you next time.

The three-man staff at the Nine13 Sports sees this unfold before their eyes several times each day. The non-profit group partners with a host of Indianapolis-area schools and children's groups to encourage kids to engage in healthy activities. The program is aimed primarily at kids in fourth through seventh grades, some of whom have never ridden a bicycle; 80 percent of the kids are on the outer levels of poverty.

Bikes: the great equalizer

For co-founders Tom Hanley and Ken Nowakowski - Hanley is a former national champion cyclist and Nowakowski the former coach of collegiate cycling powerhouse Marian University - that mission lent itself to the bicycle.

"The bike is the great equalizer," Nowakowski said. "It allows kids of all different shapes, sizes and ability levels to enjoy an activity together. You'll see some kids who are naturally more gifted on a bike, but you'll also see improvement from everyone else as well. ... We're working with wildly different demographics in some of our schools, but the smiles are exactly the same. The kids are having the same amount of fun."

The Computrainers work on several different levels - not only does it keep the kids together in one location (instead of spreading out from pedaling at different speeds), but they also add a fun, old-school video game element to the exercise. On a recent day, students were grouped into two groups for a team time trial, with the best cumulative time winning. Nearly all of the races were fiercely competitive, with two coming down to a difference of less than a second.

Sidener eighth-grader Alexis Zarco, 14, didn't win her race, but she did earn kudos from her classmates for hanging tough during the time trial. It was her second time on the single-speed Sun bike, and she felt faster.

"The first time I got tired too quickly," she said. "I'm getting better at it. ... It does help with self-esteem. Everyone's really supportive - if they can do it, so can I."

Nowakowski estimates most kids will see a 10-20 percent improvement over the six-week program. Coach John Singleton hopes they can also steal some kids with lots of natural cycling talent away from more popular scholastic sports like basketball and soccer.

"We've seen some kids who, with the proper training, might be able to make it to the Olympics one day," Singleton said.

In search of support

First established in 2009, Nine13 Sports really came into its own over the past year, and the three principals hope to build on that success in the future. But, of course, it's going to take money. Hanley anticipates raising $250,000 over the next few months to fund the group for the next two years. Hanley's doing his part, donating $25,000 from an insurance settlement to the cause. Hanley donated the money in memory of his best friend Jim Douglas, who was killed in the 2010 van accident, which left him with minor brain injuries. His wife Lauren and other members of their wedding party were also injured.

Currently, the group's resources are stretched thinner than a lycra cycling uniform - they've got a limited number of bikes, Computrainers and staff, and tens of thousands of potential clients in IPS alone. Staff members had projected working with 7,500 youths this year, but that number continues to rise. Over the summer, Nowakowski said, the group worked with up to 140 kids a day at various Boys and Girls Clubs throughout the city.

Nine13 will work in a school or organization for six or eight weeks, seeing each of the kids maybe two or three times, before they move onto the next school. Most of the kids will ride for less than 20 minutes at a time, occasionally hitting 18-19 miles an hour during each short 1-2 minute sprint. That's enough to get kids interested initially, but is it enough to get them hooked on the bike long term?

With youth obesity levels rising in Indiana and nationwide, many health experts, including President Obama's Childhood Obesity Task Force, see the bicycle as one of the keys to getting kids more active. At Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted children and one of the places Nine13 is visiting this semester, kids are bussed in from all over the city. Few, if any, ride bikes to class; Ted Schenk, Sidener's phys-ed teacher, wasn't sure if the school even had a bike rack. Younger kids get two gym classes each week, while the older students only get one 50-minute session - not nearly close to the recommended daily hour of exercise recommended by the Center for Disease Control.

A more active lifestyle

As the Nine13 staff load its equipment into the gym, scores of classes pass by and peer through the doorway with barely concealed excitement.

"By the second week here, all the kids were trying to get involved in the program," Schenk said. "They don't usually get this excited until the field day toward the end of the year."

Zarco and most of her classmates weren't complete newcomers to the bike; she and her family sometimes ride bikes together in a nearby park. But some kids have made it through elementary and middle school without having even sat on a bike, something almost unheard of less than 20 years ago.

"This summer we were at a Boys and Girls Club, when a 12-year-old boy who'd never ridden a bike wanted to try it," Nowakowski said. "He wanted to do what his friends were doing. So he got on, and had no idea what he was doing at first. He was getting frustrated, but we managed to work with him. In five minutes he went from not being able to do a full pedal stroke to going pretty fast. Every week we came back after that, he was there."

Although many of the students can't afford new bicycles, staff members say they're working with another local nonprofit, Freewheelin' Community Bikes, to help get donated, used bikes into the hands of kids who want them.

"The more we can get them on the bike here, the more they'll want to ride outside (the program as well)," Hanley said. "That's going to translate into their home life and hopefully a more active lifestyle for their entire family."

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