Written By Senta Scarborough
Aliya Tyus-Barnwell is paving the way for youth road cycling in New York.
Tyus-Barnwell, president and founder of Ride Up Grades, wasn’t always a cycling rockstar, but she grew up around biking. She got hooked as an adult and discovered something missing in the cycling community.
"I saw a gap in the service that we had for cyclists in New York. There were no youth road cycling programs. They just didn't exist,” she said.
Founded in 2020 on the heels of the pandemic, Ride Up Grades’ mission is to bridge both the transportation and health divide in low-income communities through cycling.
Through a free intensive summer camp, group rides and a road racing youth scholarship the non-profit aims to turn the sedentary into cyclists and commuters into competitors.
"Honestly, it felt like it was something that I could actually do. And no one else was going to do it. I saw the opportunity and I knew it was like now or never,” she said. “Why me? I was uniquely equipped.”
Also fiercely equipped. Tyus-Barnwell, best known for telling the stories of black cyclists in VeloNews or via her IG account @KitAddiction, has a dream team of friends and family. The crew includes vice president Tracy Norton Fisher who is the administrative force behind the group and Alex Ostroy, the creator behind the cycling brand Ostroy NYC, who works on marketing and fundraising.
Ethel Tyus, former counsel for the NYC Comptroller’s office, historic preservation advocate and Tyus-Barnwell’s mother, serves as legal counsel. In New York City, where every inch of real estate is prized, she stores extra bikes in her basement for the non-profit.
“We have family resources that people of color don't always have,” Tyus Barnwell said.
One push at a time: Path to Youth Cycling Advocacy
Tyus-Barnwell’s first foray into cycling was with her dad.
He was a D1 basketball player for the Harlem Wizards, a travel show team like the Globetrotters. He cycled for training purposes.
“I think in the ‘90s cycling was still cool. He was into it, taught me to ride and he gave me bikes throughout the years. He got me on mountain bikes,” she said.
After college, Tyus-Barnwell discovered how efficient and enjoyable getting to work by bike was.
“It was downhill from there,” she joked.
Tyus-Barnwell credits Courtney Williams, founder of The Brown Bike Girl with encouraging her next journey.
“She was the Shero for black girls at the time. She encouraged me to get out there and teach people,” she said.
She got her League of American Bicyclists cycling and safety certifications at a tire changing clinic and delved deeper into working as a bicycle instructor.
“It’s the street version of coaching. It teaches you to navigate everything from how to pedal safely to sharing an environment with drivers. The more you ride in the city the more you realize it is a handy thing to have and to give because there are plenty of adults who don’t know how to ride,” she said.
In 2017, while working for the bicycling advocacy non-profit, Bike New York, she realized there were no youth road cycling programs and got the idea to start her own.
“I knew it was going to be expensive and a big ask. So that kind of sat on the back burner for a while,” she said.
Three years later, Ride Up Grades was born.
At the core of the youth non-profit is the desire to share the “freedom and independence” that Tyus-Barnell so loves about cycling.
“It’s instant gratification. What you put into it, you can get out right away. So if you are willing to give the effort, you will get back. It’s that simple—with a bike you press on it and it goes,” she said.
Kids discovering their own sense of control over boundaries is also key.
“A trip is a couple miles and it lets kids maneuver through their environment in a completely different way than when they're underground in a train,” she said.
Helping kids find a way to get around in the city addresses transportation equity issues too.
“You can get physical activity at a gym but you can’t ride a basketball to work when you are 30 years old. It also allows kids autonomy and helps combat obesity and diabetes that prevail in low income communities of color,” she said. “I think every school should have a bike program.”
Back to School
In April the non-profit kicked off its first after school program at Lafayette High School at Gravesend. A few days after school and on the weekends students road about 35 miles per week training for an end of the school year ride at the natural preserve at Jamaica Bay.
Tyus-Barnell partnered with a teacher who helped instruct the after school class on Tuesdays for about 15 to 20 students. Each students set their own “smart goals” for the program.
“The smart goal setting is use bikes as a tool to teach them life lessons that are specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant time sensitive,” she said. “They are training themselves to cycle safely around this massive bay.”
During the eight-week program, students learn the parts of a bicycle, the differences between different kinds of bicycles, how to change a flat, how to pedal a chain back on and other bike related skills.
“We teach them how to safely stop, signal with one hand, what the signals actually mean, and how to lean the bicycle to turn safety—little things people don’t notice until they have an accident caused by an oversight,” she said.
Ride Up Grades connects kids to bikes and cycling in several ways—school programs, scholarships and summer camps.
Camp’s held for about 20 middle to high schoolers for two weeks in July with hopes of eventual expansion to three weeks. Kids participate in group rides, learn basic bike anatomy and maintenance, safe cycling techniques and navigation.
The program encourages healthy habits including nutrition for endurance riding and racing, social and emotional development.
Trek donates 10 bikes and loans another 10 bikes for the camp each year.
“Bikes, helmets, bottles are all provided,” Tyus-Barnell said. It’s the reason for the name Ride Up Grades.
Also in partnership with Trek and Ostroy, Ride Up Grades recently sponsored its first racing scholarship for youth cyclist, Travis Basora. The scholarship is awarded to someone who rides a beater—an old, used bike. Trek provides a new road bike and shoes, and Ostroy provides the kit.
Travis raced with the sponsorship and also learned to wrench and became a bike mechanic. Word on the street is that he's now into gravel cycling. That's music to our ears.
“It’s a big success—being able to do something you love,” Tyus-Barnell said.
This year, Fierce Hazel is collaborating with Ride Up Grades donating its innovative Echelon Pouches and Mighty Friendly Musette Bag to every camp participant. The Echelon pouches and Fierce Hazel card holders are perfect on-the-go everyday essentials for every new rider to keep their personal items like keys or an id safe.
The best way to support Ride Up Grades in their effort to bridge both the transportation and health divide in underserved communities through cycling is by direct donation: Donate Here
Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. She is the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her clients include KCET-SoCal PBS, Emory University, Stanford University, Fenning Marketing Group and Fierce Hazel. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. Find her on social media @sentascar.
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