It's Saturday morning in California's Marin County, and the weekend warriors are taking to the trails like high-tech ants to a picnic. Sporting the latest mountain-biking gear, they zip down the hills in a flash of bright colors. Alongside them are a dozen inner-city kids, huffing and puffing on bikes that have seen better days. The children periodically pause to curse or pull up their baggy hip-hop pants. "I'm not gonna make it, I know I'm not gonna make it," moans Chinaka, 14, to her 19-year-old cousin, Natasha. "Girl, why'd you bring me here?"
Natasha's reply is cool: " 'Cause if I didn't, you wouldn't be doing anything. Just hanging and doing nothing."
Replacing boredom with bikes is just one of the many missions of Trips for Kids, a program that gives inner-city children a chance to get on the wooded trails that have made Marin a mecca for mountain bikers. Marilyn Price, the program's 54-year-old founder, sees the trail rides as a way for disadvantaged youth to break boundaries both physical and metaphysical. "Many of the kids have never been over the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone ridden a bike on anything other than pavement," she says. "Everyone learns something different from the rides, including me."
Price, who lives in Mill Valley, got the idea for the program while biking one day in 1986 on Marin's Mount Tamalpais. "It just didn't seem fair that this kind of outdoor experience wasn't available to everyone—especially kids," she says. An ardent mountain biker and community worker, Price felt that by combining her interests she could make a difference. To help launch her project a local stockbroker contributed 10 mountain bikes, and the Specialized company followed suit, donating nine. Soon other businesses came through with bike parts, helmets and gloves.
With the help of volunteers and of groups such as the Sierra Club and the Bicycle Trails Council of Marin, Price's dream became a reality. Trips for Kids now has chapters in Berkeley, Mill Valley and L.A., and it annually serves more than 500 children from community programs including homeless shelters and projects that work with children at risk. Last year Price also opened the Re-Cyclery, a clubhouse and secondhand bike shop in San Rafael where kids can earn credits toward their own bicycles by learning how to build and repair bikes. Nehemias, an 11-year-old who was born in Guatemala and is a Re-Cyclery regular, says he gets more than entertainment at the shop. "People call me the bike fix-it guy around my apartment building," he says with a grin. This kind of self-esteem is what Price hopes the shop and the rides will provide many children.
But biking with Trips for Kids isn't always a joyride. Recently a single bee caused 10 children to drop their bikes and run away screaming. A friendly horseback rider was eyed with caution, and a distant bang triggered an animated debate complete with expert testimonials: It was a gunshot; it was fireworks.
For these kids even the exercise is new, and the same trails that draw bikers and hikers from the world over can seem like enemy territory. Inching his way up the third daunting hill of the day, 10-year-old Jeremy finally throws in the towel and threatens to walk home. Chinaka wants to join him. "I've had enough," she says angrily. "If he goes, I go." Price pulls over, sits down beside them and patiently tells them, "We're almost to the top. Most people give up exercising after 20 minutes, and they miss the payback—because it gets easier, really. C'mon, I'll help you walk your bikes." With much persuasion, Jeremy and Chinaka succumb, and in a few minutes they reach the summit. Reunited with the group, they fly down the trail, letting loose whoops of delight. At the bottom of the hill Chinaka and Natasha pause to compare muscles.
"Once they make it up a hill, I know they've learned something," says Price. "As one boy said after a ride, 'I learned that if I stick with it, I can make it to the top.' If he can transfer that experience to other areas of his life, we've accomplished a lot."