Joseph Bloedoorn isn’t just an avid bicyclist; he’s also a bike evangelist, sharing his passion for biking with everyone from middle school students in Northeast Minneapolis to members of a casual Saturday riding group that he started organizing eight years ago. In the post below, Joseph shares how he discovered his passion and how he’s leading by example – on two wheels.
Occupation: Community & Family Liaison at Northeast Middle School (NEMS)
“I changed my relationship with my car to a relationship with my bicycle and now that’s what I use to get from point A to point B.” You said this in a conversation we had earlier this year. How did you become such a big a biking enthusiast?
I always liked riding a bike. My dad got me a very nice Raleigh 3-speed (classic English touring bike) when I was a teenager – you could really get around on something like that. I started experimenting with biking to work around 1999-2000. I was actually living in Saint Paul and working in Eden Prairie at the time, so the 20-plus mile commute was more something I did when I needed to get into the office over a weekend. In 2004, a friend and I started fiddling around with a sort of fitness group, starting with cross-country skiing, and when the weather turned, we turned to biking. He would bring a friend; I would bring one – we’d go back and forth and it grew.
You live in the Mac/Groveland area in Saint Paul but work in Northeast Minneapolis. What routes do you use to make that commute via bike?
My “standard” route is Prior north to Gilbert (runs only between Prior and Cleveland) west to Cleveland, across University, Charles west, Hampden north then west, Raymond north, Kasota west and north and continuing where it turns and becomes Elm – then it’s 18th, which becomes Stinson at Hennepin, St. Anthony Parkway to 29th, and in to Hayes & school. Coming home is more variable: I might cut through the U and get on Mississippi River Boulevard; if it’s later, I might cross back to West River Road and take 25th over to the Birchwood and meet my partner for dinner – it just depends. I only used a car to commute to work three times this past school year (and that goes back to when classes started last August). Commuters that ride in my Saturday group go anywhere from about 3 miles (6 miles round trip) to 17-plus miles (34-35 miles round trip, although that individual only has to work from his office 2-3 times/week).
You’ve also mentioned that you make a lot of shorter trips by bike (5 miles or less). What kinds of shorter trips do you make and how has biking to these locations compared to making them by driving your car?
The classics are Lunds in Highland Village on a weekend afternoon and Whole Foods at Fairview and Grand. Both can be super busy, and parking a car can be a real pain. But you can always find a place to lock your bike, and at Lunds, we have a spot for our tandem that nobody else ever uses. These are trips that are less than 5 miles round trip. Also, when it’s that short and parking is part of the issue, the time difference between riding and driving is quite small.
For years, you’ve been organizing a regular Saturday ride with a group of folks ages 40-60, where you sometimes bike as far as 70 miles. How did that group come together and what’s kept it going?
We’ve actually done “centuries” [riding 100 miles]– usually about one sometime during the warm-weather months. But it was two guys – in their fifties – deciding they needed to get in shape. Our first time out was in February, 2004 – so, our eighth anniversary was this winter. We were on cross-country skis. We lasted all of 20 minutes – I thought my friend was going to die of a heart attack (and I was going to die of one trying to resuscitate him). I think what’s kept it together is we always try and take some time aside for a social component: ride an hour or two or whatever, have a nice coffee break / second breakfast, ride home after. Every Saturday. Sometimes we do non-bike events where we just party together. We try and keep it fun: no dress code, no secret handshake.
Northeast Middle School (NEMS), where you work, and Waite Park Elementary School were just awarded a fleet of 15 bikes to share through a grant from Safe Routes to School and MnDoT. Can you tell us about how you applied and won these bikes? What was the motivation?
One of the motivating factors was (and remains) this obesity epidemic. The Washington Post recently published a piece based on recent Harvard and CDC data around obesity, diabetes, and CVD in young people. Twenty-five percent of U.S. teens are pre-diabetic or diabetic now.
How will the schools use the bikes in the years ahead?
Next year we deploy the Florida State University-developed bike safety curriculum MnDOT supports here in our state. I have been to all-day trainings on this recently. I actually tried some of the bike handling exercises with a few of my kids before school let out.
Aside from the grant for 15 bikes, how else have you encouraged students to bike?
Hopefully, just making sure they see my bike on the rack here every school day. Safe Routes gives me various incentives, and I try to tie these to biking or walking to school. I’m doing a second year of a math challenge, and this year it’s got a bike theme (the math is about biking to Tierra del Fuego from Alaska).
In April, you biked with a group of students from NEMS to the Mall of America Field for an event hosted by Fuel Up To Play 60, a program that encourages kids to get active and make healthy food choices. How was that decision made?
I was asked to chaperone some NEMS students because no other staff could get away for the event. Then I found out from our principal, Padmini Udupa, there was no money for transportation (it was not in the budget). We had just gotten our bike fleet, and it was a small number of students – five eighth-grade boys I think. I just said we could ride it; I knew a route that would work, was safe, etc. It’s also the case that we probably could have gotten the money for cab fare from our Family Involvement Group, but getting there under our own power seemed more in keeping with the Fuel Up To Play 60 mission.
What feedback have you heard from kids on the bike activities?
Originally, our little after-school bike club – the Beacons Bikesters – was just going to meet Thursdays. We added Tuesdays by popular demand, and we extended the sessions beyond the end of May. I think if we had had time to explain the “program” to parents in more detail, we would have had quickly run out of bikes – as it sits, I think we’ve had six or seven kids out at a time (so far). I think in the fall it will be a bigger deal – more staff involvement will translate into more students, more students will translate into even more students, and there you go. Kids recruit their friends; we’ve already seen some of that.
What’s your advice to other schools who would like to facilitate bike programs for students?
- Make sure there’s support from building leadership.
- It helps to have the appropriate district entities (legal, health/nursing, physical education, community education, etc.) aware and on board.
- It helps to have bikes.
- It helps to remember that the risks of biking are nothing in comparison with the risks of obesity (which include hypertension, CVD (cardio-vascular disease), and Type II diabetes). Plus exercise is good for your brain.
- Recruit staff, parents, and adult volunteers to help. Even kids with a bike passion from the closest high school have shown interest in riding with my kids.
- Be conservative. If you are an experienced adult rider, you may be in for a rude shock when you find out what capabilities your kids have – or don’t have.
- Try and do as much teaching as possible with kids while they’re on bikes. It’s tough on a kid to think she’s in a bike club or activity and have to sit around and listen to a bunch of lectures.
- Think of helping kids form the sorts of habits they will need to ride independently, even if that’s a few years away yet.
- Bill Nye the Science Guy did at least one bit on bike safety, and it’s very kid-friendly (at least middle school-friendly, in my opinion). If you can hit that sort of a note — a balance between manic passion for biking and a genuine obsession with keeping kids safe while still having fun – that feels like it would be about the right note (and yes, it’s easy to say, not so easy to do).