The Machines of Empowerment

ESTELLE PICKARD reiterates the value of a humble bicycle in todays society.

I think people greatly underestimate the importance of the role of bicycles in society. They’re nothing short of miracles to a lot of people. Last year I wrote to tell you how bicycles assisted in the emancipation of women – going from Victorian ladies to freethinking, independent woman who could suddenly transport themselves, without relying on men to do so for them. We also know to what extent a bicycle can improve the life of a child coming from underprivileged communities. A bicycle is an instrument of empowerment and the importance of bicycles is not a thing of the past, they remain miracle machines to this day, and I’ll tell you why … This is a true story of an Israeli Professor, Shimon Schocken, and how he used bicycles as machines of empowerment. He somehow managed to convince the warden of a juvenile correctional facility to start a mountain bike club for inmates, led by himself. Every Tuesday, he takes these juvenile inmates riding, come rain or shine, and have been doing so for more than four years now. In the time spent with these kids, Schocken had the privilege to expose them to a world of total freedom – they see the most amazing views, stumble on unique and beautiful creatures and plants, getting exposed to nature as you do when riding. But despite all this beauty and wonder, the early days of this mountain bike club was challenging. As we all know, mountain biking comes with its own set of obstacles and challenges and as soon as the inmates were faced with these, they gave up. They could not deal very well with frustration. As soon as they were faced with an obstacle, they gave up. Schocken observed the kids’ reactions when faced with these frustrations – ranging from throwing down their bikes, breaking down trees and throwing their helmets around – with absolute disbelief, not knowing what to do.

After many such incidents, he finally figured out how to deal with these situations. He realised that he needed to stay close to these kids. These kids had people threatening them, screaming at them and abandoning them all their life. So he tried the opposite approach – he would move closer, pat them on their shoulder, offer them a snack and offer encouragement. The encouragement was not always met with kindness, but he persisted and demonstrated unconditional acceptance. This eventually did the trick. Initially Schockens vision for this mountain bike team was to create racing snakes but after two exceptionally frustrating months he realised he needed to change this vision.

He realised that his goal was rather to expose these kids to as much love as possible – love for the outdoors, love for animals, love for plants, love for climbs and downhills, love and respect for fellow team members and ultimately, love and respect for themselves. Perspective is something that mountain biking can really teach you. When you get to a point where you are suffering and you cannot take it anymore, you take a look to the scenes around you – to see how far you’ve come and how nature unfolds – and it propels you forward. You can also see how much you’ve improved since prior rides and this develops self-esteem. When, at the start of the ride, you see how high you need to climb and you think “that’s impossible” … but two hours later you find yourself in the spot you thought you would never reach – that’s when you start to love yourself. Through their bike journeys through Israel, being taught about the history of their country and facing difficult circumstances in their own life, they learn that life is complex. With that understanding comes patience and with that, they become hopeful. Schocken has, with the help of many volunteers, gotten together ten bikes, a trailer and all the necessary gear. He typically leaves at 6am on a Tuesday morning and takes the kids riding for four to six hours. More than a hundred kids have gone through this mountain biking programme with him and it is evident that mountain biking has had a lasting impact on their mental growth and rehabilitation. See, a miracle machine – you shouldn’t think any less of it.

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