The First Ride Toward a Bicycle Lifestyle

Savona Bailey-McClain became an advocate for cycling even before she learned to ride a bike.

Savona Bailey-McClain became an advocate for cycling even before she learned to ride a bike.

The 51-year-old Harlem resident’s recognition of two-wheels as a path to a better lifestyle, notably for a community that might otherwise consider a bike a luxury, was set in motion by an “ah-ha” moment in Brooklyn three years ago, and has advanced to a one woman ambassadorship with a little help from Momentum Mag.

On a warm summer day, sipping mango juice at an outdoor café in her neighborhood, Bailey-McClain, whose animated gestures and resounding laugh bespeak creative energy, recalled how a project in a Brooklyn gallery opened her eyes to bicycling as a transportation alternative and community builder.

“Everyone here focuses on the subway, walking, or cars,” said the independent art and lifestyle curator who, in the last 15 years, has overseen public art projects from Times Square to Governors Island, and also serves as executive director of the West Harlem Art Fund. “The ­first things you notice at the Bedford Street station are all the bicycles. There are bicycles everywhere!”

“I talked to people, I asked questions,” she said. “Some were bicycling to save money, others for health, and some just for lifestyle. I thought this was ingenious.”

“The economy is limping along and people are limping along with it,” she observed. “But you can have a quality of life by adding little things, like riding a bike.”

Like many of her neighbors, there were no training wheels for Bailey-McClain and her siblings growing up in the Bronx. The message from her mother, who hails from the Carolinas, was, “Southern ladies don’t need to do these things – you sweat,” said Bailey-McClain, who went on to become the ­first of her family to obtain a college degree, from the University of Pittsburgh in liberal arts.

The bicycling lifestyle message she had absorbed found expression last year when the not-for-pro­fit Harvest Home hired Bailey-McClain as a consultant to help build traffic in the Bronx, one borough in which its network of green markets brings fresh food to underserved communities.

What was Bailey-McClain’s advice? Focus less on messages about serving people in low-income neighborhoods and more on farmers markets as enjoyable, engaging, and empowering community experiences. “And getting there should be part of the fun,” she reasoned.

With assistance from Apple and a developer in Colorado, Bailey-McClain helped the Harvest Home build a smartphone app that included bike and pedestrian paths to the markets, as well as cultural sites along the way to encourage family outings.

By way of modeling cycling lifestyle, she reached out to Momentum Mag, who sent copies of the magazine to distribute free at the markets.

And then, Bailey-McClain decided it was time to learn to ride a bicycle.

“I thought, maybe if I could get one that fits, and ride it around Harlem, I could encourage more people to do it,” she said.

But at 5-foot-1-inches (1.5 meters) and with knee problems, Bailey-McClain had to find a bicycle with the right ­fit and comfort features. Momentum Mag arranged for a Biria Easy Boarding model that came with a basket from House of Talents, tagged with the name of the artisan in Africa who had hand-woven it: Seidu. “So I named the bike after her,” said Bailey-McClain.

At press time, Bailey-McClain had taken one of the popular classes for adult beginners offered by Bike New York. Joining approximately 20 others, mostly women, she learned to balance by propelling herself around a course with bike pedals removed. She had signed up for an additional class and was building her skills and road con­fidence in the park close to her home.

Bailey-McClain concedes that even among women who know how to ride, traffic on city streets can be a barrier to entry, and infrastructure has a long way to go before it is as well developed in Harlem and the Bronx as it is in other parts of New York City.

“You need more people to take the plunge and serve as examples,” she said.

Bailey-McClain, who, in a substantial understatement calls her life “a collection of interesting events,” has added a new chapter: pedaling a bright red bicycle to inspire others to similarly enhance their lives.

Susi Wunsch is a passionate advocate for women’s cycling, Wunsch founded the NYC-based cycling lifestyle website and writes about two-wheeled transportation for a variety of publications.

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