Happier, Healthier, and Biking to School

How one year of riding transformed 16-year-old Keishawn Blackstone.

Keishawn Blackstone has radically transformed his life over the past year. The 16-year-old from Los Angeles, CA, has taken charge of his health and has carved out a leadership role at his high school. For Blackstone, this transformation began with the decision to start biking to school. However, it was a chance encounter with members of a cycling group that motivated Blackstone to see how far his transformation could go.

The American teenager and young adult’s waning love affair with the car has been thoroughly documented in the press. In 2011, only 67 percent of Americans ages 16-24 had a driver’s license, the lowest proportion in over half a century. And those in this age group with licenses are driving much less than any other age group on the road. While experts have yet to pin down why this young generation is not as interested in driving – high costs of gas and insurance, a shift toward electronics as status symbols, concern for the environment – for many high school students, the bicycle is back in style.

“Biking to school was a challenge at first because I was really overweight,” said Blackstone as he recalled the changes biking to school had ushered in to his life over the past year. At 250 pounds (113 kilograms), Blackstone remembered the jokes he first heard about his appearance as a “big cyclist.” Undeterred, Blackstone would wake up early each morning and hop on his single-speed fixie, purchased at a garage sale for $60, and make the trip from his Los Angeles home to his high school located in the north hills.

Biking to school was a way for Blackstone to make an environmentally friendly choice for his daily travels. Taking the bus on days when the weather was too rainy, Blackstone would miss facing the physical and mental challenges that pushed him to keep riding. The long commute, impatient drivers, a lack of bicycle infrastructure, and his own physical limitations due to his weight were all challenges that Blackstone faced head on, determined to overcome. “People believed in me that I had the power and mindset to get to places safe even though I had no cell phone to reach anyone if I was stuck, but I had guidance and faith that I would make it every time,” said Blackstone.

Out for what was typically a quiet solo ride in his neighborhood one day, a cycling group passed Blackstone. Determined to see if he could catch up to them, Blackstone pedaled his single-speed as fast as he could, hoping to make contact with the group and learn more about their rides. When the group pulled over so that one of the riders could fix a flat tire, Blackstone saw his chance to make contact. The riders, part of a group called Major Motion Recreational Cycling, answered Blackstone’s questions and invited him on a 60-mile (96 kilometer) social ride. “I was struggling to keep up on my fixie,” said Blackstone about that first group ride. “I had no food, water, or brakes.”

From that day on Blackstone was hooked on recreational cycling, quickly learning about riding in a group and what it takes to sustain effort on long rides. Members of the group also provided Blackstone with assistance in getting on a more suitable bike and helping him acquire other gear. Over the following nine months, Blackstone was able to ride more than 13,000 miles (20,900 kilometers), with his longest single ride covering 130 miles (209 kilometers). Blackstone now participates in local races and hopes to one day join a professional team.

At school, Blackstone became interested in sharing his newfound love of cycling with fellow students. Founding a small cycling club, Blackstone would organize group rides and pass on what he had learned about nutrition and riding in groups. With several members of his group having graduated at the end of this past school year, Blackstone hopes the group’s numbers will grow again as the new school year starts. “I think kids should bike to school more often because not only is no gas needed, but you are also getting your morning fitness,” said Blackstone. While he was able to find the confidence to overcome some of the more daunting challenges to biking to school, Blackstone knows that assistance in encouraging more teenagers to ride is needed. “Many kids don’t bike to school because there are very few bike lanes in the valley and a lot of drivers are simply crazy.”

“Los Angeles can make better and safer bike paths that don’t lead to a dead end destination, but to schools,” shared Blackstone on what he thinks his city could do to help get more students on bikes. “And maybe have cycling pit stops for the kids who want to pick up a snack.”

This school year, Blackstone will continue to ride to school and to push his limits as he pursues his goal of one day racing professionally. “Cycling plays an everyday role in my life,” said Blackstone. “I have made that change and I want to change the lives of others. I want teenagers to know there’s more to life than just playing Xbox.”

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1 Comment

  • Georgina

    What a great story! Just wanted to comment from the perspective of a “non-thin” bike commuter. The story states that this young man’s weight was a barrier to cycling, but wasn’t it more his lack of fitness and poor diet that we’re limiting factors? Not everyone who cycles achieves thinness, or wants to. You do not have to be thin to be a regular bike commuter, to benefit from the joy and exhilaration of cycling. And you do not have to be thin to be fit, healthy and enjoy a good diet. We don’t all fit the Lycra-clad stereotype.

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