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Cycling program helps students build confidence

Say what you will about his aim, but give Chris Benson credit for shooting for the stars.

Say what you will about his aim, but give Chris Benson credit for shooting for the stars.

"I want do better than Neil Armstrong," the 14-year-old from West Philadelphia announced last week, drawing quizzical looks, then smirks and ribbing from his cycling teammates. ("What, you want to ride on the moon?")

"I mean Lance, Lance Armstrong," Benson quickly countered. "I'm going to do better than Lance Armstrong."

Well, if the 8th grader from Mastery Charter School does someday eclipse Lance Armstrong, he'll have Ryan Oelkers and the Cadence Cycling Foundation to thank.

Oelkers, 35, is a former cycling pro and executive director of the foundation, a small nonprofit founded by former Flyers president Jay Snider. Oelkers and Snider, through the foundation, want to expose youngsters from disadvantaged neighborhoods to competitive cycling and, along the way, offer academic support and encouragement to get to college.

The foundation provides bikes, helmets, and coaching for young people like Benson in hopes of luring them to a sport to which they might otherwise have little access. Off the bike, the youths are given educational counseling and assistance in navigating the path to higher education.

"Basically, we are trying to open up doors for these kids," Oelkers said. "We want to provide them the tools to get to college - the counselors, advisers. And we want to help build their self-confidence through cycling."

Said Snider: "We want them to apply the discipline needed for cycling to their schoolwork and even the college-application process."

The foundation was launched two years ago. Oelkers was then director of performance for Snider's for-profit Cadence Cycling and Multisport Center in Manayunk.

The foundation raised about $81,000 to cover expenses, including equipment and coaching fees. Fuji Bikes, a manufacturer with headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia, donated 30 bikes. About a half dozen coaches were recruited from the Drexel University cycling team. And potential riders were found through local schools and the Interstate Realty Management Co. Inc., which manages low-income housing communities in the city.

"We try to put together programs to keep kids off the streets and off of drugs," said Mario Lanzano, director of social services for Interstate. "Cycling, to me, is perfect. The problem is it is not known as a sport in the inner city. That is where Cadence comes in."

So far, Cadence has put together eight "teams" of cyclists, totaling about 65 young people between the ages of 9 and 18. Each team has a coach and trains two days a week after school.

The cyclists compete in up to 20 races year-round. They will be out on Benjamin Franklin Parkway this Sunday for a short race while the professionals perform in the TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championships.

"Some of these guys could barely ride bike in a straight line when we started," Oelkers said. "Six weeks later, they are doing 20-mile rides in traffic. You can see the confidence building week after week."

Victoria Hanks, 22, is a member of the Drexel cycling team and a Cadence coach.

"Yesterday, we took our team on their first ride up a hill," she said, in an interview last week. "We took them up Lemon Hill. When they went down the hill, it sounded like they were at Dorney Park. I never heard them scream so loud. I couldn't stop laughing."

Kenny Watson, a math teacher at Mastery, has seen firsthand the effect of the program.

"It really makes a difference for these guys to have success outside the classroom," he said. "I've seen their confidence and maturity level grow immensely."

One measure is how few Cadence participants wind up in homework detention.

"If you have homework detention, you can't go to practice," Watson said. "And no one wants to miss practice."

For the young bicyclists, there is a myriad of rewards.

Leroy Hayes, for instance, has lost 42 pounds since joining the team in September.

"They told me to come on out and try," the 16-year-old Mastery student from South Philadelphia said. "I just kept doing it. Now I'm thinking about trying to keep doing it in college. Ryan was telling us about colleges in Pennsylvania that offer cycling scholarships."

Samuel Cowans, also a 16-year-old at Mastery, is another Cadence member thinking of continuing to race in college. He is proud to tell you he is No. 2 in the current Cadence race standings.

"I always wanted to do it," he said of competitive cycling. "But I never knew how to get involved. This is my first year and I love it. I just like the whole intensity of it. When you are going down the stretch, you're adrenaline is up, you are giving it all you got . . ."

Look out, Neil.

Contact staff writer Christopher K. Hepp at or 215-854-2208.