As a 15-year-old, Sam Cowans knew that cycling through the hardscrabble streets of West Philadelphia in high-tech tights would invite plenty of hoots and hollers.
Now, three years later, some of the same kids who wondered why Cowans had become enamored of such a strange sport rather than basketball or football go to his races to watch the Mastery Charter School senior compete.
"At my school, I was the first one on the team to put the spandex on," Cowans said with a thousand-watt smile. "There were a few chuckles, but that's because they didn't understand the sport."
Cowans had just finished a training session Wednesday at the Cadence Bike Shop in Manayunk with six of his teammates from Mastery Charter. He is one of 140 kids involved in the Cadence Cycling Foundation, a program that makes cycling accessible to inner-city youth. They represent 13 schools, and they will have their own race during the TD Bank International Cycling Championship on June 5.
Cowans is one of the Cadence Cycling Foundation's several success stories. The foundation is about more than just cycling. It's also about teaching the value of education, a healthy lifestyle, commitment, discipline, confidence, and how to set goals. Cowans has been accepted at Bucknell, where he will join the cycling team. He wants to be a veterinarian. But that's his backup plan.
"My goal is to be a pro cyclist when I'm 23," said Cowans, who hopes to take a big step toward that goal by taking part in a training camp this summer in upstate Pennsylvania.
Leroy Hayes, a classmate of Cowans', is another success story. Hayes couldn't attend Wednesday's session because he is in California at a training camp.
"I remember at the beginning of his sophomore year, Leroy came to me and asked if he could join," said Ryan Oelkers, a former pro cyclist and the foundation's senior director of operations. "At the time, he was 5-foot-6 and weighed 280 pounds. He's lost 100 pounds, and he's now 6-1.
"Imagine what that does to your self-esteem and confidence. His grades picked up after he got on the cycling team. He got into the University of Vermont. He's going to race in college. It's a sport for everyone."
The foundation is Oelkers' brainchild. He came up with the idea in 2007 after he asked a former teammate, Marty Nothstein, a U.S. Olympic sprint champion in 2000, to give a presentation at a Northeast Philadelphia elementary school where Oelkers' wife, Erin, taught. Nothstein brought his bike, his gold medal, and a DVD of him racing.
"After it was over, all these hands went up," Oelkers recalled. "Kids were saying they wanted to do that, they wanted to win a gold medal. 'Where do I go to do that?' These kids didn't have bikes."
Oelkers followed through on his idea. He helped start the foundation and, with help from people such as Jay Snider, son of Flyers chairman Ed Snider, raised enough money to hire coaches and mentors and equip the kids.
"When Ryan came to my school, only five of us showed up to hear his pitch," Cowans said.
Now, the demand is such that the program has spread to Camden and Wilmington, and there's more demand than supplies.
"The goal was to find future champions," Oelkers said. "If we make the sport accessible to these kids, we're bound to find a champion out there. But as we developed the program, we realized we could have a huge social impact on the kids. We can help them finish high school and get into college. That's a big component. We're teaching these kids life skills through the sport of cycling."
Within the foundation, there is the Cadence College Connection, which offers SAT prep courses for the cyclists and helps them with college applications and financial aid forms. If any of the cyclists fall behind in their classwork, they are not permitted to ride.
"It's a carrot," Oelkers said.
"Without this program, a lot of these kids wouldn't have a prayer," said Dave Chauner, president of the Pro Cycling Tour and cofounder of the TD Bank International Cycling Championship.
The young cyclists practice two or three times a week and are entered in races. Some of the bikes and gear are donated. For example, Scott Zwizanski, a native of West Chester who will ride for the United Healthcare team on June 5, donated one of his old bikes as well as riding clothes.
"I know this is a really good program. I know the people who run it," Zwizanski said. "It teaches you that with hard work and dedication, you can achieve things. It's really a cool program."
Zwizanski was among three pros who took questions from the eager cyclists before the training session. Tom Soladay, who rides for the Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth team, and Kati Lawrence, a 16-year-old from Emmaus who rides for MVP Healthcare, also spoke.
One of the questions came from Cowans, who became interested in cycling when his mother, Lynn Johnson, took him to the Philadelphia International. "Then I was shocked to find out there was a program like this," he said.
Cowans' question to the three pros: "What path did you take to turn pro?"
He listened intently to their answers, as if he didn't have a path of his own in mind.