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Two wheels to freedom

It's a milestone of childhood independence: learning how to ride a bike. For most, the biggest obstacle is fear, but for others, it's a physical or developmental disability that can seem almost insurmountable.

The new Bike Now! camp, put on by Medford Children's Therapy and Jackson Care Connect, aims to teach anyone how to ride, no matter the disability.

Rebeccah Bieri is an occupational therapist at Medford Children's Therapy who has been cycling competitively for years. As a therapist, she helps people with physical or developmental disabilities become as independent as possible. Over the years she's realized how limiting it is for those patients who never learned how to ride a bike.

Bieri had heard of a Portland program called Bike First! that helps young people with disabilities such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy learn how to ride bikes. It's an offshoot of a California camp called Lose the Training Wheels. Bieri decided she wanted to try to bring a version of the camp to Southern Oregon.

"I thought, rather than going up to Portland for the camp, they could come here," Bieri said.

She approached her supervisor, clinical director Deirdre Nixon, in January about putting the camp together, which she called Bike Now! Over the next six months, Bieri said, the clinic staff worked to publicize the camp and raise funds, partnering with Jackson County Connect. Bieri also worked with the director of Bike First! to organize the setup, because these camps don't use just any bikes to teach their participants.

Lose the Training Wheels developed a step-by-step teaching approach using bikes of different sizes and styles called "the fleet."

The starter is an "outrigger bike," which has two training wheels that are mounted on a hydraulic system. The pneumatic apparatus allows the training wheels to stay on the ground on twists and turns for optimal balance. Once riders are comfortable on the outrigger, they move to a two-person tandem bike, where a volunteer controls the bike from the back seat. Participants then graduate to a two-wheeled standard bike with a long handle attached to the frame behind the seat. One volunteer holds the handle, and another runs beside the rider. The final step: two wheels, two hands and a single rider controlling the bike.

Although not everyone learns to ride and be comfortable on a bike in a week, Bieri said, "we just want the week to be positive, for them to have positive associations with the bike."

Each day from Monday to Friday this week, volunteers in bright orange "Bike Now!" shirts guided riders age 6 to 23 around the Phoenix High School gym. The camp cost $250, which Bieri hopes to bring down next year with $100 scholarships from Jackson County Connect for members. 

Walt Custer is a school bus driver in Napa, Calif., nine months out of the year, but during off months, he transports the fleet in a trailer to camps in Oregon, California and even Miami, Fla. A mechanic by trade, he helps out during the camps by adjusting the specialized bikes. He also scouts out local stores for bikes so he can recommend them for participants by the end of the week, no matter what skill level they reach.

"Different kids learn at different speeds," Custer said. "It just depends when that lightbulb goes off." He said the most important part is that participants stick with it after the camp ends.

Bieri plans to establish Bike Now! as an annual summer event. If by the end of the week, participants aren't riding on their own, she hopes they'll come back.

"Cycling has so many amazing layers to it. ... It's something that's going to stay in their minds for the rest of their lives, once they get to that goal," she said.

For more information on the camp, call Deirdre Nixon at 541-613-6505.

Reach reporting intern Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@mailtribune.com.

Volunteer Rachel Arkie helps Fiona Morris learn to ride a bike during the Bike Now! camp at Phoenix High School on Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch