When he was 14, Matt Crane found purpose with a mountain bike he got for his birthday. By 18, he was on the U.S. National Cycling Team, and at 21, he was a professional.
After he left the sport, his connections led him to steer the youth outreach efforts of the Richmond Cycling Corps.
The nonprofit’s cycling team is an entry point to give youth in Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods access to employment education, tutoring and counseling. It focuses on 15 participants at a time, who train at a facility the group built outside of Armstrong High School in Fairfield Court.
It’s an expensive sport. So the athletes, who compete in Virginia’s spring and fall school mountain biking leagues, face rivals from a different world.
“Almost every kid we’re competing against goes to a boarding school or private school,” Crane says. “We’re actually the only public school team in the state.”
Not only that, it’s ranked third in Virginia and has produced two state champions.
When Richmond was host to the UCI Road World Championships in 2015, it was a meeting of two halves of Crane’s life. The cycling corps students were front-and-center, leading Team USA to the podium during the opening ceremony on Brown’s Island.
That’s the type of experience that Crane hopes can change a child and maybe even the program itself. The organization has a goal to bring one of its participants into a leadership role by 2020.
“If I can do this,” he says, “I’m pretty sure a young guy from Fairfield Court who helped with the foundation of the program can turn around and be 10 times more effective.”
But he acknowledges that Richmond’s poverty is larger than a youth cycling program could ever solve.
“The fact that 97 percent of young people attending Richmond public schools are on free or reduced lunch tells you everything you need to know about the segregation that’s occurred here along socio-economic lines,” Crane says. “I think it’s going to take some really brave people to break that mold and reintegrate the schools.”
Until then, Crane says, the cycling corps will be there. “My job is to tell the story of the kids that I work with, people that are marginalized,” he says. “We’re just trying to tell some truth.”