WRITER | Kim Kytinen
PHOTO | Norte Youth Cycling

Building Community:  Norte Youth Cycling

Imagine the whoosh of wind rushing past your body, the warmth of the summer sun toasting your skin and the unparalleled exhilaration of pedaling on two wheels down hills and around curves. The adventures and freedom of a self-propelled excursion are good for mind, body and spirit. These important life skills are learned through sweat, joy and perseverance. 

Learning to ride a bike is a childhood rite of passage and Norte Youth Cycling wants to make sure more kids have this experience of a lifetime. Located in Traverse City, where cycling is a four-season sport, Norte focuses on promoting community engagement, connection and health through youth bike programs and initiatives made possible by donors and administered by dedicated volunteers. The goals of the organization center around leadership, active transportation, accessibility, empowerment and advocacy.

“Our vision is simple — happy, healthy, strong communities,” Jill Sill, executive director at Norte since 2016, says. Our programs are intentionally designed to help build connections with others and confidence within. Vibrant communities have places and programs that empower, inspire and connect people and are accessible to all regardless of age, ability or socioeconomic class.”

Norte approaches its mission through youth classes, camps, programs and other initiatives like Bikes for All, Balance Bike Club, Adventure Bike Club, Mountain Bike Club, Summer Bike Camp, Norte Race Team and a Girls on Bikes initiative. According to Jill, a focus on nurturing happy, healthy and strong individuals and communities is woven into all programs.

“Although I don’t have a favorite Norte program, I am particularly fond of our Balance Bike Club,” she says. “I know little bodies need to move and that developing healthy habits at an early age has great lifelong potential. Balance Bike Club provides a welcoming opportunity for 2- to 5-year-olds to experience the joys of learning to ride. We are leaning into the way our hearts swell when a child brushes off their hands and gets back on a bike after falling or yells with pride after balancing for the first time.”

Each year, Norte hosts the National Cherry Festival Balance Bike Race at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center. Last year, 157 children on balance bikes were cheered on as they navigated a course lined with pinwheels and balloons. And for those who don’t have a bike to participate in the race or any other program, Norte’s motto is “No bike, no problem!”

The Norte Bike Library was designed to be simple and accessible. Thanks to McLain Cycle & Fitness and other local bike shops, there are now more than 700 bicycles ready to be borrowed, just like a book. Each bike receives a tune-up from chief bike mechanic Tyler Wituszynski and well-trained Norte volunteers. Last year, Norte partnered with local libraries that now offer Norte bikes for checkout.

“We know that having a bike is not a given for many children and that not having one might mean a child never learns to ride or enjoy the independence and adventure bikes can provide,” Jill says. “We are focused on increasing accessibility to our programs and their impact by identifying and removing barriers to participation.”

The Mountain Bike Program offers the perfect opportunity for kids in elementary through high school to experience the great trails the Traverse City area has available. They are able to reach even more kids through their fully licensed Summer Bike Camps that offer day-long adventures to build confidence and community. Scholarships are available for eligible families.

“At Norte Youth Cycling we champion bikes and community,” Jill says. “Along with many other community organizations, we each have a role to play in creating community. Like spokes on a wheel, we each contribute to the strength, resilience and adventures that lie ahead.”

The Norte Wheelhouse is located in the Grand Traverse County Civic Center and has set open hours for visitors during the summer season but is open by appointment only from October through March. Contact the Wheelhouse for more information on Norte’s programs or how to get involved.

Norte Youth Cycling