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Ride of his life

Cycling coach takes his team for a spin with unusual approach
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Cycling students of all ages practice three to four days a week at the Alpenrose Velodrome in Southwest Portland, under the supervision of colorful cycling coach John Benenate.

Without warning, John Benenate breaks out a blues harmonica. The notes (which aren't too shabby, either,) blast across the Alpenrose Velodrome in Southwest Portland, just as the cycling coach's enthusiastic voice had only moments before.

His athletes can't help but smile; some even let go of their handlebars, raise their hands in the air and dance and clap as they round the track. It's a typical practice with their not-so-typical coach.

'If anybody comes up to me and says, 'Will you make me a bike racer?' I say, 'It's on, I'm into it,' ' says Benenate, 45, a former bicycle racer, bicycle messenger and U.S. Air Force avionics technician who grew up in the Northwest and lives in Southeast Portland.

While his focus has been on disadvantaged youth since 1992, when a freak accident left him a paraplegic, Benenate jokes that he's always been a coach; at the age of four he rounded up neighborhood kids two and three times his age to build a tree fort in his yard. As a student at the former Columbia High School in East Portland, he helped overweight peers get in shape.

In a city that prides itself on its world-class cycling culture, Benenate is pulling for those who have been left out of the sport, specifically women and minorities, and is using cycling as a catalyst for reaching at-risk youth.

An athlete himself, Benenate was racing with Portland State University and working as a bicycle messenger in 1992 when he fell off a balcony and broke his back. Today, Benenate gets around by wheelchair. He can never ride a bike again, but he hasn't let that stop him from becoming one of the biggest names in Portland's youth cycling scene.

Benenate says coaching from 'a place of weakness' as a paraplegic has deepened his understanding of his athletes.

'On race day, you're at least going to wake up feeling weak,' he says. 'If we come up with strategies that help facilitate victory when we are weak, we're really ready to win when we're strong.'

His program, Bicycles and Ideas for Kids' Empowerment, meets three to four days a week and has 35 male and female cyclists, ranging in age from five to 67. They compete under the name Cyclisme Racing Programs.

In 1992, Benenate says, young white men who could afford a bike, gear and practice time at a serious racing facility dominated the cycling scene, leaving youth, the elderly, minority groups and women at a disadvantage.

Benenate says that his injury helped him to see how many faces were missing from the 'cost-prohibitive' sport. 'When you're down here… you are on the outside,' Benenate says of life in a wheelchair.

Shortly after his injury, Benenate and longtime friend Tim Bergmann, a Southwest Portland graphic designer, developed a program to bring fresh faces into cycling. 'Bicycles and Ideas for Kids' Empowerment' (b.i.k.e.) was born.

Eighteen years later, Benenate estimates that more than 800 athletes have pedaled through his program. Some have even gone pro and are racing for national and regional teams.

Through the program, athletes can compete, rent bikes, use the Alpenrose Velodrome and receive coaching and often meals for about $5 a practice.

Core of the team

Benenate sees his athletes as a proud father might see them. He eagerly recalls their best stats, sometimes better than they do, and he works with each athlete at his or her level, beginner to professional.

'Some kids barely know how to ride their bikes, but they know they're a part of something,' he says.

In 2001, Bicycles and Ideas for Kids' Empowerment was awarded a $100,000 grant on the Oprah Winfrey Show as part of the Oprah's Angel Network program. Benenate even went on the show and met Winfrey. But he was most enthusiastic about the opportunity to showcase his athletes on national television.

Co-founder Bergmann, who was Benenate's team captain at PSU before his injury, says the nonprofit is focused on cycling, but is really all about developing and educating young people. Many kids come to the program from troubled backgrounds, he says, and many leave the program to go to college or pursue a higher level of competitive cycling.

Some people might be surprised to see a cycling coach in a wheelchair, but Bergmann says, 'John's personality is the core of the team.'

And Benenate's personality and purpose are working. At last Saturday's Oregon Bicycle Racing Association Junior and Team Track Championships, five of the nine women who competed in the Women Team Pursuit portion were wearing Cyclisme jerseys.

One of these women is Catherine Cooper, 38, a single mother of two who began racing with Benenate last November. Cooper, who lives in Southeast Portland, had enjoyed biking but hadn't been able to convince friends to join her on long rides. Now she rolls with an entire team, and she estimates her longest ride with Cyclisme has taken her from Portland to Multnomah Falls and back, about 80 miles.

Cooper says Benenate's coaching has challenged her to improve. 'He definitely pushes, and sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it, but it all ends up for the best in the end,' she says.

A little troublemaker

Naiqwan Pellman is another example of the program's success. As a black youth, Pellman, 14, is one of the faces Benenate wants to bring into cycling. Before Pellman began racing for Cyclisme two years ago, he didn't even know bike racing was a sport, he says. Now, he's a state-ranked junior cyclist.

'Before all this, I used to be a little troublemaker,' says Pellman. He was involved with 'the wrong crowd' as well as theft and vandalism. But bike racing has given him a new focus.

'When I started doing this sport it put me in my own zone and made me see more of what I wanted in life,' says Pellman, who will be a freshman at Jefferson High School this fall. He says Benenate has been a valuable teacher and advocate both on and off the track. 'He's like a father to me,' he says.

Benenate says he can relate to kids like Pellman. Looking back on his own experience growing up on welfare in a broken family, Benenate says, 'I had a great childhood, I guess… it set me up for all of this.'

Benenate says his program has already been duplicated in Syracuse, N.Y., and he hopes to take it to 10 cities throughout the country.

Benenate continues to seek out the faces missing from cycling.

'My favorite person who hasn't walked up to me, but the person I want the most, is an 84-year-old, overweight African American lady, a church lady… you know, a big singer in the choir. I want to make her fast,' Benenate says, grinning. 'Next thing you know, that whole church is fast!'