00:00 AM

Gear Up Academy Brings the Rush of Cycling to Allentown Youth

Cheryl Fairweather is a woman of action. It’s how she went from foster child to high-school track-and-field star, from college graduate to world-class cyclist. “I’m a story of giving something a shot, going for it and seeing what happens,” she says.

Now Fairweather is instilling that same attitude in our area’s youth. She’s one of the pro cyclists who volunteers her time to host Gear Up Academy. It’s a free 12-week program – presented by the Valley Preferred Cycling Center (VPCC) and Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) – that promotes healthy lifestyles through cycling to inner city Allentown youth.

At each class, children ages 12 to 17 spend one hour on spin bikes at LVHN Fitness–One City Center. The children represent various community groups, including Community Bike Works, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and the Boys & Girls Club of Allentown. Class size is purposely kept small, with a maximum of six children per class participating.

A personal connection

While cycling brings Fairweather and her students together, their discussions go far beyond fitness and athletics. “It’s personal,” she says. “I know the children on a first-name basis. You have to challenge them, encourage them. We talk about how they’re doing in school, about eating properly, about the importance of hydration.

“It’s more than just a workout on a bike, which is something most of these kids wouldn’t get the chance to do otherwise. We spend time every week talking about staying positive and motivated in what they’re doing in their lives. They really seem to enjoy it.”

At times, they even talk about pop culture. Take this discussion from the start of a recent Tuesday night class:

“What do you guys want to hear today?” Fairweather asks her class.

“Anything but Justin Bieber,” the kids say in unison.

A chance to give back

Gear Up Academy fits the mission of both LVHN (to heal, comfort and care for our community) and the VPCC, which has conducted youth programs for about 28,000 children since it first opened in 1975.

“Many children from the inner city haven’t had the opportunity to make it out to our center to take advantage of our programs,” says Marty Nothstein, the VPCC’s executive director. “Now, our partnership with LVHN allows us to bring cycling directly to kids in center city Allentown. Nothstein, a Lehigh Valley native and gold medal cyclist at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, also volunteers his time as a Gear Up Academy coach.

Developing the next gold medalist

Through Community Bike Works, Fairweather’s students will get the chance to see their coach compete at this Friday night’s (June 3) UCI U.S. Sprint Grand Prix as the VPCC opens its season with a World Series of Cycling event. A plan is in the works to celebrate all Gear Up Academy students at the velodrome later in the summer.

“Ideally, we’d like to be able to develop an Olympic medalist out of our Gear Up Academy program,” Nothstein says. “That’s our ultimate goal with every program. But mostly we’re trying to help some great kids get in better shape and make healthier choices going forward.”