Biking beyond borders with Eric Melson

Biking beyond borders with Eric Melson

Words by Eric Melson

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done…? Maybe, because you’re reading this on the Rocky Mountain blog, your mind is primed to think about the most challenging thing you’ve accomplished on your bike. Big rock slab? Gnarly tech section? Massive gap jump?

But what I’m asking is, what is the hardest thing you’ve ever lived through? For me, losing a dream job weeks before the world shut down due to COVID was brutal and sent me into a professional tailspin I’m still trying to navigate.

For others (far too many people, I might add), having to flee their home, their community, and their entire country because of some kind of external brutality - having to literally start over with nothing - has got to be one of the hardest things in human history. Refugees, trying to stay alive and protect what they have (possessions, children, careers), deal with this every single day without much thought from people like me, who are secure in their basic needs and lifestyles.

I had the fortune of bikepacking across northern Ethiopia a few years ago with one of my closest friends, Campbell. The experience changed something inside me forever. We rode our bikes, loaded with Bluetooth speakers, freeze-dried gourmet backpacking meals and tech clothing, directly through a Sudanese refugee camp, and it tore me to pieces. After that, I knew I wanted to do something, anything, to show kindness and compassion for people who are navigating their worst nightmares.

Here in Missoula, there is an amazing little group called Soft Landings - a community-based non-profit committed to working with refugee and immigrant families as they build new lives here in Montana—honourable work done by selfless people who put others before themselves.

It just so happened that the Rocky demo van was passing through Missoula last spring, and an exciting opportunity emerged. If we could get a group of refugees on mountain bikes for their first time, and provide a safe, fun, and supportive experience, maybe, just maybe, it will brighten their day, put a smile on their faces, and they’ll get to experience something they never thought possible.

A plan was made.

Soft Landing would spread the word about a free bike ride within their refugee community. Rocky would supply the bikes, a local cycling program would provide the helmets, and myself, Campbell and two of my youth development racers would teach and support the participants on their first-ever mountain bike ride.

Fast Forward through all the logistics and planning, and here we are, meeting in the parking lot at Pattee Canyon. Kipp from Rocky was unloading and prepping some beautiful new Rocky demo bikes, Hutch and Joey marked the route with bright orange flagging, and Campbell and I welcomed the group of refugee kiddos who were buzzing to shred (and eat watermelon).

After a quick lesson about the essentials of bike riding, we broke up into groups with ride leaders, and each took turns pedalling around the short .5-mile loop. You could hear the laughs across the entire area - screams, giggles, and so much positive energy rolled into one orchestra of pure joy. It was amazing.

The group I took was entirely middle-school-aged young women, mainly from Syria and the Middle East. I would summarize the first lap we did with the word “trepidation.” A few slow-speed tip-overs, a little hike-a-bike (even on flat ground) here and there, but we were building confidence with every pedal stroke. I would summarize the second lap with the word “grit.” These girls were determined to succeed - traits likely developed by having to roll with life’s punches and push through every barrier to get where they are now, in Missoula, away from civil war.

I handed off my girls to Campbell and took a few minutes to just marvel at what we had created - a safe space for learning, laughter, connection, and just purely having fun on bikes. Goal accomplished.

As I surveyed the scene and tried to capture some photos of the day, out of the corner of my eye came a blur of a figure absolutely hauling the mail across the parking lot and then onto the trail. “Oh yea, he seems to be taking to the e-bike well.” I lost it. I laughed so hard at how confident and just plain fast this kid was going - his first time riding a bicycle, ever!

I think about that day often. The young men and women who got to ride a Rocky Mountain for their first bike ride ever, just having a ball with their friends, not thinking about their past but being perfectly present in the moment. I think about what hardships I will endure in the future - that we all as humans must endure - and I hope to tap into my experience with those kids when I face those challenges and think to myself, if they can do it, so can I.

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