Gearing Up cycling program puts Philadelphia women on new paths

Gearing Up is a nonprofit that uses cycling programs to work with women in transition from abuse, addiction or incarceration. | Photo via gearing-up.orgFor many Philadelphians a bike is a functional tool, a way to get from point A to point B, a staple of their daily commute. But at Gearing Up, a Philadelphia nonprofit that works with women in transition from abuse, addiction or incarceration, a bike is much more than that. For many of the women in Gearing Up’s programs, a bike is their path to a new life – one that’s physically, socially and emotionally healthy.

“The goal is to put the tools in the hands of the woman so that when she transitions, she has the tools with her as she moves on to the next phase of her life,” says Kristin Gavin, Gearing Up’s director and founder. In addition to running a spinning class at the Riverside Correctional Facility, Gearing Up works with several recovery programs in Philadelphia to help women use regular cycling as a way to support their efforts to remain drug and alcohol free, as well as integrate back into a social structure and deal with weight gain that often accompanies incarceration. 

Gavin developed the idea for Gearing Up while she working on a master’s in exercise and sports psychology at Temple University. An avid cyclist, she wanted to look at the ways that physical activity can affect anxiety and depression. What began as a class project was eventually launched in 2009 as Gearing Up. 

Women in recovery begin the process by committing to a certain number of group rides per week led by trained Gearing Up staff. Each woman is expected to follow up on her commitment and receives incentives, such as a water bottle, jersey and shorts, for mileage milestones. At 100 miles, a woman can earn her own bike once she has completed bicycle maintenance and safety training.

The experience can be transformative. For women who have been incarcerated, the bicycle offers a freedom that some haven’t experienced in years. Others find the social support of the group rides extremely empowering. A couple of the program’s graduates have even gone on to find employment at Wash Cycle Laundry, a Philadelphia-based bicycle-powered laundry service.

This year, Gearing Up plans to launch programs with two new partners and enable 36 women to earn a bike. “I believed and still believe so much in the value of what we do,” says Gavin. “We have seen some incredibly life-changing experiences in women.”

To learn more about Gearing Up, including how to volunteer, visit gearing-up.org This spring, Braking Cycles, a film that profiles the work of Gearing Up, will be screening in Philadelphia. More details to come shortly. In the meantime, you can view the trailer here.

SAMANTHA WITTCHEN is principal and co-founder of iSpring (ispringassociates.com), a sustainability firm in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley.