By Christopher Smith
For Derek Kozlowski, 43, remembering a day he wasn’t on a bike is difficult. Using two wheels of rubber and a chain to get around, he said, is part of being a kid in America.
Or so it once was.
Nowadays, some kids never experience biking, Kozlowski said. In today’s world, “kids grow up fast,” and, thanks in part to the Internet, biking is bygone, he said.
Making sure a little bit of childhood survives the fast-paced modern world is one reason the Indiana native, who moved to Dalton in 2010, is prepping for an 3,000-mile ride across America, set for June 10, 2014.
Fundraising for the tour kicks off this week with a party on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The party, complete with live music, is set to be held at the Bear Creek Bicycle Co. at 1229 W. Walnut Ave. The event is free and open to the public.
Kozlowski’s 10-day trip goes from the coast of Oceanside, Calif., roughly 40 miles north of San Diego, to Annapolis, Md., three hours east of Washington, D.C. Kozlowski is hoping to raise awareness and $130,000 in support for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chattooga, Gordon, Murray and Whitfield counties.
The trip is arranged by the Race Across America organization that oversees routes and safety. The organization website (www.raceacrossamerica.org) names itself “the world’s toughest” ride.
Kozlowski won’t be getting much sleep in order to keep within the 10-day time frame and is expecting to ride at least 20 hours a day.
Is he scared?
“Not really,” he said.
He’s been doing extreme cycling for a few years, he said, including a 300-mile trek through the Georgia mountains. At least he has roads this time around, he said.
But the 3,000-miler has been known to break a few cyclists through sleep depravation, the Race Across America website warns. Most riders just give up when they hit their limit, the site stated, but two men in the history of the race have died since 1982.
Kozlowski, who works as an engineer during the day at Secoa Technology, said he sees prepping for the race on the weekends like a “second job.”
Jason Finnell, director of development for the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Shane Adams, owner of Bear Creek, will be part of a team following Kozlowski on the trip to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble along the way.
Finnell said the potential $130,000 he’s hoping Kozlowski can raise would be “amazing” for the organization.
The club offers biking lessons for kids and, in the last four years, has built a biking arena on 12 acres of land near their headquarters at 1013 Underwood St. Finnell said the training terrain has been growing for four years starting as “sort of a half NASCAR loop” and becoming a “perimeter trail with skill sections, teeter-tots, skinnies (planks to bike over) and stuff to teach kids how to ride bikes.”
“When kids get on bikes, their whole world expands,” Finnell said. “We have kids come in who are on ADHD medication, with a history of abuse that would just crush you. ... They plug into these bikes and it just becomes an outlet for them. A lot of responsibility can be gained from biking.”
Kozlowski said he’s very passionate about getting kids on bikes, especially lower-income teenagers “from the sort of urban-side of Dalton” struggling with grownup decisions like sex, drugs and alcohol that can leave them world-weary.
“You can’t get on a bike and not be a kid again,” Kozlowski said. “You can’t go down a hill and not be giggling.”
There’s one particular girl that inspires Kozlowski, he said: a member of the club he was teaching the basics of biking at the Raisin Woods mountain bike park. The girl, Kozlowski said, fell off her bike one day and cut up her knees.
Kozlowski asked the girl if she wanted to go back home, but she refused to stop, he said.
“She got back on and kept riding, with blood and tears,” he recalled. “She wanted to keep riding. The kids love it that much.”
Adams, who also teaches children in the club about biking, said the young riders become like “Lewis and Clark ... in the great west” when they’re taken to Raisin Woods. Adams and Finnell said they’d like to expand the mountain bike program as a result of the enthusiasm from local children.
“We’re rich in resources,” Adams said. “Look to the east, go to the north. In terms of topography, we have world-class mountains.”
Adams said the fundraising and awareness of Kozlowski’s extreme trip will help bring the “800-strong” members of the local biking community together to support kids who need an outlet.
“(His trip is) the string that pulls all this together,” he said. “This is a largely unnoticed, unknown program. With credit and accolades, we get more support. We’ve just got to get the push behind it.”