It’s an overcast Saturday morning in July, and a brief summer squall has just blown through the neighborhood, slicking the pavement and leaving puddles throughout the parking lot of the Powder House Community School. It hasn’t, however, dampened the spirits of Susan McLucas, who is clapping, jumping and cheering on a group of first-time cyclists as they roll across the lot’s gentle slope.
“Don’t look down—look forward.”
“Stay calm and collected.”
Cycling may be a healthy, planet-conscious and convenient way to get around town, but for those who didn’t learn to ride as kids, it can be tough to figure out where to start. For more than 25 years, McLucas, “The Bicycle Whisperer,” as her business card identifies her, has been teaching these cycling hopefuls how to get around on two wheels.
“People who don’t ride bikes feel so terrible about it,” she says. “They think they’re not quite complete, and some of them make up stories … they don’t admit that they don’t know how.”
McLucas was working as a bike mechanic when a few friends approached her to ask if she could teach them how to ride. “I thought, ‘Well, if I know two people in my own circle of friends who don’t know how to ride, there might be others.’” She put up a small flyer at the Broadway Bicycle School in Cambridge, where she says the other mechanics thought the idea was a little silly—after all, wouldn’t everyone coming in to buy parts or learn to fix their bike already be an experienced cyclist? With that one four-by-six card on a single bike shop bulletin board, McLucas was able to connect with 12 aspiring adult riders in her first year.
At the Powder House School, McLucas’s students first suit up with the requisite safety gear: knee pads, elbow pads, helmet. She pops the pedals off of each bike, and the soon-to-be cyclists line up at the top of the parking lot’s small hill. Once a student can conquer the slope without teetering, the pedals go back on. From there, they’re quite literally on a roll.
Some students take longer to catch on than others, but nearly everyone pedals away from McLucas’s riding school a success. She estimates that she’s taught about 3,000 people to ride, some of whom have travelled from Texas, Vancouver and as far away as Brazil after finding her online, and she says she’s only had six pupils who couldn’t quite grasp it.
McLucas has done some traveling herself—since 1997, she’s gone to Mali 12 times with an organization working to end female genital mutilation in the country. Through songs, videos and events, she and her fellow activists have been a force in rallying more than 1,400 villages in the region to stop the practice.
No matter where she is, McLucas makes a lasting impact on the lives of the people she works with. Here in Somerville and throughout Greater Boston former students often cycle past her, and they almost always stop to say hello. She’s all smiles when she discusses the lasting impact that learning to ride a bike can have—not just on an individual, but on their community and on the world.
“It’s not just the saving of gas, it’s the empowerment and the fun and the health and less pollution,” McLucas says. “There are so many good things about it, but the empowerment is the thing that’s the most exciting.”