Cycling Santas: How 200 kids in need were gifted a two-wheel holiday surprise

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This is one of those rare inspirational stories that begins with a tweet. If you have spent any time in the space known as Bike Twitter, you know that most of what goes on there is playful smacktalk or sarcastic grousing or tribal communion. It’s not often that a sizeable act of philanthropic community is launched there.

But that’s exactly what happened in December. It started with a tweet and ended with scores of needy kids being gifted a new bike over the holidays. It started with a spontaneous pact between two people who never had met in real life and ended with dozens of people who believe in the power of bicycles chipping in to get the job done.

This story really started a couple of decades ago — I’ll get to that shortly — but this dramatic chapter opened on December 12. That afternoon, someone tweeted out a link to a story about Andrew Whitworth, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, who showed up at an elementary school in Watts, a historically embattled neighborhood of Los Angeles, and gave every child at the school a new bicycle. The story contained a video of kids in a state of shock and delirium. Some just stood still, profoundly stunned, while others stomped on the ground with indescribable glee. Two weeks before Christmas, these youngsters were gifted an iconic symbol of freedom, a shiny new bike.

These kind of stories can stir emotions on social media, but it did more than that for Hong Quan and Amanda Batty. Quan lives in the Bay Area and is the founder of Karmic Bikes, a start-up that designs and markets e-bikes. Batty is a professional downhill mountain biker (and firebrand writer) who recently relocated from Utah to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Both of them have large hearts and big mouths and decent sized followings on Twitter.

“Someday, I want to be able to do this,” Batty tweeted. “Like Oprah and her cars, but me and lots of bikes.”

Quan replied later that day. “Wanna play Bike Santa for us?” he responded. “You find the kids, we give them bikes.”

With a matter of hours, Quan and Batty sprinted across the divide from pining to planning. Both had deep feelings about the meaning of Christmas bikes that they never had discussed, so instead they talked about logistics. It was a week and a half before the holiday and there wasn’t really time for backstory.

It seemed like they were on the same page. Quan was going to buy the bikes and have them shipped to New Mexico, and Batty would find a good home for each of them. Knowing that the endeavor would cost her new partner real money and that she’d need to find worthy recipients in her new hometown and coordinate bike building and other logistics, Batty figured they could hook up a couple dozen kids.

“How many kids are you thinking about?” she asked Quan as they exchanged messages.

“I don’t know — how about 200?” he replied.

Batty laughs about it now, but she admits her heart skipped a beat. Maybe there was a quiet moment of panic. How the hell was she going to find a couple hundred kids in a matter of days, figure out sizing for each of them, and then manage the logistics to get all those bikes built and distributed? She didn’t know the answers to any of these questions. And she was new to Albuquerque. Still, her gut said to do it.

“Sure, that sounds good,” she replied to Quan.

And just like that, they were off to the races.

One happy secret Santa

Quan, a veteran of the tech industry, lives and works in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by affluence and possibility and privilege, but he came from a very different place. The life of an e-bike entrepreneur is full of financial challenges and frequent tests of willpower and sanity, but Quan appreciates how far he has traveled in life.

He grew up in tenement housing in New York City. He was a political refugee from Southeast Asia. “I certainly haven’t forgotten what it felt like to grow up poor,” Quan says. “And being a refugee is a different experience than being an immigrant. We didn’t come to America by choice, we had to go there because of a big-ass war in Vietnam.”

Quan’s family lacked the resources to buy Christmas presents, but every year he and his siblings would each get one present from a local church. “It was typically the only big gift I got each year, and I had no idea who gave it to me,” he recalls. “I guess that made an impression on me.”

As a young, poor Vietnamese refugee living in a Brooklyn tenement, Quan longed to be a normal American kid. It was a tough ask. That’s part of why he wanted a bicycle so badly. “I knew it represented fun and freedom, but I also was aware of how a bike could mark me as a regular kid. Especially if it wasn’t some banged-up, poorly sized hand-me-down.”

I can feel the emotions rattling in Quan’s voice as he describes his past. “Yeah, there’s no doubt the whole idea of Christmas bikes feels very personal for me,” he says, describing how he dipped his toes in the water a year ago, donating about a dozen Strider Bikes to needy kids. “I already had been thinking that I’d love to scale this up when I’m older and richer and more ready. I thought it’d be cool to somehow give away one kids’ bike for every e-bike Karmic sells. Well, we’re not yet in a position to give away that many bikes, and I’m certainly not rich yet, but I guess I realized I’m ready to do more.”

Quan sure as hell seemed ready. He called an acquaintance at Micargi, a company based on the eastern edge of Los Angeles that wholesales bikes to Walmart. “I remember the conversation I had,” he recalls. “I said ‘Hey Julie, can you help us out? We need 200 bikes next week.’”

When one poses such a question 10 days before Christmas the answer should not be taken for granted. But Julie said sure, and a few days later 202 bikes were sitting on pallets outside Micargi’s distribution center, ready for shipment.

Quan remembers the emotions — of satisfaction and renewal — when those bikes hit the road to Albuquerque. “I felt like one very happy secret Santa.”

A familiar understanding

Batty has a backstory, too — one, like Quan’s, that involves poverty and longing and the magic of bicycles. Her childhood unfurled in rural Utah with six siblings. “We were desperately poor,” Batty says. “My mom sewed our clothing and we struggled to grow our own food and my dad worked multiple jobs.”

To compound the challenges, Batty struggled with medical problems as a child and often was in the hospital. “So for a variety of reasons, getting and riding a bike wasn’t super realistic,” she says.

She fantasized about getting a bike that would be hers. “With so many siblings and so little money, nothing ever was mine,” he says. “In that situation, you don’t really own things as a kid — you just use them and then pass them on.”

That’s why what happened when she was four left such an impression on her. An uncle and her father took an old kid’s bike that someone else had outgrown and thoroughly overhauled it. They cleaned it and painted it and personalized it and then gave it to Batty. “It was the first thing I ever owned, the first thing that was mine,” she says. “I was so thrilled.”

Three years later, Batty learned an arguably bigger lesson. She had outgrown the bike and wasn’t exactly eager to give away her only prized possession. Her father told her that no one would force her to part with the bike. But eventually, she handed off the bike to a neighborhood kid. “I still remember how thrilled that girl was to get the bike,” she says. “That has stayed with me, how it felt great to get the bike and maybe even better to give it to someone else.”

Batty also felt a strong urge to give back to her newly adopted hometown. Soon after she moved to Albuquerque last fall, her car broke down, and riding around the city gave her a sense of the depth of need there. “It’s fucking heartbreaking,” she says. “I could ride around and see the huge reservation population, the vast numbers of people living below the World Health Organization’s global threshold for poverty. New Mexico is the land of forgotten people, there is so much need here.”

Deep hearts and wrenching skills

Tony Gradillas says that when the first text message came in, he didn’t even know who it was from. It was someone asking for immediate help connecting a couple hundred bikes with a couple hundred needy kids.

Within minutes, he figured out it was Batty — they knew each other, but she had recently changed her number — and within a few more minutes, he’d agreed to help.

Gradillas, a former shop owner and mechanic who knew Batty from North Valley Bike Park, a BMX skills facility in Albuquerque, has a deep network in the region’s bike community. And he tapped into it immediately.

To state the obvious, you need more than money and a couple of passionate leaders with topically heartrending stories and a few crates of boxed bikes to pull off a stunt like this. You need a village; a village with contacts and deep hearts and wrenching skills.

The most immediate challenge was finding needy kids to take all those bikes that were heading eastbound. That’s why Gradillas called Terence Eaton and Brandon Baca.

Eaton, who also knew Gradillas from the bike park, is a firefighter at Kirtland Air Force Base. He immediately started outreach to identify needy families on the base. “People have this perception of military brats, of kids who have everything taken care of, but there are a lot of families here that are really struggling,” says Eaton. “If someone dies in service and their spouse isn’t in the Armed Forces, the benefits for these single-parent families just aren’t enough. There are single moms on the base who have to start over and it’s rough.”

Baca, who calls Gradillas a “friend of a friend,” has made helping refugees his life’s work. The need is virtually infinite. It’s likely that right now more people worldwide are displaced by war and violence than at any previous moment in human history. Despite all the political rhetoric about the issue, relatively few refugees get resettled to affluent Western nations like the United States. But still, the needy trickle in. Baca, who coordinates the Refugee Well-Being Project out of the University of New Mexico, says that Albuquerque absorbs about 250 to 300 refugees a year.

He immediately got to work to identify about 110 kids who could best benefit from the gift of a bike. This required a fleet of interpreters — Baca was reaching out to families from Syria and Afghanistan and African countries such as Rwanda and South Sudan.

The needs in this community are staggering. Resettled families are given four months of support before they’re expected to be self-sufficient. They even need to reimburse the government for the airline flight that brought them to America. Kids who don’t speak English, or the proper way to hold a pencil, are suddenly sitting in an algebra class while their parents race to find employment in a strange land. Baca said most of these children don’t have bikes, but some ride beaters to school.

“Many of these kids have never experienced anything but instability and extreme poverty,” says Baca. “Most of them have never been given anything of value in their whole lives.”

Baca and Eaton worked their networks. It was easy to find need but far more challenging to chase the specifics they needed. It was only a week before Christmas.

Still, less than 48 hours after Batty first texted Gradillas to ask if he could help find kids who needed bikes, he got back in touch with the pro racer. He had a list complete with more than 200 names.

It is not possible to describe the efforts of everyone who helped get so many bikes in the hands of so many kids. People who donated time at a busy time of year to lift someone else’s spirit. People who did little things to make a big thing happen.

But recounting the contributions of a few of these volunteers offers a window into what went down. Take Eaton, the Air Force firefighter, who arranged to take delivery of all those containers and find a place to safely store them. He convinced the transportation department on the base and local National Guard to lend a hand with a forklift and physical labor. He found 35 of the neediest families on the base to help. He built bikes and helped find way more people to build bikes.

Gordon Phillips got involved, too. He’s a retired military officer who went to mechanic school and now leads a non-profit that does bike repairs for homeless people in Albuquerque. He called up the manager of the local Trek Store and assembled a crew of eight guys, most of them retired mechanics in their fifties and sixties, and got to work building bikes. The Trek Store gave them space in the sprawling basement and stands, and in the span of a few days the crew built about 100 bikes.

“We could have built them faster, but we took the time to put slime in every tire,” says Phillips. “There are tons of goatheads around here and we didn’t want the kids to wind up with flat tires on their first ride.”

When describing the scene in the Trek Store basement, with a bunch of older guys working long days to wrench bikes right around Christmas, Phillips is effusively positive, noting how people brought their dogs to hang out and how Batty kept coming by with pizza and beer. “Bicycle people like nothing more than introducing other people to riding, especially kids,” he says. “We’re all people who ride relatively expensive bikes but want to give back. Especially around Christmas, it’s nice to get stuff, but even better to give stuff.”

Gradillas says that all told, about 22 people helped build the bikes. Another local shop, Bikeworks, built 30 or 40 bikes and mechanics and riders with the JAM Fund pro cyclocross team, which happened to be in the area that week, built another 15 or 20 bikes. Gradillas has a buddy who works for UPS, and the company donated three trucks, two drivers, and a manager to transport bikes from the base to shops and back to the base — as if UPS didn’t have a lot going on around the holidays.

Although everyone on the ground in Albuquerque is quick to give credit to Batty for her organizational and motivational skills and her raw energy, it’s also clear that others took the ball and ran with it. “I honestly tried to be on the periphery, to challenge people to make a difference and then be a kind of middleman,” she says. “It was incredible to watch how this community rallied.”

Quan paraphrases Harry Truman in his assessment of how this small army handled all the logistics to place and build more than 200 bikes in a matter of days: “It’s amazing what people can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Amanda Batty (center): “I hope I changed some kids’ lives, but I know it changed my life.”

‘The best and most important thing I’d ever done’

Due to a snafu with the one element that Quan and Batty and their minions could not control — the shipment of the boxed merchandise from California to New Mexico — the bikes could not be built and distributed before Christmas. (Quan is relatively tranquil recalling the futility of the expedite fee he paid on the shipment. Dealing with shipping headaches is part of the human condition for those in the bike business.)

But within a week, 210 bikes had been given away (Batty acquired eight additional bikes to accommodate some taller-than-expected kids with the help of Bike Twitter), and the scene at these exchanges suggests that a slight delay did not diminish the impact of the gesture. In the span of a few days, Batty was present as shiny new bikes were given to children whose families had fled conflict in Syria and South Sudan. She saw kids from struggling military families get new bikes, too.

Batty chokes up describing the emotional scene at the base as 120 bikes were given away one day. Some kids just displayed outright glee. Others had to be convinced that they wouldn’t have to share their bike with siblings or other children. One child nervously asked if he could exchange his blue bike for a red one and then stood there in disbelief when his request was honored. Kids were laughing and crying and hugging their mothers as they had had experiences for the first time that most of us take for granted.

And then there were just kids riding bikes. Children pedaled awkward circles around a soccer field and lobbied to have training wheels removed and otherwise began to discover the wonder of bicycles. “I watched those kids cruise around the soccer field and I just couldn’t stop crying,” says Batty. “It just felt like the best and most important thing I’d ever done.”

Other volunteers who were present at these giveaways were similarly moved. “I helped this single mom who just had no way to get three bikes for each of her children back to the house,” Eaton says. “I don’t think I’ll forget the look on her face and her daughter’s face as the three-year-old girl pedaled around on her training wheels. Incredible.”

Gradillas couldn’t help but notice the way so many of the African families reacted to the new bikes. “It just seemed obvious that even the kids see bikes as more of a tool than a toy,” he says, though noting that some of the young recipients were attempting jumps within minutes. “Some of the parents asked if there was any chance they could get a bike, too.”

And Baca, the refugee advocate, was struck by the symbolism of the gift to children in that population. “I was happy to see kids acting excited, but I was even happier to seeing kids get a chance to act normal,” he says. “These kids really do dream to have some of the same things and experiences as their peers and this gave them a chance to do that.”

‘It changed my life’

A month has passed, and though Batty and Quan are back to their normal routines, something has changed. I talk to them on the phone about it, the first time they’ve actually spoken to each other on a call. Both of them have faced recent stresses in their personal lives, and this collaborative project clearly means a lot to both of them.

We talk about social media — after Quan says he spends hours hanging out on Bike Twitter and Tech Twitter, Batty jokes that she splits her time between Bike Twitter and Rabid Feminist Twitter — and the platform can allow real friendship and genuine positive acts to blossom.

Both of them insist that this project is more the start of a cause than the product of one. “I’m pretty sure that everyone who got involved in this project got more out of it than they put into it,” Quan says.

He talks about his business, selling e-bikes and reintroducing adults to the joyful sensations of riding a bike, and how this act of charity aligns with his business motivations. “I’m definitely thinking about wanting to sell more bikes so I can give away more bikes.”

Batty is likewise inspired to continue this kind of work. “I hope I changed some kids’ lives, but I know it changed my life,” she says. “And there’s more to do.”

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