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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Still the best Christmas gift ever

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At the risk of committing the unpardonable sin of old-fogeyism, I refuse to believe, even in this digital age, there is anything superior to a bicycle by the tree Christmas morning. Nope, not even if you stack a PlayStation 4 Battlefield 4 Launch Day Bundle on top of an Xbox One and throw in a whole fleet of virtual cars driven by time-traveling virtual zombies.

But wait. It turns out you needn’t have been born when Howdy Doody and Davy Crockett were battling for pop culture supremacy to embrace an identical point of view. You can, in fact, have grown up in a world populated by Transformers, Voltron and Inspector Gadget and still maintain a perfectly baby boomer regard for the wonders of two-wheelers at yuletide.

So declares Drew Weatherford, who, though we have known him for what seems like forever, won’t turn 30 for another two years. In other words, we’ve lassoed the pivotal youth cohort.

As a quarterback of some renown at Land O’ Lakes High School and Florida State University, it goes without saying Weatherford almost certainly has played him some Madden NFL over the years, and maybe even some Mario Kart and Assassin’s Creed. But ask him what he’d do if he could work his will, and it would be to make sure every youngster woke up Christmas morning to “a nice, new, shiny bicycle.”

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There’s a lot of stuff going on with a bike, after all. It simultaneously expands your frontiers and shrinks your neighborhood. It teaches you balance and courage and courtesy and mechanics. For many of us, a multi-gear bicycle provides our first practical observation of what happens inside a car’s transmission cowling, and why Dad thinks it’s often a good idea, even with an automatic, to downshift when he’s driving up a mountain.

And, really, we’re just getting started.

“For a lot of kids, it’s their first sense of owning real property of value,” Weatherford says, “so they have to maintain it. A bicycle brings freedom and an incentive to get outside to go have adventures. But personal responsibility is there, too. You want to keep going, you have to look after your bike.”

Because there’s more to spreading bike wealth than wishing and waving a magic air pump — even if your big brother is Florida’s second-most-influential elected official — Weatherford has been, these past three years, the field general for Onbikes, an organization of friends devoted to putting handlebars into the hands of as many underprivileged kids as possible.

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The fundraising centerpiece, the aptly named Winter Wonder Ride held on the second Saturday in December, is an annual six-mile loop that begins and ends at Hyde Park Village, but otherwise travels along Bayshore Boulevard. More than 400 riders — some dressed in costumes; some pedaling tandem bikes; some dressed in costumes and peddling tandem bikes — participated this year (paying $40-$50 entry fees), a record.

“I think we’re growing because people remember, whether they’re 25, 45, 65 or 85, what it was like the first time they got a bike for Christmas,” Weatherford says. “It’s the kind of memory that resonates.”

In 2012, organizers passed out 150 bicycles in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties; this year, having achieved the group’s target of doubling last year’s distribution, they’re giving away more than 100 in Pasco alone and expanded to four counties. Responding to a need identified by Spring Hill home builder Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, Onbikes steered 50 bicycles to Hernando County.

In Pasco, recipients were identified by, among others, the school district and the Lacoochee Boys & Girls Club.

Onbikes has given bikes directly to children at pre-Christmas events. Weatherford says the group is looking for a corporate partner to help arrange future distributions that put bikes in the hands of a parent who would complete the transaction (and, ideally, garner the credit) Christmas morning. “It would be great to make the parents the heroes,” Weatherford says. “We’d like to fade into the background.”

Sounds like a job for Toys for Tots.

In the meantime, motorists should keep a special eye out these next several weeks as newbie cyclists get acquainted with their newfound freedom. Kids on shiny new wheels are going to be having adventures out there.

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