Traverse City News and Events

First Biking To School. Now Holland, Ludington, And Beyond

By Craig Manning | April 20, 2021

Fresh off a major growth year, Norte – Traverse City’s youth cycling and pro-bike advocacy organization – is launching a new initiative to help other Michigan communities grow or establish similar programming. So far, Norte has collaborated with a group in Holland to expand youth cycling in that area, and is in talks with community members in Bellaire, Ludington, Elk Rapids, and elsewhere to offer similar consulting services.

Though it was officially organized as a nonprofit in 2013, Norte’s roots reach back further than that, to 2006. That year, the organization’s eventual co-founders – husband-and-wife team Ty and Joanna Schmidt – moved to Traverse City from Tucson and enrolled their oldest son at a local elementary school. Struck by the long line of cars that queued outside the school building every morning, the Schmidts started escorting their son to school on bikes. Soon, neighborhood kids were joining the Schmidt family on their daily rides to school, with “bike trains” of a dozen-plus kids regularly involved. Eventually, the school’s teachers and principal got onboard, and biking to school became popular for many students.

Norte has grown in the years since, moving beyond simple bike-to-school trains to building youth cycling summer camps, a community bike library, the largest youth mountain bike team in the state, and advocacy efforts aimed at making Traverse City more bike-friendly. Despite the pandemic, Executive Director Ty Schmidt says 2020 actually proved to be its biggest year yet.

“We had our biggest number of kids reached, ever as an organization, in 2020,” Schmidt says, crediting the success to “good decisions and contingency plans” made early in the COVID-19 lockdown. “It was all about getting groups of kids outside, distanced, exploring their town, making new friends, learning new skills. We were one of the very few camps that operated last summer, and we had 650 kids go through [that program], which was doubled from 2019.”

Nationwide, COVID-19 caused spikes in interest for all types outdoor recreation activities, cycling included. According to research firm the NPD Group, adult leisure bike sales last spring were up 121 percent year-over-year, while kids bike sales increased 59 percent. The extra interest hit locally, as Norte navigated a big summer, lent out 69 bikes to 56 different families through its Traverse City and Elk Rapids bike libraries, and tallied 277 participants for its fall youth mountain bike team. Things aren’t slowing down in 2021, either: Schmidt says Norte has “300 kids across six counties signed up for the spring mountain bike team, with another 200 on the waitlist.”

Those big numbers locally, combined with what Schmidt calls “some luxury of time” during the pandemic, prompted Norte to launch its new consulting program.

“For whatever reason, we would get so many calls over the years about, ‘How can we start something like Norte in our town?’” Schmidt tells The Ticker. “I don’t know if people were finding us on Google or what, but we never really pursued it. Then, during the pandemic, people kept calling and asking about this, and I thought, well, one of Norte’s goals is to become more self-sustaining: less reliant on grants or donations; more of an organization that can generate some earned income to support its mission. So, we said, ‘Well, I think we’re in a position now where we’ve learned enough [to share our knowledge].’ And I don’t see it as just a financial reason; I really do think that [consulting] helps broaden Norte’s impact across the state, not just here in northern Michigan.”

So far, Schmidt says inquiries have hit all over the board, from towns seeking to replicate Norte’s kids-on-bikes programming to towns that want to mimic the organization’s community services side – whether that means starting a bike library or launching advocacy programs to promote more bikeable towns.

“We worked with Jenny White in Holland, Michigan, and helped them launch a summer bike camp for their kids of Holland, as well as to grow their youth mountain bike team,” Schmidt says. “I just got off the phone with a PE teacher out of Ludington and a PE teacher out of Bellaire Public Schools. We're working with some citizens currently in Elk Rapids, to get an advocacy program going. So, there are ways for us to help ordinary people make their communities better, and I just find that very exciting.”

Jenny White runs Velo Kids in Holland, a program similar to Norte with a mission “to get all kids on bikes” and to “promote and cultivate healthy, active, outdoor lifestyles while teaching bike skills, safety, and stewardship.” White tells The Ticker she’s “always admired the work of Norte,” calling the organization’s impact on kids and families in northern Michigan “inspiring and contagious.” Eventually, that admiration led to a partnership.

“We started Velo Kids as a tiny group back in 2017, and as the community quickly grew, we knew it would be good to find an organization like Norte to bounce ideas off of,” White says. “Ty has been such a help as we have expanded our programming…his advice and assistance have been awesome – from insurance questions, to strategic plans and coach hiring, to curriculum development. We are so thankful and look forward to this partnership in the future.”

Already, White thinks the advice from Norte is paying dividends.

“Due to demand, we have already had to add camp sessions and also quickly reached our Junior Velo Mountain Bike club cap,” she says. “I attribute much of this to the assistance from Ty and his help in our program development.”

“When Norte started, we did the exact same thing,” Schmidt notes. “We looked around the country at other programs. Nothing Norte is doing is unique or special, to be honest; we just happened to come along at the right time, with the right message. We’ve made so many mistakes over these past eight years, but we've also learned many things, through experimentation and testing and mistakes made. And we now have the capacity and resources to share that learning.”

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