Jaki Jones never thought of herself as a cyclist.
But in the last two months Jaki has been transformed from a non-pedaling pedestrian to a true-blue biker cycling 20-35 miles three times a week.
All of this was made possible by the CAM Teen Challenge, a program organized by Cycle Across Maryland (CAM), which offers marginal students who are "at risk" of dropping out of high school the chance to participate in a week of cycling.
Jaki, 18, a 1992 graduate of Southern High School, has been training for the CAM Tour since May. Yet Jaki doubted her cycling ability prior to the CAM-Tour, which kicked off Monday. "I was nervous when I first started cycling this week, but I got used to it," said Jaki, "After riding, I gained confidence and learned to rely on myself."
Today, Jaki and 17 other students from Baltimore and the Eastern Shore will complete their six-day trek from Frostburg State University to University of Maryland, College Park. These competitors, aged 14 to 18, were selected by Baltimore City Futures/ Maryland Tomorrow, a program designed to help "at risk" students stay in high school and reach their full potential.
The toughest day of riding came on Wednesday, said Jaki. That day she cycled 59.6 miles from Hancock to Middletown. The route crested in hill after hill. "You have to have some sort of conscience to persuade yourself to do it," she said. "Every day I say, 'I made it, even though the road was hard and long.' "
Pat Bernstein, executive director of Cycle Across Maryland, said some riders described it as "a life-altering experience."
Adult mentors began working individually with each student in May, teaching them cycling techniques and safety.
The CAM Corporation provided the students with used bicycles at first, but as they showed commitment to the challenge, each was presented with a new bicycle.
That commitment meant cycling two to three times weekly, as far as 76 miles each time. It meant riding a bicycle for seven hours straight and overcoming pain and fatigue to finish the ride. Mentors provided emotional support along the way.
Jaki has developed the same mentality. "At the bottom of every hill I would think to myself, 'Here we go again, I wonder if I can actually do it?' But then I finish every time," she said. "I feel like if I finish the 300 miles, I'll be able to do anything. If there is a goal you have and there is something in your way, it is up to you to get around it. It's all up to you."