Rachel Varn, the bike whisperer of Severna Park

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Rachel Varn (top right, in pink glasses) and some of her PedalPower Kids cycling students out and about on the East Coast Greenway in Severna Park, Maryland.

Whenever you need a little pick-me-up, go visit the Instagram  or Facebook page for Rachel Varn’s PedalPower Kids. You’ll find hundreds of photos of kids, from tiny preschoolers to early teens, grinning at the camera from the seat of the bikes they’ve just learned to ride. The kids beam with confidence; you’ll smile, too, knowing that kids still taste freedom when they climb on bike seats and take off.

Since founding her Severna Park, Maryland, business two years ago, Varn has taught more than a thousand kids how to ride a bike and navigate safely. A lifelong cyclist and endurance athlete herself, Varn knows she is teaching these kids far more than the basic skills of balance, pedaling, and traffic safety. First off, she’s giving them the gift of health in the form of an activity they can enjoy all their lives.

“Lots of kids in our community go from school to after-school programs and weekend activities without really getting much exercise,” Varn says. “They’re in super-organized activities that don’t allow them to run around and blow off their energy. None of them are getting enough recess and phys ed time. And a lot of kids’ activities have a big tie-in to junk food -- like having cupcakes after every soccer game. And where we live, sports get really competitive really early. This just feels good—they get to feel the wind in their face, they get to move.”

With obesity rates hitting a record high across the United States, Varn's classes and camps start a perfect ripple effect. Many of her students learn to ride and get excited about it, which leads their parents to dust off their bikes and join them for a family ride on the Greenway's B&A Trail — a great way to get in the 150 minutes of exercise per week, as recommended for adults by the Centers for Disease Control.

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Her cycling roots: Varn with her father, Paul, who paid his way through college and law school as a bike mechanic and bike shop manager. Varn says she grew up riding rehabbed Schwinns and Huffys, classics that she didn't fully appreciate at the time.

She recognized the need for bike lessons after teaching some of her friends’ kids. It’s OK for parents to outsource bike lessons, she says, because “parents aren’t the subject matter expert in cycling, but I am. Most of us had swim instructors, our parents didn’t have to teach us to swim. Mom and Dad may not have ridden their bikes for years, and their uncertainty often creates an unpleasant situation.” 

Learning to ride a bike is a progressive skill, she says. “It’s about balance. We build their confidence with balance,” says Varn, who isn’t a fan of training wheels. “For some it takes a half-hour, others take three days.”

Varn and her staff of high school- and college-age instructors create a fun environment in the after-school club and summer camp sessions. Many of her students are very young, thanks to the popularity of balance bikes — pedal-free bikes that help little ones figure out how to balance on two wheels. “So these kids have learned to pedal a bike by age three or four, but their parents need help reining in all that energy and teaching the kids how to safely bike on streets and trails.”

The East Coast Greenway features prominently in Varn’s lessons because she lives close to the B & A Trail, a segment of the Greenway that runs between Annapolis and Baltimore and is a much loved venue in her community for local cyclists, runners, walkers, and more. 

“The kids absolutely love the trail,” Varn says. “It’s kind of the backbone of our community, people use it in so many different ways. Older people may be some of its biggest users, all day long.  I run with friends on it first thing in the morning, then I’m back out there working with kids.”

Some parents tell her that the B&A feels dangerous, with people riding by too fast. By teaching them the rules of the road and trail etiquette, “I let families know it’s a safe place to ride.”

Through the greenway, Varn is offering kids “a sense of agency,” she says. “Kids get driven around so much in a car that they don’t get a sense of where things are. And so many kids are fearful.” Varn and her assistants ride with the young cyclists to visit a fire station, a nursing home, even a frozen yogurt shop. “When they start to get their bearings, they’re so excited to tell me where things are and where we should turn. They realize, ‘I could get from here to here myself.” Especially for some of our older kids, the possibilities really open: ‘I can ride to FroYo!’ They could ride to their neighborhood pool for morning swim practice.”

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Field trip: PedalPower Kids summer campers biked to Jones Fire Station #23 in Severna Park, on the East Coast Greenway, and heard from the firefighters about how cycling is part of how they stay fit for their jobs. Other field trips include rides to visit a nursing home and to a frozen yogurt shop.

“Rachel is doing amazing work for our community at large and for the children she is teaching to ride safely, skillfully and enthusiastically,” says Jon Korin, president of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and a longtime East Coast Greenway advocate. “My three grandsons are proof! She is also building great community connections with our schools, police, the county and city of Annapolis.”

“I love when the lightbulb goes off,” says Varn. “I see a huge boost in self confidence. Kids go from ‘I don’t like to’ or ‘I can’t' to ‘this is awesome!’ ”

“They love riding in the rain,” Varn says. “Like all athletes, they love to brag about overcoming adverse conditions. And they want to know exactly how many miles they rode. They love that sense of accomplishment.”

Some of her students come to PedalPower Kids with attention challenges. They’re the students who struggle to stay focused in classrooms, the ones who frustrate coaches and scout leaders because they can’t stay on task. Varn puts them on bikes, and while they may “still be talking a mile a minute, they get dialed in,” she says. “And for once they’re not doing something wrong. This may be one of the few times when they’re not getting negative attention.” Still others come with physical challenges, and Varn is proud of how much the kids can accomplish, often far more than doctors and others predicted. 

Her favorite success stories are the older elementary boys who have decided they can’t or won’t ride a bike. “Once we get them riding, they are hooked,” she says. “I’ll see them out on the trail with friends and it’s a huge, 360-degree change.”

“We always tell the kids, now that you’ve done this hard thing, what’s the next thing you’ll do?”

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Happy camper: A brand-new cyclist experiences the joy of biking during a PedalPower Kids session.
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