Third-grader Charlie Dufour had barely begun the longest bicycle ride of her life when she hit the first hill. Bumping down it, she cried out, “This is harder than I thought!”

Charlie pedaled on, a favorite stuffed animal bouncing in her bike basket. She was one of about 45 children from the Henry L. Cottrell School in Monmouth who were biking 6.5 miles to the town beach and back on a recent morning.

The third-grade bike trek has become a beloved tradition in this rural Kennebec County town. Younger students at Cottrell School cheered on the third-graders as they rode out of the school grounds. Down the road, students from the middle school and high school hooted and clapped as the elementary kids cycled by.

About 15 parents and grandparents chaperoned the ride, hauled lunches to the beach and helped in other ways.

Principal Deborah Emery launched the trek eight years ago as a special event for third-graders before they graduate to middle school, which starts in the fourth grade. She wants to encourage them to learn how to ride bicycles. Emery considers that an important skill that gets them outdoors.

“It’s great exercise and it encourages kids to develop a healthy habit that they can continue with long after the day of the trek,” said Melissa Michaud, a Cottrell third-grade teacher. Students also find out what it’s like to tackle a big challenge. At the end of the ride, “Most (children) feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment,” Michaud said.

Planning begins months in advance, to ensure that every child can participate in some way.

Teachers survey parents in March to find out who has a bicycle and whether children know how to ride. Parents are encouraged to start practicing with their children in a school parking lot as soon as the snow melts.

Jenora Schultz, the school’s physical therapist, works with youngsters who have difficulty riding because of disabilities. This year, one student rode on a balance bicycle with no pedals that the school got from Special Olympics Maine, powering it with a running stride.

Some children take a short route, walking part of the way. The few who are unable to ride at all help the police direct traffic and then join their classmates at the beach.

Families donate helmets and bicycles for students who need them. Workers at Monmouth’s transfer station notify the school when bicycles in decent condition are dropped off.

Bob Bruce, a bicycle safety educator for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, checks all of the used equipment to make sure it’s road-worthy. He also gives students an hourlong safety class to teach them hand signals and other rules of the road.

When the big day arrived in late May, Emery had every detail arranged.

All the third-graders wore green T-shirts made for the trek. Ride leaders donned bright yellow safety vests. Bruce tightened brakes, pumped tires and checked each child’s helmet to make sure it fit securely.

After a round of photos in the school parking lot, we headed off in groups of five or six. Students rode single file, just as they’d been taught.

Monmouth is hilly, so biking is no small feat. When we hit steep inclines, some children hopped off their bikes and pushed them to the top. Bruce encouraged one child by chanting over and over, “I think I can, I think I can.”

By the time my group reached the beach, a big crowd of students was waiting to cheer our arrival. Then it was our turn to clap and whistle for those behind us. “Let’s go, Monmouth, let’s go!” the children yelled.

Laurie Gifford, a grandmother who volunteers as the trek photographer, recalled one year when a child rode a bike with training wheels. “She was the last,” Gifford said, “and the entire class was out cheering for her.”

Once everyone arrived, the children waded in the lake, pumped on the swings and gobbled their lunches. They wrote names on each other’s T-shirts to remember the special day. Then it was time to hop on their bikes for the return ride.

Principal Emery was ahead of her time when she started the trek in 2009. While many Maine schools provide bicycle safety education, I haven’t heard of another that tries to get every child to learn how to ride a bicycle.

But that idea is catching on elsewhere. Last fall, the public schools in Washington, D.C., began bicycle instruction for all second-graders. Wouldn’t it be great if more Maine schools picked up on the idea?

SHOSHANA HOOSE is a freelance writer who walks and bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected].

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