Fortress of Fun

Not the average school playground, especially in Bolivia, but one that allows for as much freedom as it does confidence building. Thomas Vanderham and Scotty Laughland survey the yard with only a tinge of jealousy.

Fortress of Fun Learning Life Skills at Campo Bici

At first glance, the thick concrete walls and tall metal gate surrounding Campo Bici don’t give much away.

They suggest more fortress than fun, and it’s hard to believe we’re about to visit a bike school. As we approach the entrance, though, the unmistakable sound of children’s laughter fills the air, softening the compound’s hard exterior. One step onto the property and it feels as if we’ve been transported to a different time and place, a bicycle oasis gradually revealing itself.

Perched on a hill at the outskirts of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the property overlooks the city center and all the sprawling density we passed through to get here. It seems as though we are woven tightly into the fabric of the city, yet somehow isolated in our own little bubble. Chickens and dogs patrol the grounds, which feature an orchard of citrus trees and a bountiful vegetable garden. And then there is the main attraction: a large, well-manicured pumptrack, complete with dirt jumps. We eagerly grab our bikes for a few laps before the sun drops behind the surrounding mountains.

One of the people lucky enough to call this place home is Jose Ricardo, who is guiding us during our time in this diverse South American country. Four years ago, Ricardo and a few friends had the ambitious idea to turn this property into a bike school—a place where kids could come to have fun, feel safe and discover the power of bikes.

“It all started with the big dream of building a pumptrack, but we had only seen those kinds of tracks in movies and magazines,” Ricardo says. “We had no idea where to start and no money to pay anyone else to help. After a lot of persistence, we found a local construction site manager that agreed to donate the dirt to us. When the dump trucks showed up, we realized that they would not fit through the gate, so we broke down a large section of the wall to get 100 loads of dirt in here. From there, it was about six months of moving the dirt around before we had a working track.”

Start ’em while they’re young. Campo Bici’s afterschool programs are already proving that bike skills can easily turn into life skills.

The fruits of their labor are on full display as we witness an afterschool program in session. Children of different ages and skill levels take turns with practice drills and bike games. Some work on very basic skills involving balance and braking, while others work on keeping their speed on the pumptrack. Each of them sports an ear-to-ear grin. Before being picked up by their parents, they are led through a group stretch—a routine I should be more diligent about myself. When I ask Ricardo about the classes, he beams with pride.

“We try to teach not only biking skills, but life skills as well,” he says. “We always compare riding a bike to going through life, where if you fall, you must stand up and keep going. We teach kids how to build confidence that will help them when they grow up, also to face their fears and overcome any obstacle.”

It’s obvious the work being done at Campo Bici is working. In fact, Ricardo says it has grown into something they never could have imagined. This special place is more than a bike school—it has become an integral part of the community. The more questions I ask about it, the clearer that becomes.

“We get a very wide variety of children coming to us,” Ricardo says. “Some come mainly to learn to ride, but we also get a lot of kids who are having challenges at home and in school. Their parents are looking for help, and it is beautiful to see their transformation. We hear great stories from parents about improvements in behavior at home, that their children are less shy and have more self-confidence. We hear from teachers that they are paying more attention and giving a better effort at school. After a while, they feel at home here, so the only tantrums that we get are because they don’t want to leave.”

After an hour of lapping around the pumptrack, the altitude tells my sea-level lungs it’s time to stop, and soon everyone is gathered around the firepit. We’ve just begun our week-long trip to the country, but the visit to Campo Bici has already made a lasting impression on me. It’s inspiring to see the amount of hard work and determination that has gone into this place. It’s also been amazing to speak with Ricardo about the transformative power of bicycles—a topic about which he brims with enthusiasm.

“Our group of teachers here has been friends for almost 15 years, and the glue that has kept us together has been bikes,” he says. “That is the spirit that we want to give the new generations.”

It feels like passion for the sport in its purest form. With a little luck, the students who pass through the gates of Campo Bici will leave with some of that passion, as well as friendships that will last a lifetime.