Fortville Elementary students rode bikes in gym class throughout the week as part of a Community Foundation-funded effort to focus on bike safety as part of the county trails initiative. Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

FORTVILLE — Fortville Elementary students got the chance to pedal their hearts out during gym class this week thanks to a nonprofit designed to teach kids the lifelong benefits of biking.

An Indianapolis-based organization — nine13sports — spent the week teaching kids in kindergarten through fifth grade about the physical and mental health perks that bicycling can bring.

“Riding bikes was a right of passage for kids when I was growing up, but I think fewer kids are doing it as much these days due to the popularity of video games and the sedentary lifestyle the world has embraced,” said the nonprofit’s community director, Aryn Coomes.

She hopes to help reverse that trend by showing children how fun and rewarding bike riding can be.

She and fellow nine13sports staff members spent the week doing just that at Fortville Elementary, where eight stationary bikes were arranged in a semi-circle around a TV screen in the corner of the gym.

Students in each grade level took turns pedaling as the staff talked them through the benefits of biking. The older students got the chance to compete with one another virtually as colored icons representing each bike kept pace with their pedaling on screen. The bikes are equipped to help keep the pace, offering more resistance when virtually pedaling uphill.

“It was cool because I could see where everybody was on the screen, and it taught us how to pedal fast going uphill and to take a break when going downhill,” said fourth-grader Ryder Smith, 10, who enjoys biking in the warmer months with his parents and brothers.

“It’s fun and relaxing,” he said.

That’s exactly the mindset Nathan Wilson, the creative director for nine13sports, likes to hear.

“We love to introduce kids to biking, especially those who may not have it on their radar,” said Wilson, who said roughly 10 percent of students they work with have never ridden a bike before.

“Whether you’re 8 or 80, biking is a lifelong activity with a number of physical and mental health benefits,” he said. “This program uses bikes as the tool to encourage kids to strive for a lifetime of fitness by teaching them that fitness can be fun.”

Ten-year-old Logan Lambert pedaled furiously at first when it was his group’s turn on the bikes, but he eventually eased the pace when one of the coaches told the group that speed wasn’t the most important factor.

“We learned that you don’t have to pedal fast all the time, but you can go your own pace and still get good exercise,” he said.

Logan especially liked pedaling the stationary bike as he and other students watched video footage from the perspective of a cyclist biking the Indianapolis Canal Walk, an urban trail in downtown Indianapolis.

“I think that aspect of connecting the local community with activity is so important,” said Fortville Elementary principal Vince Edwards, as he watched a group of fourth-graders grin as they virtually pedaled along the canal. The hope is to eventually offer first-person footage from local trails, he said.

Edwards credited the Community Foundation of Hancock County for bringing the nine13sports program to his school.

Executive director Mary Gibble said funding such programs dovetails with the community foundation’s efforts to promote the use of walking and biking trails throughout the county.

“The community foundation leads the implementation team of the Hancock County Trails Plan, and part of that plan includes not only connecting and constructing trails but encouraging the utilization our county’s trails,” she said.

By teaching students about the benefits of biking as well as safe biking practices, it sets them up for a lifetime of fitness opportunities right in their hometown, said Gibble.

“The Nine13sports program really resonated as a way for us to not only teach kids about safe biking practices but to continue moving our trails plan forward. It was a perfect fit for us,” she said.

The Hancock County Trails Plan was approved by county stakeholders in 2018.

Since then, an implementation team composed of community leaders, bicycling enthusiasts and city and town officials have been meeting quarterly to discuss ways to promote and enhance the trail systems in Hancock County.

The group met most recently on Tuesday, Feb. 15, when a web designer shared progress on a website which will soon launch illustrating the county’s existing trails plans for future developments.

“It’s our hope to launch the website by the end of March, but a website is only as good as the information being fed into it,’ said Gibble. “We’ve been busy gathering photos and information from all our parks, planners and town managers throughout the county to illustrate where we’re at and what we hope to achieve with the country trails system.”

Gibble pointed out that the community foundation is not in the business of building trails, but is coordinating a team of communities working independently to maintain and, in some cases, expand the trails in their areas.

The hope is to eventually connect the trails running throughout the county, just as Greenfield is striving to connect the trails within its city limits.

“The municipalities are the ones who are building out trails, applying for grants and watching for opportunities that allow them to extend trials or build new trails in correlation to many road projects, and they report that back to our implementation team, so we’re able to keep an inventory of the progress being made in various locations throughout the county,” said Gibble.

None of that mattered to Logan and Ryder, who were simply content to work up a good sweat by pedaling their hearts out during gym class this week.

“It was pretty cool and a lot of fun,” said Logan, as the next group of kids took a turn on the bikes.