Cloquet has its share of bike trails and places to ride, but the community around biking has been limited to younger people and those with means to get into the sport.
Now, 31-year-old Alexandera Houchin is hoping to change that by expanding the access and the educational opportunities around bikes for everyone in the community.
Houchin said bikes saved her life several years ago. She was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and was in a bad relationship. An accident sidelined her vehicle and she hated public transportation, so she was left to use her bike to travel 10 miles each way to work.
It was easy at first, Houchin said, but she kept at it, even as fall changed to winter.
“I still continued to ride my bike in the winter just because I really wanted to get away from my partner and didn't really have any other options for a ride to get to work,” she said. “I don't know if I loved it yet, but I did love the time that I had to think and be exercising.”
Her first bike was eventually stolen, forcing Houchin to purchase a fixed-gear bike, something she bought because it was “cute and cheap.” Fixed-gear bikes are single-speed bikes with the drive sprocket bolted directly to the back wheel and offer some advantages to riders, but it was all new to Houchin at the time.
A guy complimented Houchin about the bike and said he’d never seen a woman on that type of bike.
“I didn’t know I was cool for riding that bike,” Houchin said. “I started riding bikes with him and a bunch of other friends of his and that was like the first time I had friends as an adult.”
Eventually, Houchin got a job as a bike delivery person and messenger, and eventually as a bike mechanic.
What’s more, she started racing competitively, and in 2018 and 2019 Houchin won the Tour Divide. The Tour Divide is a grueling 2,745-mile mountain bike race from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
The exposure from her success has brought sponsors and access to equipment she could only dream of a few years ago, and now she wants to make sure anyone who wants a bike can get a bike.
Houchin recently graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in chemistry and American Indian Studies. She had planned to go on to dental school, but the COVID-19 outbreak pushed those plans back.
Instead, she was selected for a Lead For Minnesota Fellowship to study and increase access to bikes in Carlton County, particularly on the Fond du Lac Reservation. Lead for Minnesota is part of Lead for America, a nationwide organization dedicated to ensuring young leaders remain in their communities taking on the toughest challenges, according to Lead for Minnesota Executive Director Benya Kraus.
“First and foremost, (Houchin) just loves her community so much,” Kraus said. “It was very clear that she saw each one of the amazing successes she has accomplished at such a young age — she owes every bit of that success to her community. It was very clear when speaking with her that there was this sense of natural responsibility to invest herself in the places that invested in her.”
An enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Houchin noticed a lack of diversity at the races where she competed.
“I know I’m not the only Native person on bikes, but why am I showing up at all these events — even on the local front — and I don’t see Native people?” she asked. “I wonder why. Why aren't people showing up? I put out a survey, and I learned a lot about my community and what people want and why people aren't doing things.”
In the survey results she’s received so far, Houchin said people “overwhelmingly” are interested in having access to a bicycle, but cost, a lack of knowledge and even bad experiences at bike shops have hindered people from making a purchase. Forty percent of respondents so far said cost was an obstacle to getting a bike, and another 30% said they didn’t know how to choose a proper bike for their needs.
“I know bikes, that’s the language I understand,” Houchin said. “I see so many people interested in it and want it, but hesitant to go out and figure out how to do that. I’ve put in the time and dealt with a lot of crap in the industry. If I can help people not deal with that and get people on bikes — Oh my god, I will use my special skills that way.”
Over the next two years, Houchin hopes to use what she learns in the ongoing survey to establish a bike collective in Carlton County. The bike collective would facilitate training and educational opportunities for people in the community and give them access not only to bikes, but also to a wealth of knowledge regarding repair and maintenance of them.
“Just a little thing like a flat tire or a broken chain can make somebody think their entire bike is broken when it takes sometimes a minute repair that doesn’t cost much money,” Houchin said.
Houcin envisions a program that would help people access bikes, but also build a community around cycling. She hopes to help train people to repair their bikes — potentially even working with community colleges to help students earn credit — as well as organizing group rides and other activities.
“Something that’s been really hard for me to deal with over the years is I don’t have my bike community here,” she said. “My bike community is all over the country, but why don’t I have it here? People are interested, we just need a way to get together, so I’m hoping to build a bigger community of cyclists.”
Take the survey
Houchin is still collecting data for the survey and encourages anyone interested to participate. It can be accessed online or by contacting her office with the Fond du Lac Reservation Planning Division.
P.O. Box 229
Cloquet, MN 55720