By Ben Fogelberg (B.A., ’94; M.A., ’98)
Remember when you were a kid and your bike was more than the sum of its components? It broadened your experience by extending the known world beyond your block or immediate neighborhood. It united you with friends who didn’t live within walking distance. It taught you independence by offering an alternative to asking mom or dad for a ride. It wasn’t just a frame, wheels, spokes, pedals, gears, handlebars, and saddle. It was freedom. It was a personal revolution. And it was fun.
Nelle Pierson (’10) remembers. The Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2014 Bike Advocate of the Year believes bikes are much more than transportation or recreation and she’s putting that belief into action one ride at a time in Washington, D.C.
Her personal revolution started in 2008 at Colorado State University. At that time, more than 10,000 students, faculty, and staff rode their bikes to and across campus every day. The racks outside the student center, academic buildings, and residence halls bristled with a glorious variety of form and style: mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, chromed cruisers, fixies, commuters, and an occasional recumbent that may or may not have been made from scratch by an engineering professor.
Each of those 10,000 bikes meant something to its owner, but Pierson’s was truly special. “I chose CSU because it was the state school I could afford and I was smitten with Fort Collins,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t keep my car, so I donated my beloved Jeep to my dad and my mom dropped me off on campus with a sturdy little pawn shop bike. Thirty years old. Green and gold. The model was called Free Spirit, the perfect fit.”
“When I arrived on campus, I realized very quickly that my bike was going to be my life,” Pierson recalls, admitting that she lacked a helmet, lights, and lock at first. That changed after she fell in with a group of “quintessential badass women” who taught her how to fix a flat, how to ride safely in traffic, and other bike basics. “CSU attracts all these cool kids from around the country,” she says, remembering rides with her new friends along the Poudre River and hanging out in Old Town. “I probably spent a third of my student loan at the Bean Cycle [a local coffee shop].”
Pierson infused her love for bikes into everything, including academics. She filled notebooks with bike doodles and the recurrent mantra, “Dear bike, thanks for getting me so far in life.” A Rocky Mountain Collegian article noting her involvement in ASCSU as an associate senator and then as assistant director of the Legislative Affairs department called her the “crazy bike lady.”
But Pierson wasn’t crazy – just passionate about her beliefs and determined to make a difference in the world. She was raised in the Denver area by an environmentally conscious mom who grew up in D.C. Her grandfather had worked on Capitol Hill. Politics ran through her veins and a political science major seemed natural. Looking back on her academic experience, she cites Dr. John Straayer’s legislative internship program and classes on climate change, economics, and gender taught by professors outside her major as foundational elements of her worldview and career path. “I feel privileged to have received the education that I did. And with privilege comes the weight of responsibility to do some good with it.”
Two weeks after graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C. and got an internship with the House Appropriations Committee for Interior and the Environment. Though she learned about public funding and the legislative process and had a nice view of the National Mall from her desk, she wanted to find a way to make a more immediate impact.
The Washington Area Bicyclist Association offered a non-confrontational, concrete, positive way to tackle big political issues like a healthier environment, obesity, and gender equality. Pierson started as a volunteer at the nonprofit, worked as their events coordinator, and then essentially created a community outreach position where she established five programs, including one that owes its structure, and its logo, to her CSU experience.
In D.C., just 26 percent of bicyclists are women, a statistic reflective of the high number of white-collar female workers there. Remembering her supportive group of “badass” mentors at CSU, Pierson set out to design a pro-to-protégé program that would encourage more women to bike and become teachers, or what she calls “roll models.” Since 2013, the Women & Bicycles program has brought together more than 4,000 women to build a cohesive community of enthusiasm, mentorship, and skill sharing. Last year, the Alliance for Walking and Biking recognized her efforts by naming her the 2014 Bike Advocate of the Year.
Since then, Pierson has continued to model “roll model” behavior. In May, she helped her organization coordinate D.C.’s version of New Belgium Brewing’s Tour de Fat bike festival. “I would never have imagined this event would come to the buttoned-up, tied down, type-A capital of the world,” she says. “You can’t imagine how thrilled I was to bring another piece of my Fort Collins culture to D.C.” Nine thousand people participated and the event raised more than $65,000 for local nonprofits. And today, she’s filling in as WABA’s interim executive director.
Through it all, Pierson’s having the time of her life. Last December, she loaned Stephen Colbert a tandem bike for the final episode of The Colbert Report and managed to convince the king of political satire to share a ride with her around the capitol building. It was a fitting moment for someone who combines a determination to improve lives through bicycle advocacy with a well-remembered love for pedaling just for the fun of it.