How a community bike workshop spawned an unlikely mountain bike team
You hear them before you see them, somewhere back in the trees, laughing, hooting. On a warm mid-February day at Nashville's Percy Warner Park, as juvenile mosquitoes swarm along the bark of the trees and the branches are still weeks from budding, they’re back there, screaming down the rugged singletrack together. The interscholastic racing season ended months ago in Tennessee, but the boys of the Oasis Mountain Bike Team still ride together most weeks, not to work on skills—though they do—and not for conditioning—though they are. They meet today and other days because their bond is strongest on bikes.
They burst through a narrow gap in the woods, white streaks of matching bibs and singlets down a strip of dirt into a particularly tightly-banked corner, gasping, disc brakes engaged, with at least one missing the turn completely and rolling straight into the grassy field.
“It’s hard, but then when you finish it, you feel good,” says 15-year-old Ishak Lamei—a whippet-thin, bespectacled Egyptian national who’s lived in the U.S. for the past seven years—of mountain biking. "What’s hard about it?" I ask as the team regroups at their passenger van in the parking lot. Lamei, with his teammates, explodes into conversation, only some of which is in English and the rest in Arabic. They squat on the running board, their bikes half in the roadway to the chagrin of their coaches.
“Going uphill,” finally says Beshoy Daniel, 14, also Egyptian and in the country for the past five years. He’s quieter but more muscular than any of the others. “They’re really long, too,” pipes George Ghabrial, 15, another thin late-bloomer with a mischievous wit. “But it’s better than doing it by ourselves,” he adds. “It’s funner.”
“’Funner’: It’s not a word,” Lamei cuts in, and group devolves into teasing Ghabrial over his grammar slip.
The Oasis Mountain Bike Team, two seasons in, is not just an anomaly in the city, but also in the United States. Comprised entirely of low-income immigrant teens, the oldest of whom is 15, they hail from three countries and speak as many languages. There is no seeming connection that binds them, save for the bikes they ride.
How they all managed to meet is a bit of luck, in and of itself: They all happened to live near the Oasis Center, a Nashville nonprofit that serves at-risk teens. Surrounded by the concrete of the city, it’s surprising that such a core outdoor sport would pop up in the city proper, in what was once a lower-income neighborhood now in the midst of rapid gentrification, and within a 1.5-mile radius of three different public housing projects. Even for the Oasis, its mountain bike team is unique; the center offers more traditional programs like counseling, short-term shelter, and leadership training. It has no other sports teams.
So how does such an aberration exist? The Oasis Mountain Bike Team’s story starts with a normal guy who moved to Nashville for a woman and found himself falling in love with his bike.
Most kids just used their bikes to tool around town but a few, Furbish noticed, were looking for hits to boost off and dirt to slash through.
A week before the team ride, Dan Furbish, 35, sits at a nicked wood table in a coffee shop. A cold rain is coming down outside. He’s dressed in a long-sleeve Sub Pop Records shirt and a faded black Orioles ball cap, a short brown beard under green eyes, and a beat-up bike messenger bag hangs from the back of his chair. As he drinks an iced coffee, he tells of the strange series of places and events that led him to found a mountain bike team where none had been before.
A Maryland native and youth worker, Furbish hopped between Louisiana, New York, and Florida, working for Outward Bound and elsewhere, before moving to Nashville with his soon-to-be wife in 2007. The only constant during his transient life was a Kona Nunu hardtail gifted from his father upon graduation. While he’d used it as a commuter in the past, now settled in the city, he found consistent trail systems, both locally and a short drive away. What had been an occasional hobby became a passion.
“There were ten times more opportunities to ride in the dirt than in New York City and New Orleans,” he says. “It just became my regular hangout.”
Oasis Center hired Furbish in 2008 in a mentor role, and after a year, he launched the Oasis Bike Workshop. The concept was simple: Donated bikes, many recovered by the police department, were salvaged for parts, and kids could join a workshop to Frankenstein together something ride-able under the instruction of Furbish and others.
“I love teaching at USN, but I was missing working with a community of new Americans.”
Though intended to be a one-time event, the Bike Workshop took off, gaining such popularity that it has since become a staple of Oasis’s offerings—and one of its most successful. “Word got out and there was huge demand for it—not just in our neighborhood but all over the place,” Furbish says. To date, he estimates they’ve built over 1,200 bikes, averaging 120 per year. Additionally, they offer a drop-in on Wednesdays throughout the year for kids to come back, tune up, and swap out parts on their bikes.
While most of the program's early participants just used their bikes to tool around town, a few, Furbish noticed, were looking for hits to boost off and dirt to slash through.
That’s where sixth-grade English teacher Greg O’Laughlin comes in. O’Laughlin, now at the private University School of Nashville (USN), cut his teeth at public schools, and while there, he discovered how much he loved working with the large number of immigrant students in his classes. “I used to joke that I taught at the U.N.,” he tells me later, remembering the variety of his students' backgrounds. “I love teaching at USN, but I was missing working with a community of new Americans.”
It was the liveliness of those former students, O’Laughlin says, that motivated him to volunteer with the Bike Workshop. There, what was once an acquaintance with Furbish through the city’s mountain bike scene deepened into a friendship. O’Laughlin had already completed much of the paperwork required to coach a team through National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) for USN, so the idea of a bike team through Oasis wasn’t that far-fetched anymore.
Their modest team would square off largely against private school teams running components worth more than his team’s entire bikes.
NICA is in a boom period nationally, with a 43 percent increase in athletes from 2015 to 2016 alone and leagues in 18 states. But maybe the biggest impact it has, according to a recent survey of participants, is that after just one season, 99 percent now identified as lifelong cyclists.
“The clubs at the schools don’t hold tryouts. They don’t cut anyone. It’s inclusive. No one sits on the bench,” says Austin McInerny, president of NICA.
This has huge effects on kids, regardless of where they’re from. Participation results in fitness, increased bike skills, socialization, and, most importantly, McInerny says, the empowerment that comes from pedaling your bike over some pretty gnarly terrain.
“No offense to baseball and football,” he says, “but how many of those students go on to play after high school?”
Eight boys and two girls, all eighth graders at the same public school, took part in the first Oasis Mountain Bike Team invite-only workshop, cobbling mountain bikes from whatever was on hand. They would compete under the Oasis colors as a part of NICA’s fledgling Tennessee Interscholastic Cycling League.
It was a gamble, both Furbish and O’Laughlin readily admit. Their team would square off largely against private school teams running components worth more than his team’s entire bikes. But if there were any questions as to the viability of the program’s success, O’Laughlin says, they were laid to rest at that first practice just south of town.
“The sheer joy they expressed, being outside, I wish I could have bottled it,” O’Laughlin recalls. They were soft-pedaling over small rollers when they came to a two-by-four bridge over a small creek. To his surprise, the kids dismounted to examine the structure, amazed by what someone had built in the middle of the woods. “There was just so much happiness and excitement,” he remembers.
“We put them on the starting line and said, ‘Have fun.’ And they did.”
But it was more than the team’s coaches who believed in them. The core cycling community in Nashville quickly rallied to the fledgling team’s cause, donating parts and equipment, ensuring that while the team might not have the most lavish rigs, they would at least be able to safely compete.
“They do great things for our community,” says Jason Thienel of Cumberland Transit, a core mountain bike store in the city that has extensively supported the Oasis team, even going so far as to provide each kid with a high-end Mavic helmet for free. “If we can teach kids about how biking is good for your body and good for the environment, it’s helpful for everybody.”
But even with their patchwork bikes and developing skills, expectations for the 2015 season were kept understandably modest. “We knew we weren’t going to go in there and blow people out of the water,” Furbish says. “We put them on the starting line and said, ‘Have fun.’ And they did.”
Sure, there was a sharp learning curve and more than a few trips over the handlebars. But Furbish was astonished by how quickly they progressed over the series of races. Bike skills increased “by ten,” he says. Beyond just the technical aspect, the camaraderie went with it, and any bike rider knows how it is: You can see a person a few times a week, but one ride with him or her and your relationship becomes markedly deeper. Shy eighth graders who began as casual acquaintances transformed into teammates and friends. All those overnight trips to camp out before races and long hours in the van had a way of lashing them together.
Shy eighth graders who began as casual acquaintances transformed into teammates and friends.
After their second season in the fall of 2016, the Oasis Mountain Bike Team is not yet a dominant force on the prep circuit. In fact, most of them bring up the rear at series meets. “It’s terrible,” says one. “We always lose,” says another.
But they are getting better, thanks in part to time in the saddle and to new 29er hardtails with disc brakes for each, the latter of which is courtesy of another shop in town. Furbish himself has retired the Kona, trading up for a full suspension Santa Cruz Superlight he rides along with the kids.
The team, split between three schools now that they’re all in high school, is undergoing growing pains. “Normal teenager stuff,” O’Laughlin explains: academics, social lives, trying to get a driver’s license. “All of these things add up to be taxing on their available time.”
In the parking lot on a warm February day, when any of them could be doing any other thing, sure, it’s the power of a bike that draws them here. But it’s each other that binds them. It's the relationships between a handful of kids from the Middle East and Central America in pursuit of empty trails, splattered mud, and long climbs made easier with teammates.
“I feel brave, you know?” Daniel says, the muscles on his arms bunching. “I believe in myself, because I’m going to work hard.”
“You feel happy for yourself,” Bashar adds. “Like, you worked hard for this.”
Ghabrial: “That all your hard work paid off.”