Cycling, for Diana Hildebrand, isn’t about transportation. It’s about connections.
When this southeast Cleveland resident hops on her hot-pink ride, she’s not necessarily looking to get from point A to point B. She’s looking to help others interact more deeply with the city and world around them, and enjoy a few of the many benefits she herself enjoys on a daily basis.
“It’s more than a bike ride for me,” said Hildebrand, founder of a business called DevahD Cycling. “It’s really bridging the gap and connecting communities…You’re experiencing yourself connecting to the universe.”
Getting up on two wheels
The first and longest bridge “DevahD” often has to build is the one to cycling itself. A Black woman, Hildebrand devotes much of her energy to representing and welcoming, to modeling and enabling a healthy, active lifestyle for others in her community.
Some, she said, simply haven’t been exposed to cycling. Others can’t afford bikes, helmets, and other cycling equipment. Still others have actively avoided the sport, fearing traffic on their neighborhood streets or the perception that cycling is a “white” activity.
She’s not alone in this effort. Hildebrand’s work as “DevahD” is an outgrowth of her position as the Cleveland “shero” of the national organization Black Girls Do Bike. Founder Monica Garrison said Hildebrand evinces “unparalleled passion” and is an integral part of the group’s success modeling good habits to a demographic disproportionately affected by preventable disease.
“Her work makes cycling accessible to a community that is being left behind in the race to a sustainable future centered around active mobility,” Garrison said.
Many of Hildebrand’s clients are Black women and children in low-income areas, and many come to her with no cycling experience whatsoever. For them, “DevahD” offers an introductory “learn to ride” class covering the basics of balancing and pedaling. For riders who don’t own bikes, she’s got loaners. At the moment, after less than a year in business, she’s even considering buying a shop to convert into a bike co-op and repair center.
“Everything is moving a few years faster than I expected,” Hildebrand said.
The bridges fan out markedly from there. Once a rider knows and loves what she’s doing, “DevahD” will meet her anywhere she is and take her anywhere she wants to go, figuratively or literally.
In some cases, that’s to mountain-bike trails or the Cleveland Velodrome. Others want company on long-distance journeys or to feel more comfortable in the city, on busy streets. She’s been certified to instruct or lead a ride anywhere. Almost everyone, meanwhile, needs to learn how to change a tire and perform other basic maintenance, and these skills, too, she’s trained to teach.
“I really want to be that go-to woman,” Hildebrand said. “I’m the person who says ‘Let’s go on a ride and see if it works for you.’ I’m the one who gets them in the door and shows them the opportunities.”
The power to transform
One for whom rides with “DevahD” have really worked is Garfield Heights resident Lisa Strickland.
She was comfortable enough on two wheels. Then she met Hildebrand. Now, she powers up hills, rides confidently in traffic, and changes her own flats. Recently, she joined “DevahD” on a trek from Hildebrand’s native Cincinnati all the way to Cleveland.
“I feel safe with her,” Strickland said. “She makes me feel more confident. It’s her all-around personality. She’s a real motivator.”
It’s not all about the bike for DevahD Cycling, however. Some, of course, like Strickland, are looking to make athletic gains, but Hildebrand’s greater mission is to foster awareness and promote an activity that addresses a host of real-world problems. She regards cycling as a potential life-saver, a low-cost means of transportation and an avenue to better physical and mental health.
Noticing your environment
On every ride, no matter the length or location, Hildebrand takes care to point out the environment. She’s become something of a bird-nerd over the years, and now loves directing attention to the songbirds and birds of prey that appear during rides. For her, it’s a stress reducer. She also has encouraged riders to pick up litter along the way.
Her social and economic observations may be even more important. Where many cyclists avoid urban neighborhoods, “DevahD” seeks them out, viewing them not only as training grounds but also as places desperate to be better understood and appreciated.
Indeed, when it comes to opening eyes and inspiring change, Hildebrand said, there’s nothing like a “slow roll” through a neighborhood. Take East Cleveland, for instance. “You can hear people ask what’s going on,” Hildebrand said. “They can see it’s a community that needs help.”
Pedaling to a better life
Just as cycling exposes problems, it also offers some solutions.
A former semi-professional football player long sidelined by injury, Hildebrand has experienced cycling’s power to awaken and transform bodies. A busy single mother previously stuck in unfulfilling employment, she also has seen it give her purpose, calm, and meaning.
It’s this she most hopes to convey her Cleveland clients: there’s no more effective antidote to stress, few cheaper ways to exercise, and virtually no mode of transportation less expensive, better for the environment, or more useful to those cut off from cars, trains, and buses.
“It is the greenest thing you can do,” Hildebrand said. “We just need it to be more affordable and accessible to everyone. It’s about changing the mindset. It’s a work in progress.”
No stop sign ahead
Much the same could be said of DevahD Cycling in general. Even as Hildebrand’s vision is clear, her senses of how to realize it and exactly what people need most are still in development.
That co-op idea, for instance, is still in the works, as are her plans for the off season. The last thing she wants is for her newer riders to lose momentum, to drop off when the snow starts flying. She’s thinking some winter cycling classes and trips to Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park may be in order.
One thing about which Hildebrand said she’s absolutely certain is that there’s no stop sign ahead. Her work feels like play, she’s making a difference, and Cleveland keeps presenting her with more people and more opportunities. Cycling, in her community, is only gaining speed.
“Every day, another curtain opens,” Hildebrand said. “A passion is not about a whole lot of dollar signs. I want to live and leave a legacy.”
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist living in Shaker Heights.
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