Jay Paul photo
As a competitive cyclist, Jeff Buckles is not exactly chopped liver. The Richmond resident finished fourth in the 2007 Collegiate National Championships. And in each of his past two seasons, he claimed first-place finishes on the pro circuit.
But as a member of the Richmond Pro Cycling team, Buckles is under equal pressure to perform beyond his bike.
Unlike many professional teams, RPC is a nonprofit with the mission of turning riders such as Buckles into community role models.
Craig Dodson, a pro rider and director of the team, established the squad in 2007. His vision was to help young cyclists answer this question: "Twenty years from now, where do you see yourself? And give me some things that don't involve cycling."
Dodson's team concept, now in its fourth season, was to build "a leadership corps anchored to cycling." In his model, what happens off the bike means more than standing on the winner's podium.
In exchange for a chance to ride professionally, the cyclists with RPC must also devote time each week to community outreach — whether it involves volunteering at other nonprofits or tutoring schoolchildren. The team screens applicants who must show more than racing accolades on their résumés — a rider needs to have a four-year degree (or be working on it) and should have some volunteer work under his belt.
During its first year, the riders gave more than 1,000 hours to outreach, Dodson says. Last year, the team's central project was to work closely with students at the Faison School for Autism, introducing many of the children to bicycles for the first time.
Buckles, now in his fourth year with RPC, says the Faison experience took on as much personal value to him as training and racing. "If I couldn't get to the school one week because of my travel and racing schedule, I really missed it," he says.
This year, each of the team's four riders will be responsible for developing a personal outreach program as well as contributing to group efforts similar to last year's Faison commitment. Buckles plans to establish "The Homework Project," which will send the riders out to tutor and mentor schoolchildren once a week at their homes. "It's also to give mom and dad a break one night a week," he says.
As he recently began training for the 2010 season, first-year team member Mike Stoop also started volunteering with Offender Aid and Restoration, which helps ex-offenders trying to reintegrate into society.
The experience so far, Stoop says, is a stark contrast to previous pro teams he belonged to. "They wanted you to focus solely on racing." While riding and volunteering, Stoop is also working on his MBA at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The local team's model drew the attention last year of real-estate developer Justin French, owner of French Consulting.
A board member of the Faison School, French took notice of the team's work with students there. "That really impressed me and actually endeared them to me," he says.
As a result, French donated housing for the riders and financial support for RPC's 2010 and 2011 seasons. In addition, he's helping Richmond Pro Cycling open a 3,000-square-foot "development center" in Scott's Addition where the team will work with students and also coach local athletes in search of pro-level cycling skills.
Like Stoop, Buckles hasn't abandoned hopes of grabbing glory on two wheels, but he's finding deeper meaning along the way.
"The whole goal of the team, obviously, is just to produce good people by developing them through the work they do in the community," he says. Later, he adds, "Before, I just used to be a selfish biker."