A musician by night, Harley White Jr. by day likes to take long bicycle rides into the foothills.
Oftentimes, he finds himself sitting on solitary mountaintops. He gazes across oceans of pine, and sometimes his thoughts retreat from the vistas in front of him to the inner city of Sacramento, to the young people locked inside the imaginary walls of their own minds.
White knows disadvantaged kids pretty well. As a musician, he works with them to expand their views of themselves. It is the responsibility of the artist, he said, to “keep one eye out for the youth.” Through this eye, White came up with a vision of a high school mountain biking program where poor kids could race competitively or ride for fun, but no matter which, they could soak in the Sierra and its lakes and trees and blue-sky backdrop, far from the stresses of their tough urban environments.
He shared his idea with friends who ride bikes and sell them, who create tracks to race them, who work in leagues that promote them. One night he went to see a band at Old Ironsides, and he made another friend in another music lover who happened to be the principal of Grant High School.
“A serendipitous thing,” is how White characterized his meeting with Darris Hinson. At the same time, “It’s like the universe is wringing my neck, saying, ‘You must do this.’ ”
It is terrible when the universe grabs you by the throat and demands action, so White did the only thing he could do. He relented. He developed a plan and pitched it to the principal, who sold it to his bosses in the Twin Rivers Unified School District. They got the approvals, made the announcements, and this week, White, with help from people from Folsom to Petaluma, brought to Del Paso Heights the inaugural Grant High School mountain bike team.
“Cycling has just offered so many quality-of-life things to me – exercise, mental toughness, the social aspect of it,” White said at the unveiling. “Inner-urban youth don’t often have this type of an experience. Just going outside and being in the foothills – everybody needs to do that, to just have a basic appreciation for fresh air, pine trees and our beautiful topography.”
White, 50, has been a fixture on bass in the Sacramento jazz and blues scene for more than 30 years. You can find him regularly playing with his full orchestra or with his jazz trio at places like Shady Lady, Luna’s or Harlow’s, wherever the groove must be maintained. His father is Harley White Sr., the Bay Area legend who was the go-to bass player for Earl “Fatha” Hines when the jazz piano giant relocated to San Francisco.
Besides music, the father gave the son a lifetime appreciation for cycling. The son began riding at 5 and raced competitively through his early teens. As he advanced through school and music and life, competition gave way to fun and exercise and a love for the outdoors. White every once in a while still enters a race, and a couple of years ago he won his age group in the 2014 Subaru Sea Otter Classic MTB Cross-Country 143 Category 3 in Monterey.
In setting up the Grant program, White teamed with old musical and bicycling pal Dean Alleger, who had been working on bike programs for middle schoolers. He met Don Rose of the Folsom Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition who helped launch the new American River mountain bike park behind the Township 9 housing development. He sought out Robert Ramirez of the Petaluma-based NorCal High School Cycling League that runs a competitive program for 1,500 riders from 74 schools. He corralled Sam Brown-Shaklee of Mike’s Bikes on I Street for equipment and expertise.
A few months ago, White ran into a friend at the Old Ironsides show who introduced him to Hinson, the Grant High principal. The dialogue had begun.
“We saw we could offer something at Grant that has never existed before, that could challenge our kids in different ways,” Hinson said. “We talked about perseverance and nature.”
On Monday, White and his team spread word at Grant about the new team. They worked the halls and the lunchrooms, and at 2:45 p.m. they wheeled a couple of Specialized Crave 29-inch hardtails into Room D-11 where two students, a boy and a girl, sat in curious silence.
“You are the pioneers,” White told them.
Maybe someday Caitlyn Hernandez and Albert Kuzko will be remembered along with Shaq Thompson as Pacers for the ages. On Monday, they were happy to pedal a couple of times around the parking lot.
“I like going out to nature and going out on the mountains – that’s why I came into this club,” Hernandez said.
Kuzko likes the thought of competitive racing and a change of scenery.
“I’ll get out more, instead of being around here all the time,” said Kuzko, who lives about a mile from Grant. “I want to see more of the world.”
White said Hernandez and Kuzko “made my day.” Now his goal is to make theirs, and those of many more like them, at Grant and other schools, this year and next and for 10 more after that, to give the program flight, for them to discover what they’ve got inside themselves when they pump toward the same hilltops he has reached, to expand the vistas of their own lives.