As her family held the donated mountain bike seat, 37-year-old Melinda Leyva put her feet on the pedals, gripped the handlebars and wobbled.
She was teaching herself how to ride.
Feet have led to miles as she rides on Tucson’s west side and around the Pascua Yaqui Reservation.
On Nov. 23, Leyva will be one of about 30 Yaqui team riders in El Tour de Tucson; she will ride the 38-mile race. The Yaqui team will ride as part of the reservation’s Diabetes Prevention and Treatment Program.
“When we started talking about this race last year, I thought it would be awesome,” the administrative assistant said. “But I didn’t know how to ride. So I taught myself.”
Leyva started cycling to help save her life.
The training has been solitary for Leyva, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about 10 years ago. She works out daily at the Yaqui Wellness Center, and rides on the weekends. “I’ve pretty much had to change myself. (Diabetes) is a huge thing,” she said. “You’ve got to get on track, change your food, diet, exercise, keeping up with medication.”
Three reasons the Yaqui team is riding El Tour:
1. Health. Native Americans have the highest risk of diabetes of any minority group in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33.5 percent of Native American adults in Southern Arizona are diagnosed with diabetes.
Physical activity helps you feel better and burn calories so your body can do what it needs to do with the blood sugar, said Apryl Krause, a naturopath and the Pascua Yaqui Diabetes Prevention Program manager. “A lot of the riders have decreased their medication” since the cycling program started, Krause said.
The Yaqui team came together through American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad and James Stout, a Type 1 diabetic who was also a professional cyclist. Stout has organized some group rides and monitors the group’s Facebook page.
Crossing the finish line “will be a moment to realize how far the cyclists have come in a year … in hundreds of pounds in weight lost, years of life gained,” he said via email.
2. A bond with family and friends. Leyva had total support from her sister and brother-in-law, both of whom helped her literally get on the bike.
As El Tour training began, riders borrowed bikes. But cyclists each got new bikes for the race. “We just got everyone a bike now,” Krause said. “And now people are handing off their training bikes to kids, spouses.
“We know there are more people on bikes, but we don’t know what the ripple effect is,” Krause said. “A young guy has been able to spend time with his mom in ways he hasn’t gotten to before, and a husband and wife are working together on their diabetes. Some people put their kids on the back of the bikes and ride a lot.
“It’s something different, and you get to know people on a different level,” she said.
3. Inspiration. Angel Hernandez, who has two diabetic parents and has lost 45 pounds through training, says he has influenced his 4-year-old daughter, Angeleen.
“She has a bike, and she tries to keep up with me and gets tired pretty quick” said Hernandez, 25. “But she’s getting into it, and I want to see her at the finish line.”
Hernandez rides to and from work at the Wellness Center each day and sometimes takes off on his lunch hour. “I really like it. Just to ride, doesn’t matter where. You don’t have to worry about anything. It’s just me and the road and just going the distance.”
Leyva has covered her miles alone but says people have asked if they can ride with her.
“I guess that’s it. I want to be an inspiration to others,” she said. “To be a role model for the tribe and tell my story.
“And soon, I’ll be able to tell them what it will feel like to cross the finish line. Emotional. Spectacular.”