Mari Holden’s journey to an Olympic silver medal was in anything but a straight line.
There were detours into running and swimming and triathlons, and, finally, her pedal pursuit.
But she can trace the journey directly back to one moment in her life.
“In 1984, when the Olympics came to Los Angeles, I lived in (nearby) Ventura, California, and I was totally inspired,” she said. “It wasn’t the cycling. I loved ‘FloJo’ and everything about the Olympics. It kind of just set something in my mind.”
Now as she brings USA Cycling’s Let’s Ride program to Tucson on Friday, her goal is to help inspire a local Tucsonan to hop onto a bike. Holden will talk to attendees about her cycling career — which includes a silver medal in time trial cycling at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a world time-trial championship, six United States time trial titles, including three straight (1998-2000) and a spot in the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame — while introducing other fellow Olympians and aspiring Olympians on the Twenty24 Pro Cycling team.
And she’s going a step further: The Let’s Ride program will distribute 50 bicycles to local children, first-come, first-serve, from noon-3 p.m. at Armory Park. The bikes were donated to Let's Ride by Pace Ranch.
Helmets and other cycling paraphernalia will be passed out, as well, and the organization is also accepting gently-used bicycles to pass along to children in need.
“You never know how much kids can be inspired by things they see or can become a part of,” she said. “Ideally, we want to create a healthy environment for kids so they go out there and use their bodies. And if one of them moves onto a higher level, that’s awesome. When kids get to see elite athletes, they can picture themselves doing something like that.”
Holden’s goal is twofold: The Let’s Ride Program is trying to get more diversity in the sport and more kids on bikes in general.
Started in January, the program is one of USA Cycling’s first grassroots efforts. After six years in coaching with USA Cycling, Holden moved to the position of National Team Developmental Director, with the program falling under her purview.
“Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for most kids,” said Nicola Cranmer, who runs the Twenty24 team that includes more than a dozen professional cyclists. “Any time we can expose them to the fun of riding a bike, and couple that with safety tips on how to be in public on your bike, it’s inspiring. Any time is a great time to get on a bike for the first time.”
Added Holden: “For us, it’s about connecting kids to local organizations. Letting them know about El Grupo (Youth Cycling) and others that Tucson has to offer. A lot of it is about getting kids on bikes for the first time. We’re going to underserved communities that might not have access to bikes.”
Holden believes Tucson can be a regular stop for the Let’s Ride program, with the community embracing the cycling community.
“This is inspired by the fact that the city has the vision,” Holden said. “The Loop is such a draw here. I always look forward to coming here. You start seeing these things like Pace Ranch, and the recovery — it’s amazing what’s happened here. And what’s still to come. I know they’re looking to expand the trail system and all these other things. When you look around and see what Tucson is doing to make cycling accessible and fun here, it’s incredible. They’re putting the time and effort in.”
Holden, who still cycles, sees Tucson becoming a major center for the sport.
“Here in Tucson, it could definitely become the hub of road cycling,” she said. “In the winter, when people are looking to put in those kinds of miles, this is an ideal location. It’s nice to come to a warm place where you can feel safe, to get in great miles and have awesome training opportunities. It’s happening here. Cycling has such a great effect on a community starting with kids on up. The health benefits, transportation, the sports aspect of it.”