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Shifting gears: How Tucson’s El Grupo is riding out the coronavirus pandemic

Shifting gears: How Tucson’s El Grupo is riding out the coronavirus pandemic

This is the fourth in a five-part Star series on how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the lives and livelihoods of Tucsonans with ties to the world of sports.

After she graduated from Catalina High School in 1979, Kate Hiller went on a bike trip to Europe. She and two other young women rode through France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland.

They were supposed to ride with tour guides, but that didn’t work out. So the trio had to improvise.

“We slept in fields,” Hiller said. “Someone invited us to sleep in their garage. People were very nice to us.”

Hiller described the experience as a “pivotal moment” in her life. She fell in love with cycling. She became a bike commuter.

Forty-one years later, Hiller remains an avid cycling enthusiast. She’s the executive director of El Grupo, the Tucson non-profit whose motto is “empowering youth through bicycles.”

In some ways, the current climate — the coronavirus crisis — is a boom time for cycling in Southern Arizona. Trails remain open. The weather has been impeccable. Cycling is an ideal activity for individuals or families. Social distancing is easily achievable whether you’re riding around your neighborhood or the Chuck Huckelberry Loop.

In other ways, it isn’t quite the same. Bike clubs have splintered. El Grupo’s clubhouse, located just north of downtown, is closed. Many cyclists are wearing masks. Others are covering their mouths when they shout, “Passing on your left!”

Hiller is trying to grapple with it all. She has a business to run and kids to inspire. Cycling is an integral part of the Tucson community. But the community has to practice social distancing to — if you’ll excuse the pun — ride out the pandemic.

“We’re all trying to figure out how we operate in this new environment,” Hiller said, “which is asking us to connect in a new and different way than what has been our normal.”

Had it been a normal Thursday, Hiller wouldn’t have been chatting on the phone from her porch. She would have been with her staff at El Grupo, helping to take care of the bikes and prepare for practice, which typically would start about 3:30 p.m. By 4:30 — after all the chains had been checked, the tires pumped and the water bottles filled — multiple groups of kids would head out to ride.

El Grupo Youth Cycling, which was founded in 2004 by Ignacio Rivera de Rosales and Daniela Diamente, works with more than 100 kids during the school year, ranging in age from 6 to 18. It also offers summer camps. Unsurprisingly, registration for those camps is down as of now.

“People are waiting to see what happens,” Hiller said. “It’s like we’re in a holding pattern.”

When the crisis began to intensify in mid-March, Hiller and her staff believed El Grupo could remain open. At least at first. As Hiller noted, “Cycling is a natural in that direction. You’re independent on your bike.”

They wiped down the bikes, many of which are shared. They cleaned the clubhouse. But they wondered if they were doing the right thing, especially if schools were going to close.

Which they did. Gov. Doug Ducey then issued a statewide order to close “non-essential” businesses. Working from home became part of the new normal. El Grupo — which literally means “The Group” — had to break up and set up remote operations.

“It’s really hard because we’re not together,” Hiller said. “There’s so much synergy when you’re together and can have conversations. But we’re adapting.”

The El Grupo team – which consists of 11 employees, include three who work full time – continues to communicate with families who rely on the club to provide a character-building after-school activity for their children. After suspending its programs, El Grupo encouraged kids to keep riding by loaning bikes to those who didn’t have them. If families are struggling to pay tuition, El Grupo offers scholarships. Community donations also help to cover costs.

Hiller and El Grupo’s board of directors decided not to lay off any of their employees, at least for the time being. The organization has applied for a loan through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. The plan it to keep the team engaged for at least the next couple of months, with the hope that restrictions will loosen by June, when El Grupo runs its summer camps.

In the meantime, the older kids are responsible for the upkeep of their bikes. El Grupo is about more than just cycling. The organization offers résumé-building workshops, and kids who come up through the program sometimes becomes counselors.

Hiller’s involvement in El Grupo began when her son, Cole Lanning, attended summer bike camp at age 12. Cole spent six years in El Grupo.

“He learned a lot from this program. He’s now a coach himself over at Playformance,” Hiller said of her son, who’s now 20. “This is what we hope for for all of our kids.”

Hiller served as a parent volunteer for El Grupo, an act consistent with her life’s work. She has spent much of it working for non-profits and fundraising for charitable organizations, including the Primavera Foundation, Mobile Meals and the Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. She became El Grupo’s executive director in January 2019.

Hiller lives with her son; her husband, Bob Lanning, a Tucson architect; and their Schnauzer, Cody. She owns three bicycles: a “tool-around” bike, a road bike and a gravel bike. Her typical rides last about an hour and a half, though she rode for 3½ hours and 40 miles on a recent Sunday.

Routes and trails Hiller frequents include Starr Pass, A Mountain, the Loop and the Julian Wash. She also has started doing at-home trainer rides with friends using a meetup app.

“We’re all innovators, some more than others,” Hiller said. “Our job right now is to innovate, figure out what the new normal is going to be and keep doing the things that we do.”

On a recent evening, Hiller went for a ride with her husband and son. Cole placed a speaker in a bike trailer, and they listened to music while riding through downtown and the University of Arizona campus.

“It made me feel so happy,” Hiller said. “Almost like I didn’t have a care in the world.”

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