(photo courtesy of Vivian Ortiz)
Meet Vivian Ortiz. She is one of two people Alison Dewey recommended I feature on this “You Go, Girl” series showcasing women across the USA making it more welcoming to ride bikes. I quickly realized I had already met Vivian via Zoom at one of Courtney Williams’ Bike Bingo events this past May. And thus the world keeps getting smaller due to connections across our country (and world) because of bikes.
Vivian’s journey to find her likeness plastered on billboards and buses throughout metro Boston as a spokesmodel for the I Bike Boston campaign kept me laughing and cheering yesterday when she generously shared stories such as this:
I couldn’t do hills, and I’d ride the bus up the hill where the billboard with my face on it was. I’d have my bike helmet in my lap and I’d talk to people about bike riding. They’d eventually make the connection to the billboard. One bus driver said, Hey, you’re that bike lady. So that’s how I became known as That Bike Lady!”
Outreach is a natural fit for Vivian’s personality and professional experience. With support from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), she led the Let’s Get Healthy Boston program’s Healthy Community Champions for the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. She now works full-time as one of the Outreach Coordinators for the Massachusetts Safe Routes to School Program for the greater Boston area and serves on several boards, including Livable Streets Alliance.
An unlikely bike rider, Vivian grew up being considered so nonathletic that when she and her sister joined a bowling team, they were put on the substitute list to play only when someone else didn’t show up. But when she moved from car-dependent El Paso to New York City to attend graduate school in the National Urban Fellows Program, she went car-free, which was step one to eventually discovering the speed and ease of bike riding. Her subsequent move to the Boston area to work at a community college had her taking the T for an hour and a half for more than five years and involved an additional trolley — which was not always dependable — at the end of the line to get to her home in Mattapan.
When Vivian turned 50, she noticed her friends in El Paso were all posting about their triathlons. The bike part caught her attention. She hadn’t ridden a bike since she was eight years old, but she decided to try a bike ride on a borrowed bike. It was too big, she couldn’t stop, and she didn’t know how to use the gears. She searched online and found that Boston offered a free Learn-to-Ride class for women, with provided bikes. She arrived via bus to take it, and then just never stopped.
Vivian was gifted a 1970s Huffy Regatta that she named Pastora* after her grandmother, who was a medium in Puerto Rico and whose protection she felt when she rode. Vivian quickly discovered that her community wasn’t being represented at transportation-related public meetings and started asking simple questions. What is a flex post? What is a road diet? How are you engaging people who don’t speak English?
She shared her lived experiences as a transportation bike rider, and she spoke out about what she thought was wrong. She told me:
“I’m not a combative person, and usually I wouldn’t get into these things. But the great thing about being over 50 is that I don’t care as much how it comes across. We’re not gonna’ move forward until we start looking out for each other.”
In 2016 she she attended her first National Bike Summit, at which it seemed so many League of American Bicyclists’ League Cycling Instructors (LCI) both there and in Massachusetts were white men. Vivian and two other women of color were selected to undergo LCI training, the next of which was offered in Boise, Idaho. So off they went.
Vivian passed, which made her certified to teach the League’s Smart Cycling curriculum, but not without remedial homework to do afterwards. She laughed as she told me that she could do a rock dodge (a hazard avoidance technique LCIs are required to master) when she needed to but not when someone watched her!
Vivian is passionate about teaching those just learning to ride or who are just discovering how transformative using a bike for transportation can be, and, in fact, she is now one of the instructors who teach those Learn-to-Ride classes for women in Boston each summer. She also loves partnering with a friend of hers named Lee Toma, a man from “the other side” of the river that separates Mattapan from well-off Milton, to do group rides. And she “loves, loves, loves riding with the kids” in Open Streets events such as the Ciclovía in a predominantly Latino community named Lawrence, pictured below. As Vivian puts it:
“To this day, I’ve never taught a Smart Cycling Class. I’m never gonna do this by myself. I’m not a great ride leader, but I am a great sweep**, and I like to talk to people. My hashtag is simply #MoreButtsOnBikes.”
Vivian has now ridden the Five-Boro Bike Tour in New York City three times with her triathlon friends from El Paso, girlfriends from Massachusetts, and as a member of Black Girls Do Bikes (a national community of women and girls of color on bikes, and their supporters, with local chapters in many cities). She has attended the National Bike Summit four times, including last year when she was awarded the Susie Stephens Joyful Enthusiasm Award (which commemorates Susie Stephens, one of the Alliance for Biking & Walking’s founders and which goes to an individual or group who carries on Susie’s passion for advocating for bicycling as a fun and economical means of transportation). She still shows up at community meetings, including the night before we spoke to advocate for safer infrastructure on the road where a man riding a bike was killed by a motor vehicle driver*** on June 9, where there will soon be a ghost bike memorial.
A poster from the I Bike Boston campaign hung in her father’s kitchen in El Paso until his passing. Vivian told me that it made him proud of her.
You can follow Vivian Ortiz online at That Bike Lady.
* all of her bikes have had feminine names in Spanish
** the person who rides at the back and assists anyone who needs it
*** as I almost was three weeks ago, near my home — which is why I’m doing this series
Tap in every day in August for my “You Go, Girl” series showcasing 31 Women in 31 Days who are making it more welcoming to ride bikes in the USA. If interested, you may enjoy my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike. All proceeds from the sale of my book help more women and girls ride bikes.
The complete series:
10. Meet Irene Lutts
14. Meet Jenn Dice
28. Meet Megan Ramey
30. Meet Aly Nicklas