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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

For This Independence Woman, Bike Riding Is About Carving A Space For Herself And Her Kids

Jassma Thomas is a single mother of four. She is empowering herself to set an example for her kids.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jassma Thomas is a single mother of four, and wants to set an example for her kids by riding her bike.

Feeling safe on a bicycle in the Kansas City metro isn't easy, and for Black women in particular, the list of possible negative outcomes can be daunting. But Jassma Thomas is determined to conquer her fears.

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Jassma Thomas steers suddenly to the right on her bike, her tires skidding on the pavement.

"Try not to look down!" shouts a Spandex-clad instructor. "The ground is not your friend!"

Thomas nods and circles the parking lot to try again. She's one of a handful of Kansas Citians out practicing safety skills on a humid Sunday morning, part of a three-day "Confident City Cycling" course at BikeWalkKC. For this particular drill, bicyclists attempt to maneuver through orange cones set up at a right angle, to perfect the art of swerving out of the way.

It's a skill that comes in handy when, for example, a car appears out of nowhere. A lesson Thomas already learned on her own, the hard way.

Early on in the pandemic, the 30-something mother of four began riding a bike for the first time since she was 12. It offered her a way to get out of the house and decompress, no small accomplishment.

When everything went on lockdown, Thomas just moved to Independence, Missouri, from Tennessee. She hadn't made friends yet and didn't have connections in the area. She'd been at her job — as a case manager for adults with disabilities — for less than a year.

All while managing a house full of kids adjusting to virtual school.

"My kids were stir-crazy and they vocalized it," Thomas says.

Jassma Thomas bikes the Little Blue Trail in Independence.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Jassma Thomas bikes the Little Blue Trail in Independence.

Under relentless pressure, bike rides gave Thomas a way to pedal out the tension of the day.

After a few rides around her neighborhood, though, she learned that bicycles aren't supposed to go on the sidewalk. "That was new to me," she says.

Thomas started riding alongside traffic, per the law, but she remained unsure how to stay safe next to cars. Then one day, about a year ago, she breezed down a one-way street and found herself sandwiched between cars parked to her right and a narrow passageway remaining on her left — not enough room for a car to squeeze by.

"I'm riding. I'm listening. I hear a car come up," she remembers. "But there's nowhere for me to go."

Thomas panicked and tried to move out of the way, but her front wheel hit the sidewalk. She wiped out on the street, while the car that threw her off balance just kept driving.

"They didn't even stop to be like 'are you okay?' or nothing," Thomas says.

The accident spooked her enough that she avoids riding on the street. These days, she mostly sticks to trails.

"My children love riding bikes. As a kid, I also loved riding bikes," Thomas recalls. "But as you get older, it's not something you continue, mostly because as a Black kid growing up, once you got to a certain age, you had to be more careful about where you went and the people you would run into."

Learning the basics of bicycle maintenance helps Jassma feel safe and confident out riding.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3 FM
Learning the basics of bicycle maintenance helps Jassma feel safe and confident out riding.

Years after putting her bike away, Thomas is now trying to reclaim the joy it once gave her. But Kansas City can be a challenging place for that — especially, she says, as a Black woman.

Our bike infrastructure is new, Thomas points out, and drivers aren't used to looking out for cyclists. "It's very scary," she says.

Thomas adds that most of the cyclists she sees using that infrastructure are white. New bike lanes aren't coming to Black and brown neighborhoods, Thomas says, where residents "would benefit from having access to infrastructures where they're able to walk safely or bike safety without fear of being harmed or catcalled or whatever."

When Thomas started out bike-riding, she joined a bunch of online cycling groups, asking if anyone might want to go out together for short rides.

"I would have mostly men inbox me, like, 'Yeah, we can meet here.' And I'm thinking in my head, 'I don't know you, you could get me somewhere and no one knows where I am,'" Thomas explains. "I didn't feel comfortable. You don't know what people's intentions are."

Except being alone on a bike makes you vulnerable, too.

"Black women especially are more nervous about being on the road and being alone," Thomas says. "You get a flat tire and you don't know how to fix it and have a rando pulling up? It's a lot more things to take into consideration."

Some of the safety issues that worry her most have nothing to do with traffic.

"You always have to be mindful," she says. "Make sure you have proof of who you are and proof that the bike you have belongs to you."

Jassma Thomas poses with her bike before a fun ride.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3 FM
Jassma Thomas poses with her bike before a fun ride.

Thomas still says that bike riding is worth it. Plus, her kids now have their own wheels: bikes for the younger ones, and a longboard for the oldest.

She wants her children to see that bikes aren't just toys, and that growing up doesn't have to mean putting them away. She wants them to know they can keep doing the things they love.

"You just have to learn to be safe," Thomas explains. But she admits it can be intimidating.

That's why she started joining group rides and taking part in the local cycling community, which she says is strong and supportive. Thomas even started mentoring true beginners herself through Black Girls Do Bike.

And the bike safety class where she practiced emergency turns in a parking lot? That was to get certified as a bike safety instructor.

"The best way for me to teach them is to learn myself, and hopefully create a community where they feel comfortable riding," Thomas says. "Maybe they'll see my kid riding down the street, and they'll say 'That's Jassma's kid.'"

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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