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How one San Diegan uses his bicycle obsession to make the sport more inclusive and accessible to others

Oliver Zuniga standing on trolley tracks with a bicycle in front of him, looking straight at camera
Oliver Zuniga is the outreach coordinator of the San Diego County Bike Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of cyclists.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Oliver Zuniga is the outreach coordinator for the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, where he works to make cycling more inclusive and accessible

His love of bicycles started early and has carried Oliver Zuniga right into his current role as outreach coordinator for the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization.

As a kid, he’d ride around his grandmother’s neighborhood, racing his cousins and friends up and down the steepest hills they could find. Later, as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the huge cycling community turned his love of bikes into a healthy obsession.

“Halfway through my freshman year at UCSB, I purchased a single-speed bike and eventually ran into mechanical issues. I visited the student-run bike shop on campus for some repairs, and I knew immediately that I had to work there,” he says. “There, I learned everything I know about bicycles, bicycle history and repair/maintenance. I worked there for the remainder of my college years and have been obsessed with ‘all things bike’ ever since.”

As outreach coordinator for the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, he’s contacting schools that the organization partners with for bicycle safety courses, helps create the digital content they use for virtual classes, helping to apply for grants, fundraising for specific projects, and facilitating classes and the outreach and equity committee.

Zuniga, 23, lives in East Village in downtown San Diego with his partner, Madeleine Winterich, and their rabbit, Cardigan J. Brown (or Cardi Bun, for short). He took some time to talk about his passion for cycling, and reckoning with the sport’s problematic history and making it more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

Q: Tell us about the San Diego County Bike Coalition.

A: Our main goal is to advocate for and protect the rights of everyone who rides bicycles. To achieve that goal, we act as a voice for bicyclists in the San Diego region and work together with community leaders to advocate for safer streets, updated active transportation infrastructure, and bike lanes/trails. We also offer bicycle safety and education courses, call attention to bicycling and active transportation issues, help with local infrastructure improvements, and engage with elected officials and decision makers all over San Diego County. We also organize and promote community bike rides, group rides, and events like Bike The Bay.

Q: You’ve said that you want “to challenge the ideas of who a ‘traditional cyclist’ is, why they ride, and where they come from.” First, who is the “traditional cyclist”? And in what ways do you want to challenge the way that people think of a traditional cyclist?

A: MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) are often referred to and thought of as the “traditional cyclist.” This is problematic for a number of reasons. Bicycles and the cycling world, as a whole, have an unsettling, racist, classist and patriarchal history. When the bicycle was first introduced to the American market in 1878, you had to be very wealthy and privileged to even consider owning a bicycle, and not much has changed. While we to have barely affordable bikes available on the market, they’re often poorly designed, suffer from mechanical flaws that require costly repairs, and are often assembled incorrectly. As a result, socio-economic class is still a factor in who has the ability to purchase a bike and what their experience with a bike will be.

Q: What’s your vision for what a more inclusive cycling culture could look like in San Diego?

A: A more inclusive cycling culture is one that includes and uplifts our bicycle riding community members, and recognizes the need to work alongside the various cross-cultural groups that make up our San Diego cycling community. As a biracial person of color, I have experienced what it’s like to show up to a cycling event, group ride, class, etc., and feel out of place. An inclusive cycling culture recognizes that the bicycle, for many, is not a hobby or a lifestyle, but a symbol of liberation that allows individuals to maintain a livelihood, attend school and ascend the socio-economic strata of society. An inclusive cycling culture is one that is not dominated by MAMILs. An inclusive cycling culture recognizes the need to create a safe and secure environment for the bicycling community that establishes equal access to education, learning, growth, enjoyment and acceptance.

What I love about East Village in downtown San Diego ...

East Village is never boring, and there’s always something going on. I’m close to family, and I get to experience what it’s like to live downtown! Eventually, I’d like to move into an area where I have more space to set up a workshop, work on my bikes and car, build skate ramps, and work on music.

Q: You’ve also said that, “To me, the bicycle is not a piece of recreation equipment, it is a political tool.” Can you talk about how the bicycle is a political tool, from your perspective?

A: I think of the bicycle as a political tool because it can be used to organize and affect real political change in our local communities. The most obvious answer here is climate change. Every time you ride a bike instead of driving a car, you’ve reduced your emissions. If we all embraced bicycles, or more forms of active transportation as our primary mode of transport, we’d have a significant effect on climate change by reducing emissions.

But the power of the bicycle as a political tool goes beyond just emissions and climate change. The bicycle is a tool that allows the disenfranchised to better their lives. In modern society, access to mobility is everything. The costs associated with car ownership and operation aren’t practical or sustainable for everyone, but those folks still deserve access to reliable and safe transportation. Activism and advocacy groups make use of the bicycle to organize politically and bring people together. The recent Pedal for Justice rides are direct evidence of the political power of the bicycle. Thousands of riders from all over San Diego came together to express the need for change, and bicycles played a key component. So, do I use my bike as a piece of recreation equipment? Absolutely, everyone does. But that doesn’t mean that bicycles can’t be used as a way to change your community.

Q: Why is this work with the San Diego County Bike Coalition important to you?

A: My work with the SDCBC is important to me because I’d like to make an impact on local youth. The future lies in the hands of my generation and future generations, and I’ve witnessed too many bright and gifted youths go down the wrong path, suffer life-changing tragedies, or simply never receive an opportunity to be the best person they can be. I’m passionate about social justice, racial equity, and saving our planet. If I can make a positive impact on my generation and future generations, it would have all been worth it.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: To read “If—” by Rudyard Kipling. It’s become central to how I work through adversity and personal hardships. Specifically, a line in the last stanza says, ”If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” and that’s something I try to live by every day. From the mundane and frivolous, to some of the most impactful changes I’ve had in my life, this poem has always helped guide me through whatever I’m facing.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I’m an avid skateboarder! I’ve been skating since I was around 6 years old, and skateboarding has taught me so many valuable life lessons. If you’re a skater, or an ex-skater, you probably know exactly what I mean. Learning a new skateboard trick is so similar to facing some of life’s toughest challenges. Oftentimes, you receive advice from a more experienced person, and struggle for hours — sometimes days, weeks, or even years — to master a new trick. Along the way, you are guaranteed to fail. You’ll definitely pick up some battle scars, maybe some serious injuries, but the immense sense of satisfaction you get when you land a new trick for the first time is indescribable. It makes all of the hard work, bumps, bruises and scars you pick up along the way 100 percent worth it. There’s a certain level of insanity you have to have in order to put yourself through that process, but there really is no better feeling than fully committing yourself to a new trick, landing cleanly, and rolling away. The only thing that comes close is the feeling of trucks grinding against metal or concrete.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Hmm, that’s easily the hardest question so far. My ideal weekend in San Diego involves riding bikes and skateboards, playing some sort of sport, visiting a brewery, and spending time with my family. Oh, and Humberto’s carne asada fries — they’re the best in the game.


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