Project Bike Love
by Christy Fritts
Belen Ramirez is now an accomplished age group triathlete, but as a young girl growing in Paraguay the closest she ever got to athletic training was a few swim classes to keep her from drowning in a pool. In Paraguay girls were not allow to have bikes, so she would steal away with one of her brother’s bikes for surreptitious rides around the neighborhood. Belen bought her first bike at 25-years-old when she became a doctor and began commuting to the hospital. When triathlon entered her life ten years later Belen could never have imagined that this new passion would also provide her the opportunity to pave an avenue of liberation for the women in her homeland.
In 2012, while on a mission trip to South America, Belen met her future husband. Jim, an American, who was providing dental care to impoverished kids and she was a doctor with the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. At the time, Jim was an accomplished duathlete and in an effort to share his passion with Belen, when he asked for her hand in marriage, he offered a mountain bike as an engagement ring. She was thrilled and said yes (of course). “Then my brother-in-law gave me a road bike as a wedding present,” she laughed, “I was destined for cycling.”
Once Belen received her green card in 2013 she was off on another humanitarian mission to Central African Republic. “It was then, my life changed forever,” she remembers. “The village where I was working in CAR was attacked and I had to work under very stressful conditions. Armed men came to take us to work in huts, people were shot in front of me, and I had to ‘explain’ we couldn’t work if they kept pointing their Kalashnikovs to our heads.” She stayed two more months helping people but when she returned home, she suffered a terribly from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Once in the States, Belen also struggled with the demands of being a doctor, a loving wife, a daughter, sister and friend. Luckily, she met a cycling group called Trail Angels and began riding her mountain bike which started to become a form of therapy to help relieve her PTSD. “While on my bike, I always felt that everything was fine in the world and I discovered the power of endorphins!” says Belen.
She competed in a few sprint distance duathlons with her husband and in May 2015 they flew to Rocky Point, Mexico for her first sprint triathlon. Much to her surprise, Belen finished second in her age group and realized she really liked this triathlon lifestyle. She joined her local triathlon club, Newport Coast Triathlon Club, and immediately started building friendships around her newfound sport.
Project Bike Love is Born
One new friend in particular stood out. Erin Machan, an active and extremely friendly athlete. When Belen met Erin they immediately realized that along with triathlon, they shared a strong passion for humanity. “As we were riding up a long incline, Erin was talking about empowering women with bikes. I was barely keeping up with her, but hanging on her every word. We exchanged ideologies and brainstormed a week later on a long run and then just like that… Project Bike Love was officially underway.”
They started to fundraise and bought bikes locally in order to also support community businesses. A few months later they traveled to Paraguay and delivered 40 bikes to an impoverished women’s village which became a life changing experience for all of them. Challenges presented themselves while traveling in a third world country. However, having to navigate the bus system, secure boat rides, and manage all the logistics to get the bikes there was worth it all when Belen and Erin witnessed first-hand how the bikes were going to positively impact and empower women on a daily basis:
I knew intellectually that we were doing something that would help them. What I didn’t know was how meaningful it would be to them. I never in a million years thought I’d have women kissing my checks telling me god sent us to them. I start to cry thinking about it. The women wrote us poems, brought us gifts and made us food. It was incredible. We heard stories about everything they will be able to do with the bikes; primarily creating more income and time for their families. I don’t think there is any greater gift you can give them. It’s impossible to be the same person after a trip to Paraguay. It’s a life changing, eye opening event you have to experience to truly understand. – Erin Machan
Now the two athletes have a tribe of people empowering girls around the world and empowering each other. To date, Project Bike Love has delivered almost 200 bikes to Paraguay and Bolivia. Erin is especially moved by the impact Project Bike Love has had on her life as well.
I just cannot even begin to explain my feelings around this new venture. It just makes me so grateful and reminds me so much of where I’ve been and where I am today. To see these amazing women impacted with a gift of a bicycle. One day we had a little idea and now it’s so much bigger than us. I’m humbled to be partnered with such amazing humans in this journey. – Belen Ramirez
Back in 2016, while all of this was happening, Belen was also deep into training for her first 70.3 Ironman and by 2017 she had completed four. “When I was planning my 2018 race season,” explained Belen, “everyone told me about Wildflower and I kept hearing, ‘Wildflower is back and it’s a must-do race!’” After doing a little research she learned the energy and demanding course was a perfect fit for her adventurous side. It also happens to be on her birthday weekend, so she’s planning to celebrate her life and passion at Lake San Antonio with over 5,000 other athletes.
This May, join Belen on the scenic Central Coast of California for one of the worlds most famous triathlon weekend festivals. “I can’t wait to camp with my friends, race my heart out, and share my PBL passion with everyone at the event!” she exclaims. “I’m really looking forward to my first Wildflower Experience with Project Bike Love and will have a booth at the expo so please come by and help us spread the Bike Love!”
To find out how you can help, Project Bike Love go to: www.projectbikelove.com
You don’t need to be a huge organization to make a change in somebody’s life you just have to have the willingness to open your heart and be the change! — Belen Ramirez
Belen Ramirez and Erin Machan both live in Southern California, are in love with life and enjoy mountain biking, triathlons and being outside in nature. Bikes bring them endless joy and they are so excited to spread the Bike Love around the world. They share a passion for living outside the box, seeking adventure and empowering women!
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